“That’s three runs if he doesn’t come up with it, and we’re in deep, deep trouble.” — Red Barons manager Lee Elia
The date: Sept. 11, 1992
The place: Lackawanna County Stadium
The situation: For the first time ever, the Red Barons were in the playoffs, playing in front of hyped-up crowds on chilly September nights, riding an emotional wave.
And there were the Pawtucket Red Sox, hoping to make the fairy tale a short story.
One Red Baron, however, made Game 3 of the first-round series a game Scranton/Wilkes-Barre fans would talk about forever.
The lead-in: Until that week when the Red Barons and Red Sox clashed, they had never been close to the big-game atmosphere.
In their inaugural season in 1989, manager Bill Dancy’s Red Barons won just 64 games. They didn’t win better than 68 in either of their next two seasons, either.
But, 1992 didn’t promise to be like any of those first three seasons. The Phillies sent fiery, veteran manager Lee Elia to lead a veteran Red Barons team put together to supplement a younger Phillies roster they hoped was on the verge of contention.
Elia spent two seasons as manager of the Chicago Cubs in 1982 and 1983, posting a 127-158 record. But his signature moment during that tenure happened away form the field. After a loss to the Dodgers on April 29, 1983, a group of Cubs fans heckled Elia and the Cubs as they headed to the clubhouse at Wrigley Field. Elia’s response is widely considered one of the greatest rants in baseball history.
Elia joined the Phillies organization and took over for the fired John Felske 61 games into the 1987 season. Elia returned in 1988, with little success, going 65-96 before getting the axe with 11 games left.
He spent 1990 and 1991 managing at Class A Clearwater, but he entered 1992 a combined 90 games under .500 in his managerial career.
A year after Elia was fired from his big-league job and the year before he joined Clearwater, the Phillies used their 10th-round pick in the 1989 amateur draft to select Alabama outfielder Cary Williams, who’d go on to hit .261 for Elia’s Clearwater team in his first full season. But Williams was best known as a speedy defender.
In 1992, Williams opened the season with Elia and the Red Barons, his first foray into Triple-A, and he was a solid contributor for a team led by Greg Legg, Steve Stanicek, Steve Scarsone, Rick Schu and their dynamic closer, Jay Baller. The Red Barons, surprisingly, went 10-6 in April, and they were 11 games over .500 after June. After a solid July, they cruised to their first-ever International League East Division title, cruising past prospect-laden Pawtucket with a 20-8 finish.
Pushing themselves further, though, would require Williams to be the defensive factor the Phillies knew he’d be when they drafted him.
The moment: The Red Barons left Pawtucket even with the high-powered Red Sox, but the most memorable moment in that series, and arguably the greatest defensive play in franchise history, came at the most opportune time once the Red Barons returned home for Game 3.
In that nip-and-tuck tilt, the Red Barons went into the top of the eighth inning tied, 2-2.
Starting pitcher Mickey Weston, the Red Barons’ ace, tired as the game arched into the late hours. He started the eighth ominously, walking light-hitting middle infielder Jim Byrd.
Former Red Barons second baseman Tommy Barrett, the Pawtucket leadoff man, pushed Byrd to second with a sacrifice bunt. Veteran Mike Brumley then blooped a single to center, just in front of Williams. Byrd went to third, and the Red Barons were on notice. Runners on the corners, with just one out.
Elia did what he did so often late in 1992 in response to a tight, late-game conundrum. He went to the bullpen, calling in left-hander Wally Ritchie, who pitched to a 2.70 ERA in 15 games after being sent down by the Phillies.
Ritchie fanned the flames, initially. He walked Mike Twardoski, loading the bases. So, Pawtucket had two shots at the lead. The first one was a great one, with veteran switch-hitter John Shelby at the plate. A deep fly ball, or a well-placed grounder, and Shelby could get the run in even by making an out.
But Ritchie got, to that point, what was the biggest out of the 1992 season. He dropped a two-strike curveball over the inside corner, striking out Shelby looking.
Good news was, there were two out.
Bad news was, Phil Plantier was coming to the plate.
In 1991, the lefty slugger was one of the best prospects in the International League, posting a .905 OPS. But he spent most of the 1992 season struggling in Boston. The Red Sox sent him to Pawtucket to work on his swing in August, and he played 12 games there.
In them, he hit five home runs and knocked in 14 runs.
If there was any positive, it came in the fact that the Red Barons had the matchup they wanted. Their best lefty reliever against the man who was the best lefty slugger in the league the moment he walked back into it. In center field, Williams took a few steps toward the gap in left-center, shading Plantier away with the lefty on the mound. In right field, Jose Gonzalez played Plantier straightaway, shaded a few steps toward the first-base line.
The positioning would make what happened next even more memorable.
Plantier took a healthy cut at a Ritchie pitch, and the ball didn’t go toward left-center, or down the right field line. It was a drive to right-center, and almost immediately, one thing was clear: Gonzalez didn’t have a shot.
“My first reaction was to look at the rightfielder to see where he was,” Williams said. “Then, I just put my head down and ran.”
And ran. And ran. And ran.
Williams got such a good read on the ball, had such good wheels, that he almost came out of nowhere. Running full steam toward the wall, he got to the warning track at the same time the ball did. He leaped, reaching over his shoulder. He crashed into the wall just as the ball hit his glove, which hit the wall. And Cary Williams crumbled in a heap onto the warning track.
First base umpire Bob Long, on the dead run to right-center, stared in to see if the ball was rolling on the ground. Instead, he saw Williams lift his glove, that ball firmly in the pocket.
He signaled an out.
“I got it right on the fingertips and then made sure it wasn’t getting knocked out,” Williams said.
“That,” Pawtucket manager Rico Petrocelli added, “was the ballgame for us.”
And Lackawanna County Stadium was up for grabs.
Williams jogged home alongside a bewildered Gonzalez. Teammates had flooded out of the dugout to greet him, mobbing him for making a play that many who saw it would compare to the one Willie Mays made on Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. Only, Mays didn’t have to collide shoulder and arm first into an unpadded wall.
The crowd gave Williams a standing ovation as he ran from the outfield and into the dugout, and they kept it alive until he came out for a curtain call.
“What an amazing feeling,” he said. “It’s something words can’t describe.”
Before the game, Elia called Game 3 the most important one in Red Barons history to that point, and the Red Barons were somehow able to finish it off. They loaded the bases in the ninth with nobody out — with the help of a well-placed bunt by, you guessed it, Williams — and Pawtucket reliever Jeff Plympton hit Gonzalez with a fastball in the back to force in the winning run, Gonzalez raising his arms above his head, yelling to the crowd of more than 10,000 in celebration.
But afterward, the talk of the clubhouse was the moment that forever will be known as The Catch, and even a baseball lifer like Elia couldn’t downplay its brilliance.
“I’ll tell you Del,” he said in a postgame phone call to Phillies player development director Del Unser, “it was just unbelievable.”
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
The catch essentially was the end of two things.
One was the 1992 Pawtucket Red Sox. The Red Barons battered them, 10-6, in Game 4 to claim a series that really ended for Pawtucket when Plantier’s drive didn’t bring three runs home.
The other, sadly, was Williams’ career. In the collision with the wall, Williams suffered a broken wrist, and he really wasn’t the same player after that. He returned to play 78 games in 1993, but he hit just .216. He was sent to Double-A Reading in 1994 and was called up to play in just four games for the Red Barons that year. He hit below the Mendoza line in both stops, and he was out of affiliated ball after that season. But in the 30-year history of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre baseball, his catch, in that situation, on that night, in front of that crowd, at that time in the team’s history, has withstood the test of time. It’s still generally considered, by those who have been around the team since 1989, to be the greatest defensive play in franchise history.
That one play helped lead to not just the No. 6 moment on this list, but the No. 20 moment, as the Red Barons went on to play one of the most talked-about Governors Cup finals in history against the Columbus Clippers, losing the series on a dramatic ninth-inning rally in the fifth game by the Clippers.
In 2018, the RailRiders announced their coaching staff under new manager Bobby Mitchell, and the hitting coach was none other than Plantier, who had a 34-homer, 100-RBI season with San Diego in 1993 but has since gone on to become a respected teacher of the art of hitting.
Asked about that play 26 years earlier, Plantier insisted he didn’t remember much about it. But, he still remembered the impact it had on that team.
“I remember just missing it,” Plantier said at PNC Field, glancing over his shoulder out toward that gap. “I remember just missing a ball, hoping there was enough of a line to get it off the wall. I don’t remember who the center fielder out there was. But I remember seeing his back early. He made a great catch, and it kind of ended the inning and that was pretty much the difference-maker in that series.”