Fort Wayne, Indiana, offers residents and tourists a plethora of entertainment options. The Fort Wayne Children's Zoo boasts 38 acres filled with animals from across the globe (and you can hand-feed the giraffes), while the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory offers visitors a 100,000-square-foot oasis with more than 1,200 plants of 502
Fort Wayne, Indiana, offers residents and tourists a plethora of entertainment options. The Fort Wayne Children's Zoo boasts 38 acres filled with animals from across the globe (and you can hand-feed the giraffes), while the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory offers visitors a 100,000-square-foot oasis with more than 1,200 plants of 502 different species, including 72 types of cactus.
Ten years ago, however, the place to be in Fort Wayne was downtown's sparkling new crown jewel: Parkview Field, home of the 2009 TinCaps, which sent a Class A record 19 players to The Show.
Fort Wayne hosted its first professional baseball game in 1871, but when the Chiefs left the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League in 1935, it wasn't until 1993 before folks in the Summit City could truly root for a home team. With the construction of Memorial Stadium, the Wizards -- formerly the Kenosha Twins -- ushered in a new era of Minor League Baseball.
The Wizards gave way to the TinCaps for the 2009 season. (TinCaps is a nod to John Chapman, the legendary Johnny Appleseed, who may have worn a tin mush pot for a cap and is buried in Fort Wayne.) Likewise, Memorial Stadium yielded to $30.6 million Parkview Field, which would soon become a field of dreams for San Diego farmhands.
"Baseball is only part of the story," said Dan Watson, who served as voice of the TinCaps for the 2009-11 seasons. "The new ballpark really anchored downtown, and it's now thriving -- businesses, shops, restuarants, breweries. The ballpark helped transform downtown. It showed that we aren't 'little ol' Fort Wayne.'"
The franchise set several attendance records in its first season at Parkview Field.
The first pitch of the season was a ball, tossed by 2007 first-rounder Nick Schmidt -- seemingly one of the few things that did not go the TinCaps' way that year under manager Doug Dascenzo. Coming off an undefeated season-opening six-game road trip, the TinCaps blanked Dayton, 7-0, on April 16 in the home opener. James Darnell, who played in 25 games with the Padres during the 2011-12 seasons, had the team's first hit, a two-run homer over the left-field fence.
"Fans remember 2009 for all the reasons," Watson said. "The new ballpark. It was a great team. They realized anything is possible.
"The fans are willing to get attached to each year's team. And we've had a wave of guys come through -- Fernando Tatis Jr. and Max Fried, recently -- and the fans saw and appreciated it for what it's worth."
Fort Wayne clinched the first-half division title with a 45-25 record, which remains the best for any half-season in franchise history.
"At the halfway point, we moved four, five, six guys -- a total of 10 that went up [to Double-A]," Dascenzo noted to AboutFortWayne.com before the playoffs, "and their replacements were pretty much the same as the guys that left.
"When you have 25 guys who love to play the game and come out every day and do it on a daily basis, you give yourself the best chance to win every single day."
In fact, the team could've been even more formidable. Arriving from extended spring training, Mat Latos, an 11th-round pick in the 2006 Draft, spent less than three weeks with Fort Wayne, going 3-0 with a 0.36 ERA. He was promoted to Double-A San Antonio on May 20 and made his Major League debut on July 19, becoming the first player in franchise history to go from Fort Wayne to the big leagues in the same season.
Latos played nine seasons in the Majors, posting a 71-59 record with a 3.64 ERA. He finished eighth in National League Cy Young voting in 2010.
Another cog for the TinCaps was outfielder Jaff Decker, who would go on to play in 77 games across five MLB seasons with the Padres, Pirates, Rays and A's from 2013-17. He was one of five Fort Wayne players named to the Midwest League All-Star Game, along with outfielder Sawyer Carroll, who was named Star of Stars after a 4-for-4 showing in the midsummer showcase.
On the field, the TinCaps started a franchise-record 10-0 en route to a 94-46 finish and the Midwest League title. Off the field, Fort Wayne drew 378,529 fans and set regular-season (8,572) and playoff-game (6,269) attendance marks.
"Definitely the ballpark had something to do with it," Dascenzo told the website. "I think the guys enjoyed coming to a brand-new facility. … These guys just love to play the game of baseball."
The TinCaps defeated South Bend and Great Lakes, 2-1, in best-of-3 series before sweeping Burlington, 3-0, in the best-of-5 championship round.
Game 3 of the Great Lakes series stands out for Watson, who admits he had a moment of pause during the action.
"Backup catcher Rob Lara hit a walk-off homer in the 10th," Watson said. "He was in a slump, 0-for-15. The newspaper the next day had a picture of him, mouth wide open, just in euphoria.
"When he hit the ball, I called it, 'Swing and a drive!' And then, hang on, dial it back. ... The ball came down on the concrete that holds the railing. Hit and bounced straight up. It was the loudest I ever heard the ballpark. The fans were locked in."
Dascenzo, who played seven years in the Majors, noted some of the players had been together the previous season in Rookie ball, which helped team chemistry.
"They kind of know each other a little bit," he said. "We still had to do some things from day one as far as getting everybody to know everyone and have fun and pass along the baseball knowledge as we got into the season.
"But the pitching and the defense -- you hear that all the time, particularly when playoff games come," he said. "All year long they really played well defensively."
The tireless work by the Padres' scouting department was not lost on the manager.
"It really comes down to the scouting department," Dascenzo said. "They are the ones who scout the guys, sign them, bring them here. Year after year after year, you have pretty much a different group every year."
After three seasons, Dascenzo left Fort Wayne for Double-A San Antonio, where he managed two years, winning the Texas League title in 2011. On June 20 this year, TinCaps manager Anthony Contreras eclipsed Dascenzo for most career victories with the franchise, notching No. 228 in a 6-0 win over Great Lakes.
"Seasons like that don't come along often," Watson noted. "Doug knew that. One thing that helped, a lot of them were college guys. The Padres had taken a lot of college guys, so they had a few extra years of seasoning.
"[Dascenzo] told the guys, if they were in a slump, that this was a special season -- figure it out. He trusted them to live their lives. When the lights come on, do whatever it takes, and they did."
Watson recalls one low point when the team wasn't hitting.
"Before the game, they put their bats in a 10-gallon trash can," he remembered. "They set it on fire and were dancing around it in the clubhouse."
The 2009 TinCaps paced the Midwest League offensively with 736 runs scored, 5.26 runs per game, 268 doubles, 661 RBIs, 681 walks, .365 OBP and .764 OPS.
The pitching staff was equally impressive, boasting of league-leading marks with 94 wins, 18 shutouts, 552 runs, 1,224 strikeouts and a 1.219 WHIP. Fort Wayne was second in ERA at 3.46.
Brad Brach was lights-out in 2009, posting a 1.27 ERA with a league-high 33 saves.
Erik Davis led the staff with 16 wins, while fellow future big leaguers Simon Castro (10) and Anthony Bass (9) combined for 19 W's. Davis was 1-0 for the 2013 Nationals and Castro was 3-4 across three seasons with the White Sox, Rockies and A's between 2013-17.
Bass debuted with the Padres in 2011 and was traded to the Astros before the 2014 season. He spent 2015 with the Rangers before being traded to and released by Seattle prior to 2016. Bass signed with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of the Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan. After helping lead the Fighters to their fifth championship, he returned to MLB and has since played for the Rangers, Cubs and Mariners.
Right-hander Brad Brach was the ace reliever for Fort Wayne, notching 33 saves and finishing 3-3 with a 1.27 ERA. He debuted in 2011 with the Padres and was traded to the Orioles after the 2013 season. He was an American League All-Star in '16, going 10-4 with a 2.05 ERA. He was traded to Atlanta in July last year and signed with the Cubs earlier this year.
Perhaps the best known name in the bunch, however, was 22-year-old rookie first baseman Cody Decker, who made his only MLB appearances with the Padres in 2015. A fan-favorite over his 11 Minor League season, the slugger hit a walk-off home run for Reno earlier this month and hung up his spikes shortly after.
As for the other 2009 TinCaps who made it to the Majors:
Infielder Dean Anna played in 13 games during the 2014-15 seasons with the Yankees and Cardinals.
Vince Belnome appeared in four games as the designated hitter with Tampa Bay in 2014.
First baseman Matt Clark had five big-league hits -- three for homers -- during a 16-game stint with the 2014 Brewers.
First baseman Allan Dykstra -- one of four first-round picks to suit up for the TinCaps in 2009, along with Schmidt, Decker and Drew Cumberland -- made his MLB debut on April 8, 2015, with Tampa Bay. His final game was April 23 that year, capping a 13-game career.
Infielder Cole Figueroa appeared in 48 games during the 2014-16 seasons with the Rays, Yankees and Pirates.
Pitcher Nick Greenwood was 2-2 across the 2014-15 seasons with the Cardinals.
Left-hander Colt Hynes debuted with the Padres in 2013 and made his final appearance with the Blue Jays in 2015, totaling 20 innings across 27 appearances.
Infielder Andy Parrino played 131 games between 2011-15 with the Padres and A's.
Outfielder Daniel Robertson spent parts of four seasons in a big-league uniform: 2014 (Rangers), 2015 (Angels), 2016 (Mariners) and 2017 (Indians).
Catcher Ali Solis had a couple cups of coffee with the Padres (2012) and Rays (2014).
Outfielder Blake Tekotte debuted in 2011 with the Padres before being traded to the White Sox, with whom he had his final appearance in 2013.
"Everything fell into place," Watson said. "Over the course of a 140-game season, it was the most unique, special full baseball season. I remember a lot of instances saying, 'Can you believe these guys?' It was easy to get spoiled. We enjoyed it for everything we could."
Could anyone have imagined 19 players from that season's team making it to the big leagues?
"The math says no," he said. "Guys get injured, some reach a certain level and plateau. I figured a lot of them would ... maybe not 19."
Duane Cross is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DuaneCrossMiLB.