My number 13 top Wilmington Blue Rocks moment is…
The 1997 team.
This may be my all-time favorite team, despite the fact that statistically it was one of the worst teams. Whether I was at Frawley Stadium in Wilmington or on the road, the players always were kind enough to say hi to my parents and I. And it was usually more than just a hello; it was always a conversation.
The bullpen was a great group of guys who were always doing something, from getting the bat boy to sneak them food (or asking the fans to get them food) and eating it in the tarp, to burying gloves in the dirt or setting fire to those gloves. They were fun to watch and the best seat in the house if you could score tickets behind them. I can say that Tim Byrdak may have been the ring leader, so I am not surprised at some of the things he has done in the big leagues (like dressing up like Hulk Hogan during spring training batting practice last season with the NY Mets).
Unfortunately, all the fun the players were having did not translate to wins on the field. The 1997 team was the only losing Blue Rocks team of the 90s (and the first team to not qualify for the playoffs). They won just 28 games in both halves and lost 42 games in the second half. The only three players from this team still playing in the big leagues are Carlos Beltran, Byrdak, and Matt Treanor (but Treanor did not play a full season in Wilmington). Beltran was terrible in 1997 (both on the field and reportedly as a teammate, but that changed in his return trip to Wilmington in 1998).
The offense hit a franchise-worst .242. Gary Coffee held the strikeout record until 2001 (Donnie Ross) and this past season (Brett Eibner). They did however hit a franchise-record 101 homeruns and walked a franchise-high of 549 times.
Their pitching staff was just as bad, as they carried a team-worst 4.36 ERA and allowed a club-worst 1317 hits and 701 runs during the season. The staff allowed five grand slams during the season. A few starters from the 1997 season are in the top five in Blue Rocks history in earned runs allowed (Carlos Paredes) and hits allowed during a season (Jake Chapman and Todd Thorn). However, the pitching staff started out well, with a record 33 inning scoreless streak from April 17-20.
The positives were Mark Quinn, who was their lone All-Star, and second baseman Carlos Febles. Febles held the franchise record in stolen bases (49) until Derrick Robinson played two seasons in Wilmington (2008, 2009).
I made the road trip down to Frederick at the end of the season as the two teams battled for last place. I was not the only one who visited Harry Grove Stadium. The August 30th game drew 11,006 fans. That is the largest away crowd in Blue Rocks history. The Blue Rocks lost the battle and finished with the worst record in the Carolina League (but it was a battle they had fun playing).