Minor League Baseball is known for its rich history, dating back more than 100 years. While much has been written about the best teams and top players who have graced the Minors, there remain many stories either untold or largely forgotten. Each week, MiLB.com will attempt to fill that gap and explore these historical oddities in our "Cracked Bats" feature. Know of any stories to be considered for this feature in the future? Send an email and let us know.
What the Lodi Dodgers were able to accomplish one day in July nearly 20 years ago had as much to do with chance, luck, good karma, clean living -- you name it -- as it did with skill. Still, whether you were the victim or the perpetrator, the shock that accompanied Lodi turning a pair of triple plays in one game remains as fresh today as it was two decades ago at Lawrence Park.
The Fresno Giants were visiting their California League counterparts for the opener of a three-game set on July 25, 1978, and it was clear from the standings that the Dodgers were the better of the two squads that season. They were playing .700 ball and leading the Northern Division when the Giants -- who were occupying the basement in the Southern Division -- hit town, looking to reverse their fortunes.
Fate, however, had other plans as Lodi turned triple killings in the first and fifth innings to squash Fresno rallies and stun the 556 fans in attendance. The two triple plays marked the first time in 73 years that a team had accomplished that feat in one game. Kansas City completed a pair of triple plays in an American Association game in 1905. The Major Leagues wouldn't see a team turn a pair of triple plays until 1990, when the Twins did it twice at Boston on July 17. Minnesota lost 1-0.
"It was timely, just the perfect scenario for both triple plays," said Jim Rothford, the Fresno designated hitter who hit into the first one. "After the first one, you're like, 'Oh, man, we're embarrassed.' But after the second one, it's, 'You've got to be kidding me.' How many of these even happen in a season? You never see two in a game.
"You went away feeling stupid. But that's baseball. You can never anticipate what's going to happen. You see something different every day when you watch a game."
Fresno's second baseman Tom Runnels, currently managing at Colorado Springs in the Pacific Coast League, led off the game with single before right fielder Tom Anthony reached first on an error. That brought Bob Brenly -- who would later manage Arizona to a World Series crown in 2001 -- to the plate, and the Giants' third baseman laid down a bunt.
What should have been a sacrifice turned into a hit and a bases-loaded situation as Anthony beat the throw to second. That set the stage for Rothford, who proceeded to line a shot to short where Don Ruzek grabbed the ball off his shoe tops. Ruzek tossed the ball to second baseman John Shoemaker who in turn fired it to first baseman George Kaage before Brenly could scramble back to the bag, completing triple play No. 1.
"When a line drive is hit, you're supposed to freeze, but you want to be aggressive, too," Rothford said. "But as you take that one-two jab step, the infielders are breaking to the bag. After the first one, we were thinking, 'It's one of those things,' and yeah, we felt embarrassed, but I hit the ball hard and the guys were being aggressive. How can you be mad?"
Fresno would go on to score two runs in the second and one in the third to hold a 3-1 lead heading into the fifth. The Giants appeared as if they would break the game open when Brenly led off with a walk and went to second as Rothford reached first on an error. The Giants were thinking rally, but some of the Dodgers were thinking let's do it again.
"The second one was kind of funny," Lodi third baseman Harold Drake recalled. "Shoemaker was playing second base and we roomed together on the road. He looked at me as soon as they got runners on first and second. We knew the guy coming up [Bill Young] was a dead pull hitter and didn't have the greatest speed in the world.
"He pounded his glove as if to say, 'Let's do it.' If I was playing short, he would have said, 'Lets turn two,' but right before the play, he pounded his glove and said. 'Let's turn three.'"
Young, Fresno's left fielder, cooperated by hitting a hard shot down to third. Drake grabbed it, stepped on the base and then sent the ball around the horn for triple play No. 2.
"It was the perfect storm," Drake said. "Everything got into line. The ball was hit perfectly over the bag to my back hand and I went around the horn just like in pre-game. It was a great experience. It was kind of neat to take it around the horn. It was something you dream about as a kid. We didn't hesitate, and it happened as smooth as can be."
Not everyone figured another triple play was in the offing, though. The Giants certainly weren't thinking it would happen and neither did Kaage, who was thinking more of a double play.
"I didn't think we would do it again," Kaage said. "I was looking to get two outs. I didn't think there was ever any way that we would be able to turn another one. As it was happening, though, I was kind of shocked that it unfolded like it did. I watched the ball go to third, then to second then to me and I thought, 'Oh cool, that happened quick.'"
Bolstered by their defensive prowess, the Dodgers rallied for nine runs over the final three innings and picked up an easy 11-6 victory. Augie Ruiz, the Dodgers' third-round selection that season, was making his Lodi debut and would earn the victory, one of only 22 he would register in a seven-year Minor League career.
Lodi would go on to reach the championship series in the Cal League that season before bowing to Visalia. The Giants would finish with the second worst record in the league, and with a sour memory of one day in Lodi.
"We were thinking, 'How can this happen to us?'," Rothford said. "Lodi had a good defensive team and they were real good, but really, how can this happen? The second one, the ball had to be hit pretty hard, and it wasn't like the third baseman had to make an effort to get to the bag.
"And Bill Young was slow. He was a journeyman, but he had a lot of pop. He could hit for some power, but by that point he was losing his foot speed. We were just dumbfounded."
Drake said he thinks that a staff member from Lodi grabbed some of the balls used in the game, had some players sign them and then sent them to Cooperstown, but wasn't sure if that was true. Still, it makes for a good story, and a rare one at that.