David Newhan still remembers the 1998 Southern League championship season in Mobile well, recalling names of future Major Leaguers like Ben Davis, Rodrigo Lopez and Gary Matthews Jr. from an impressive team that captured the first of four titles for the BayBears.
Newhan, the starting second baseman for what was then the Double-A affiliate of the Padres (Mobile is now an Angels affiliate), said that team was certainly special.
"We had great pitching and a really tough lineup, 1-9," Newhan said. "It was a tough lineup for teams to get through. We had great leadership with our manager in Mike Ramsey, and we all enjoyed being around each other. It was a fun time."
Newhan joined Mobile this year as manager, leading the team in its farewell season. The franchise is headed up Interstate 65 to Huntsville, where it will become the Rocket City Trash Pandas for 2020. As the campaign winds down, he'll tell you it's been enjoyable managing the team he once played for, even if the success he hoped for hasn't materialized. The BayBears are 46-78, including a 19-37 record in the second half.
The story was much different for Newhan 21 years ago. He played on a team that won 86 games and lost just one playoff game on its road to a title.
"We had a blast in 1998. We cruised through the playoffs," Newhan said.
Just over 271,000 fans attended games at Hank Aaron Stadium that season, the average attendance hovering at 3,871. The average this year is 1,590.
"Unfortunately, the fan base has dissipated, but the fans we do have at games have been great," Newhan said. "This is a great baseball town with a great history, including Hank Aaron playing here. It's unfortunate it's going away, but maybe baseball comes back here five to 10 years down the road. You never know."
2019 MiLB include
For now, Newhan is enjoying the opportunity to manage players who all one day dream of playing at the big league level. Newhan was once one of those players and made the dream come true, playing eight seasons for five different teams.
"This is a fun level to be at," Newhan said. "I enjoy building relationships with the players, trying to get the best out of the guys, get them to give 100 percent every day. You want them to learn from failure and teach them how to be a pro on and off the field."
In that regard, helping players learn to deal with the ups and downs of the game is one of his main focal points.
"You can't get too up or too down," Newhan said. "Regardless of if it's a good or bad performance, the sun always comes up the next day. You have to prove yourself every day and give it everything you have. That might be the sixth tool, the ability to stay even keel."
Newhan can relate to the journey these players are on. He was on it himself 21 years ago while with the BayBears, hitting .261 with 12 home runs in 121 games.
"It gives me credibility with the kids. I've seen it and experienced it at the Major League level," Newhan said. "I've seen it as an assistant with the Tigers, too, being around players like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Seeing their excellence, you can pass that on to the guys here and let them know what it takes to get there."
Newhan hopes to one day be a manager in the Majors. That's his goal. But as this season inches closer to the finish line, he struggled to describe the feeling he'll have on the final game in Mobile on Sept. 2, when he walks out of the park where he's made so many memories starting two decades ago.
"We're just taking it one day at a time, but everyone sees the light at the end of the tunnel," Newhan said. "For some, I wouldn't say emotional -- I can't quite grab the word. There will be more to it than for others in that final game. It's been a fun year here, but I'm on to something bigger and better."
Home run central: The 2019 Pensacola club has already set the franchise record for home runs in a season at 117, 10 more than the previous mark. The Blue Wahoos broke the record in a 13-0 win over Chattanooga last Thursday. Pensacola ranks second in the league in homers, and Travis Blankenhorn leads the team with 17.
Call it a comeback: Jackson overcame a four-run deficit against Tennessee on Tuesday to pick up a 6-5 victory at home. The comeback was the 27th of the season for the Generals, who also improved to 56-8 when scoring four or more runs in a game. They are 71-53 overall on the year. A three-run shot by Ramon Hernandez was the difference, catapulting Jackson in front for good at 5-4 in the fifth inning. The Generals rank second in the league in runs scored (563) this season.