Robert Pannier opens 2019 with the first edition of American Association Daily. In the first edition of the year, Rob looks back at the 2018 American Association season, examining changes in the league, top performances, and the loss of one of the storied franchises in the league. This and much more.
A Look Back at the 2018 American Association Season
As 2019 gets underway, it is time to be a little nostalgic about what the past year was like. While people across the globe have made resolutions as to what they hope they will be in the upcoming year, while hoping to forget about missed opportunities or bad choices made, it is also a time to reflect on all the amazing occurrences of 2018. In the American Association, there were many.
The 2018 season was one of the most exciting on record, which is a bit surprising considering that the Sioux City Explorers jumped out to a quick start on their way to the South Division championship, making the division a battle for second place. However, playoff chases were still the headline for much of the season as were changes around the league, individual player performances, and a new guy running the show. It was truly a year no one will soon forget.
A New Man at the Top
While Miles Wolff remained the commissioner of the league, Josh Buchholz took over as the Executive Director in 2018. Buchholz had been the Vice-President and General Manager of the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, making him quite familiar with the American Association already. He helped to masterfully direct the league during one of its most exciting seasons, however, it was also one of its most tumultuous.
A New Look League
The American Association underwent a facelift of sorts in 2018, as it went from three four-team leagues to two six-team leagues. This changed the format of the playoffs as well, as the top two teams in each division would make the post-season.
Something Old, Something New
The Chicago Dogs joined the American Association during the 2018 season, becoming the 21st franchise in league history. The Salina Stockade had held the Dogs place in the league during 2017, but Chicago (actually Rosemont) was ready for primetime in 2018. Former Boston Red Sox Manager Butch Hobson was given the reins of the team. The longtime Atlantic League manager saw his team struggle early on, as they began the season 1-14, but Hobson was able to pull a 45 win season out of Dogs.
New Leaders at the Top
The South Division saw three new skippers take the helm. Pete Rose, Jr. was replaced in Wichita after making it to the championship series in back-to-back years. Wingnuts star Brent Clevlen took over the team, leading Wichita to a 61-39 mark.
Shelby Ford took over in Cleburne for Gabe Suarez in one of the most peculiar situations in league history. Legalities related to the firing led to Ford never being officially called the “manager” of the team. Oddly enough, with new ownership in place in for the Railroaders, Ford is out and Clevlen is in for Cleburne.
Former Seattle Mariners Skipper John McLaren became the manager of the Texas AirHogs. A move that is hoped to finally stabilize the top spot for the team.
American Association Goes International
While McLaren had all the credentials to be a top tier skipper in the league, he was hired for one primary reason – his work with the Chinese National Baseball team. The AirHogs announced that 35 of China’s best would become a part of the team for the 2018 season as well as in 2019 and 2020.
The adding of the Chinese players did not go as smoothly as both the team and league had hoped. The players were not up to the same talent level as the rest of the league, and the team was given a number of exemptions related to roster rules that riled some around the American Association.
It was not surprising that they finished with the league’s worst record, but this was one of the most enjoyable teams to watch. These young men were clearly having fun playing baseball, even during some very difficult times.
A Hall of Famer Joins the League
The Cleburne Railroaders made a big splash when Rafael Palmeiro and his son Patrick joined the team. Palmeiro is one of a handful of Major Leaguers with 3000 hits and 500 homers in his career. Sadly, the hype proved to be more than the numbers as the elder Palmeiro appeared in just 31 games, hitting 6 homers with a .301 average. Patrick had 9 homers in 97 games.
Explorers Climb New Heights
The South Division was dominated by the Sioux City Explorers from day one. Manager Steve Montgomery had put together the team’s best roster leading up to the season and it showed in how well this team performed.
Sioux City was 10-4 on June 1, then rolled off nine straight wins, the first of three winning streaks of at least nine games they would record during the season. The Explorers would finish 71-29, 8.5 games ahead of Kansas City for the league’s best record. It was the second time Montgomery had led a team to at least 70 wins in his four seasons.
The 2018 saw some records fall around the league, not only individual team records but league records as well. The Wichita Wingnuts set a league record for saves in a season (37). Winnipeg’s Reggie Abercrombie became the all-time leader in hits when he rapped out No. 802, passing David Espinosa. He now has 839. The RedHawks’ Maikol Gonzalez had 96 hits last season, moving him into third on the all-time list at 790.
Team hit records fell during the 2018 season as well. The Wingnuts Logan Watkins (142), Explorers Nate Samson (141) and Saints Max Murphy (136) all set team records for hits. St. Paul outfielder Kyle Barrett ended the season on a 27 game hitting streak, which may continue ad infinitum should he be signed by an affiliate club (which he should be).
St. Paul Saints Manager George Tsamis became the fourth independent league manager to win 1000 games in his career. That came in a 6-5 victory over the Faro-Moorhead RedHawks on June 13.
A Return to Glory
The purpose of the American Association is to give players a chance to be signed by affiliate clubs, and that was on full display in 2018, with the Kansas City T-Bones leading the way. Manager Joe Calfapietra lost 10 players to Major League organizations and three more to the Mexican League. Yet, he still won a championship (more on that later).
There were 25 players in all that were signed by affiliate organizations with a dozen more leaving to play in other foreign professional leagues across Asia, Europe, and North America. That trend has continued into the off-season as T.J. Bennett and Trey McNutt have already had their contracts purchased from Fargo-Moorhead, Ian McKinney from Sioux City, Taylor Grover from Chicago, and Keith Curcio from Kansas City.
Greatness Fades Away
While there were a lot of exciting moments to the 2018 season, it still saw a terrible end when the Wichita Wingnuts played their final game on Labor Day. For 11 years the organization became the standard for greatness throughout the league, but was forced to suspend operations when the city of Wichita made an agreement to bring the Miami Marlins AAA team to the city.
The Wingnuts had records over .500 in each of their last 10 seasons, and went to five championship series, winning in 2014. Nearly 50 players returned to affiliate ball from the Wingnuts and former skipper Kevin Hooper moved onto become the San Diego Padres minor league infield instructor. It was a rather inauspicious ending to the organization, whose membership is now up for sale.
Great Pennant Races
While the Wingnuts would fail to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010, they helped to make the race for the final playoff spot in the South Division a great one. While Sioux City seemingly had the top spot locked up in mid-June, Wichita and Kansas City would battle for the final berth, with the T-Bones earning it on their way to the league title.
In the north, this became a three team race between St. Paul, Gary, and Fargo-Moorhead. The RedHawks would fall out of the race in the final week, but the RailCats and Saints would tie for the top spot, with Gary winning the tie-breaker to earn the division title.
For the RailCats, it was an improbable run. Manager Greg Tagert kept this team near the top of the division since the start of the season, despite a roster filled with first and second year players. It was truly a Manager of the Year type season.
An Improbable Run to the Championship
There were four managers who truly earned Manager of the Year honors, but none more so than T-Bones skipper Joe Calfapietra. This was a team in constant flux. Not because of poor performances, but because the T-Bones became a second minor league system for affiliate clubs. Despite all the loses, Calfapietra continued to find players to keep his team in the playoff hunt.
Kansas City not only overcame unbelievable odds, losing 13 players on a 23 man roster, but they would then go on to defeat the 71 win Explorers before defeating the Saints in four to win the title.
The 2018 American Association season will be remembered with a lot of tears of joy and a few of sadness. It only makes us all more excited to see what 2019 will have to bring.
By Robert Pannier