One point you have to realize about the Colorado Springs Sky Sox: Nobody in their dugout is losing sleep because the franchise hasn't made it to the Pacific Coast League playoffs since the 1990s.
The team is trying to win every night, and the office staff does all in its power to make sure the fans have a memorable experience every time they come to Security Service Field.
Certainly, the constant marketing effort to lure people to the ballpark might benefit from some fresh postseason success. Last year the Sox came painfully close, leading their division throughout the season until losing three of the last four at Tacoma and missing the playoffs only by a tiebreaker.
But now the Sky Sox are battling through the 13th summer since their last postseason berth — they were swept by Portland in 1997, despite having a team that included the likes of Todd Helton, Craig Counsell (before he was traded and scored the winning run in Game 7 of the World Series that year for Florida), Jason Bates, Curtis Leskanic and John Thomson. It's been nearly 15 years since they've won a playoff game, when they beat Salt Lake on a magical September night here in 1995 to wrap up their last PCL championship.
But then you go to a game at the place originally known as Sky Sox Stadium, and you realize it's OK. On Monday night, June 21, I watched as the Sox played against Las Vegas. A day earlier, a season-best crowd of 7,700-plus had cheered Colorado Springs to a Father's Day victory. But this was back to normal, about 2,800 in the stands on a warm, calm, perfect summer evening.
We saw some very familiar faces, players who already have had much exposure in the major leagues. Greg Smith, who started the Rockies' second game this season before later sliding out of the rotation, was the Sox' starting pitcher. Out in center field was Dexter Fowler, who had hit for the cycle (single, double, triple and homer) the day before, prompting the Denver Post to send a reporter down for a pregame story on the player who was a fixture in Colorado's outfield last year. Kaz Matsui, the second baseman who played a pivotal role in the Rockies' 2007 World Series run, was continuing his quest (after being waived by Houston earlier this year) to make it back to the big show. And also in the outfield, 37-year-old veteran Jay Payton was hustling everywhere, making plays defensively and turning a double into a triple.
In the stands, because it was an off day for the Rockies before they hosted Boston in an interleague series, Colorado bench coach Tom Runnells was taking it all in and making notes. (Runnells was managing the Sox last year until moving up after Jim Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle as manager.)
But on this night, the surprise star attraction was none other than Ubaldo Jiménez, who pitched for the Sky Sox in 2006 and 2007 en route to becoming baseball's most dominant pitcher this year (14-1 with a no-hitter). Unannounced, Jiménez sat down on the main concourse and signed autographs for all comers. Nobody asked him to be here, which made the moment even more priceless.
You see all that, and you remember that minor-league baseball in Colorado Springs shouldn't be measured by the standings. Oh sure, the Sky Sox are long overdue to make a late-season run and create some September drama again. But the success of this franchise is more about the players, managers and coaches who have spent time here, just an hour away from Coors Field.
With the Rockies in contention once again, that gives the Sky Sox all the motivation they need. Fowler, after hitting .340 during his stay, was recalled Tuesday by the Rockies. Matsui and others might be just a two-week hot streak away from going back to Denver. Already, the Sox have sent infielders Jonathan Herrera and Chris Nelson to fill injury holes for the Rockies, catcher Paul Phillips has been back and forth, and pitcher Jhoulys Chacín has built on his experience up the road after a fast start in the Springs.
That's what Triple-A teams are meant to do. Playoffs or no playoffs.
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