“He was on top of his game, and that was the bottom line.” — Red Barons infielder Greg Legg
The date: April 6, 1989
The place: Silver Stadium (Rochester, N.Y.)
The situation: Simply put, the actual baseball started here, in an ancient, cavernous stadium on Norton Street in Rochester. Professional baseball in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre had been gone for more than three decades at that point. Scranton hadn’t had a team since Smut Aderholt’s Miners went 51-100 and finished eighth in the Eastern League in 1953. The Wilkes-Barre Barons moved to Johnstown in midseason, on July 1, 1955, and that was it. Until April 6, 1989.
The lead-in: The dream started more than a decade earlier. A Scranton attorney named John McGee, the catalyst for professional baseball’s return to the region, began pushing for the purchase of a minor league team to play in a stadium that had not been built. In 1984, the group helped form to lead the push, Northeast Baseball Inc., asked Lackawanna County Commissioners to secure funding for their project, and the commissioners responded with a challenge: Prove there is local interest. Sell 2,000 season tickets by early 1985, and you’ll get your funding.
They sold 2,200, a lot of tickets for a team that didn’t exist, to play in a stadium that hadn’t been built.
The group purchased a Double-A franchise — Cleveland’s Double-A affiliate in Waterbury — but to make a long story (which we’ll discuss in more detail later in the series) short, the team wound up winning a fierce legal battle to purchase the Triple-A Maine Guides. The Philadelphia Phillies moved their Triple-A operation to Maine in 1987, with an eye on that franchise moving to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre down the road.
By 1989, that dream became a reality.
The moment: When a speedy 24-year-old outfielder named Kevin Bootay dug into the batters box face a hard-throwing, 22-year-old Rochester right-hander that afternoon at Silver Stadium, it showed local fans what minor-league baseball was all about.
Bootay, in the Red Barons’ road greys, was not just the first batter in Red Barons history, but a player looking to prove he belonged after five solid seasons in the Rangers organization didn’t net him a major league opportunity.
But Triple-A baseball is just as much about young talent, and outside of it being the official return of baseball to the region, this game gave local fans a look at that young Red Wings fireballer, who’d be around the game a while.
Curt Schilling dominated the Red Barons that afternoon.
He allowed just two hits over seven innings, and the only run the Red Barons managed their first time out came without the benefit of one of those hits. In the top of the sixth inning of a scoreless game, Matt Cimo worked a leadoff walk, and ninth batter Kenny Jackson sacrificed him to second. Schilling made a rare mistake after that, balking Cimo to third, and he’d score on a suicide squeeze bunt by second baseman Tommy Barrett that actually gave the Red Barons their first-ever lead.
But it was short-lived. Keith Hughes singled with one out in the bottom of the inning against Red Barons starter Gordon Dillard. Two batters later, Chris Padgett brought Hughes home with a sacrifice fly that tied the game. With Tim Hulett on third, right-hander John Martin relieved Dillard and, as chance would have it, balked. That allowed the go-ahead run to score, and Rochester went on to a 3-1 win.
“It was real important to come back right then,” Rochester manager Greg Biagini said of that sixth-inning rally. “They had gotten the momentum without any hits, and we had to make something happen right then.”
Still, it was a rare time in Red Barons history when the result didn’t matter much. A decade-plus of hope and planning and preparing led up to one game. And that one game set the stage for the next 30 years, and beyond.
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
The best future Phillie in the first game in Red Barons history turned out to be Rochester’s pitcher, of course.
Nearly three years after his 1989 Triple-A debut, the Houston Astros traded Schilling to the Phillies for another right-hander, Jason Grimsley. Grimsley became a serviceable middle reliever for many years in the big leagues, but Schilling became one of the game’s most dominant starters.
With the Phillies from 1992 through the middle of 2000, Schilling went 101-78 with a 3.35 ERA. He was the NLCS MVP for the Phillies during their gritty run to the league title in 1993, when he won 16 games. But, it wasn’t until after the Phillies traded Schilling to Arizona in 2000 that he’d go on to his biggest postseason successes.
Schilling became a central figure in two of the most intriguing postseasons in the last 20 years. In the 2001 World Series, he pitched the Arizona Diamondbacks past the Yankees in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, allowing just four runs on 12 hits in 21 1/3 innings over three starts against the Bronx Bombers, earning MVP honors in the series.
He is perhaps most famous for his work in Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, though. Pitching for the Boston Red Sox, a team still mired in the “Curse of the Bambino” era that fell three games to none behind the Yankees in the series, Schilling had the ball in Game 6 after the Sox rallied to win Games 4 and 5.
Dealing with a torn tendon sheath in his right ankle, a hobbled Schilling got shelled in Game 2. But Red Sox team doctor Bill Morgan famously performed a crude procedure to suture the loose tendon to Schilling’s skin, hoping it would enable him to pitch well in Game 6.
It did. Schilling pitched seven innings of one-run, four-hit ball, blood seeping through his white sock as he threw. The Red Sox won, 4-2, and went on to complete the improbable comeback that enabled them to win their first World Series title in 86 years.
No Red Barons who started in that game went on to long careers in the big leagues. But third baseman Greg Legg went on to become the only player in franchise history to have his number retired by the club. He met his wife, Noreen, at Lackawanna County Stadium a few weeks later, moved with her to Archbald and has become a longtime area resident. He is now the hitting coach for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
The first-ever game gave the Red Barons their first-ever loss, but while it did foreshadow a largely lean decade when it came to success, the franchise has won its share. That was game one, but the Red Barons/Yankees/RailRiders have played 4,310 since that one, winning 2,284.