30 Seasons on City Island: The 1996 Senators
This content was originally found in Issue No. 18 of this year’s Senators Program
Let’s take a trip down memory lane celebrating the worst-to-first championship of the 1996 Harrisburg Senators. We selected ten important games and dates that we think tell the story of the team that wrote its name in the Eastern League record books forever.
On the heels of a season where the Senators finished with a franchise-record 80 losses, the team doesn’t start 1996 great either. Harrisburg begins the season winning only eight of 21 games and hitting .197 as a team in April. That is until top prospect Vladimir Guerrero and journeyman Rob Lukachyk arrive before a doubleheader with the New Haven Ravens on May 1. As Guerrero tears up the Eastern League and Lukachyk protects him in the lineup, the Senators go on a roll and win 19 of their first 25 games with the right fielder in the starting lineup.
Losing third baseman Israel Alcantara the previous game to a broken hamate bone in his left wrist, the Senators’ turned to Jose Vidro to fill the void at the hot corner. The 22-year- old infielder had lost his starting job at second base to Geoff Blum, but when the Senators needed Vidro the most he stepped up in a big way. Thirteen of Vidro’s 18 homers and 44 of his team-high 82 RBI came after he replaced Alcantara in the lineup. “He got moved out of his natural position and thrust into a situation of having to play third base, because we had nobody else,” Blum said. “He never complained about it. He worked at it, took ground balls every day. It’s just a tribute to him doing well, because he worked so hard at it.”
In front of his family visiting from Puerto Rico, Vidro hits for the cycle in a 15-7 victory over the Bowie Baysox. The infielder becomes the second Senator in modern franchise history, after Matt Stairs in 1991, to complete the historic feat. Four days later, Vidro drove in seven runs with a single, double, and grand slam during an 11-0 rout of Trenton. “The biggest surprise of the season?” manager Pat Kelly said at the end of the regular season. “Vidro.”
The Senators pummeled the Reading Phillies, 18-2, on their way to their 15 th victory in 22 games. Carlton Loewer, Philadelphia’s top draft pick in 1994, couldn’t get out of the second inning as Harrisburg plated 10 runs. That inning and their 18-run total output were the most for a Senators’ team since the magical 1993 team.
Even though the Senators dropped both games of a doubleheader to the last place New Britain Rock Cats, this date in the 1996 season was significant for two separate reasons. First, playoff tickets went on sale at RiverSide Stadium for Harrisburg’s potential postseason berth. Secondly, the Senators drew a record crowd of 6,541 to City Island.
Despite a reported interest in reuniting with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the City of Harrisburg and Montreal Expos finalized a two-year extension to keep the Class AA affiliate playing on City Island through the 1998 season. The deal was struck a year after Mayor Stephen Reed led the city’s efforts in purchasing the team for $6.7 million to keep them from moving to Springfield, Mass. “In two years, we may renew with them again,”Reed said. “We are just keeping our options open.” Indeed, the affiliation between the Senators and Expos, now Nationals, has been repeatedly re-upped for the last 26 years and currently runs through the 2018 season.
Although a foregone conclusion for many, the Senators officially clinch a spot in the playoffs with a 9-3 victory over Bowie coupled with a Canton loss. Harrisburg had been limping towards the postseason before the Baysox came to town the previous day as the team had lost five straight and 12 of their last 19 games. The Senators batted a meager .206 with runners in scoring position during that stretch of futility. But a DaRond Stovall walk-off homer the night before and leadoff hitter Jon Saffer’s two long balls in the six-run victory gave the Senators a modest two-game winning streak and more importantly a date with Trenton in the first round of the Eastern League playoffs. “We’ve been shooting for the playoffs,” Senators catcher Bob Henley said. “Now that we’re there, it’s like a weight off of us.”
The Senators opened the 1996 playoffs with a 9-2 victory at Trenton as Steve Falteisek outdueled Carl Pavano, the Eastern League pitcher of the year. Falteisek, who had been the Senators’ hottest pitcher in August after a disastrous 1-5 start following a demotion from AAA Ottawa on June 1, held the Thunder to five hits over the first six innings while Harrisburg pounded Pavano for nine hits and took advantage of four Trenton errors. The win put the Senators in the driver’s seat against a reeling and retooling Thunder lineup that had beaten the Senators in 12 of 18 regular-season games.
The Senators had to wait an extra day to punch their tickets to the finals because of the effects of Hurricane Fran on the midstate, but they took care of business with a 5-2 triumph over Trenton. The victory returned the Senators to the Eastern League finals for the third time in the last four seasons and the fourth in six seasons as the Montreal Expos’ Class AA affiliate. Despite the matchup pitting the best record in the league for Trenton (86-56) against the worst of the playoff qualifiers for Harrisburg (74-68), the Senators were propelled by DaRond Stovall’s bases-loaded triple and five innings of shutout relief from Jason McCommon, Shayne Bennett and Kirk Bullinger. “Anything’s possible in the playoffs,” Stovall said. “The regular-season stuff is over with.”
For the first three games of the finals, leadoff hitter Geoff Blum put the Senators up early as he scored a run in the first inning of each contest. Game 4 of the best-of- five series was no exception as Blum raced home from second on a bloop double off the bat of Vladimir Guerrero to give Harrisburg the 1-0 advantage before Portland even batted. A pair of two-run homers from Brad Fullmer and Guerrero was all the offense the Senators would need behind another solid start from Jason McCommon and a Houdini-like escape of a jam by reliever Rick DeHart. Scott Gentile secured the 6-1 victory for the Senators as he struck out Ralph Milliard to end the game at 9:39 p.m. and give Harrisburg another championship banner to fly. Every Senator made the midnight bus ride home from Maine except Guerrero who left the celebration to catch a flight to Montreal to make his major league debut with the Expos. “We were the hottest club in the Eastern League over the last two weeks,” manager Pat Kelly said, “and that’s when it counts.”
Awards & Accolades
● Vladimir Guerrero and Neil Weber named to represent the Senators in the AA All-Star Classic in Trenton.
● Guerrero becomes the fifth Senator to take home the league’s MVP Award. The right fielder is also named Rookie of the Year after a dominating season where he bats .360 with 32 doubles, 19 home runs, and 17 stolen bases in 118 games.
● Brad Fullmer batted .452 with three homers and 14 RBI in the playoffs to lead the Senators. The outfielder slugged .839 against Trenton and Portland which was the highest of any player in the postseason.
● Jon Saffer led the Eastern League with 96 runs scored.
● Catcher Bobby Henley threw out a staggering 53 percent (56 of 105) of would-be base stealers making him the most difficult backstop to run on in the league.
● Kirk Bullinger converted a team-high 22 saves as the right-hander’s earned run average was never above 2.00 during the season.