CLEARWATER -- From 1985 until 2003, a franchise known as the Clearwater Phillies called the Florida State League home, presiding over historic Jack Russell Memorial Stadium. It was not until 2004 that today's Clearwater Threshers were born.
With the Philadelphia Phillies relocating their Spring Training home to the brand new ballpark on Old Coachman Road, then referred to as Bright House Networks Field, the team's high-A affiliate followed suit, adopting a new team logo and nickname entering the 2004 season.
The nickname "Threshers" was selected from among 10,000 suggestions from fans and other outlets, beating out the likes of the Beach Dogs, Sand Sharks, Barracudas, and King Fish. The Phillies, giving a nod to Clearwater's tropical climate, elected to name their Florida State League team after a breed of shark that is most distinguished by its whip-like tail.
Thus the Clearwater Threshers were set to debut, under the direction of none other than Phillies Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt. With Schmidt at the helm, the Threshers played their inaugural game on Thursday, April 8, 2004, before a home crowd of 2,837.
After dropping a 14-11 barnburner on opening day, Clearwater would suffer a pair of 12-2 and 8-1 losses before finally earning the team's first victory on April 11.
Schmidt, a three-time MVP and 12-time All-Star as a player, was rewarded with his first managerial win when Clearwater topped the Dunedin Blue Jays 9-3 for the first win in Threshers history. John Castellano, a 26-year old utility man, knocked in two runs and finished 3-for-5 with a double for the Threshers, while Mike Floyd, a 24-year old outfielder, was 3-for-4 with a triple and a run batted in.
The Threshers would wrap up their debut season with a record of 55-82. They placed sixth in the first half at 25-45, and improved to the tune of a 30-36 record in second-half play, good for a fourth-place finish in the FSL West's second-half standings. The Daytona Cubs and Tampa Yankees would be named co-champions of the Florida State League after the postseason was cancelled due to Hurricane Ivan.
At the time, and for each year leading up to 2009, Clearwater was a member of the FSL West. The league was later realigned following the 2008 season into the North/South division structure that fans are familiar with today. In 2004, the Threshers' Western Division opponents consisted of the Dunedin Blue Jays, Tampa Yankees, Fort Myers Miracle, Lakeland Tigers (who would become the "Flying Tigers" in 2007), and the now-defunct Sarasota Red Sox.
Following the season, Schmidt elected to forgo his managerial duties, telling the press that his time in Clearwater as "wonderful and rewarding, but for several reasons, does not work for me and my family." Schmidt was the first former player to be hired as a minor league manager after being elected to the Hall of Fame.
That inaugural Threshers squad saw nine different players who had or would go on on to play in the Major Leagues.
A 20-year old starting pitcher by the name of Cole Hamels donned a Threshers uniform that year, albeit briefly, permitting only two runs in 16 innings of work. Hamels, Philadelphia's first-round pick in the 2002 draft, had been named the Phillies' No. 17 prospect entering the 2004 season. However, a strained elbow suffered during Spring Training turned in to a lingering issue, limiting him to just four starts.
2004 was the first and only year in the Florida State League for RHP Alfredo Simon, currently a reliever for the Cincinnati Reds. Simon was 7-9 with a 3.27 ERA in 22 games in his time with the Threshers, before being dealt to the San Francisco Giants on July 30. Simon's journey would take him through four different organizations before he made his Major League debut for Baltimore in 2008. He spent parts of four seasons with the Orioles and two with Cincinnati, where he has posted ERA's of 2.66 and 2.87 respectively over the past two seasons.
Outfielder Chris Roberson finished 11th in the Florida State League in 2004 with a .307 average in his 83 games for Clearwater. He went on to appear in 85 games for Philadelphia between 2006 and 2007, hitting .232. Roberson is still active in the Mexican League as of 2013. Last year he appeared in 60 games with Sultanes de Monterrey, pacing the team with a .362 average.
RHP Elizardo Ramirez posted the 13th-best ERA in the FSL in 2004, despite making just nine starts. He was 5-1 with a 2.49 ERA in his stint with the Threshers. Ramirez debuted with the Phillies that same year on May 25, and was traded to Cincinnati later that summer as the player-to-be-named in a deal for the late Cory Lidle.
In addition, four players who had already debuted in the bigs prior to 2004 - INF Anderson Machado, LHP Bud Smith, RHP Eric Junge, and RHP Vicente Padilla - would also appear for the Threshers that year. Finally, Australian infielder Brad Harman made one appearance in a Threshers uniform in 2004, and would go on to play six games for the Phillies in 2008.
A notable name who never reached the big leagues was that of Ryan Barthelemy, then a 24-year old corner infielder/outfielder and a force in the Threshers lineup. Barthelemy smashed 14 homers in 2004 - tops on the club and tied for 11th in the league. His 77 RBI's were good for fifth in the FSL, right behind future big leaguers Delwyn Young and Shelley Duncan.
Barthlemey still ranks amongst the Threshers all-time single-season leaders in home runs (T-5th with 14), hits (T-4th with 140), and RBI (T-5th with 77).
Other names who made their mark in Threshers history that year include RHP Ryan Hutchison - who posted the fifth-best ERA in Threshers history at 2.12 - RHP Brandon Mayfield, whose 48 appearances are tied for third-most in Threshers single-season history, and LHP Beau Richardson, who ranks right behind Mayfield with 47 appearances. Simon threw four complete games that year, which is tied with Drew Naylor (2009) for tops all-time in Threshers single-season history. Three of those were shutouts, which is the most by a Threshers hurler in any year.
Of the top 20 pitchers in terms of strikeouts in the Florida State League in 2004, 16 of them went on to pitch in the Majors Leagues. Among those were Scott Olsen - who led the league with 158 K's - Josh Johnson, Francisco Liriano, Jonathan Papelbon, Jonathan Broxton, and Chad Billingsley. Papelbon, a current Phillies reliever, pitched to a 12-7 record and 2.64 ERA as a member of the Sarasota Red Sox in 2004.
With a new manager and a fresh pool of talent, the Threshers would be faced with a tall task of contending in 2005, a year stocked full of future big-league impact players making their presence known in the Florida State League.
We'll take an in-depth look at year two of Clearwater Threshers baseball on February 3rd.