It's the crowd sounds that players remember most vividly 10 years after they claimed a Pacific Coast League baseball championship. The constant, ear-shattering cheers of nervous spectators, the total silence of anticipation, then an explosion of exhilaration with the win.
But the old park where it all happened is quiet now, the minor leagues having abandoned the field for a newer venue. The grass is still green and the infield dirt neatly swept, but today the scoreboard is dark and the only sound is wind whistling through the bleachers.
A decade ago, on September 13, 1991, Hi Corbett stadium was packed with 9,000 anxious fans electric with excitement. The Tucson Toros were playing for their first PCL championship in the 23-year history of the franchise. It was the bottom of the ninth inning in the deciding game and the score was tied.
EVERY BASEBALL SEASON BEGINS WITH limitless optimism. Each team points to its strengths and avoids mentioning weaknesses. Hope runs rampant. Only the cold reality of future standings during the long haul of a six-month schedule can change that.
The Tucson Toros, the Triple-A affiliate of the Houston Astros, had a legitimate right to feel enthusiastic before the 1991 season began. Even though the team had won only two divisional titles since 1969, and was 0-5 in playoff games, feelings were upbeat when the club left spring training.
Twelve players from a team that had finished in second place the previous year were returning. These included home-run slugger Mike Simms; pitcher Terry Clark, coming off an 11-game winning streak in 1990; 29-year old José Tolentino, who had hit safely in 30 consecutive games the previous year; and three outfielders with major league experience: Eric Anthony, Gerald Young and Javier Ortiz.
New to the team were highly touted shortstop Andujar Cedeno and second baseman Andy Mota. Former University of Arizona basketball star Kenny Lofton, a 1988 17th-round draft pick of the Astros, would play center. With his speed, Lofton would patrol Hi Corbett's spacious outfield for the Toros after spending the previous season in Class A ball.
"We haven't got our final roster set yet, but I really like the players I know we're getting," Toros general manager Mike Feder told the Tucson Citizen before the season began. "We've got a great group of outfielders, plus several other top organization prospects. We should have an interesting team."
Toros manager Bob Skinner, in his third season with the club, said, "I feel we have a good shot at winning a lot of games. We have a lot of ability. It's going to be exciting."
THE TOROS WERE TO OPEN THE SEASON on April 11 against the defending league champion Dukes in Albuquerque. The first game was postponed because of high winds. A game later in the month against Colorado Springs was called off when it snowed.
After losing the opener 6-4 and then splitting their first 16 games, the Toros were a game behind the Dukes at the end of April. Even though third baseman Carlo Colombino was hitting well, the team continued to play .500 baseball well into May, including a 15-3 shellacking by the Phoenix Firebirds in which first baseman Tolentino took the mound in the ninth inning.
Frequent roster changes, a way of life in minor league baseball, began a week into the season. Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Calvin Schiraldi came to Tucson, replacing injured hurler Lee Tunnell. A few weeks later, Gerald Young was promoted to the majors, replaced in left field by Javier Ortiz.
Despite the lineup changes, by the end of May the Toros had gotten hot. They won six games in a row on the road, blew a 9-0 lead to lose one in Phoenix, then won four more. They still trailed first-place Albuquerque by two-and-a-half games, but the Dukes were coming to Tucson.
With the team playing well, the stands were packed and the Toros swept the visitors in a four-game series, moving into first place. At the conclusion of the last game, power-hitting outfielder Eric Anthony was called up to the Astros.
That move didn't slow the juggernaut. Before going on a road trip, the team won three of its next four, completing a 17-of-19 run of victories. When they returned home, they still had a one-and-a-half-game lead. By that time, local favorite Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes had rejoined the team, after being with Houston since the previous August. Sent up to the majors, however, were outfielder Ortiz and reliever Mike Capel.
The Toros continued to win and wrapped up the PCL's Southern Division first-half championship with a 6-3 victory over the Edmonton Trappers on June 17. They would complete the first half of the season with a 45-25 record. For the first time since 1980, the team would be in the September PCL playoffs.
BY WINNING 12 OF THEIR FIRST 20 games, the Toros began the second half of the season where they finished the first half, in first place. But frequent roster moves depleted the team of much of its power. Gone were Mike Simms, Andujar Cedeno, Scott Servais and Jose Tolentino, and wins became more elusive.
Also gone was pitcher Lee Tunnell, who in July signed a contract with a Japanese ball club. As replacements, the Toros had added pitchers Jeff Juden and Xaxier Hernandez and catcher Carl Nichols to the roster.
In his first start for the club, the 20-year-old, 6-foot-7-inch, 245-pound Juden pitched well, leaving in the sixth inning with a 4-1 advantage. But reliever Curt Schilling couldn't hold the lead.
Schilling wasn't the only future big-league star to play for or against the Toros 10 years ago. Kenny Lofton has had an outstanding career in the majors and in July of 1991, a Vancouver Canadian by the name of Sammy Sosa came to town. According to a newspaper account of one of Sosa's plate appearances, "[Sosa] hit a towering fly ball into left field that he thought he'd hit well enough for a home run. For a few moments, he stood there and watched it. But the wind, which was blowing in, kept the ball in the park for an out."
Also by late July, the team had surpassed its record of 238,029 in total attendance. They were on their way to attracting 317,347 fans, beating the old mark by a whopping 33 percent. Coaches, players and fans alike gave general manager Mike Feder, and the club's winning ways, credit for the impressive increase.
But the extra fans couldn't cheer the Toros on to more victories. They had again become a .500 ball club by July and would finish the second half of the season with a 34-36 record, well behind the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.
Despite the team's so-so performance during the second half, several players had exceptional offensive years. Infielder Dave Rhode led the club with a .372 batting average, followed by Eric Anthony's .336. Third baseman Gary Cooper drove in a club-leading 75 runs while clobbering 14 homers.
Because they were in last place, the Astros decided not to promote any of the Toros until after the playoffs. As Houston general manager Bill Wood optimistically put it, "We can afford to wait until the Toros are the Pacific Coast League champions."
The season's second half concluded with a 6-0 victory over the Sky Sox in Colorado Springs. Two of the players for the Toros by then were 27-year-old Joe Mikulik, an outfielder who had seen some service in Tucson each of the previous three seasons but spent most of his time in Double A ball, and young second baseman Trinidad Hubbard.
IT HAD BEEN 11 YEARS SINCE THE TUCSON Toros were in a PCL divisional playoff series. Staying in Colorado, the team could feel confident since they had a 14-11 season record against the Sky Sox, a power-hitting club that had a league-leading .297 batting average along with 119 home runs.
That confidence only grew when the Toros won the first playoff game in team history, a 4-1 victory. Pitchers Terry Clark and Mike Capel combined to hold the home team in check and outfielder Eric Anthony made an outstanding over-the-shoulder catch to save two runs in the fourth inning. Catcher John Massarelli proved the offensive spark with a two-out, bases-loaded triple in the ninth inning to win the game.
The next day, however, the team fell to Doug Jones and the Sky Sox, 7-2. Jones, a Tucson resident, pitched a five-hit complete game, the first one the longtime major-leaguer could remember since 1984.
Returning to Tucson for the final games of the series, the Toros won Game Three 9-2 behind the pitching of Jeff Juden and the hitting of Eric Anthony. The team was one win from its first PCL divisional series championship.
That victory came the next night, when Anthony hit a dramatic three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth to win the game 5-3. Facing the veteran Jones, Anthony knocked the ball so far that Mike Feder still remembers it. "It went over the fence, bounced through the parking lot onto the practice fields beyond right field. It was hit as far as you've ever seen."
HAVING WON A PLAYOFF GAME AND THEN a series for the first time in franchise history, the Toros faced the powerful, and confident, Calgary Cannons for the championship. While the Toros had whipped through the first half of the season but limped home during the second half, Calgary, the top farm club of the Seattle Mariners, had done the opposite, ending the season by winning its last four to finish 21 games above .500. They then swept Portland in the northern division playoffs.
There were a few hopeful signs for Tucson. The Toros had won seven of eight games against the Cannons during the season. Plus, their pitchers as a group had an earned run average almost one run lower than Calgary's.
But with the league's leading hitter in Rich Amaral, the runner-up in Pat Lennon, and nine players batting over .280, the Cannons were loaded with firepower. They were also sure of themselves. "They were making statements that they were a big-league team in minor-league uniforms," remembers Lofton, now center fielder for the Cleveland Indians.
According to The Arizona Daily Star, before the best-of-five championship series began, Calgary third baseman Mike Blowers boasted, "I don't think there's any doubt in my mind that we have the best ball club in the league. We have a big-league club. I don't think we can lose."
"I honestly don't think we can be stopped," added Calgary catcher Chris Howard. "I wouldn't bet against us."
That seemed a reasonable prediction after the Toros flew to Canada and got badly beaten twice. They lost the first game 14-4, with Toro pitching ace Terry Clark ineffective and Calgary starter Dave Fleming holding the visitors in check. "That was an ugly game, wasn't it?" manager Bob Skinner said. "We'll get that stuff out of our system. It was just one of those days. Once in a while that happens."
The next game was only a little better as Dennis Powell pitched a five-hit, 4-1 complete-game victory for the Cannons. Afterward, Skinner denied his team was flat for the series. "The only thing I could detect that was a problem [tonight] was Powell."
Despite the two loses, the Toros weren't conceding the championship. "After the first two games in Calgary, the mood among some people on the plane back to Tucson was the series might be over," recalls former Tucson radio play-by-play announcer Mario Impemba. "But the team wasn't buying it."
LONGTIME TORO GENERAL MANAGER MIKE Feder reflected on those loses recently. "We got our rear ends kicked all over the field in the first two games in Calgary. Back in Tucson, Bob Skinner told the team before the next game, 'Just win one tonight.'"
"I remember Calgary being very cocky, especially after the first two games," remembers Lofton.
So cocky that on the clubhouse blackboard space designated for the Game Four pitcher, Cannon manager Keith Bodie had scribbled, "Have a nice off season." The Toros answered by boldly proclaiming, "BOOK IT!! THERE WILL BE A GAME FOUR!!"
Jeff Juden, affectionately known as "The Big Donkey," ensured that when he allowed only five hits in eight innings and the Toros won Game Three 7-1 before 2,900 fans. The team wasn't using any of the typical minor-league promotions to attract people: giveaways, contests or costumed comic characters. This was strictly baseball for those who enjoyed the game.
Despite the loss, the Cannons continued with their outwardly confident attitude. "Before the fourth game, Keith Bodie was starting to get uptight and asked us to set up a celebration party, which we did," remembers Feder. Retaliating, Toro manager Bob Skinner announced the planned party to his club.
But the iced champagne would remain corked as 3,000 Tucson fans turned out to watch a pitching duel. Calgary again managed only five hits against starter and 10-game winner Butch Henry, and then closer Mike Capel, who was nicknamed "Gamer." The Toros, however, collected only one more. But it was just enough as they won 2-1, surviving a last-minute scare when Cannon third baseman Mike Blowers hit a long 400-foot fly ball out with two away in the ninth inning.
The series was tied at two games apiece, and the championship would be decided by one game. "We definitely have the momentum," Toro reliever Capel said then. "The pressure is on them now."
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 1991 WAS A beautiful day. The high temperature was only 92 degrees and the air was crisp and dry. Good seats for the final game were still available in mid-afternoon. "It was a storybook final game," recalls Feder. "We had perfect weather. I didn't know what to expect crowd-wise. But Hi Corbett was like a sardine can."
An hour before game time, there was gridlock on the streets leading into the stadium as Tucson turned out to watch, and pray, for its first Triple A championship. Nine thousand people got into Hi Corbett, and Feder believes he might have sold 30,000 tickets if the seats had been available.
By the early innings, almost all the food was gone. There were no hot dogs, no beer, nor much of anything else available. But no one noticed, because the atmosphere in the park was tense, and growing tenser as the game went on.
Calgary scored a run in the second inning and Tucson star pitcher Terry Clark, who had finished the regular season with a 14-7 record, was struggling. The visitors plated another in the fourth, but the Toros got a run across in the bottom of the inning against surprise Cannon starter Dennis Powell. "Calgary was going to start Dave Fleming, but for some reason the Mariners vetoed that idea," Tucson pitching coach Brent Strom recalls. "So they had to pitch Dennis Powell on two days rest."
The Cannons came right back to score another run in the fifth. But the Toros tied it in their half of the inning when both Kenny Lofton and Joe Mikulik crossed the plate.
That was the way it stayed through the sixth, seventh, eighth, and top of the ninth.
Both teams had brought in relief pitchers who shut down the opposition. Toro pitcher Matt Turner struck out five of the eight batters he faced. His counterparts, Randy Kramer and Shawn Barton, also kept the Toros in check.
For the 10 o'clock sports news, all three local stations went live with the game. Two of them would continue their coverage until the final pitch.
With one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Toros having turned their hats inside out to serve as "Rally Caps" for only the second time during the entire season, shortstop Doug Baker hit an infield grounder that was misplayed. He was then replaced by fleet-footed Trinidad Hubbard. Kenny Lofton hit one to first, but instead of turning a double play, the ball was bobbled and both runners were safe. That brought to the plate Joe Mikulik, a late-season addition to the team who had written "NEVER SURRENDER" on his wristbands.
With the crowd on its feet, screaming for a victory, Mikulik had a strike on him when he drove a ball, but foul. Then he got one he could hit. "The fan support was outstanding the night of the final game," remember Mikulik. "But when I was at the plate that last time, I couldn't hear any of them. I was trying to get the job done because there were two strikes. Once the ball left the bat, I had a feeling Trinidad Hubbard would score."
The ball flew into right field, and Hubbard was quickly rounding third and heading for home. With 9,000 people all on their feet, he slid across the plate, safe. "I knew I had to score," he said a few months ago while in town playing for the Triple A Omaha Golden Spikes. "Clutch-hitting Joe Mikulik was up and all I was thinking about was grabbing the plate out of the ground. It was a wonderful feeling when I did. Once I touched the plate, it got real quiet, like in the movies. Then the place exploded with screaming."
ARIZONA DAILY STAR SPORTS COLUMNIST Greg Hansen wrote the next day, "It was the Game for the Ages in a city that for 23 years identified its pro baseball franchise by failure ... now Tucsonans have their own magic memory of baseball."
So the Tucson Toros, after more than two decades of frustration, had finally won a Pacific Coast League championship. The memories of that season, and the final game, are still fresh in the minds of those who were a part of it.
Joe Mikulik, who this past season managed the Asheville Tourists, a North Carolina Class A team in the Colorado Rockies organization, said right after his winning hit, "I don't know what it's like in the [major leagues], but if it's better than this ... wow."
Ten years later, the last game is "still vivid," he says. "It was probably the biggest highlight in Hi Corbett history."
During his final at-bat, Mikulik says he was relaxed, more relaxed than now as a manager. He even used Running with the Toros, the video made after the 1991 season, as inspiration for his team earlier this year.
"I remember my teammates and everyone pulling together," he says. "You don't forget your teammates and you never forget the good times and great memories. It was a great thrill. I was in the right place at the right time."
Broadcaster Mario Impemba, now an announcer for the Anaheim Angels, says simply the finish to the last game "was probably the most electrifying thing I had seen in baseball to that point."
"It was a magical season," says former Toro general manager Mike Feder, now director of regional sales and marketing for the New Orleans Saints. "Bob Skinner was a class act with patience and guidance. We probably weren't the best team that year, but we won the championship, which happens often in athletics. The last game was one of the most special moments in my 27 years in minor-league baseball and one of the best moments in Tucson baseball history."
Brent Strom, the Toros' 1991 pitching coach and now a private hurling instructor, remembers reading in the newspaper that the Cannons thought they would beat the Toros badly and that after two games they considered the series wrapped up. He gives Skinner a lot of credit. "Bob Skinner was a very low-key, even-handed manager with a sense of professionalism."
Skinner, now a scout for the Houston Astros, takes no credit for himself. "We had a great season," he says. "The team was really down in the playoffs and I remember them fighting back. The guys never gave up right to the final game, and that showed the character of the team. I had a lot of confidence in the players.
"Mike Feder got fans into the stands," Skinner adds. "The fans came out and that helped the players. It was a real fulfilling year for the Houston organization with the Toros winning the Triple A championship. It made me very happy."
Trinidad Hubbard, who spent much of the past decade in the major leagues, smiles broadly at his memories of 10 years ago. "The team was powerful and the chemistry great," he says. "We had a great manager and there was tremendous heart on that team. I was an up-and-coming player, so I was excited about being a part of it. Eric Anthony, José Tolentino and others were awesome, and the team had tremendous talent. The people in Tucson seemed really excited about what was happening that season. The legacy of the Toros lives on!"