30 Seasons on City Island: The 1997 Senators
This content was originally found in Issue No. 21 of this year’s Senators Program
NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN
In 1997 Rick Sofield became the fifth manager for Harrisburg since the Montreal Expos began their AA affiliation here in 1991. The 40-year-old was also the fifth manager to arrive on City Island without a winning record as a minor-league skipper since 1991. By the end of the season, Sofield would also be the fifth manager to take the Senators to the Eastern League finals and third to win the championship as affiliate of the Expos. Sofield’s rules were simple: Be on time. Be attentive. Be ready to work hard, regardless of the score. Be quiet; no pregame chats with the opposing team. “When you’re on my time, you’re doing my business,” the manager said.
A season after Bob Henley threw out a league-leading 53 percent of potential base stealers, you would think baserunners would remain glued to the bases they’re on. But by the time the All-Star break rolled around in 1997, Henley had thrown out 44 of 56 would-be basestealers and had picked off five runners. The 24-year-old backstop returned to Harrisburg not just a force behind the plate but also batting at it. “Last year, Bob was taking balls he could have hit while he was waiting for a perfect pitch and he was not jumping on some balls he should have hit early in the count,” Expos’ minor-league hitting instructor Pat Roessler said. “Bob is now taking swings that we pictured him taking two years ago. He’s a different guy.” Henley batted a career-best .304 along with 12 home runs and 49 runs batted in. Unfortunately, Henley’s breakout season would come to a crashing halt after he suffered a concussion on July 19 and dealt with lingering effects after that.
WHO NEEDS A DAY OFF?
June 10th was supposed to be the Senator’s last day off until the All-Star break. But after an embarrassing 13-2 loss the night before to the lowly New Haven Ravens, Sofield had the team run through a 9 a.m. workout at RiverSide Stadium. “You would like to think,” Sofield said, “that if a club came in here with a losing record and we were second place, which means we’re an upper-level club in this league, that we would get hungrier, develop more of a killer instinct and not take people for granted.”
Despite missing 33 games with a fractured left thumb, Izzy Alcantara posted his best offensive season of his career. In fact by the numbers, the corner infielder had the best slugging season of any Senator since their return in 1987. Alcantara homered in six straight games to set an Eastern League record that fell one game short of the minors’ all-time record. But the biggest home run the Dominican would hit came on the last day of the regular season when he clubbed his 27th of the season breaking the modern franchise record set by Cliff Floyd and Glenn Murray.
THE RETURNING SLUGGER
After leading the Senators to a championship in the previous year, big things were expected of a full season of Brad Fullmer. The power-hitting first baseman didn’t disappoint either slugging 19 home runs, 24 doubles, and driving in 62 runs in only 94 games. But chunks of Fullmer’s season were lost to bad luck (two fractures in his right foot after getting hit by a pitch in late April) and stupidity (badly swollen right hand after punching the bat rack) before being promoted to Ottawa on July 29. “Those bat racks never lose; they’re undefeated,” Sofield said.
They say championships are built on good pitching and good defense. Well, at least the Senators had one of those. Harrisburg finished the season with a staggering total of 195 errors in 142 games, which led to nearly one unearned run per game against the league’s best pitching staff. Five position players reached double-digits and Hiram Bocachica’s 32 errors led the team.
THE SPORADICALLY BRILLIANT PROSPECT
Speaking of Bocachica, the 1994 first round draft pick of the Expos flashed moments of brilliance and long stretches of mediocrity for Harrisburg. Bocachica opened the season looking like another star in the making for Montreal’s farm system as he made the game look easy during the first two weeks of the season batting .327 in 16 games with four homers and 13 runs batted in. But the infielder had his obvious woes defensively, was benched numerous times for lack of hustle, and helped ignite a 20-minute bench-clearing brawl during a mid-June game in Binghamton that saw him ejected, subsequently suspended for three games, and placed on the disabled list with a sore right shoulder. All would be forgiven, however, when Bocachica drilled the first pitch of the pivotal third game of the semi-finals off the third tier billboards in left-center to lead Harrisburg to victory.
When John Pachot arrived on City Island, he knew his role was to play sparingly as back-up to catcher Bobby Henley. But Pachot, a lifetime .250 hitter in the minors before 1997, was an offensive revelation in the first half of the season. So much so that Sofield found playing time for him at first and third base as Pachot hit .344. “I have to keep working to get some hits,” Pachot said. “I like to keep busy. I’ll play anywhere. I’ll play the outfield. It doesn’t matter, because I want to make the lineup.” But his presence on the roster would be fortuitous after Henley’s season was cut short and Pachot would return to anchoring the Senators behind the plate.
For months the Senators had looked ahead on their calendar and saw a stretch of games they weren’t looking forward to playing. The Eastern League had scheduled the Senators to hit the road for a 10-game road trip covering more than 1,500 miles from Harrisburg to Akron to Trenton to Portland and back home again. Instead of struggling, the Senators flourished as they won eight of the ten games and built an eight-game lead over the Reading Phillies for first place in the Southern Division.
THE GOLDEN ARM
After 10-game winner Tommy Phelps underwent surgery for a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, the Senators needed someone to step up from Class A West Palm Beach. Javier Vazquez was the right guy at the right time. Including the post-season, Vazquez was 6-0 allowing just 25 hits, seven earned runs, striking out 64 hitters in 56 innings of work. Sofield looked to the 20-year-old Puerto Rican to start the first game in both the semi-finals and championship series and Vazquez rewarded that trust with two wins. That off-season Senators’ broadcaster Mark Mattern said, “Down the stretch, he was the best pitcher we have ever seen here in Harrisburg.”
MOORE IS BETTER
Starting pitcher Trey Moore led the Senators with 11 wins, but none were perhaps bigger than his two wins in pivotal Game 3s of both playoff series. Moore was named the Playoff MVP as he hurled 7.2 innings in each game and struck out a season-high 11 batters in the 2-1 victory over Portland. “He came through with his best pitching performance ever in probably our biggest game of the year,” said Sofield. “I thought it was an unbelievable performance.”
UNLIKELY CHAMPIONSHIP HEROES
Before the final regular season game of the year, the Senators placed outfielder Ed Bady on the disabled list and recalled Trovin Valdez to take his place. Valdez, who brought a postseason average of .056 into the finals, collected three hits including a three-run homer, his first at Double-A, to propel the 9-1 victory over the Sea Dogs in the first game of the championship series.
Much like Bady, outfielder Jesus Campos was placed on the disabled list during the regular season finale after he fouled a ball off his left foot. But unlike Bady, Campos was activated for Game 4 against Portland and found his name in the starting lineup. “I’ve been ready for three days,” Campos said. The center fielder snapped a 2-2 tie with a two-run double in the sixth inning to drive in the eventual gamewinner for the Senators.
For most of the season, the Senators only needed Ben Fleetham to close out their victories. After all, he led the Eastern League with 30 saves. But in Game 4 after walking in a run in the eighth inning Fleetham loaded the bases in the ninth on two walks and a hit by pitch. Sofield had little choice but to relieve his closer to get the 27th out of the game. “He was tired. He lost his command,” the manager said. Sofield turned to southpaw Jake Benz who needed only two pitches to retire Ryan Jackson on a fly ball to Campos in shallow center to secure the 4-3 victory and bring home another championship to Harrisburg.
Awards & Accomplishments
- The 1997 Harrisburg Senators became the first team to win consecutive Eastern League championships since the Albany-Colonie Yankees in 1988-89.
- Catcher Bobby Henley and closer Ben Fleetham, who had a league-high 30 saves, were named season-ending All-Stars among a vote of Eastern League managers, coaches, broadcasters and writers.
- Izzy Alcantara homered in the final regular season game giving him 27 for the season to break the modern franchise record he had shared with Cliff Floyd and Glenn Murray.
- Center fielder DaRond Stovall was named the Eastern League player of the month for April, after batting .313 with seven homers and 31 RBI.
- Trey Moore, Alcantara, and Neil Weber were each named Eastern League Players of the Week during the season.
- Henley and starting pitcher Mike Thurman represented the Senators in the seventh annual Class AA all-star game at Nelson Wolff Memorial Stadium in San Antonio, TX.
- In its annual awards presentation, the Senators Fan Club honored Moore as its pitcher of the year, Henley as best defensive player and fan favorite, and Brad Fullmer as top offensive player.