The belief that the Bricktown Showdown is an afterthought to a long, difficult season is one that is held by more than a few folks, including some of the game's participants. But the contest that Triple-A Baseball stages in Oklahoma City each September does serve at least one purpose.
Though it is just one game, it does decide which team will be crowned the best in the land on the level just below the Major Leagues. The Pacific Coast League has gotten the better of its International League counterparts in each of the event's first two seasons, first with Tucson taking home top honors in 2006 and this year with Sacramento carrying the banner for the venerable circuit.
The River Cats hoisted the trophy on a warm Midwestern evening last month, not only earning themselves a place in Triple-A lore but also gaining the mantle of MiLB.com's Triple-A team of the season. Sacramento, which won the PCL South Division title for the fourth time in five years, finished second in the league with 84 victories during the regular season.
Tony DeFrancesco's club outlasted Salt Lake in the opening round of the PCL playoffs before sweeping past New Orleans for its third title in five years. That set the stage for Bricktown and after a 7-1 drubbing of International League champion Richmond, there was no doubt as to where the Cats stood in the Minor League pecking order.
"By far this is the most memorable season I've had," said DeFrancesco, whose Sacramento teams are 104 games above .500 in the five years he's been at the helm. "We had great clubhouse chemistry, the guys stayed together even though we had people coming and going all year. That clubhouse was a big part of our success because we played as a team all year.
"There was no bickering about callups or anything like that. This team was very special. And Oklahoma City was icing on the cake. We battled through a whole season but we went out there and won one more game. I didn't think the players would be ready to celebrate again, but they were and the champagne was flying. Those are memories we have to cherish. It's something special."
The River Cats' clubhouse proved to have a revolving door, with nearly 70 players passing through at one point or another as a result of injuries in Oakland. Dee Brown (.298, 14 homers, 54 RBIs in 62 games) and Daric Barton (.293, nine home runs, 70 RBIs) were the offensive leaders for much of the season, but the emotional leader on the club was veteran third baseman Lou Merloni.
While Merloni's numbers during the regular season didn't stand out (.254, three home runs, 39 RBIs), his presence in the clubhouse clearly did. His leadership was the glue that kept the Cats together throughout the summer. And during the playoffs, his bat came alive. Merloni was 12-for-36 with four homers and 10 RBIs.
"He was just very involved and the players respected him so much for his leadership," DeFrancesco said. "He would come talk to me and tell me if anyone was unhappy, he ran the kangaroo court in the clubhouse. He led the team."
DeFrancesco named him team captain following the club's PCL championship victory, an honor that Merloni tried to brush aside. But he accepted the "C" and then proved he deserved it by winning the Most Valuable Player award at Bricktown.
"I know this is the most fun I've ever had managing," DeFrancesco said. "We had a very loose atmosphere. Hopefully everyone can remember that. There's always stress and intensity when you manage. There are good days and bad days, but when you have a winning environment, that's what keeps these guys playing."
It kept the River Cats playing up to and through Bricktown, earning them a place in the MiLB.com annals as one of Minor League Baseball's elite.