Across Triple-A Baseball, the 2019 season will be remembered as The Year of the Home Run. In many ways, that's what carried this year's version of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders to their early success in the 30th anniversary of the team's birth as the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons - but The Year of the Roster Move ultimately was the storyline throughout the RailRiders (and New York Yankees) season.
Using historic levels of power, in large part thanks to the MLB-style baseball adopted in the upper-most level of the minors this season, the RailRiders marched out to 44-29 (.603) record over their first 73 games of the season and held a 6.5-game lead in the International League North Division. All across the International League, home runs were flying out at a record pace. The previous 90 years of baseball in the league had seen just eight teams hit more than 200 home runs in a season, and this year four teams crossed that threshold. Individually, the RailRiders had four players eclipse 20 homers in a season for the first time in franchise history: Ryan McBroom (26), Mike Ford (23), Trey Amburgey (22) and Kyle Higashioka (20). In fact, you have to go back to 2013 to find the last RailRiders batter with 20+ homers (Dan Johnson, 21).
McBroom finished the year as a member of the Kansas City Royals after being traded by the New York Yankees September 1. Prior to that, he had been named a postseason International League All-Star and finished the season Top-10 in the I.L. in batting average (.315, 4th), home runs (26, 10th), on-base percentage (.402, 3rd), slugging percentage (.574, 2nd), OPS (.976, 1st), hits (130, 8th), runs (87, 1st) and total bases (237, 4th). The last Scranton/Wilkes-Barre batter to have more than 87 runs scored in a season was Shane Victorino in 2005 (93).
The RailRiders also sent four players to the Triple-A All-Star Game in El Paso, Texas for just the second time in the last decade. McBroom, Higashioka, Ford and pitcher J.P. Feyereisen all went and represented the RailRiders as the International League took on the Pacific Coast League. Ford and McBroom were two of the eight participants selected to battle in the Home Run Derby, with Ford making it all the way to the championship round before falling to Yasmany Tomas of the Reno Aces (Triple-A, Arizona Diamondbacks).
Baseball is a long, 140-game marathon, and the next few weeks saw SWB go 21-30 (.412) to fall back to a 65-59 overall record. Despite the sub-.500 baseball, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre had opened up a large enough lead in the division that once they took over the lead for first place in the division May 24 with a 6-5 win over Syracuse, they never spent a day outside of first the final 98 games of the year. It wasn't until August 26 with seven games to go in the regular season that the Syracuse Mets tracked down the RailRiders to draw even in the division for first place, and ultimately forced a one-game playoff one week later.
Labor Day wrapped up the International League regular season just as it does every year, and players from all teams were heading back home to begin the offseason or heading off to begin their hopeful playoff runs; that is with the exception of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Syracuse. With Syracuse having won 16-of-20 games to end the regular season, the Mets came into the game as the hottest team in the league. The matchup was set for 1:05 p.m. on Tuesday September 3 at PNC Field as a result of the RailRiders claiming the regular season title from the Mets 14-6.
The game itself will be remembered in the annals of RailRiders history as the Miracle at Montage Mountain. Trailing 5-0 after one inning and 7-1 entering the bottom of the sixth inning, the bats came alive for SWB despite recording just one hit through the first six frames off two-time American League All-Star, Ervin Santana. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders offense threw five runs on the board in the inning to make it a one-run game again, at 7-6. After Syracuse scored six times in the top of the eighth inning and made it 13-6, all seemed lost. Yet, the bottom of the eighth began just as the seventh did, with a solo home run by Kyle Higashioka. Then the offense caught fire and posted its largest offensive inning of the season to rally all the way back. When Erik Kratz line-drive double landed on the warning track in left-centerfield to plate a pair of runs, the eight-run frame was complete and with three outs in the ninth inning, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre won 14-13 to punch its ticket to take on the Durham Bulls in the postseason.
RailRiders fans gained undeniable satisfaction watching the procession of RailRiders players go to New York and contribute to a team that has posted the best record in all of baseball through the middle of September. The 2019 New York Yankees have dubiously set the all-time MLB mark by placing 29 players on the Injured List in one season which created an extra busy edition of the Scranton Shuttle as a continuous stream of RailRiders players were being sent up and down in roster moves with the Yankees. The team made 335 roster moves during the regular season (2.38/game) plus six more during the playoffs which shattered the record of 308 roster moves made in 2015. Due to the revolving door of a roster, the RailRiders also ushered 84 different players into a game wearing a RailRiders uniform in 2019 breaking the previous mark of 75 which was also set in 2015.
With all of the injuries in the big leagues, the RailRiders smashed the franchise record for rehabbers with 14 which far eclipsed the previous record set in 2018 with 10. The list includes Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Domingo German, Cameron Maybin, Jonathan Loaisiga, Gary Sanchez, Ben Heller, Luke Voit, Jordan Montgomery, Luis Severino, Edwin Encarnacion and Thairo Estrada. Judge and Stanton rehabbed together for three days in Durham, N.C. helping produce three of the largest 11 crowds in Durham Bulls Athletic Park history. Judge continued with the team back to Moosic, Pa. and appeared in a pair of games at PNC Field - signing autographs and bashing home runs to the delight of faithful RailRiders fans.
The 30th Anniversary season also featured a celebration from May 31 - June 2 at PNC Field of the original Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, complete with a reunion of players and coaches returning from the original team three decades later. Manager, Marc Bombard had his No. 13 retired at PNC Field as he was honored before an assembled group of players including Greg Legg, Brandon Duckworth, Mickey Morandini, Floyd Rayford, Jon Zuber and coach Gary Ruby.
Throughout the season, the RailRiders participated in Copa de la Diversión; a budding Minor League Baseball initiative. The team changed their traditional threads for eye-popping colorful ones to pay tribute to the local Latinx community playing as the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Vejigantes. A "Vejigante" is a folkloric masked character, boasting roots from a wide spectrum of cultures. The eccentric jester-like Vejigante is often characterized during Carnival and other celebrations, engaging in mischievous and entertaining antics alike. The six dates spread throughout the home campaign included a Luis Severino Bobblehead giveaway (presented by Dickson City Hyundai), a Gary Sanchez bobblehead (presented by Geisinger), a Food Truck Festival featuring local food vendors showcasing their best dishes and the Scranton Latin Festival toward the end of the season to wrap up a season-long stretch of Vejigantes-related festivities.
A key component of every season is the RailRiders involvement in the community through the SWB Pinstripes Foundation; the club's charitable arm. In 2019, the game day 50/50 raffle raised over $47,000, benefitting the Foundation and the Ronald McDonald House of Scranton; a $14,000 increase from the year prior. During the course of the season, the RailRiders ran seven specialty jersey auctions to benefit local organizations. Between those seven, over $20,000 was raised for Alzheimer's Association, American Red Cross, Boys and Girls Club of NEPA, Geisinger Children's Miracle Network and the SWB Pinstripes Foundation. On July 17, the 2nd Annual SWB Pinstripes Foundation Bowling Event was a huge hit and raised $6,000 for the Foundation and our community programs and initiatives.
Throughout the season, 72 community non-profits and animal shelters were featured at home games as a part of the Greater Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Family YMCA's Community Organization of the Game and Waggin' Wednesday program. The RailRiders also supported over 400 local area non-profit organization fundraisers, schools and charity benefits with in-kind ticket and memorabilia donations.
As part of the Copa de la Diversión initiative, the RailRiders hosted over 150 kids from the Hazleton Integration Project's Community Center and other Hazleton-based organizations on July 16. The special guests watched batting practice before the game and took part in an exclusive question and answer session in Spanish with infielder Thairo Estrada and coach Julio Borbon before gates open. Each child received free transportation to and from the game, free food vouchers, a free ticket and a Vejigantes-themed Roberto Clemente youth t-shirt.
A special thanks goes out to all the fans and partners who made 2019 a resounding success. As the 30th Anniversary Season ends, attention turns quickly to 2020. Opening Day is April 9 at PNC Field and the RailRiders are set to host the Triple-A All-Star Game on July 15. All the festivities surrounding the event are soon to be announced and tickets, both season memberships and All-Star week tickets, are available now.
Click here for 2020 ticket information.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.