Trapper Manager Nick Belmonte remembers looking at the faces of his players after they'd lost three straight games to open the '91 season. He saw there was no quit in them, that they were, indeed, winning material.
Those early losses, and the 25 or so games that followed in which nearly every game went down to the last batter before it was decided, were the training ground for what would be the first Trapper title team in four years."There were so many gut-wrenching games," said Belmonte. "That prepared us. We've been through the fire so many times that when it was on the line, it didn't bother them. They grew with it."
Tuesday night - a 2-1 Trapper victory that gave the franchise its fourth championship in seven seasons but first since 1987 - was the epitome of a gut-wrencher for both sides, the Trappers and the Great Falls Dodgers.
The winners of the Southern and Northern divisions of the Pioneer League had each won one game in the best-of-three championship playoff.
No one scored until the seventh inning, despite chances. Players bit their nails in dugouts, fans agonized.
Patrick Reed, Dodger leadoff man, got to third base in the first inning. The Dodgers got men to second in the second, third and sixth. Nothing. The Trappers got a double from Theron Todd in the first and put Todd Stefan on second in the third. Catcher Dave Rolls got thrown out at home on an attempted sacrifice fly in the fourth, and Carlos Estevez got to second in the sixth. Nothing.
Then came the Trapper seventh.
With one out, Stefan went against reliever Chris Sinacori, with whom he'd played last year in the Great Lakes League. Stefan was determined to take a pitch - "He's kinda wild," he said. "He didn't throw me a strike, just four balls in a row."
Jazz president Frank Layden and the actor/owner Murray brothers, Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray, were standing, waving their arms, urging the crowd into it. They wore rally caps - inside-out baseball caps - and screamed for noise."They're great to have around," said Rolls.
"In two years," said Belmonte, "I've never seen the crowd like that. We felt like one with the crowd."
It was only 2,706 paid, but a lot came in free after the third inning, taking up Bill Murray's invitation issued on TV-news shows. Layden started the cheering, said Bill Murray, tired after a day of batting practice and stumping the malls, amusement parks and TV stations to get out the vote.
"The crowd pumped us up," said Belmonte. "Definitely the 10th man."
With Stefan on first, Sinacori threw a wild pitch that took Stefan to second, then struck out the league's best RBI man, Rick Hirtensteiner, for two away. Benny Castillo, the No. 2 RBI man in the league, grounded toward third, but Henry Blanco's throw bounced to first for an error from a guy who'd made only eight errors all season at third.
Todd walked, and Rolls hit Sinacori's fourth pitch for a two-run double.
"When you've got runners in scoring position, you've got to pick them up," said Rolls. "I'm just glad I got one to fall with bases loaded."
Sinacori, one of the PL's best relievers, escaped without further damage, though bases were again loaded with an intentional walk.
Trapper Dave Marcon, 8-2 to tie for most wins in the regular season, started with four scoreless innings. He got in trouble but threw his way out in each inning. "They hit pitches I didn't want to throw. They battled me," Marcon said. "But I threw the pitch I needed when I needed it."
One pitch hit Reed. "I didn't mean to hit him. I wanted to stay in," said Marcon.
Jim Guidi relieved with his finest performance. "He got his bulldog face on and flat-out won the game," said Belmonte. In 41/3 innings, Guidi gave up two hits and struck out four. The Dodger run was charged to Guidi, but it was unearned.
"I kept throwing sliders, and they kept swinging at that pitch," Guidi said. He pointed at his right hand. "I got the finger all picked out," he said. "It was my fourth opportunity for a ring - `third's a charm' is out the door. This is my first ring. I never ended the season with a winning game. It feels great," said Guidi.
Guidi got the first two outs of the ninth inning, then walked Tito Landrum. A throwing error on a grounder to third put Reed at first, Landrum at second.
On came John Gilligan, the PL's No. 1 pitcher at 1.71. He was promptly tagged for an RBI single by Juan Castro. "I threw my best pitch," Gilligan said. He intentionally walked Willie Otanez to load the bases.
"No one was ever panicking," said Belmonte, "even when they got bases loaded. They kept their poise and did their jobs."
Up came Frank Smith, the Dodgers' leading RBI man.
"I knew I could get that last guy. He swings at breaking balls all the time," said Gilligan, who struck Smith out to bring the championship back to Salt Lake. "No better way to end it than with a strikeout," said Gilligan.
Gilligan gazed up at the crowd - the Trappers did much of their celebrating on the field with the fans rather than in the locker room - and he said, "Just look at all these people. They've been waiting four years for this."
Said Rolls, "This is what it's all about, the chance to come back." The Trappers had been down 0-1 in the series but rebounded with cliffhanging 3-2 and 2-1 wins to get the trophy.
"You can come back and put it to people," said Rolls. The Traps are, after all, a group of no-names - passed over by big-league scouts - who got the chance to prove themselves in Salt Lake. They did it against baseball's most powerful organization, the Dodgers. "That's what the Trappers are all about," said Rolls.