When you’re in the middle of a baseball season, it’s hard to know if a particular game or series is the turning point. Because there are games every day, there isn’t much time to dwell on the last contest. However, after a season ends, or even late in a season in which a team’s fate is all but certain, it’s much easier to put your finger on that turning point.
For the 2002 Yakima Bears, that turning point came on July 27th, when they played the 40th game of their 76-game schedule. They were in Everett, Washington, 45 minutes north of Seattle, taking on the Aqua Sox who, at 24-14, were in first place in the Northwest League’s West Division. Yakima, 18-21 and 6 ½ games back in the Northwest League East, hadn’t really gained any traction either way. Early on, it was clear the Bears would struggle to hit and to score runs, but they had halfway-decent pitching that gave them a chance to win on most nights.
On this Saturday night in Everett, Yakima was trying to end a two-game skid after taking the opener of the five-game series in 11 innings on Wednesday. It looked like they were headed for more extra innings, with the game tied 4-4 going into the bottom of the ninth. Mike Garber – who the Arizona Diamondbacks media guide said was a distant relative of former Major League reliever Gene Garber (might have been embellished) and whose girlfriend caught the ballclub’s eye because of the enormous breasts on her petite frame (confirmed by Mike to be embellished) – was back on the mound after a scoreless eighth. Garber began the ninth by allowing a single and, after the runner was bunted to second, issued a walk. The lefty bounced back to whiff the next hitter for the second out before inducing a harmless fly ball to leftfield. Only it proved not to be so harmless for outfielder Lino Garcia, an 18-year-old from Venezuela blessed with lots of physical gifts but little idea how to use them. Garcia dropped the fly ball and Everett won. I can still see Garcia angrily throwing the baseball over the 24-foot-high leftfield fence at Everett Memorial Stadium after his error allowed the winning run to score. It was probably his best throw all season.
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I turned 23 in 2002, a year with a lot of firsts for me. I purchased my first car. I used that car to make my first cross-country drive, from New York City to Yakima, Washington, which marked the first time I had ever traveled to the Great Plains, to Big Sky Country or to the Pacific Northwest. On my drive, I stopped to visit a friend who was in grad school in Indiana and we spent a day in Chicago, my first look at that fine city. And, I worked as the radio voice for the Yakima Bears, my first job in broadcasting.
I’d gotten the job the previous December, at the Baseball Winter Meetings in Boston. Armed with copies of a demo tape made from my calls of baseball games from the stands at Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium, I went to the Winter Meetings job fair and applied for the handful of minor league baseball broadcasting openings that required little or no experience. Yakima hired me before the Meetings ended.
Bob Romero, the slightly-built, mustachioed general manager of the Bears, told me Yakima wasn’t exactly heaven on earth. Bob explained that, because the Yakima Valley relied heavily on agriculture, unemployment was high all year, except in the fall, when crops needed to be harvested. He painted Yakima, the smallest city in the Northwest League and one of the smallest in all of minor league baseball, as a poor community. I listened carefully, but Bob could’ve told me everyone in Yakima had horns and spiked tails and that the ground was made of fire and lava and I still would’ve moved there for a chance to call baseball games.
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The next night, a Sunday, Everett won 4-0, taking four of five in the series. After a Monday off-day – which I used to take in a Detroit Tigers-Seattle Mariners baseball game in my first and, so far, only visit to Safeco Field – the Bears returned to Yakima County Stadium Tuesday and lost 1-0 to the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes in 11 innings. Yakima’s scoreless streak stretched to 25 innings on Wednesday before they broke through and beat Salem-Keizer 3-2, ending a five-game skid.
The next night, Thursday, August 1st, Yakima scored twice in the first inning vs. Salem-Keizer but didn’t score again, wasting a good starting pitching effort by Garber in a 7-2 defeat. The punchless offense was still a concern; the Bears scored three runs or fewer for the fifth time in six games. A little more than halfway through the season, Yakima was 19-25 and 9 ½ games out of first, so a division title was probably out of the question, but with a few more hits here and there, there was no reason the Bears couldn’t end the season right around .500. Yakima would certainly finish ahead of the dreadful Spokane Indians, who were in the Northwest League East cellar, 4 ½ games behind the Bears.
It was, as it turned out, wishful thinking.
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Early that spring, a message was left on my answering machine by Dave Thomas, the Bears’ beat writer for the Yakima Herald-Republic. Hearing his name made me desire a hamburger. He desired a phone interview with me, the new voice of the hometown team.
We spoke the following day. Dave was impressed when I told him I grew up in the Bronx and that the 20th-floor apartment I shared with my mother had a view of Yankee Stadium. He was puzzled that I was a Mets fan. Dave asked me who my broadcasting influences were. I told him they were Vin Scully, Ernie Harwell and Jack Buck. All were fine broadcasters indeed, but I’d listened to very little of their work. I did aspire to be as accomplished as that trio, but to call them my influences was a bit farfetched. No one had ever asked me a question like that, so I said something I thought sounded good. I was at least three or four years away from having enough experience and perspective to properly answer that question.
It took weeks for Dave’s article about me to make it to press. I didn’t understand how the Yakima Herald-Republic could sit on such an important story for so long.
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On August 2nd, Salem-Keizer tried to give the game to the Bears, committing five errors, which led to three unearned runs. However, Yakima was charged with three errors of their own, yielding four unearned runs in a 7-6 loss, their second straight defeat. On August 4th in Boise, Idaho, the Bears allowed six doubles in a six-run first inning, two two-base hits shy of the league record for doubles in a frame. The 7-4 loss was Yakima’s fourth in a row. Yakima’s fifth straight loss was sealed the next day, when the Boise Hawks hit three homers and sent 16 men to the plate in a 12-run fourth inning, scoring 10 of the runs after two were out. Final score: 13-6. August 9th, the Yakima County Stadium DJ put together new entrance music for Bears closer Billy Biggs, using the Billy Joel song “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”, which mentions Biggs’ home state of West Virginia. Biggs was called upon that night to protect a one-run lead in the ninth inning, but he gave up a go-ahead three-run homer in a 5-3 loss to the Eugene Emeralds – Yakima’s ninth straight defeat – and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” was never heard again at Yakima County Stadium. On August 15th in Eugene, Oregon, the Bears got off to a great start when Marland Williams – one of the fastest men I’ve ever seen on a baseball diamond – led off the game with a triple and scored one batter later on a groundout. However, Yakima didn’t score again and lost 5-1, their 14th straight L. The next night, the Bears blew an early lead and were down 7-2 before manager Mike Aldrete and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, Jr. were ejected in separate arguments in the top of the fifth. Afterwards, I learned there had been some discussion during the game that hitting coach Jay Gainer – the other member of the three-man coaching staff and one of the most mild-mannered people you’d ever want to meet – should get ejected as well, until it was realized there would be no one to serve as the third base coach if that happened. Yakima wound up making a game of it, but still lost 12-8, their 15th straight. In fact, Yakima scored first in every contest of that five-game set at Eugene’s Civic Stadium and still got swept.
After managing just three hits in a 6-0 defeat to Boise on August 23rd for consecutive loss number 21, Yakima welcomed Spokane to town for a three-game series. The Indians were the only Northwest League team that could even come close to matching Yakima’s ineptitude that season. After all, the Bears had to lose 14 in a row before they were able to supplant Spokane in the Northwest League East cellar. So, this series seemed as good of a time as any for Yakima’s nearly month-long futility to come to an end. In the series’ first game, Yakima was able to get three runs in the first two innings off future Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, who was making his fourth professional appearance, but Spokane scored five runs in the fourth en route to a 10-7 win. And, with that, the 2002 Yakima Bears joined the 1991 Peninsula Pilots and the 1996 Bakersfield Blaze as the only minor league baseball teams since 1990 to lose 22 consecutive games in a season. Going back even farther, the Bears had lost 27 of 28.
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Driving along Interstate 82, which cuts through the Yakima Valley, I was amazed that there was any agriculture at all in the region. I’d read on the Internet that the valley received very little rainfall, but was irrigated by snowmelt and runoff from the Cascade Mountains to the west, but all I saw was barren hill after barren hill. There wasn’t grass growing anywhere and there very few trees. And, even though it was mid June, it was already above 95 degrees. My sunglasses barely hid the sun, which beamed steadily through a cloudless sky.
I arrived in Yakima four days before the season started and was paired with a host family, Ron and Kathi Bonlender. I liked that their home was a short drive from Yakima County Stadium. I also liked that the Bonlenders gave me half-price at the chain of sandwich shops they owned in Yakima. I ate lots of sandwiches that summer.
I’d been to plenty of remote areas. I’d gone hiking and canoeing in the New England wilderness and visited one-stoplight towns in the Deep South where most of the roads were still dirt. However, I don’t think I’d ever visited a place like Yakima: a small city in the middle of nowhere. Three hours from Seattle and three hours from Portland, Oregon, it really was “the big city” for many in the area. This was, as I learned, especially true in the winter, when the heavy snowfall in the Cascades made many of the roads leading to the more-populous Pacific coast impassable. Yakima really didn’t have any suburbs; drive 10-15 minutes from downtown and you were ensconced in farmland and apple orchards.
The day before the season started, the Bears hosted a picnic at Yakima County Stadium for the players and staff. I sat down nervously at a table with several players and introduced myself. Many of the players spent the previous season playing for the Diamondbacks’ rookie-level team in Missoula, Montana and, while I ate my fried chicken and potato salad, they talked about how much they disliked Missoula’s broadcaster. The players swapped several stories about silly things he did on the bus rides, his penchant for sidling up to players away from the ballpark and the negative things he allegedly said about the players on the air.
After about five minutes of this back-and-forth, Mike Davis – a pitcher from Kentucky who’d spent much of his signing-bonus money on a maroon Cadillac Escalade – put down his plastic fork and said “Aww, we shouldn’t be saying all this stuff around the radio guy. He probably thinks we hate him already.”
I managed to crack a smile as I tried to stop my right leg from trembling.
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The Bears scored first on several occasions during their skid, so there was nothing unusual about August 25th, when a successful squeeze play put them ahead 1-0 in the fifth vs. Spokane. There was also nothing unusual about the Bears giving up that lead the very next inning, allowing an unearned run on a passed ball. However, Yakima went up 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth and erupted for four more in the seventh, on their way to an 8-2 triumph, ending the second-longest losing streak in Northwest League history. Yakima tried to keep their celebratory post-game handshakes subdued – after all the win improved their record to a less-than-stellar 20-46 – but no one would’ve blamed them if they had popped Champagne-bottle corks in the clubhouse afterward.
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When you’re the broadcaster for a team in the middle of a 22-game skid, others treat you like you have a close relative with terminal cancer. Everywhere I went, people asked me how I was holding up and mused about how tough this must’ve been on me. Amazingly, no one asked me if and when I was going to pull the plug. But, it wasn’t a tough summer. I was visiting new places. I was around a great group of players and coaches and a tremendous group of fans. And, most importantly, I was living my dream of calling a baseball game every night. Calling games for a team that loses 22 in a row also taught me that, while you pull for the team you’re covering to succeed, it’s important not to get wrapped up in their successes or, in this case, their failures. All you can control is your broadcast and the work you do to make it the best broadcast it can be.
I still have vivid memories of my first Bears broadcast on June 17th, 2002 – nine years ago today. How horribly I sounded. How unprepared I was. That summer, I made it my goal to get better every day. I was constantly tinkering with how I prepared, how I handled interviews (I had to interview a player or coach every day as part of the 15-minute pre-game show) even with what time I got to the ballpark (establishing a personal rule I’ve kept to this day of always arriving before the players stretch for batting practice) and how I dressed (establishing another personal rule that jeans and shorts are not appropriate broadcast attire – even if it’s 95 degrees). I spent most of that summer being intimidated by the players and coaches, wary of asking them questions and cautious about approaching them for interviews. After that summer, I resolved to never be that timid again, to just be myself.
That summer in Yakima led to six more summers calling minor league baseball in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Binghamton, New York and, eventually, to my current job as the Kansas City Royals reporter and Royals pre- and post-game show host for their flagship radio station. I still show up at the ballpark before stretch, wearing slacks and a collared shirt. I still interview a player or coach every day I’m at the ballpark. And, I still hope to never see another team lose 22 in a row.Follow @raford3