VISALIA-It's been 35 years since the Rawhide last won the California League championship.
And the spirit of a key reptilian figure is to blame.
Over the past three-and-a-half decades, Visalia's professional baseball club has suffered a litany of misfortunes.
They've reached the Cal League Finals seven times. They've lost all seven.
They reached four consecutive finals from 1980-83. In 1983, they were led by future Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. They still lost.
In 1990, they had the best record in the league, and were upset in the first round.
In 2003, they had the best record in the league, and were upset in the semi-final series.
In 2006, they were 4 outs away from a championship, leading Inland Empire 2 games to 1 in the final series and 2-1 with 2 outs in the 8th inning of Game 4. They lost.
In 2010, they had a 4-game lead over Modesto for the final playoff spot with 6 games to play. They blew two 6-0 leads over the final week, lost 5 of their last 6, watched Modesto
win their last 6, and failed to make the postseason.
In the last five California League seasons, the Rawhide are the only franchise that has failed to make the playoffs once…in a league where six of ten teams qualify for them each year. If you're scoring at home, the odds of missing the playoffs five straight times in such a system are literally 100 to 1.
And this month, the Rawhide, who had hovered within 2 games of the San Jose Giants with just a two weeks left in the first half, suffered freak injuries to their starting catcher (who was hit by a stray bat during batting practice) and slugging third baseman (who injured his hand on a routine swing). They finished second.
Clearly, luck has not been with Visalia. But is there more to it than that?
The 1978 Visalia team was one of the best in minor league history; they dominated the league, winning 100 games and losing only 44. They scored over 1,000 runs, batted over .300 as a team, had two 18-game-winners on their pitching staff, and defeated Lodi in the Finals for the championship.
They had multiple stars, but one man was the heartbeat of the team: Joe Charboneau. "Super Joe," as fans called him, batted .350 for Visalia, earning admiration and awe for his daring exploits on and off the field. Two years later, he would be named the American League Rookie of the Year and become a cult figure in Cleveland.
Charboneau was the life of every party in the summer of '78, and was famously willing to do or try nearly anything, including drinking beer through his nose and pulling his own tooth.
Wait…did we mention that he owned a pet alligator that year?
Why yes, in fact, he did.
Its name was Chopper. It was Brazilian. And it lived in Joe's bathtub.
Chopper, by all accounts, was a good-natured, even-tempered young reptile. Except when he tried to bite his owner. Or eat a teammate's kitten.
"He was a great pet," Charboneau later said. "I was really attached to him. I was going to train him to wrestle me. He would have grown to be about six feet long, so I would have had the height advantage."
In short, Chopper was living the dream. But the dream (and Chopper) didn't live long.
After the team was crowned California League Champions, Charboneau went home to Illinois. Chopper, due to increasing size, logistics, and spousal reluctance, did not go with him. Heartbroken, Super Joe was forced to leave his beloved animal with a teammate.
Not long after, Chopper decided he'd had enough of being restricted to an aquarium. He made a heroic leap out of the water, and towards the sweet ground of freedom.
Instead of making his escape, the raging gator hit his head on the tank, and passed from this life. Visalia, it turned out, could not contain him.
Is it a coincidence that things haven't been the same for Tulare County's only professional sports team since Chopper's tragic and untimely death? Is it possible that his angry spirit still haunts Rawhide Ballpark, causing misfortune to repeatedly befall the club?
Earlier this week, the Rawhide turned to local psychics for their advice. Their conclusion, after much deliberation and consultation, was to make Chopper's disturbed and restless spirit feel more welcomed; to invite him to become a part of the team. By doing so, his angry aura may shift to a more positive light.
Armed with this new knowledge, the ballclub is committed to pacifying Chopper and reversing his curse.
On Friday, June 28th, the Rawhide will unveil a plan for making Chopper's spirit feel more at home at Recreation Ballpark. The club has acquired a "friend" for Chopper, will be introducing a "Rally-Gator" clap (which mimics an alligator chomping sound), and are encouraging fans to bring misters or small squirt guns to the game; according to Shamanism, concealing themselves in the water links the alligator to the emotional body of man. The water's droplets will contain the lesson of discovering and letting go of emotions hidden below the surface.
Join the Rawhide as they set out to "Reverse the Curse," and appease Chopper's alligator spirit.