From Chapter 3:

1966-1970: Prosperity, and Finally, A Pennant


The early line on the team was reminiscent of past years — the main concern would be pitching. No one expected any problems with the offense. In fact there was talk of potentially the most explosive Red Wing squad in years. Several of Baltimore's prime prospects had finally reached the Triple-A level, most notably 21-year-old second baseman Bobby Grich, and outfielders Roger Freed and Don Baylor. Another youngster, catcher Johnny “Quaker” Oates, was expected to be the Wings' regular receiver, but received news in April that he was to serve his six-month active military duty assignment that summer.

Three veterans were added to fill key positions. Perennial prospect Tommy Shopay, who had been with Syracuse for the previous three seasons and seen time with the Yankees, was picked up by Baltimore for $25,000 in the major league draft. The 5-9 speedster was tabbed to bat leadoff and play left field. Bobby Floyd had spent the last two years as a utility infielder for the Orioles, but was sent down to be the Wings' regular shortstop. In the absence of Oates, 34-year-old Jim Schaffer was picked up in the spring from the Dodgers’ Spokane affiliate, where he hit .303 in 1969 and was named Triple-A’s finest catcher.

Holdovers Mike Ferraro and Elijah Johnson anchored the infield, which pre-season talk touted as the possibly the league’s finest defensive unit. Along with Floyd, the infield had a decidedly veteran look. The one rookie, Grich, was eyed as a “future star.” Although making the shift from shortstop, he was already a sure-handed pivot man at second base. There was little doubt as to his bat after his .310, 2, 50 season at Double-A. With the middle infield talent, Ron Shelton and Art Miranda could do no better than utility roles.

The other two “can’t-miss” prospects were in the outfield. Baylor (.300, 11, 57, with 11 triples and 19 stolen bases) and Freed (.298, 22, 90) both dominated Double-A pitching the previous year. Center field belonged to Baylor, who most felt needed only to improve his arm strength in order to be a superstar for the Orioles. The hulking Freed was in the mold of prototypical power hitters, and owned an excellent throwing arm. In left was the speedy Shopay (.256, 25 steals in 65 games with Syracuse), who would give the team perhaps the league’s best leadoff hitter. So much confidence was placed in the trio that the team traded popular Billy Scripture and started the year with no backup fly-chaser.

Late cuts from Baltimore eased some of the concerns about the pitching. The additions of Fred Beene, Mike Adamson, Frank Bertaina and Al Severinson bolstered the staff. Beene, Adamson and Bertaina were joined the rotation by promising rookies John Montague and Bill Kirkpatrick. The right-handed Montague, 22, was on the organization’s fast track, making the jump from Single-A Miami, where he was 12-8. Kirkpatrick was the league MVP for Single-A Stockton, going 16-6, 1.96 and leading the circuit in wins and ERA. Severinson was the stopper for the balanced bullpen, which saw familiar faces in Gerry Schoen and Rick Delgado. The newcomers included Mickey Scott, a southpaw curver from Syracuse acquired for Mickey McGuire, and Ed Maras, an ex-first baseman who went 15-5 between Stockton and Dallas/Ft. Worth. Helping catcher Schaffer handle the staff was George Farson.

The youth and transition in Rochester was not mirrored by the IL itself. For only the fourth time in the past 11 years, all of the league’s cities returned. Not returning was the designated hitter rule, shelved after one season.

The season opened on April 18 in Columbus. Floyd was absent on military duty, and the Wings expected to do without Johnson, who suffered a hairline fracture in late spring. Yet the first baseman gamely taped the injured ankle and was in the starting lineup. Freed had an impressive start, slamming two home runs; nonetheless the 6-0 victory was bittersweet. Staff ace Beene was lost for at least a month when, three outs from a shutout, a ninth-inning line drive broke his right leg.

The team opened quickly, winning five of six on the road and the 6’, 210-lb. Freed continued to awe observers with his power. Rochester fans were quickly reminded that he once hit a 520-ft. homer in high school, as well as a shot estimated at 580 feet in junior college.

The team did not disappoint in its home opener, burying Columbus 16-9 in front of 8,566. The Wings, already leading the IL in almost every offensive category, slammed 19 hits, the crucial stroke a seventh-inning grand slam by Ferraro. A new look for the team were the home uniforms, which had major changes for the first time in a number of years. The austere whites featured a block "R" on the left breast, with no other trim or markings other than the back uniform number. The plain design harkened back to similar look featured on the road uniforms of the early ’40s. The Wings did continue with the dark blue cap, featuring the familiar double-winged ball.

Subsequent triumphs of 11-5, 10-1, and 9-2 gave the Wings nine wins in 10 starts and no doubt convinced the Red Wing faithful that a pennant was in the cards for 1970. But that was quickly followed by a five-game losing streak, setting the pattern for the year. The combination of the explosive offense, pared with shaky pitching, would keep Wings' fans on the edge of their seats. A May 11 home game vs. Richmond proved a prime example: leading 2-1 going into the eighth inning, Rochester pitchers gave up four in the eight and two in the ninth, and the Wings found themselves trailing 7-4 going into their final at-bat. After two quick outs, Shopay hit what appeared to be the game-ending grounder right at the Brave second baseman. The ball took a bad hop and carried into right field. Grich ran the count to 3-2 before doubling to right. Baylor followed with a single which scored Shopay, and a Freed one-base hit made it 7-6. With men at the corners Johnson hit his second home run of the game to give Rochester a 9-7 victory.

Mother Nature intervened in May, and in one stretch the Wings had nine games in 14 days rained out. Despite the inclement weather, nothing could cool the Rochester bats. Six regular were well over .300 and Freed and Johnson were among the league leaders in average, homers and RBI. Hitting .305 as a team, the Red Wings rode a 10-7 win over the Buffalo Bisons on May 18 back into first place. The next night saw the "Norton Street Massacre," as the Wings rapped out 29 hits and pummeled the last place Bisons by the softball-like score of 27-4. Shopay hit for the cycle (single, double, triple, home run), while Grich had three home runs and drove in seven.

Pitching continued to be a concern and the Wings acquired a pair of hurlers, Vaughn Kovach and Jack Fisher. Fisher, a veteran of 10 years in the majors, was picked up after being cut by the Angels. He had celebrity status of sorts, for surrendering both Ted Williams’ final home run, as well as Roger Maris’ 60th round-tripper in 1961. Back-up outfielder Frank Vanzin was also added, with Ron Shelton sent to Dallas.

A late-May streak of six wins in a row pushed to Wings to 20-9, and as long as Manager Ripken could write in the starting line-up of Shopay, Grich, Baylor, Freed, Johnson, Ferraro, Floyd and Schaffer it seemed that it mattered little who he put on the mound. Shopay had quickly become a crowd favorite. He was leading the league by a large margin in stolen bases and the cries of “go” resounded through Silver whenever he was on first. Yet the Wings went off on another losing streak. Included in the seven-game skid was the loss of Floyd to the Orioles, with Enzo Hernandez called up from Dallas-Ft. Worth to fill the void. The team fared no better at Silver, as early June saw it lose eight of nine on Norton Street and plummet to fourth place.

Hernandez filled in admirably for Floyd, and improved pitching helped right the ship. On June 6 Bertaina retired the first 20 Columbus Jets before allowing a triple, the only baserunner of the game. He struck out 14 in that game. As expected, Severinson was the rock in the bullpen, topping the league with 13 saves. The month saw more attempts to bolster the pitching staff, as Triple-A hurlers Buzz Stephen, Richard Baney and Larry Staab were all acquired by the Orioles and sent to the Wings. They were needed because starters Kirkpatrick and Bertaina were scheduled for two weeks of military duty during the summer. Added as well was former Washington outfielder Hank Allen, who initially balked at reporting.

June was also noted for the loss of the Wings’ closest rivals. The facade of IL stability was shattered when the Buffalo Bisons’ franchise was revoked by the league. Average attendance was a paltry 700 in the expansive and ill-suited-for-baseball War Memorial Stadium, and the club had been rebuffed by school officials in its attempt to use a high school facility. Ownership of a provisional franchise was awarded to the Montreal Expos, who put meaning back into the international part of the league moniker by placing the team in Winnipeg. The last place Whips visited Rochester in mid-June, but new uniforms had yet to be attained, and the visitors still wore their Bisons’ trappings. When the Wings visited the Whips later in the month, the two teams played in Montreal, at the parent club’s Jarry Park. The sudden move had left some dates unavailable at Winnipeg Stadium.

The pennant race appeared to be shaping up as a four-team affair between Rochester, Syracuse, Richmond and Tidewater. The Red Wings topped all by having four players selected as starters on the league's all-star team, announced in late June. Ferraro (.327, 5, 29) made it three consecutive selections at third base; joining him in the infield were Grich (.362, 7, 36) and Johnson (.296, 11, 55), a co-pick at first base. Freed (.360, 13, 63) was selected as a starter in the outfield, while Bertaina (6-2, 3.45) filled a spot on the pitching staff. It was the first time in over 50 years that the Wings had as many as five players selected — and outfielders Baylor and Shopay (29 steals) had legitimate complains about being left off (Baylor was subsequently added).

The team had a lift on June 24 when Freddie Beene returned to the mound from his injury and won his first game. His comeback was counter-balanced by the retirement of Jack Fisher (4-4, 4.13) Dejected about his chances to return to the majors, he went back to his Long Island home and called it a career. Less than a week later Grich was recalled. Wings’ fans were told the recall might be only for a couple of weeks, but was more likely to be permanent. Added in his absence was infielder Jack Tracy. At the time, the team stood in second place at 40-28, 5 1/2 games behind Syracuse.

Despite the losses, the Red Wings went off on another win streak, this time 17 of 23. The surge was keyed by continued solid pitching, most notably by Beene and put the team within three games of first. However the absences of Grich and Floyd cost Ripken the luxury of a set lineup. He had to move Shopay to center field and Baylor to left, to cover for Baylor's below-average arm. Second base became a problem, as a series of players, including Tracy, Allen, and Ron Shelton tried to fill in. A subsequent injury to Ferraro gave the Wings an makeshift infield of Miranda (3B), Hernandez (SS), Allen (2B) and Johnson (1B).

The second half of July was a disaster. The troubles began when Freed issued a number of complaints on how the team was being run. He wanted to know why the club didn’t have a chartered plane and wondered how long the team could continue to play well when the players were exhausted from travel. After a meeting with Ripken and Turner he apologized. The Wings’ GM called the slugging right fielder “the hardest working player on the club” and attributed the remarks to “a bad game.”

The bullpen continued as the weak link and worsened when Severinson went down with sore back. None of the remaining relievers had a ERA under 4.50. The overall situation failed to improve, as within the space of three days, Beene was lost to recall and Shopay to injury. Caught in a run-down, the league's stolen base leader (36) twisted and broke his right ankle. Hitting .315 at the time and the recipient of several fan awards for most popular player, Shopay hoped to be back in four or five weeks. Equally-diminutive center fielder Richie Coggins was called up as a replacement from Dallas-Ft. Worth, where he was hitting .275.

The losses started the Wings on another reverse slide, this time losing 12 of 14, including seven in a row at Norton Street. Syracuse was running away with the pennant race, and Rochester found itself in a battle for the remaining three playoff slots with Tidewater, Richmond, and a resurgent Columbus squad. The roller coaster season continued, as a victory surge of five in a row, and 13 of 18 kept the Wings in the playoff hunt. Beene returned, but Bertaina, who was out of options and couldn’t be recalled by Baltimore without being put on waivers, was purchased by St. Louis. Delgado and Staab were shifted to the rotation and Baltimore purchased reliever Steve Jones from Omaha.

A couple of long-time off-the-field contributors were honored by the Red Wings during August home games. Times-Union baseball writer Al Weber, in his fourth decade of covering the team, had a night early in the month. A few evenings later, 75-year-old ticket seller Bill Erbacker was noted for his 50th year with the club.

Richmond faded, and the Wings built a healthy margin over fourth place Tidewater. But Syracuse was well out of reach and after being officially eliminated from pennant contention, Rochester went into a tailspin. Six consecutive losses dropped the Wings back into a tie for third with Tidewater. Both teams had already clinched a playoff spot, but post-season positioning was at stake.

Rochester went into the last day of the season a game up on the Tides, but, in an unusual circumstance, playoff opponents had already been determined. A coin flip had already been held in case the two clubs finished the season tied, with the choice going to Tidewater. Despite a chance to finish third, the Tides chose first place Syracuse as their opening adversary, showing a healthy respect for runner-up Columbus. The Jets had thrown a big scare into the Chiefs, winning 19 of 22 down the stretch to threaten Syracuse’s seemingly insurmountable lead. Rochester captured its final game to finish the season at 76-64, in third place, eight games distant of Syracuse.

Beene was on the mound for the Wings as the best-of-five series opened in Columbus, where the home team had won seven of 10 against Rochester. In a bizarre late-season move, the Columbus Youth Foundation board of trustees, which ran the club, voted to shut down operations after the season ended. In front of a mere 784 fans, the Wings won the opener 6-3. Beene had a no-hitter through five, but lost his edge after a 38-minute rain delay. A three-run homer by Freed in the first gave the Wings a lead they would not relinquish, although the Jets rallied for three in the bottom of the ninth, and had the tying run at the plate when Severinson struck out the final batter.

The Wings lost Game Two 9-3, after carrying a 2-0 lead into the middle frames. The squad was satisfied with the split, however, as the Jets looked further decimated after the loss of their two top hitters to the parent Pittsburgh Pirates. The Wings figured to close out the series at home, where they won nine of 10 against Columbus during the regular season.

A delayed and re-routed plane flight put a fatigued Jets' squad on the field 40 minutes before game time, but it was the Wings that looked as if they were hit by jet lag. Faced with elimination, Columbus took the contest 10-1. For Game Four, Ripken employed a move he pondered before the series, pitching Beene on two days’ rest. The strategy almost backfired. Beene gave up eight hits and four runs in five innings and the Wings found themselves down 6-2 in the seventh. With two men on, Freed greeted a Jet reliever with a three-run home run; four batters later and two runs later Hernandez's base-loaded one-hopper through the hole at short clinched the 10-6 Rochester victory. Freed added a insurance solo shot in the eighth inning, setting the stage for the deciding fifth game at Silver.

Ripken had only Dick Baney (4-4 on the year) to turn to for the decisive contest, while Columbus went with ace Denny Ribant (14-10). Despite the apparent mismatch, Baney gave up only five hits through seven-plus innings, his best performance of the year, and the Wings took what seemed to be a secure 4-0 lead in the eighth. However the Jets rallied for two in that inning, and shocked the home crowd by roughing up relief ace Severinson for three in the top of the ninth to take a one-run lead. With the heart of the order up for the chance to tie, Baylor and Freed struck out to end the game, the series, and the Wings' season.

Despite the disappointing finish, it had been a year of incredible offensive performances. Baylor led the International League in games (140) runs (127), doubles (34), triples (15), and added 22 homers, 107 RBI and 26 stolen bases to his .327 average. Freed, the league’s Rookie of the Year and co-MVP, led the league with 130 RBI — the most in two decades — and hits (168), while depositing 24 balls over league fences and hitting .334. His average would have stood up for a batting championship had Ralph Garr of Richmond not gone over the required number of at-bats during the season's final days. (Garr also swiped the stolen base title from the sidelined Shopay, notching 38 to win by two.) In January, Freed was named the Minor League Player of the Year by the Baseball Writers of America. Baylor earlier won the same award from The Sporting News.

Elijah Johnson cooled over the second half, but still posted strong numbers: .271, 20, 104. He, Baylor and Freed all topped the 100-RBI mark. Ferraro finished four points over .300 and added 70 RBI. Grich (.383, 9, 42) was phenomenal in his half-season and wasn’t expected to again be seen in a Rochester uniform.

Fred Beene came back strong after his injury, winning nine of 12 decisions and recording a fine 3.20 ERA. Yet after he and Bertaina (12 wins), the rest of the starters were sub-.500 pitchers: John Montague (6-9, 4.92), Bill Kirkpatrick (7-9, 4.50) and Mike Adamson (4-5, 4.36), the latter having spent much of the last half as a reliever. Al Severinson notched 22 saves and was the lone bright spot in the bullpen, which all year had been the team’s achilles heel. After the final loss, which exemplified the season, Baylor said, “We have to be honest about it. Our relief pitchers just didn’t hold up. It was that way all along.” Catcher Jim Schaffer, whose model professionalism and “exceptional” handling of the staff made him a standout performer, said, “losing Grich hurt, losing Shopay hurt, losing Floyd, Bertaina and Fisher did, too, but I really think the thing which hurt us most was opening day when we lost Beene. If we had had him to go every four or five days I don’t think anybody would have beaten us.”

Another school of thought held the Floyd recall to have been the most damaging loss. It was the first link taken out of Ripken’s original eight-man lineup, one that had enough offensive punch and defensive prowess to be competitive behind any pitcher. In the spring and early summer, some fans had been touting the team as the best in Red Wing history. It had fallen well short of that, and there was speculation that manager Cal Ripken would not return.

Business results were mixed as well. Paid attendance topped 300,000 (306,518) for only the second time since 1950, and the club had record gate revenue of $402,186. But the net profit of $39,436 was accomplished by auxiliary income: radio, concessions, advertising and program sales. “It is becoming evident that the days when gate admission would support a club are past,” said General Manager Bob Turner. “We are in an especially difficult situation because we are the only team in the league to own our own stadium. Maintenance costs are high, so whatever we put into the stadium reflects greatly on our financial position.” Despite the fifth straight year of profits and first upward swing since 1966, ticket prices were raised to $2.75 for box seats and $2.25 for those in reserved section, while general admission held steady at $1.50.

Shortly after the season ended came a not-entirely unexpected, but still surprising, announcement out of Baltimore and Rochester. Manager Cal Ripken was switching places with the manager of the Double-A Dallas-Ft. Worth Spurs — the popular and familiar Joseph S. Altobelli. It was, as GM Turner stated, a change arrived at “by mutual agreement of the Orioles and Red Wings.” For Ripken, with whom the fans never warmed after the colorful Weaver and Rochesterian DeMars, it was a demotion, despite the claim by the Orioles’ director of player development that it should not be considered as such. Other observers felt that the fiery Ripken — “liked by some, despised by others” — was better at teaching young players than winning games. Yet in fairness, at least over the previous season, he had been greatly hampered by the loss of players to injury and recall.

After a 4 1/2-year absence, Altobelli was coming home, the second city resident in the past four seasons to manage Rochester’s beloved baseball club. When asked how he felt about the development, he responded: “Happy. Rochester is the best AAA town in baseball."

Copyright © 1997 Brian A. Bennett. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system - except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a magazine or newspaper - without permission in writing from the publisher. For information, please contact Triphammer Publishing, P.O. Box 45, Scottsville, NY 14546-0045.