“It was just mentally draining.” — Red Barons infielder Jason Knupfer
The date: Sept. 9, 2001
The place: Dunn Tire Park (Buffalo, N.Y.)
The situation: On a night when they had so many chances to put away the Buffalo Bisons and the semifinal round of the 2001 International League playoffs, the Red Barons got one more. Deep into the night. With, arguably, the last of their hitters they’d have wanted to see at the plate.
Jason Knupfer was hitless in the first four games of the series, after all. And he had a goose egg in the hit column through the first 18 innings of Game 5 against Buffalo, too. Series tied, 2-2. Game tied, 2-2.
Here was Knupfer’s chance. Here was what so many of his teammates figured would be the last chance they’d get, too. Or, at least, the last one they deserved on the way to a Governors Cup final that would never be forgotten.
The lead-in: The Red Barons had to scratch and claw all season, just as they had to scratch and claw that night in Buffalo.
Manager Marc Bombard’s team made national headlines for the July 3 brawl with Pawtucket slugger Izzy Alcantara, and they were eight games under .500 through May, when the postseason seemed like a pipe dream. But the Izzy incident seemed to galvanize the group. They played at 19 games over .500 in July and August, squeaking their way into a playoff spot.
But, there were a few issues even then. One was that they were going to lose some key players off their roster. The second, they were playing the mighty Buffalo Bisons, who won 91 games during the regular season with the help of veterans like Karim Garcia (who hit 31 homers), Tim Laker, Danny Peoples, Greg LaRocca and ex-Phillies star Dave Hollins.
When the Red Barons dropped the first game of the series at Lackawanna County Stadium, it felt like the playoff series would go to script. But Scranton/Wilkes-Barre rallied to win Game 2, then took an emotional Game 4 in extra innings on Reggie Taylor’s two-out RBI single to set up their fourth playoff Game 5 in team history.
In the previous three, they were winless.
It looked for most of the night like they’d forever rue the fourth one, too.
The moment: Who would fail to fail? As the night pressed on, that seemed like the question.
They would play more extra innings that regular innings, of course. And from the eighth inning on, the dugout benches were useless. Everybody in uniform leaned against the railing at the top step of the Dunn Tire Park dugouts, watching. Waiting.
In the ninth inning, the Red Barons had their chance. With the score tied, 2-2, Bombard sent his ace pinch hitter, David Francia, to the plate. His pinch hit home run in a crazy finish against Pawtucket a year earlier made this list, and what he did in that at-bat certainly did its part to make this moment what it was: He ripped a double that had big third baseman Kevin Orie circling the bases. He rounded third, headed home, slid plateward seemingly just ahead of catcher Alex Andreopolous’ tag. But first base umpire Justin Klemm, covering the plate to make the call, riled Orie out.
It was nearly a bitter moment in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s history. Replays indicated Orie clearly beat the tag.
Call it a missed opportunity, even if it was an opportunity stripped of them, instead. But as extra innings piled up, so did the chances. And their misses were self-inflicted then.The Red Barons had four leadoff runners on and didn’t score. In the game, they were 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position, until the end.
Bases-loaded, one out in the 13th, and they failed to score. Jason Michaels hit a roller back to the mound, and the Bisons were able to get the force at the plate. Orie struck out. End of threat.
“A couple of times, I was thinking to myself that we’d hate to lose when we had all those opportunities,” second baseman P.J. Forbes said. “Especially when Orie was probably safe. There were so many what ifs. We had opportunities after (Orie’s) play that we didn’t want to look back on and say we should have won.”
But, the Bisons wished they had those chances to squander.
Against the high-powered Bisons, the Red Barons allowed only nine hits in 19 innings. Starter Chris Brock, working on short rest, spun six shutout innings. And from the eighth inning on, the Bisons barely mustered a threat against Jason Boyd, Ed Vosburg, Geoff Geary and Andrew Lorraine.
“The pitching was brilliant,” Bombard raved. “They did a great job with their backs against the wall. If we don’t score, there’s no tomorrow, but they kept going back out there and doing the job.”
By the time the 19th inning started, the Red Barons were playing in the longest game in team history, getting tired, both teams knowing a long trip to Louisville awaited the winner to play the next day. But for the first time in six innings, it seemed like the Red Barons were on the verge of a lead.
Orie stood on third. Francia on first. One out.
And up strode Knupfer. In the series to that point, he was 0 for 16 at the plate.
“It was a tough series for me personally,” he acknowledged. “You had to stay in the game mentally because one mistake can cost you the game.”
This time, he didn’t make one. Knupfer drove a fastball on the outside corner down the right-field line, landing it just inside the foul line. It rolled into the corner, allowing Orie to cruise in from third and the speedy Francia to hustle around from first.
The Red Barons led, 4-2, and would go on to score twice more in the inning to put a cap on a 6-2 win and a wild celebration tempered only by the fact that they had a Game 1 to play more than 500 miles away, in what amounted to about 18 hours.
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
Often in this series, it has been the moment itself that provides all the context you’d need to understand it. Sometimes, it’s the lead-in, every little backstory that led to one explosive second’s worth of action.
This time, though, it’s what happened next.
The following day, road weary from the 19-inning affair, short sleep and long flight to Kentucky that got them into town just about five hours before the scheduled first pitch of Game 1 of the Governors Cup finals at Louisville Slugger Park, the Red Barons knew they were up against great odds.
“It tests you mentally more than physically,” Forbes said. “You don’t want to come in thinking you’re going to give a game away. You have to think like you’re going to steal a game. You have to fool yourself.”
They couldn’t. Bats veteran Chris Sexton fouled off four pitches with the bases loaded to work a walk against lefty Rigo Beltran in the seventh inning, and the offense couldn’t muster much in a 2-1 loss.
They went to bed on Sept. 10, 2001, thinking their pitching could carry them to the title, if they could just find a way to score some more runs than they had in the previous 28 innings.
Little did they know…well, what everybody knows now.
Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, lives in infamy. In Louisville, the Red Barons and Bats didn’t consider playing Game 2 that night. Or, the next one.The teams met to discuss possible options, and International League president Randy Mobley actually rescheduled Game 2 for Sept. 12 at 6:15 p.m. Players weren’t having it, though.
“They had their minds made up before we even had the meeting,” Bombard said. “They talked amongst themselves before all this. They’re concerned with their families, and they should be.”
After reconsidering, Mobley put off making a call on when the series would resume — or if it should — in respect for the fallen New York City, Washington D.C. and western Pennsylvania following the horrific terrorist attacks players watched unfold on televisions in hotel rooms alone, together in lobbies, pining for their families far more than for a championship.
“The horrendous events which our nation suffered have placed tremendous burdens on our cities and governmental agencies, and minor league baseball believes it is in the best interests of all concerned that we continue our postponement of all playoff games through tonight,” Mike Moore, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body for the minors, said in a statement. “We will be discussing with each of the leagues any possible future direction.”
Most leagues wound up cancelling their championship series altogether, declaring co-champions.
“We should go home and be with our families,” catcher Jeremy Salazar said. “Declare co-champions or something.”
Eventually, of course, they did go home. By mid-afternoon on Sept. 12, Mobley announced the remainder of the Governors Cup finals would be cancelled because of the terrorist attacks and the nation’s need to heal.
“In difficult times, difficult decisions must be made,” Mobley said. “For the past 24 hours, I have believed resumption of the series within a reasonable period could occur. It is now apparent that with the magnitude of yesterday’s events continuing to unfold before the nations’ eyes, I do not now believe a meaningful series can be resumed in a reasonable period.
“It is a very difficult time for anyone to be away from family and loved ones. To wait another two or three days or maybe longer, with no assurance that the feeling will be right to resume at that time would be unfair to players and staff. Our season is over and everyone now needs to return to the comfort of home and family.”
Mobley’s decision came with a caveat. He declared Louisville the Governors Cup champion, by virtue of that 2-1 win against the beaten and battered Red Barons.
He said, simply, deciding not to declare co-champions was an easier decision than cancelling the series. He admitted he didn’t take any advice from either team, both of whom had members who wished to declare co-champions. The decision was his, and his alone, whether the Red Barons and their fans ultimately liked it or not.
“I certainly approve of peoples’ compassion and commitment to the Red Barons and Triple-A baseball. I appreciate their opinions. I respect their opinions,” he said. “But it’s over.”
The general manager of the Red Barons at the time, Rick Muntean, made headlines by calling Mobley’s decision “an absolute crock.”
The Red Barons, who had come close twice before to winning the coveted Governors Cup only to fall a game short, did so again, even if they didn’t know at the time they were doing so. He even estimated the cancellation of the series, which took away three potential Cup games at Lackawanna County Stadium, could have broken attendance records and brought in between $300,000 and $400,000 for the team and county.
“The culprit,” Muntean said, “is the terrorists. They’re the ones that cost us the championship.”
Of course, the franchise would eventually win the Governors Cup. But, it would be with a different parent club and a new manager, Dave Miley, who won his first Governors Cup in 2001, winning that one game as the skipper of the RiverBats.