History is full of great Minor League teams. But not many can match the 1980 Denver Bears.
One look at the Bears' roster and one understands how they ran roughshod over the Triple-A American Association in 1980.
Tim Raines. Tim Wallach. Bill Gullickson. Dave Hostetler. Charlie Lea. Odds are, if you followed baseball in the 1980s, you recognize those names. Before they were big leaguers though, they were Bears.
The Bears finished 92-44, 21 1/2 games ahead of second-place Oklahoma City. They were miles ahead of the league in nearly every category, averaging 6.36 runs per game, more than a run better than the second-place 89ers. They led the league in home runs (146), doubles (232), hits (1383), and OPS (.833). They were also solid on the basepaths, finishing second with 143 stolen base and second with 47 triples.
Brad Mills, who split the season between Denver and Montreal, remembers just how much fun it was to be part of such an offensive juggernaut.
"They dominated the whole league, right up until the playoffs," he said. "They were already destroying people when I got there. You just knew they were going to pound the ball and win games. That in itself was pretty cool because of the confidence they had.
"They were a veteran club that a lot of these guys had been in the big leagues and had some time in the big leagues, were sent down and they happened to be playing all together. They were just a group of guys that just mashed the ball so well."
To put some of those numbers in perspective, only three Pacific Coast League teams since 2000 -- the 2000 Salt Lake Buzz, the 2011 Reno Aces and the 2011 Colorado Springs Sky Sox -- have surpassed the Bears' per-game-run total.
They weren't a one-dimensional team either, as they were solid on the mound, finishing second in the league with a 3.87 ERA, second with 740 strikeouts and tops with 14 shutouts. Defensively, Denver was strong as well, with a .974 fielding percentage, second in the league.
The success was apparent at the box office as well, with the club drawing a league-best 565,214 fans. They were particularly tough at home, winning 21 straight games at Mile High Stadium, which would host the Colorado Rockies more than a decade later.
Individually, it was a star-studded team. Tim Raines, just 20 at the time, tied for the league lead with a .354 average and 11 triples while pacing the circuit with 77 stolen bases, more than twice the total of runner-up Darrell Brown of the Evansville Triplets. Randy Bass and Tim Wallach finished 1-2 in homers with 37 and 36 respectively, and the duo also led the way in RBIs with 143 and 124.
Skippered by veteran Minor League manager and former Major Leaguer Billy Gardner, the Bears compiled the best record in the last 60 years of the league, which folded after the 1997 season.
The team was filled with players who would play in the big leagues, with 24 of the 29 players on the roster having appeared in a Major League game. The group combined for 13 All-Star Game appearances, three Gold Glove awards and three Silver Slugger awards.
The fact that the Bears lost in the Finals to Springfield doesn't diminish the greatness of the team. The club placed seven players on the league's All-Star squad -- Raines, Wallach, Bass, Art Gardner, Dan Briggs, Jerry Manuel and Stephen Ratzer -- while also sweeping the player of the month awards.
The Bears laid claim to plenty of other hardware too. Bass was named the league's Most Valuable Player while Ratzer claimed Most Valuable Pitcher. Raines was named the league's Rookie of the Year (and would finish second in the same National League voting the following year) while Gardner was named the Manager of the Year.
"It was pretty interesting," Wallach, now a bench coach for the Dodgers, said of the roster. "The team was just loaded. It was amazing. I know there's double-digit guys who were in the big leagues. It was pretty cool. It was a good group of guys to be around. That was the big thing for me -- first full year in pro ball and able to be around that many guys with that much pro experience. It was really good."
When it comes to evaluating the roster, Hostetler, a fourth-round pick by the Expos in 1978 who spent five years in the Major Leagues, concurred with Wallach.
"That team really did have a lot of guys that made it to the big leagues, and I don't know if you see that often on a lot of those teams," he said. "There's maybe three, four, five guys who get a chance to play in the big leagues. That was a lot of fun. That was a team -- we really had just about everything. We had speed in the front of the lineup, some guys who could hit for power, and we had some guys who could play some defense and we had some defense. It was pretty fun."
For their manager, the job proved to be a stepping stone to the big leagues. A 10-year-veteran as a player, Gardner was named the Twins skipper halfway through the 1981 season. All told, Gardner spent six seasons as a big league manager, compiling a 330-417 record while helming the Twins and Royals.
Gardner wasn't the only one to use his time with the Bears as a springboard to greater heights. Gullickson found himself promoted to Montreal on May 31 and never looked back, going 10-5 with a 3.00 ERA while finishing second to Los Angeles' Steve Howe in the National League Rookie of the Year race. Lea joined Gullickson two weeks later, finishing out the season in the rotation.
Raines reached the big leagues for good the following year, leading the league in stolen bases as a rookie while Wallach appeared in 71 games for the Expos in 1981.
What made the club so great? Perhaps it was the blend of players. The average age of the club was 25, giving the Bears plenty of veterans to guide the team's younger players. Wallach, one of the team's youngest players at 22 and a year removed from college, felt the blend helped his career.
"It was great," he said. "It was really good for my career, being around guys like Randy, Dan Briggs, Art Gardner -- I came up with Tim Raines from Double-A. Some of the pitchers -- Bill Gullickson, Charlie Lea -- we just had guys who had been around, who had been in the big leagues. It was a really good learning experience for me."
"They were vets that could play the game," said Mills, who was a 17th-round pick in 1979. "They helped kind of mentored the young guys to be the guys they could be. They were willing to help out the younger guys, and that probably helped the ballclub be as strong as they were."
"It's just a lot of fun every night," Hostetler said. "We just had a great year, everybody got along, everybody enjoyed playing the game together ... it was a great team. I played on a national championship in college at USC and you had the same feeling there, where everybody was pulling for everybody and everybody was having a good year. It just made it easier for you to have a good year too."
There was plenty of talent to go with the positive vibes -- nine players had been taken in the first three rounds of their respective Drafts, including four first-round picks -- Gullickson, Bob James, Manuel and Wallach.
Success was nothing new for the club, which had won five American Association titles between 1971 and 1983. Over that time, players such as Jeff Burroughs, Bill Madlock, J.R. Richard, Mike Easler, Tony LaRussa, Pete Vukovich and Andre Dawson plied their trade in Denver. Still, for that one year, the Bears shone brighter than they ever had before and ever would after. The team changed its name to the Denver Zephyrs for the 1985 season and would move to New Orleans when the Rockies joined the National League in 1993.
"It was like playing in a big league setting," said Mills, currently a bench coach for the Indians. "It was just unbelievable. It was a very entertaining team to watch because they were veterans who know how to play the game and we hit so well. We hit so many home runs in Denver, everybody enjoyed watching -- it was a good show."
Robert Emrich is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEmrich.