When the Jackson Generals embarked on a 10-game road trip on June 2, thoughts of clinching the Southern League's first-half North Division title were far from their mind.
"I tried to bring it up before they left, but no one wanted to talk about it," said Jason Compton, who goes by the somewhat redundant title of Generals general manager. "Panky [manager Jim Pankovits] just said to wait until we get back home."
"Panky's" reluctance to talk about it wasn't necessarily due to any "don't jinx it" superstitious impulse. At the beginning of the trip, the Generals were neck-and-neck with the second-place Huntsville Stars with 16 games left in the first half. It appeared that the North Division's first-half race would go down to the wire.
Except that it didn't -- Jackson went a modest 5-4 over the first nine games of their trip, but this stretch coincided with a Huntsville tailspin. When the Generals took the field against the Jacksonville Suns on June 11, the last day of the trip, the reeling Stars had lost five in a row and the magic number to clinch the division had been whittled down to three. And that's when things really got interesting.
The Generals cruised to an 8-0 triumph over Jacksonville that evening, and as this decisive victory was taking place, the Stars were playing a doubleheader in Mobile against the division-rival BayBears. Huntsville lost the first game of the twinbill by a score of 6-5, and Game 2 was still going on as the Generals poured in to the visiting clubhouse following their victory over the Suns.
This is when it finally dawned on the Generals -- if the Stars lost the second game of their doubleheader, then the magic number would be reduced to zero. Jackson would become the 2012 first-half North Division champions.
"Someone brought it up -- if [the Stars] lose, then we're in [the playoffs]," recalled shortstop Nick Franklin, speaking before June 13th's game in Jackson. "So everyone stopped getting undressed. We're like, 'What?'"
As this realization sunk in, Huntsville and Mobile were knotted at 1-1 and headed to the eighth inning (which, in this case, was an extra inning, as Minor League doubleheaders consist of two seven-inning contests). Like moths to a flame, the Generals players gathered around computer monitors, their energies and emotions focused on the action unfolding 400 miles away in Mobile.
"We're following the Gameday updates, and then one of the guys got a little smarter and decided to put it over a boombox so that we could listen to it live with an announcer," Franklin said. "The last thing I remember hearing was a 3-2 pitch inside. ... All I heard was a bunch of people screaming -- they must have caught it before I did."
Franklin's memory was that the game ended on this bases-loaded walk, giving Mobile a 2-1 victory. In separate interviews, pitcher Taijuan Walker and Generals broadcaster Chris Harris also mentioned that the game concluded this way. This is strange, to say the least, because in actuality, the Huntsville-Mobile game ended on a two-out bases-loaded infield single by Daniel Kaczrowski that plated Matt Davidson with the winning run. But the circumstances that led to this collective misinterpretation are immaterial -- all that mattered was that the Stars had lost.
The Generals were the first-half North Division champions.
It was finally time to celebrate, but, as you'll recall, the team hadn't made advance preparations for any sort of a clinching party, because "no one wanted to talk about it."
This is where Eduardo Tamaz, the Generals trainer, comes in. After realizing earlier in the evening that his team may indeed have reason for a party, Tamaz called Compton, procured his credit card number and relayed this crucial information to the Suns' clubhouse attendant. The clubbie then embarked on a shopping trip, returning with the beer and champagne that is so crucial to any clinching celebration. But these easily-sprayed carbonated beverages weren't permitted in the visiting clubhouse -- the Suns, quite understandably, weren't about to have their clubhouse decimated by a rowdy band of conquering Seattle Mariners prospects on a moment's notice.
"We just went crazy and all ran outside," said Walker, and it was outside in the visitor's dugout that the celebrations began in earnest. Walker, who is just 19, straight-facedly asserts that he was doused only with water and Sprite. There were others who didn't get off so lucky, however.
"I had already changed into my travel clothes, but of course [the players] found me and drenched me," said Harris, who travels with the team. "It was probably not the best thing to happen before a 12-hour bus ride, for everyone to be dousing themselves in alcohol."
Oh, right, the bus ride. In ordinary circumstances the Generals would have departed for home immediately after their win over the Suns. But the desire to know their playoff fate delayed the start of the 700-mile journey, and this was just fine with team bus driver Thomas "Double T" Tansil.
"I went into the dugout with the guys, and when they saw me they yelled 'Double T!,' recalled Tansil, speaking from the press box two days later. "I said 'Put it on me!' I didn't have anything to spray, but they sure got me wet. I had never had that experience before, and it's always going to be a good memory."
Franklin claimed that his only goal on the bus ride was to "get some sleep," but Tansil reports that some of the players "were still partying at daylight." The bus arrived in Jackson at about quarter to 11 the next morning, and its dampened but still jubilant passengers were then able to enjoy (read: sleep through) a most fortuitously timed off day. (The bus, meanwhile, underwent what Tansil describes as a "heavy-duty" cleaning.)
From start to finish, the Generals' surreal, wholly improbable and already misremembered clinching odyssey was an "only in Minor League Baseball" experience if there ever was one. Though many of the individuals involved will go on to bigger and better things -- Franklin and ace pitcher Danny Hultzen have already received promotions to Triple-A -- this strange night in Jacksonville will live on in the minds of all who experienced it.
"I asked some of the players where this moment ranked in their careers, and they all said that this was tops," said Harris. "They had so much fun."