OKLAHOMA CITY -- That the Tucson Sidewinders began the season playing well surprised no one. With a roster full of elite prospects like Carlos Quentin, Stephen Drew and Chris Young, the Diamondbacks' Triple-A affiliate was dubbed the team to beat in the Pacific Coast League.
What did amaze some was that as those prospects were plucked by the parent club over the course of the year, the Sidewinders never really tailed off. Take a look at their month-to-month records:
Overall record: 91-53
Those 91 wins were the second most in the Minor Leagues this year -- Class A Augusta won 92 in the South Atlantic League -- especially impressive considering that Drew got called up July 15, Quentin followed on the 20th and Young was summoned Aug. 18.
Other key contributors like Alberto Callaspo and Scott Hairston have taken the ride on I-10 to the big leagues a few times over the course of the season. But here are the Sidewinders about to compete in the Bricktown Showdown as the Pacific Coast League champions.
"I think we were a little surprised we played so well for so long," Tucson manager Chip Hale said. "We were helped a lot by our Double-A club [Tennessee]. We got a lot of players from them, and we got some great contributions from the guys off the bench.
"[Once we made it to the playoffs], I'm not surprised we're here. The guys still here play with a lot of heart."
Hale may have seen it coming, but as well as his team played down the stretch, they were further stripped of talent during September callups, making their relatively easy ride through the postseason a bit of a shock. Catcher Miguel Montero, one of the key reinforcements who came from Tennessee and hit .321 in 36 games, was brought up Sept. 2.
Callaspo stayed with Tucson through the playoffs, but didn't get to hang around for the Bricktown Showdown. He got called up right after the league playoffs were finished. Of course with all the roster changes they've endured no one would be surprised if the Sidewinders figured out a way to excel for one more game.
Tucson reliever Jeff Bajenaru couldn't help but smile while looking around SBC Bricktown Ballpark. He's got some pretty fond memories of this place, both on and off the field.
Back in 2000, Bajenaru was the outfielder/closer for the University of Oklahoma. He had been told before going to the school from Riverside Community College that the rivalry with Oklahoma State was intense, but he didn't truly understand until he got to participate in the baseball version of the "Bedlam Series."
"There were 13,000 to 15,000 fans in the stands. It was just crazy," Bajenaru recalled. "We swept the series, I saved all three games and I hit a home run in the third game. It's the best series I've ever been a part of."
Bajenaru is happy to be back to relive those memories. The one time the Sidewinders visited the Oklahoma RedHawks, Bajenaru was with the Diamondbacks, so he missed the trip. He likes the reason for being here as well, believing the Bricktown Showdown is a good idea in theory. Like many of his teammates, he thinks a longer series would be a better way to crown a Triple-A champion, though he understands the reasons behind the one-game deal.
"We won what we set out to win," Bajenaru said, referring to the league title. "But this should be a fun deal. I wish it was a three-game series, though I know it's been a long season and a lot of people are ready to go."
Bajenaru knows a little something about winning titles, even if it's been by proxy. Last year, he spent some time late in the year with the Chicago White Sox, throwing 4 1/3 innings in relief for the eventual World Series champions. Even though he wasn't on the postseason roster, he did get a World Series ring. Without sounding a bit ungrateful, the right-hander admits that in many ways the one he'll get from the Pacific Coast League this year has a little more meaning.
"I stole that one, but I'll take it," Bajenaru said about the jewelry he got from the White Sox. "I've been telling the guys that I'll actually wear this ring. The other one is so big and so nice and I don't feel I really deserved it. But this one is more gratifying."
So was remembering his non-baseball memories here. Bajenaru had his wedding rehearsal dinner at Coach's, a restaurant in the ballpark.
Win, baby, win
If a team in 2007 is looking for a sure-fire way to win a title, they should look no further than Sidewinders outfielder Jon Weber. The 28-year-old veteran has won four titles in a row at a variety of levels. In 2003, he won a ring playing in the independent Northern League. In 2004, having signed with the Oakland A's organization, he was with Triple-A Sacramento winning a Pacific Coast League crown.
Last year, Weber had to go back to Double-A, but won another championship in the Southern League as part of the Jacksonville Suns. That team, much like this year's Tucson club, was arguably the best team in the Minors. Clearly, Weber is a good-luck charm.
"I can't say that," Weber said. "I've been fortunate. I've been able to be put in a spot to win championships."
For a guy who hasn't made it past Triple-A since signing with the Reds as a non-drafted free agent back in 1999, his perspective hasn't changed. He still feels fortunate to play baseball for a living.
"I've done construction work. I've had a shovel in my hands," Weber said. "I don't wan't to do that. So I put on my costume and go to work."
And he does his job well. He hit .300 for Jacksonville a year ago. After hitting .258 in 82 games with Las Vegas, he came to Tucson and hit .321 in 46 games. He then hit .310 during the Sidewinders' playoff run.
While Weber clearly enjoys coming to the park every day, he can't help notice other players -- especially on a team that has had more than its fair share of promotions -- getting the call.
"It's very hard. It gets frustrating," Weber said. "I feel I've put in my time. I've put up the numbers. I ask, 'Why isn't it me?'
"I feel I've done well enough to get up, even just for a cup of coffee. But I have no control over that. I can only contol how I play the game of baseball."
And Weber has no plans of changing that anytime soon. There are scores of players like Weber, guys who seem to warrant getting a chance, but for one reason or another don't get the call. Weber plans on continuing to make it difficult for teams to ignore him.
"I'm that one guy who's not going to fall through the cracks," Weber said. "I won't let them. I'm going to keep playing until I can't anymore."