From Chapter 5:

1977-1982: Front Office Follies


Both Rochester and Baltimore were determined to see that 1979 was not repeated. At the December winter baseball meetings the Wings were the most active minor league team in the market. In the space of four days and three deals the Orioles acquired power-hitting outfielder John Valle, smooth-fielding second baseman Lenn Sakata, and catcher Dan Graham for Rochester, in return for Blake Doyle, John Flinn and Tom Chism. Farrell was ecstatic about the activity, stating “The Orioles have been working day and night since we’ve come here trying to beef up Rochester.... Our relationship is just super.... Win or lose, I’m sticking with them.”

The optimism was still lingering in spring training. Farrell pronounced himself “90 percent sure” RCB would remain with Baltimore, even if saddled with another losing club. “They’ve proven themselves to me already. They’ve made a heckuva effort to turn us around.” Farrell himself had overseen a remarkable turnaround. Despite the poor play and low attendance of the previous season, the RCB president managed to bring harmony to the Board of Directors and front office, and recently negotiated a new concessions contract that guaranteed at least $100,000 to the Wings. However his number one priority remained the stadium. It was time for the organization to move on the issue, he said, whether it was to build a new park or renovate Silver.

It was definitely a new-look team, as only five players (Wayne Krenchicki, Mark Corey, Kevin Kennedy, Jeff Rineer and Jimmy Smith) had been on the Red Wings’ 1979 Opening Day roster. Krenchicki, Corey and Sakata (who went home to California in protest) were late cuts from Baltimore and looked to provide leadership. They were among 16 Triple-A vets on the 24-man roster, yet four of the nine starters were newcomers to that level of baseball. There were hopes for a return to the first division, but too many questions to make any guarantees.

The team added considerable power in the likes of Dan Graham, John Valle (23 home runs at Indianapolis), Tim Derryberry, Dan Logan (21 at Charlotte) and Vern Thomas. Derryberry, Logan (6’ 7” and nicknamed “Bigfoot”), and Thomas were rookies. Catcher Graham was a converted third baseman, in the hopes he could be the left-handed power-hitting catcher Orioles’ manager Earl Weaver so coveted. His defensive abilities were unknown, but he would start ahead of Kennedy and Larry Doby Johnson on Baltimore’s orders. The infield was unsettled by the absence of Sakata. Rookie Bobby Bonner would start at shortstop, with Krenchicki at second, Logan at first and Mike Eden at third, although there were a number of players on the roster who could play the hot corner. Smith started the season on the disabled list.

The outfield was anchored by a pair of rookies counted on to steal bases, centerfielder Dallas Williams (.277, 15 steals at Charlotte), and left fielder Thomas, whose father had played with the Kansas City Monarchs in the old Negro League. Corey was set in right, with Derryberry, Valle (either of whom would DH) and Tommie Smith as reserves.

The pitching staff was stabilized by the spring acquisitions of Steve Luebber and Mark Wiley, a combined 23-19 for Syracuse in 1979. Four of the starting rotation had experience at the Triple-A level: Mike Boddicker, Larry Jones, Rineer and Luebber, while the fifth, Tommy Rowe, won 11 games for Charlotte. Wiley added seniority to a bullpen that had two pitchers up from Charlotte (Jeff Schneider and Bill Presley) and a third (Pete Torrez), who had split the previous season between Rochester and Charlotte.

Manager Doc Edwards claimed to feel no pressure to win coming off the disastrous year, yet when player/coach Eden suggested that all returning players wear different numbers, Edwards donned number 32, instead of 55, which he said he would burn. The squad ended the exhibition season at 5-7-1, but catcher Kennedy nonetheless stated, “[I’ve] never seen a club break camp with a better attitude.”

Rochester was scheduled to open at home, and would sport new hats (red, with a white front panel, new script “R”), new batting helmets, new red socks, and new gray road uniforms. For the first time (except for a brief period in 1962), fans would see players’ names on the backs of the home uniforms. At the ballpark itself, there was a new public address system and a new concessionaire — Canteen, who along with the typical ballpark fare was also selling “Red Wing Wipers,” hand towels similar to the famed “Terrible Towel” of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team. There was also a new billboard in center field, replacing the section of the hand-operated scoreboard that posted International League scores and matchups. The left field bleachers were re-opened after being “bought” by the local Coca-Cola bottler. The company then sold “Coke bleacher hats” for $5.75, which gave the wearer admission to the bleachers for all home games (it came out to eight cents a game if one went every night). Four thousand of the red and white caps were sold. The team sold a record 1,534 season tickets, and a new mark was likewise set when 1,000 attended the annual American Legion Welcome Home banquet.

The Wings were further strengthened the day before the season opener. Sakata, who tried to get the Orioles to loan him to a Pacific Coast League team near his home in California, finally decided to report after being suspended by Baltimore. Right-hander and ex-major leaguer Paul Hartzell, a recent release by the Minnesota Twins, was signed and added to the starting rotation. Rineer was placed on the disabled list to make room.

The fans’ pre-season enthusiasm was tempered by the weather, as snow and 20-degree temperatures pushed the opener back a day. The delay provided conditions that were little better — 42 degrees — and the game was witnessed by an all-time low of 3,979. Those who did attend watched a dramatic 1-0 victory, on the strength of Jones’ two-hit shutout and a ninth-inning leadoff home run by Williams.

The Wings went on the road after the abbreviated one-game homestand. While away from Silver the team finally added Sakata, as well as reliever Joe Kerrigan from Baltimore. Sakata’s arrival made Eden a full-time coach, and moved Krenchicki to third base, a shift which he accepted for the benefit of the club. The moves gave Rochester 27 players on its roster (22 active), an unheard-of number at the Triple-A level. Because of the surplus, there was talk of loaning out back-up infielder Smith.

The Wings finished the road trip with a record of 4-3 and headed home for a 10-day, 12-game homestand. Two-time defending regular season and playoff champion Columbus was the first opponent. The Clippers were managed by Joe Altobelli, who took the job after being fired by the San Francisco Giants at the end of the previous season. No official ceremony or recognition was made of the occasion, and the Wings took three out of four against the Clippers. Victories in the middle games of the series (a satisfying doubleheader sweep) momentarily tied the Wings for first. For the first time in quite a while, the Wings’ flag was flying in the first position atop the roof of Silver.

The scrambled and overloaded roster was attended to in the early part of May, when Thomas and Rineer were due off the disabled list. Some of the moves were expected: outfielder Smith was sent down to Charlotte, as well as Derryberry, who Baltimore decided to convert into a catcher (his 3-for-36 start was also a factor). The unexpected losses were to Baltimore. Graham, whose catching experiment was a smashing success (.346, league-leading four home runs, 12 RBI) and pitcher Hartzell (2-0) were called. Hartzell’s recall was unavoidable — his contract contained a clause that gave the Orioles 72 hours to call him up or release him if any major-league team expressed interest. When the Milwaukee Brewers inquired, up went Hartzell to Baltimore. Third baseman/catcher Floyd Rayford was the only player acquired in the shuffle, down from the Orioles.

The unsettled roster caused a brief slump that put the team below .500, but once the lineup was stabilized the Red Wings went on a seven-game win streak. The surge, the longest since 1976, was sparked by Sakata, who hit in 14 consecutive games, and the Wings’ 9-1 record in day games. The long-ball game had not materialized (Graham and Derryberry were gone and Logan not yet untracked), but there was greater team speed than in previous years and Edwards was letting them run. The veterans (most notably Krenchicki) led a positive clubhouse, and with a major-league strike impending, the Red Wings were a possibility for a national television appearance as a potential replacement broadcast.

The foundation came apart with stunning swiftness on May 23. The strike was avoided, but more damaging was the recall of second baseman Sakata (.344) and third baseman Krenchicki (.273, 20 runs, 18 RBI). Their departure was made more troubling by news that no replacements would be forthcoming from Baltimore, or anywhere. The move broke up what some considered the best infield in the IL, and perhaps the best Rochester quartet in the last decade. Edwards’ reaction was less analytical.He heaved a chair against a concrete wall in his office, his furor fueled by the unrequited recalls, as well as the 8-5 extra-inning loss that evening in which the Wings blew a 5-2 ninth-inning lead.

The recalls were a crippling blow, as it cost the squad half of its infield and, combined with Graham’s departure, its numbers one, three and four hitters. Two players from the struggling Orioles were placed on the disabled list in order to clear roster spots, causing Farrell to question if the players were actually hurt. Eden was reactivated and installed at third base. Smith, whose loan had fortunately been delayed, moved into the lineup at short, and Bonner shifted to second. Once five players over the 22-man roster limit, the Wings were now two under, with Rayford in and out of the lineup with a pulled hamstring. (His presence in the lineup at third was defensively crucial. It would allow Eden to move to second, and the wizard Bonner, called by Edwards the minor’s best defensive shortstop in over a decade, back to his natural position).

The three-game losing streak started before the promotions was stretched to eight. Utility man Willie Royster was the only player from Charlotte ready to play at Triple-A and he was the sole recall, even though he was hitting a paltry .224. Yet the veteran Valle caught fire, and the surprisingly-solid pitching staff helped right the ship and put the Wings back to .500 in mid-June. A trade designed to help spark the slumbering offense brought power hitters and utility players Dan Gonzales and Ed Putman from the Detroit chain. The pair paid immediate dividends. In a doubleheader sweep at league-leading Toledo, Putman was 5-for-6, with a home run and two RBI, and Gonzales contributed a pair of hits and two RBI.

Further swaps saw the subtraction of Corey (to Baltimore) and Logan (hitting .199, sent down to Charlotte). Krenchicki was sent back, but unhappy about the demotion, returned to his home in New Jersey, demanding to leave the organization. The moves further reduced the weakened roster and after another recall (reliever Kerrigan), the staff was down to seven pitchers and absent a right-handed reliever in the now three-man bullpen. Drew fumed, voicing the opinion that “I think Weaver has gone overboard, pulling the trigger looking for help in Rochester.” Weaver unexpectedly answered back, blasting Drew, complaining that he was sick of being blamed for taking players from Rochester; he was not responsible for player recalls. Drew pointedly replied that Baltimore did have an obligation to put 22 players on the Rochester roster. The Rochester GM would later be privately reprimanded by Farrell for the outburst.

Two days after the heated long-distance exchange, newcomers Putman and Gonzales (dubbed the “Detroit Connection” and later the “Detroit Demolition”) went down hurt, reducing the roster to 16 — seven pitchers and nine position players. Hartzell was returned to the Wings (flown in at the expense of Baltimore in order to arrive in time for a game) and infielder Paul O’Niell purchased from Indianapolis of the Cincinnati Reds organization. Until they arrived, the short-handed Wings were on their own. Luebber had to go all 11 frames in a 2-1 extra-inning loss to Toledo.

Yet a doubleheader sweep against the Mud Hens found the Wings at the .500 and in a year when Columbus and Toledo were running away from the pack, it was good enough for third place. It was expected that once the team could gain an identity, it would right itself. “The juggling of players has hurt us,” said Edwards. “We need to put a lineup on the field and keep it together two or three weeks. Once we get a set lineup, with the players we have now, I think we’ll make a charge the second half.”

Before the charge could be made, or even contemplated, Bonner was sidelined with a pulled muscle, and with Smith gone (finally loaned out, to Tidewater) and Krenchicki playing first base due to his own sore legs, Rayford was briefly installed at short. Yet the pitching staff continued its solid performance, led by Luebber, who won seven of eight decisions. An early-July homestand culminated with a third place showdown with Richmond. Luebber opened the series with his fourth consecutive complete game (the staff had 31 already, as compared to 28 in all of ’79), pushing his season record to 9-2. The performance led off a three-game sweep of the Braves, giving the Wings eight wins in nine games. The team found itself 5 1/2 games behind second place Toledo, the next opponent at Silver. Edwards’ team was 45-40, 22-18 at home, a inexplicable 19-6 in day games, and 7-0 when O’Niell took the lineup card out to homeplate.

Bonner’s absence from the lineup was fortunately short. Despite solid seasons by Luebber, Boddicker (2.79 ERA), Hartzell (5-1), Putman (.377) and Valle (11 HRs), as well the leadership of Krenchicki (named as the first captain in years), the rookie shortstop was undeniably the sparkplug of the resurgence. By one sportswriter’s “conservative” count, Bonner had already made no fewer than 25 plays that could be labeled sensational. Radio broadcaster Pete Brown called him the best defensive shortstop he’d seen in Rochester, and he had witnessed the play of Mark Belanger and Bobby Grich. Bonner’s defensive brilliance saved the team hits and runs, and teammate Royster said he became a fan when watching Bonner perform.

A victory in the the first game of a series with Toledo, placed the Wings six games over .500 for the first time. With stopper Kerrigan coming back down, and Edwards able to put together the same lineup for five consecutive games, it looked as if the squad was ready launch a serious run to the top.

Yet the rejuvenated offense sputtered, the injury bug bit again (Krenchicki and Boddicker with bad backs, Kennedy and Gonzales day-to-day) and the Wings dropped five straight. Mark Corey was sent down by the Orioles, but until he arrived, with only nine position players, use of DH slot left Edwards with no bench. Not even off-the field personnel were exempt: organist Fred Costello was out after chipping a bone in his finger during a softball game and popular radio voice Brown had left the team in mid-June, suffering from exhaustion.

In spite of the injuries, the Wings remained the only International League team that could stay with the Columbus head-to-head. A late-July homestand marked the last games between the clubs, with the Wings emerging with a 11-9 season advantage. They were the first team over the past two years to take the season series against the Clippers. It was becoming a heated rivalry between the two squads. Both were former St. Louis farm clubs and had similar stadiums built by the Cardinals. The competition also continued off the field: the Rochester front office complained that the Clippers counted season-ticket no-shows in their attendance figures. In response, a league official stated that there was widespread feeling throughout the league that Rochester resented taking a backseat in attendance to Columbus.

Crowds were up (though not to Columbus’s levels), despite complaints about the Wings enforcing an old, but never before implemented rule about bringing food and drink into Silver. A season-high crowd of 12,498 appeared for the San Diego Chicken on July 31, putting the team over the 200,000 mark. The fans also took part in what became a dispute with the league, raising money to pay the $200 fine Jeff Schneider was assessed for his part in a June 27 brawl against Tidewater. The Wings were subsequently penalized $100 when Drew went on the Silver Stadium PA to make a call for donations toward the Schneider levy. (The Booster Club raised the funds to pay this penalty as well.)

Despite further injuries to Valle and O’Niell, the team put together a streak in which it won 10 of 14 games, closing out an 18-11 July that put the team seven games over .500 and in third place. Manager Edwards was turning heads in his second season, as he seemed more relaxed and in control of the team. He was the Wings’ best public relations manager in a number of years and the front office wanted him back in ’81.

Tom Chism, the leading Red Wing hitter in ’78 and ’79, but out of baseball after being traded, visited Rochester and was signed for the final month of the season. Second place Toledo was well within reach as the Wings went on an 11-game road trip. Boddicker won two games on the trip, his seventh and eighth straight wins, to push his record to 11-7, with a 1.38 ERA over his last 11 starts. The Wings won seven of the contests (but still lost a game in the standings to Toledo), to stand at 65-56, nine games back of Columbus and 1 1/2 behind Toledo.

The four-hour trip home from Tidewater became an eight-hour ordeal after a cancelled flight, and Rochester dropped two of three at home against Charleston. With sore arms bothering Luebber and Wiley, the Wings dropped four games behind Toledo, coming to Silver with 11 games left on the slate.
The Red Wings were securely in third, with a chance at second, printing playoff tickets for the first time in five years, and looking to top the 300,000 attendance mark. Victories in the first two contests of the three-game set against Toledo put the club within a pair of second. Game Two featured a crowd of 12,530 on hand for the second appearance of the San Diego Chicken, as well as Boddicker’s 12th win.

The Mud Hens took the third game, but the Wings were scheduled to close out their season with eight games against last place Syracuse. Three consecutive wins assured a playoff spot and helped Rochester again creep to within two games of Toledo. The clincher was Hartzell’s 10th win of the season, assisted by two Chism home runs, numbers seven and eight in his four weeks with the club. The victory put the Wings a season-high 11 games over the .500 mark, and with three games left at home, within reach of drawing over 300,000. It was, as columnist Greg Boeck wrote, a return to respectability for the franchise both on and off the field.

Three straight losses eliminated any chance at second place, but plaudits came during the losing streak. Bonner was named the league’s Rookie of the Year, adding that honor to the MVP award he was given in a vote of his teammates. The Booster Club also named Bonner their most popular player. He and Valle were named IL all-stars and Edwards was second in voting for manager of the year honors, behind Columbus’ Joe Altobelli.

Going into the last game of the season the club needed a crowd of 7,333 or greater to break the 300,000 mark. A rainout unfortunately sent home the 8,016 fans that would have pushed the team past the magic attendance mark.

The Wings opened the playoffs against second place Toledo. Bonner brashly predicted a sweep of the Mud Hens, as the Wings had won seven of the last nine games between the clubs. However the squad was going into the playoff at less than full strength, with Chism, Putman and Gonzales all hurting and questionable for the series. And despite an earlier assurance by the Orioles that they were planning no recalls, Rayford went up on the second-to-last day of the season.

With ace Boddicker on the mound, the Wings unexpectedly lost the series’ opener 3-1 in Toledo. Scheduled Game Two hurler Hartzell hurt his back in pre-game warm-ups and Jones was the emergency starter in a 7-3 victory that evened the series. The overall prognosis was less than rosy however. Hartzell was possibly done for the series and Boddicker, penciled in as the starter for a potential Game Five, was recalled to Baltimore as “bullpen protection.”

The turning point was the third game, in Rochester. Luebber carried a four-hit shutout into the eighth, but led only 1-0. The Mud Hens pushed across an unearned run in the top of the ninth on an error by third baseman Eden (playing in place of Rayford), but Kerrigan pitched out of a no-out bases-loaded jam to preserve the tie and take the game into extra frames. Toledo plated three unanswered runs in the top of the 10th to move to within one victory of the series.

That win came the next night. Wiley, the substitute starter, pitched for the first time in 10 days and he was touched for three runs in the second. The Wings had their best chance in the third; down 3-1 they loaded the bases with none out, but failed to score. Toledo went on to capture the game 5-2, and the series three games to one.

The loss was disappointing and many directed blame at the O’s for the recalls of Rayford and Boddicker. But it could not overshadow the turnaround made from the 1979 season. The playoff game pushed season attendance to 302,243. The team’s performance earned Edwards the chance to be rehired for the 1981 season. At the press conference to announce his return, Baltimore and Rochester brass took the opportunity to pat each other on the back. Farm Director Tom Giordano praised the work of Edwards, Drew and Farrell, and stated in no uncertain terms that the working agreement would be renewed: “It’s no secret that we love it here.” The Orioles preferred a two- or three-year term, but Farrell was pushing for a one-year pact, saying that such a deal “demanded” a closer relationship with the major league team and served as incentive for the parent club to supply good teams.

There was no doubt that the Orioles had served the Red Wings well in 1980. In retrospect the turnaround began the previous December, with the trades for John Valle (team-leading 18 home runs, 70 RBI), Lenn Sakata and Dan Graham. The spring acquisitions of veteran pitchers Steve Luebber (13-8) and Mark Wiley (8-7) stabilized the staff, and the mid-season trade for Ed Putman and Dan Gonzales likewise paid dividends. Mike Boddicker (12-9, 2.17), Paul Hartzell (10-4) and Larry Jones (13-14) all reached double figures in wins. Dallas Williams paced the team in hitting at .270 and was second in home runs (11) and RBI (54). Gonzales and Tom Chism, each in less than full seasons, hit .294 and .319 respectively.

The outlook looked strong for 1981 as well, with the nucleus of the ’80 team expected back, along with perhaps the best class in six years from Charlotte. There were raves about phenom third baseman Cal Ripken, who hit 25 home runs, amid rumors that Earl Weaver wanted to move him to shortstop. Drungo Hazewood had 28 home runs (Vern Thomas, “The Darling of the Bleacher Fans” would be traded to make room for him), and fellow outfielder John Shelby stole 34 bases. There was also strength in the pitching prospects, most notably Allan Ramirez, who went 16-8, with a 2.29 ERA. The only two players not expected back were Corey and Krenchicki; Krenchicki was to be traded, and the Orioles were finally giving up on Corey after his .228 season at Rochester and his short stint in Puerto Rico (1-for-16 with 10 strikeouts).

With the expected roster stability, the focus shifted to the developments on the stadium front. A committee formed by Rochester Mayor Tom Ryan and County Manager Lou Morin in July 1979 released its report in January of 1980. The group concluded there was probably a need for a new stadium, but suggested a professional feasibility study be done. During the summer the Monroe County Legislature had kicked around legislation that would allow the county to raise and spend money to fund such a study. It was finally decided to approach the state’s Urban Development Corporation (UDC) for the $100,000 the plan was estimated to cost.

At the end of September, hoping to speed the debate, the Wings offered to put up $250,000 toward a new stadium, and $25,000 for a feasibility plan. Told it would need a detailed engineering study and perhaps a major renovation of Silver Stadium, Rochester Community Baseball stated it was looking at changing the corporation to a not-for-profit status that would ease its tax burden. President Farrell also revealed a desire to talk about a city or county takeover of Silver, with a lease-back arrangement with the Wings. His ultimate goal was a municipally-owned stadium. Within a week Farrell further stated that a new stadium was needed or it was only a matter of time before baseball was lost in Rochester.

In November, the Democrat & Chronicle published a three-part series on the “Search for a Stadium.” The first part studied the issue of location, the paper in agreement with the Ryan-Morin panel on the need for a new stadium, but concluding there was no perfect site. Monroe County’s master plan called for “unique facilities,” such as a stadium, to be built within the city limits. With the ideal need of a 50-acre plot, locations being discussed were the Silver Stadium site, Holleder Stadium, the County Fairgrounds in Henrietta, and downtown. Holleder was seen as the best locale of those considered and could be better adapted for baseball than Silver tailored for other uses.

Plans focused on a domed, artificial turf, multi-purpose facility that would seat over 15,000 and cost about $10.5 million. Professional soccer was expected to remain in the area, even if the struggling Lancers went under. The plan for a dome was seen as a potential problem, in that it would compete with the Rochester War Memorial. There were few concerns about what to do with the Norton Street site should a new stadium be built. Mayor Ryan stated, “Silver Stadium is in a prime industrial area. We’d have no trouble finding businesses to move in.”

Rochester Community Baseball responded with its own plan in December. Called “A Proposal to Preserve Baseball in Rochester,” the report outlined the board of directors’ stand on the stadium issue. There was no position taken on whether or not RCB preferred a new stadium or a renovated Silver, but the following statements were included:

  • RCB proposed to make as much cash available as possible — close to $1 million — toward renovation or new construction;
  • RCB would give “serious consideration” toward transferring the title of the stadium to the municipality (Rochester or Monroe County) that provided funding, with profits going to that municipality;
  • RCB would consider recommending a change to not-for-profit membership corporation;
  • RCB would manage a new stadium, to be called Silver Stadium, which would have artificial turf in order to accommodate baseball, softball, football, soccer, lacrosse and track and field, and no fewer that 12,500 seats.

The Red Wings distributed 400 copies of the report to local politicians and business leaders. Some stockholders were publicly skeptical about the turnover of assets to the city or county. Anna Silver went on record as stating no new stadium was needed; she didn’t believe the “scare stories” about Rochester losing the Wings. The team’s largest stockholder preferred renovation (although pleased that any proposed new stadium would still be named after her late husband), but was against any change to not-for -profit status.

The report, with no stand on the new-versus-renovate issue, made clear some positions, but left others open to interpretation, and the spectre of personality conflicts slowly began to surface. A month earlier, rumors began to circulate that Farrell was after Drew’s general manager’s position and that his push for a new stadium was his ploy to get him in the limelight of running both the team and a new stadium. Farrell refuted the rumors, adding that those innuendoes made him give thought to resigning.

Regardless of what position one took on the stadium, all Rochester baseball fans had to be pleased with the December announcement concerning the fiscal health of the franchise. Profits were pegged at $106,109, a $187,000 turnaround in the two years of the Farrell/Drew regime. Revenues were up over $200,000, with gains in concessions accounting for close to half of the increase. The profit could have been a record figure, but the club decided to spend $25,000 after the season on stadium repairs and various expenses.

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