“It has been a crazy year. I mean, we’re on the road all season. It takes a special group of guys to do something like this.”
— Yankees infielder Kevin Russo
The date: Aug. 30, 2012
The place: Coca-Cola Park (Allentown)
The situation: On paper, the 2012 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees had no chance.
They were scheduled to play 144 games that season, and all of them were going to be played away from the team’s longtime home, PNC Field. Away from the team’s most ardent fans. Away from anything any team in the history of the International League would have considered normal, comfortable, even acceptable.
Despite it all, the Yanks found themselves on the cusp not necessarily of history, or of the unforeseen, but the improbable. For an entire summer, they were out of sight and to a large degree out of mind. But to the surprise of pretty much everyone around the league, they were never out of the race for the championship.
On Aug. 30, they stunned even themselves.
The lead-in: It’s not as if they didn’t know what they were in for from the start.
In November of 2010, SWB Yankees LLC bought the once-community-owned franchise for $14.6 million, and new ownership and Lackawanna County officials announced as part of that deal that PNC Field would undergo an expansive $40 million renovation project.
At the time, they just didn’t know when the renovation would begin. But by the summer of 2011, it became clear the nature of the work was not doable in an offseason.
On Aug. 22, 2011, county and team officials announced that the International League approved a plan to play the entire 2012 season away from the area, with league president Randy Mobley confirming it to be a rather unprecedented move in IL annals.
“It’s nice when you go on an eight-game road trip, but you also get to come back here, to your hometown, play at your home park, stay at your own apartment and relax in your bed,” Yankees third baseman Brandon Laird said, calling the prospect of playing an entire season’s worth of road game “pretty tough.”
“If you’re on the road every day, you’re basically living out of a suitcase. So it would probably get stressful.”
Shortly after the 2011 season ended and PNC Field was shuttered in preparation for the renovation, the International League announced the Yankees’ 72 home games in 2012 would be split between six different venues. The bulk of the home games — 37 of them — would be played at Frontier Field in Rochester. The other 35 games were split between Buffalo’s Coca-Cola Field, NBT Bank Stadium in Syracuse, Coca-Cola Park in Allentown and tiny Dwyer Stadium, the home of the Class A Batavia Muckdogs.
With work under way at home, the Yankees — redubbed the “Empire State Yankees” by the upstate New York teams hosting their home games — opened the 2012 season with a 3-0 loss at Lehigh Valley on April 5, in which right-hander Tyler Cloyd dominated. It was an inauspicious start.
They rallied to win their first “home” game on April 14 against the Chiefs in Syracuse, but their first few months weren’t earth-shattering. They were three games over .500 after April, seven over following May and by the time June ended, they had played have the season and were 10 games over .500.
Amazing, considering the situation. But when August dawned, they were still in a race and not exactly the favorites. Pawtucket regained first place with a win on July 31, and although they were in a three-team race, they’d be playing “home” games against the other two teams — the Red Sox and Lehigh Valley — in their home ballparks.
Once August started, things didn’t immediately get better. They were blasted by Indianapolis in a four-game set at Frontier Field, losing three of four and being outscored 30-12.
They were a half game up in the wild card race, but fading. They were falling behind in the division race. Maybe, the season on the road was starting to catch up with them.
But then, that season on the road seemed to bind them together like no other kind of adversity could.
The Yanks took three of four from Rochester, swept a two-game set at Buffalo and claimed two of three against Syracuse, all in their opponents’ home ballparks. Then, a big five-game series against Pawtucket kicked off, and the Yankees won three of five, including the final two in the set.
They were the first two of nine straight wins, an epic run for a team wiping out opponents like Rochester, Buffalo and Lehigh Valley on their own turf.
When Aug. 30 rolled around, they had an opportunity to make waves around minor league baseball. A win over the IronPigs, and they were the unlikeliest champions in International League history.
The moment: With the chance to do the unthinkable, the Yankees left no doubt.
With lefty Mario Hollands on the mound, the “home team” Yanks struck in the bottom of the first inning. Longtime Scranton/Wilkes-Barre spark plug Kevin Russo led off with a booming triple to left. Two batters later, Eduardo Nunez launched a fly ball to left that soared over Kyle Hudson’s head and past the wall for a 2-0 lead.
They added a run in the second, when Cole Garner lifted another home run to left-center against Hollands, and little did they know how insurmountable that 3-0 lead would seem to an IronPigs team that just couldn’t summon a home field advantage the way right-hander John Maine was pitching.
Outside of Hudson’s leadoff single in the first, the veteran right-hander allowed just two hits over his seven innings. He walked just one, fanned five, and by the time he turned the ball over to the bullpen in the eighth, the Yankees clinged to a 5-0 lead. Right-handers Cory Wade and Ryota Igarashi were perfect over the final two, and a celebration like no other was getting fired up in the visitors clubhouse where the home team was set up.
“I never really thought about it in the beginning,” Russo said. “It was kind of like, we’re just going to be on the road all year and we’re going to be playing baseball. I don’t even know if that helped us or not, but we were just playing. We never really thought about the ending. We were just always in the moment.”
The champions of the International League North Division hardly seemed to have absorbed what they had accomplished themselves.
A few players smiled, shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders when asked how they were able to overcome unprecedented circumstances. Manager Dave Miley conceded he had no idea what to expect from the situation when the season started, not sure if a title run was doable or if they were playing out the string essentially from April.
“This has to be as special as it comes, for what those guys out there (in the clubhouse) endured,” Miley said. “We haven’t taken a poll or a consensus or anything, so I don’t know what people thought our chances were coming out of spring training. I know I had no idea how it was going to play out. But to be able to win a division, this makes it even that much more special.”
In the clubhouse that night, one of the most iconic celebratory scenes in team history evolved an hour-and-a-half down the Turnpike from where PNC Field was starting to look like a true construction site. Catcher Francisco Cervelli, the veteran who spent the entire season on the road, sneaked around the clubhouse, his left hand wrapped around the neck of a shaken bottle of champagne. He knocked on Miley’s office door, and he found it locked, the skipper doing some reports in a quiet room.
But pitching coach Scott Aldred’s door wasn’t locked. Cervelli kicked it open, aimed the bottle at Aldred, who begged for the sake of his laptop not to get sprayed. Cervelli showed some temporary mercy, but he issued a warning:
“You better come out,” Cervelli warned, “for the homeless Yankees.”
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
The celebration ended, and the Yankees turned to the playoffs. But, they looked like a team that had little left from that point.
The Yankees won just three of their final eight games, and they lost the first-round playoff series, three games to one.
The pennant clincher was an end-of-an-era moment, of sorts. The Yankees, of course, were in the final days of their era. With renovations picking up steam at PNC Field, the new management team with the RailRiders, led by newly hired president and general manager Rob Crain, announced rebranding plans that summer. By November, a “Name The Team” contest was concluded, and the team announced it would be know as the RailRiders starting in 2013.
The homeless Yankees went 22-9 in August of 2012. They have never won more than 22 games in a month, and the only other time they won that many — in June of 2007 — they lost 10. The best month in franchise history, therefore, came in the craziest of seasons.
But, it wasn’t without memorable moments for the people of upstate New York. On May 5, legendary Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte made a rehab start for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre against Pawtucket at Frontier Field in Rochester.
He pitched poorly, allowing five runs in five innings. But, he did draw quite a crowd, a raucous 13,584 fans jamming into the ballpark on a day when the game had to be moved from its designated locale in Batavia — where Dwyer Stadium had a capacity barely larger than 2,000 — to accommodate the demand.
That’s still a record to watch a baseball game at Frontier Field. Which means, the record attendance in the Rochester Red Wings’ home stadium came courtesy of a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees home game.