RailCats work together to earn third overall title
By Michael Osipoff firstname.lastname@example.org or 713-2485 September 16, 2013 8:32PM
Updated: October 18, 2013 6:27AM
GARY — Cristian Guerrero might have stumbled upon a slogan for the RailCats’ 2013 American Association championship team.
“We did it, we did it,” the veteran outfielder from the Dominican Republic told the crowd inside the Diamond Club at the Steel Yard during a celebration on Sunday night after the team returned from Wichita. “That’s what’s important — we did it. We knew we had a good ballclub, a good team, and the reason we did it is because we tried to do everything together. We did it.”
Yes, the RailCats did it. They won their third title as a franchise, adding to the ones from 2005 and ’07, having made the playoffs for the first time since 2010, their final season in the Northern League.
From the beginning of this season — and, really, since June and July of last season, one that uncharacteristically had spiraled downward — they had a laser-like focus, and they were rewarded. Spearheaded by the trio of Mike Massaro, Adam Klein and Guerrero, and permeating the clubhouse, anything less than a title this season was going to be unacceptable.
“I’ve said it over and over, we set it from Day 1 after last year, we weren’t happy, we weren’t satisfied, it wasn’t good enough, and we put it out there — nothing short of a championship is going to be OK,” Massaro said. “And we got it done. It really makes you feel good to have a team that buys into what you’re trying to do, and is working toward that common goal every day. And when you get it done, it’s very gratifying and satisfying — not too many people can say that from Day 1 and then actually get it done. I mean, this is why you play.”
Under some circumstances, such self-imposed pressure could become a detriment, with the team wilting. But the RailCats seemed to embrace it.
For manager Greg Tagert, it was a conglomeration of emotions.
“You talk about how difficult it is to accomplish, what makes it even more so, when the club has a mindset — with Cristian and Adam and Mike, and ownership, and the fans — that the only measure of any success is winning that championship, there’s almost a sense of relief when it happens. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as excited as I was when we won in 2005, and thankful that we got ourselves in position, and humbled by the experience. But maybe it’s just the years of managing, as much as there’s exhilaration, there’s almost that sense of relief.”
The RailCats took down the Wingnuts — who had set a league record by going 68-32 in the regular season, and led the league in virtually every major statistical category — winning in four games in the best-of-5 series. Game 4 — and the season — ended when Marco Gonzalez closed a 6-5 RailCats win by retiring CJ Ziegler, who represented the potential winning run; all Ziegler had done was win the league’s MVP award in a season in which he set a record for homers.
Perhaps it was appropriate that the RailCats won the clincher (as well as Game 3) by one run, a result they turned into something of an art form this season, underscoring their nerve and resolve.
“It’s surreal, it’s really what it is,” said championship series MVP Klein, planning to retire from baseball, with Massaro, Guerrero and ace Alain Quijano (who led the league and tied the franchise record with 12 wins this season) likely to follow suit. “You’re used to this one feeling, and one feeling only, after every season when you don’t win, and that happens 99.9 percent of the time. You go home, feeling empty-handed, and trying to convince yourself that it was a good season, and that there’s always next year. But there is no next year for me — this is it for me.”
Along the way, the RailCats overcame assorted injuries. And they won despite closer and former major leaguer Clay Zavada having his contract purchased by the San Diego Padres organization, and Christian Vitters — who had fallen into their laps, after he had been out baseball — having to return to school before the season ended.
The uncommon mix of older and younger players, guys ending and just starting their respective careers, blended to go 58-31 in the regular season; this group tied the franchise record for wins in a season, matching the 58-38 mark from 2007. But that achievement would have been hollow if this season hadn’t concluded the way ’07 did — with a championship.
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” said Guerrero, who gave an impassioned speech after a June 9 loss to Sioux Falls that completed a three-game sweep, the RailCats’ fourth straight loss and sixth in seven games.
“We had good potential, and I wanted everybody to know. We knew we could do it, and we did it.”