The MiLB.com online store releases Hometown Collection gear today featuring three long-gone franchises, which gives us the perfect excuse to partake in one of our favorite pastimes: sifting through Minor League history to dig into the details about bygone teams. Those inclined to do a little vintage-oriented shopping may do so here, but anybody interested in learning the stories behind the latest entries to the Hometown Collection is already in the right place.
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The Roswell Rockets are most noteworthy, of course, for having been the team on which Joe Bauman set a professional baseball record with 72 home runs in 1954. Check out our 65th anniversary story of that accomplishment. The Rockets were an unaffiliated Class D team in the Longhorn League from 1949-50 and moved up to Class C with the rest of that circuit in 1951, continuing to play through 1956. In their final season, they were part of the Class B Southwestern League, which operated in '56 and -- without a Roswell team -- in '57. Since 2011, Roswell has hosted an independent team called the Invaders, who play at a park called Joe Bauman Stadium.
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The first Key West Conchs team harkens back to the days when Jimmy Buffett was in short pants and the southernmost city in the continental United States was best known for Harry Truman, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. In 1952, the Florida International League -- so named because it featured a team in Havana, Cuba -- welcomed the Conchs into the fold during its seventh season. The Class B Conchs were a midseason replacement for the Fort Lauderdale Braves, a team in such a sorry state that the league took it over and relocated it. The original Conchs couldn't rebound from the Braves' miserable start to the year and finished 40-111. Nap Reyes, who was a collegiate star in Cuba a decade prior, played for the New York Giants in the mid-'40s and went on to manage in the Minors and be inducted to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame and the Carribean Baseball Hall of Fame, spent part of the '52 season with the Conchs. The next year, the club moved back to Fort Lauderdale.
But that was just the beginning of the Conchs name. The Florida State League brought Key West into the loop with a team called the Sun Caps in 1971, and that organization picked up the old moniker for the next season and continued as the Conchs through 1974. In their first two campaigns, the FSL's Conchs were the only unaffiliated team on the circuit, and it showed in the results. The '72 Conchs finished dead last in the league, at 55-76. The next year, they were 64-78, finishing only ahead of the Pampano Beach Mets in the FSL Southern Division. Those clubs did feature hurlers Mike Barlow and Bob Lacey, who combined to pitch in over 400 big league games over the next decade, but it was the '74 Conchs -- a Cubs affiliate -- who brought Hall of Fame talent to Key West. Chicago sent a 21-year-old right-hander named Bruce Sutter to the FSL, and he posted a 1.33 ERA over 18 games -- one start -- with the Conchs. Fifty strikeouts in 40 innings got Sutter promoted out of Key West to Double-A Midland of the Texas League. The next year, the team was called the Key West Cubs, closing the book on the Minor League Conchs. Key West High School -- which produced Khalil Greene and, throwing it back a bit, Orioles great Boog Powell -- still plays as the Conchs, as it reportedly has since 1906.
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The Phoenix Firebirds competed in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League continuously for 12 years beginning in 1986 and met with success in their inaugural season. Born out of the PCL's Phoenix Giants (1958-59, 1966-85) and managed by former big league All-Star and Rookie of the Year (and future big league manager) Jim Lefebvre, the '86 Firebirds boasted San Francisco prospects and soon-to-be big leaguers Will Clark, Terry Mulholland and Luis Quinones. They went 81-61 to finish second in the league.
Although the Firebirds wouldn't reach the playoffs again until '96, the teams of the years between featured the likes of Matt Williams, Ivan De Jesus, Bob Melvin, Ron Davis, Bob Brenly, Rod Beck, Dave Burba, Bud Black, Dave Martinez, Bill Mueller and many others who made an impact on the big league level. Ron Wotus helmed the club into the postseason in '96 and '97, winning PCL Manager of the Year honors in the latter year. The 1998 season brought the birth of the Arizona Diamondbacks, which pushed the Firebirds franchise to Fresno, California, home of the current Grizzlies.
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A coincidence: 14-year big leaguer Mike Krukow played for both the Key West Conchs and the Phoenix Firebirds. He went 5-10 with a 3.18 ERA over 24 games with the '74 Conchs, and in '88 -- his penultimate Major League season -- made a rehab start for the Firebirds, throwing five nearly perfect innings (he hit a batter). Who's to say Krukow wouldn't have pitched for the Rockets, too, had they been around long enough?