For one reason or the other, finding success and a dependable fan base had always been difficult for sports organizations above the high school level in Rochester. But, after sixteen seasons in the Northwoods League, the Rochester Honkers have battled the odds to carve out quite a niche for themselves. And we’ve always done it the winning way—bringing in talented and likable players, working hard on and off the field, and serving the community. Now, with FIVE NWL championships under our belt and nearly fifty-thousand fans flocking to Mayo Field every year, you could say that it’s had rewards. Here’s a bit of our Honkers History…
2009Honkers - The Drive for 5 is Complete!
After a disappointing 2008 season, the Honkers looked to rebound in 2009. The club hired an entirely new coaching staff of field manager Rusty McNamara, pitching coach Joe Cotton and assistant coach Eric Hoffmann, and recruited a team of almost entirely new players. The new-look club ended up being one of the best Honker squads that Rochester has even seen and finished with the league's best overall record and a fifth NWL title. McNamara was named the league's Manager of the Year, Cotton the Coach of the Year, and shortstop Corey Jones the NWL Most Valuable Player. But, despite the accolades and excellent final result, winning the Northwoods League in 2009 was by no means easy.
The team had to fight through injuries to pitchers and inconsistent defense early in the season before finally hitting their stride in the stretch run. With the league's highest scoring offense supporting returning pitchers Zach Robertson and Bret Mitchell, as well as freshmen pitching standouts Drew Gagnon and Brian Flynn, the Honkers began to look more and more like a championship caliber team into the season's final weeks.
Shortstop Corey Jones emerged as an RBI and home run machine, and would lead the league in long balls from the midpoint of the season all the way through the end, while the bullpen became a real strength through the stellar contributions of Scott McGough, Nick Ramirez and closer Arik Sikula, who led the league in saves with 20.
The second half race would come down to the final weeks and even days of the regular season, as a surprising St. Cloud team challenged the Honkers for the second half crown. Rochester started the final week in Thunder Bay, and swept the Border Cats there to trim their magic number to clinch down to five with six games to play. The Honkers then returned home and swept the Madison Mallards while St. Cloud was swept by Brainerd to make the magic number just one with four games to play, and next two made up a crucial series with St. Cloud travelling to play in Rochester.
The River Bats needed to win out and have the Honkers lose all of their remaining games in order to claim the second half, and they steam-rolled the Honkers 16-6 in game one of the series. But the Honkers answered back in game two, and a clutch grand slam by Nick Ramirez broke up a 3-3 tie in the sixth inning as Rochester went on to win 7-6 and clinch the second half in the North Division to earn the right to face Mankato in round one of the playoffs. But with just a trip to Duluth remaining in the regular season, the Honkers still had something to play for. With the La Crosse Loggers surging in the South Division, Rochester needed either a win or to have La Crosse lose to secure home-field advantage throughout the postseason. It ended up being the latter, as Duluth swept Rochester but the Loggers fell to Mankato on the season's final day. That home field advantage certainly was a valuable thing for the Honkers, as they finished the regular season 23-11 when playing at Mayo Field and would go a perfect 3-0 at home in the playoffs.
The Honkers defeated Mankato 3-2 in game one in Rochester and 7-0 in the second game while not allowing a single earned run in the series to advance to the NWL Championship Series and take on the Loggers, who had swept South Division first half winner Eau Claire. In game one at Mayo Field Danny Brock, who was named the Honkers' Most Inspirational Player after the season, hit a grand slam--already his third homer of the postseason--in the sixth inning and Mitchell tossed seven strong innings to earn a 7-2 win and swept a potential playoff sweep. But the Loggers wouldn't have it, and edged the Honkers in a back-and-forth 5-4 game in La Crosse to set up a decisive game three in Rochester. The Honkers sent Robertson to the mound on just three days rest after he had shutout Mankato over seven innings to win the Divisional Series, and he held La Crosse to just one run over six innings while three home runs led the Honkers to a 7-4 victory and their fifth NWL title in the league's 16 seasons.
2008 Honkers Fade After Strong Start
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Charles Dickens couldn’t have summed up the 2008 Rochester Honkers season any better.
The Honkers had a very solid first half, in which they narrowly missed out on winning the North Division. The second half didn’t go quite as well, arm injuries, bad breaks, and some tough one-run losses led to a last place 2nd half finish in the North Division.
Rochester faced the challenge of starting the season with 7 out of their first 8 games being on the road. They finished the stretch with a 4-4 record before embarking on a pivotal six game home stand at Mayo Field. Thanks to some dominant pitching, the Honkers won the first four games of their home stand to improve to 8-4 on the season. In those four games, the Honkers beat their opponents by a combined score of 27-7. Phil Haig (Illinois), Zach Robertson (Iowa Central CC), and Greg Martin (UNC-Greensboro) all had quality starts during the winning streak.
The Green Bay Bullfrogs beat the Honkers in the final two games of the home stand, effectively snapping the winning streak and bringing the Honkers overall mark to 8-6. The Honkers committed 10 errors in the two game set against the Bullfrogs, it was an early sign of what would be one of the downfalls of a talented team. The Honkers committed 122 errors on the season, second only to Brainerd in the Northwoods League.
After the two self-destructive losses, the Honkers rebounded with three straight road wins, two at Duluth, and one over the South Division leading 14-2 Wisconsin Woodchucks.
One of the highlights of the short season to that point was the dominating start for left-handed starting pitcher Phil Haig. Haig pitched 22.2 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run to start the season. His streak came to an end in the 9th inning of a complete game 7-1 victory over the Duluth Huskies at Wade Stadium on June 15th.
After the three game road win streak, the Honkers won only 7 of their remaining 16 games in the first half. They finished the first half in a tie for 3rd place with a respectable 18-15 record, just 1.5 games behind the first place Mankato MoonDogs.
A few days before the end of the first half, the Honkers lost their shutdown closer Mace Thurman (Baylor), who signed a professional contract with the Cincinnati Reds. The Honkers also suffered the loss of dependable starting pitchers Greg Martin (UNC-Greensboro), Kevin Manson (Illinois), and reliever Jonathan Turner (North Florida). All three pitchers left before the All-Star break due to arm troubles, which caused the Honkers to sign some pitchers midseason to sure up their shorthanded pitching staff.
The Honkers were very well represented at the Northwoods League All-Star Game in Madison, WI. Six Honkers were selected to the team by Northwoods League coaches and media members, putting Rochester in a tie with the St. Cloud River Bats for having the most players in the game.
Honkers starting pitchers Peter Burg (St. Scholastica), Phil Haig (Illinois), and Zach Robertson (Iowa Central CC), and position players Eric Stephens (Cal State Fullerton), Tony Balisteri (Virginia Tech), and Devin Goodwin (Delta State) all saw action in the game and performed well. In the 2nd inning, Stephens homered, and Goodwin and Balisteri both had hits and scored runs to give the North division a short lived 3-2 lead. All three Honkers pitchers also saw action in the game.
After the All-Star break, the Honkers fell into a funk of poor defensive play. They committed 10 errors in a doubleheader loss to the Thunder Bay Border Cats at Mayo Field to start the 2nd half. However, they rallied to win six out of their next 10 games before they crossed the border to take on the same Thunder Bay Border Cats in Thunder Bay, ON in a series that would go a long way in determining the 2nd half North Division champion. Entering the series the Honkers were in 2nd place, just 1 game behind the Border Cats.
The Honkers trailed 5-0 in the first game in Thunder Bay, before rallying to score 5 runs of their own in the 8th inning to tie the game. In the top of the 13th, Aaron Senne (Missouri) hit an RBI single to put the Honkers ahead 6-5. But, Thunder Bay’s Jon Kelton (Alabama) hit a three run game-winning walk-off home run over the right field wall to give the Border Cats a huge 8-6 victory. The Honkers played well the following night, and took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the 9th. But, the Border Cats rallied to score three runs in the inning to win 4-3 in dramatic fashion once again.
Being swept in two heartbreaking games in Thunder Bay seemed to take a toll on the Honkers. Instead of potentially being up a game on the Border Cats, they squandered two late leads and left Thunder Bay three full games behind the Border Cats. The series showed how much the Honkers missed their dominant left-handed closer Mace Thurman. Since leaving Rochester, Thurman posted a 0.54 ERA in 16.2 innings of rookie ball. He was just recently promoted to the Class A Dayton Dragons.
he Honkers went on to lose 15 out of their last 19 games, seven of those losses being of the one-run variety. They finished the second half an abysmal 12-23, good for last place in the North Division. Overall, the Honkers were 30-38, the 11th best record out of the 14 Northwoods League teams.
Despite the bad breaks and unsuccessful 2nd half, the Honkers players seemed to have a lot of fun and enjoy their stint in Rochester. Never was this more prevalent than in their 13-1 victory over the Brainerd Blue Thunder in their season finale at Mayo Field. After building a 9-0 lead after three innings, some of the Honkers pitchers received at bats, right-handed hitting Austin Wates (Virginia Tech) batted from the left side of the plate, and outfielder Justin Hilt (Louisburg) received some playing time at catcher. Wates finished the game 5 for 6, with two of his hits coming from the left side of the plate. Honkers pitcher Peter Burg went 2 for 2 at the plate with three RBI’s. Fellow starting pitcher Tim Scott (St. Cloud State) also recorded a hit on Fan Appreciation Night at Mayo Field.
Three Honkers were named to the Northwoods League Postseason All-Star Team, which tied Rochester for the league-lead in numbers of players selected to the team by Northwoods League coaches and media members. Position player Eric Stephens, and starting pitchers Zach Robertson and Peter Burg were the three Honkers rewarded for their fantastic seasons.
Stephens batted .307, hit 7 home runs, and led the Northwoods League with 50 RBI’s on the season. Robertson finished with a 4-3 record, a 2.52 ERA, and a league-leading 97 strikeouts. His season strikeout total moved him into a tie for 7th place for most strikeouts in a single season in Northwoods League history. Burg was arguably the Honkers most consistent starter, he posted a 5-3 record, with a 2.09 ERA, 30 strikeouts, and tied for the league-lead with two shutouts.
Even though it was a disappointing season on the field for the Honkers, they had a successful season from a business standpoint. The Honkers still managed an average attendance of 1,358 fans despite a lot of rainy days this summer. The season attendance total was 44,807 fans, the 3rd best season attendance in franchise history.The Honkers will seek their 5th Northwoods League Championship next season.
2007 Honkers Find Fun in Revolving Door Summer
The 68-game schedule crammed into 2 1/2 months in the middle of the hot, humid Midwest summer can take a toll on young players, physically and mentally. But there was nothing typical about the Rochester Honkers 2007 season. Players came and went, and came and went, and came and went. And then, for the first time in team history, some coaches came and went.
All of the transition made for a rare below-.500 regular season record (32-34), no playoff appearance, and a less-than-satisfying sequel to Rochester’s remarkable 2006 championship season. When the Honkers season of the revolving clubhouse door was over, nine players had left the team for one reason or another. A couple were mid-round draft picks who signed pro minor league contracts.
UNLV first baseman Efren Navarro, Jr., the 2006 Northwoods League MVP, left June 25 to sign with the Rookie League affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; Delta State outfielder Jareck West left July 1 to sign with the Oakland Athletics rookie team. Other players were injured or went home for school related or personal reasons. It was the biggest player turnover in Rochester’s history according to team co-owner Dan Litzinger, who has worked with the Honkers since the franchise and the league both began in 1994.
Swept into the great migration of 07 were also two geese at the front of the V, field manager Greg Labbe, and assistant coach-turned interim head coach Dave Martinez. Labbe, Rochester’s third-year manager who was the 2006 Northwoods League manager of the year, left at the all-star break in mid-July to be with his expectant wife Heather at their home in Jacksonville, Fla. The young couple had their first child, a boy, in early August, and Labbe never returned to the Honkers. Martinez became the interim manager, but he left the team a week later to begin a new coaching job at UNLV.
The Honkers were left in the young hands of 24-year-old assistant coach Brett Lindgren, in his first coaching job out of Cal State Fullerton. In a pinch for leadership, Honkers co-owners Litzinger and Kim Archer brought in former coach Mike Saddler to help guide the team for the last three weeks. Saddler, a pitching coach at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., pitched for the Honkers in 2004 and was the team’s pitching coach in 05 and 06. Rochester dropped out of playoff contention early in the first half of the season, and was relegated to the spoiler’s role with a week left in the second half.
“As far as our record goes it wasn’t a successful season,” said Lindgren. “But with as much turmoil as this team went through, the guys who stuck it out went out every game and really busted their butts and kept the team competitive.”
The Honkers didn’t make the playoffs, but several players had great seasons. Outfielder Drew Hoisington and starting pitcher Greg Martin were named 2007 Post-Season League All-Stars. Hoisington (Toledo) led Rochester in almost every offensive category including batting average (.290), runs (37) and RBIs (41), and shared the league lead in homers (9) with teammate Aaron Senne. Martin (UNC-Greensboro) was 8-2 in 11 starts with a 2.09 ERA. He led the team in wins and innings pitched (73.3). Hoisington was also named Honker of the Year, and Martin was named the teams Pitcher of the Year. Senne, a Rochester Mayo product, came off a strong freshman season at the University of Missouri and batted .225 with a league-high nine homers.
“Now I know what it’s like to play a pro schedule, and now I know I can do it,” Senne said.
The 2007 Honkers had their fun. Fans at Mayo Field saw that many players, as well as Labbe, had some good dance moves and a willing sense of humor when stadium comedian Myron Noodleman paid a visit. The normally-business-faced Honkers manager broke into a nicely-synchronized dance routine with Noodleman near home plate during a break between innings. Then there was the rain-delay antics of the Honkers and the Alexandria Beetles on June 16, a 5 1/2-hour funfest made famous by a film clip showing on a national TV news program. The Honkers 17-2 win over Alexandria was anticlimactic for the fans who stuck around during a 2 1/2-hour rain delay, which turned a matinee game into an early evening at the ballpark.
The more entertaining part might’ve been during the long delay when the rain-inspired antics of the players from both teams kept the fans laughing. The boys of summer showed that they still like to play in the rain, even if the bats and balls are put away. While nearly an inch of rain fell in 90 minutes, the players spent most of that time on the field doing slips, slides, piggy back races, line dances and some rather elaborate skits.
“That was the craziest rain delay I’ve ever been part of,” said Honkers outfielder Drew Hoisington. “That’s the type of thing you don’t really get the chance to do during the college season.”
The Honkers got a dose of a different reality in August when the team went inside the walls of the Federal Medical Center Prison in Rochester to play a softball doubleheader against a team of inmates. A crowd of hundreds of inmates and prison workers took a break from their daily routine and ringed the softball field in the middle of the complex to see the Honkers and the inmates split a doubleheader. The Inmates dominated the first game 10-4; the Honkers came from behind in the second game and won 11-10 in eight innings.
“We were kind of feeling our way through the first couple of innings,” said Honkers infielder Brian Spear. “But once we got going it was just like playing a pickup game in the backyard. The inmates were friendly and it was a really good experience.”
The Honkers were again a consistent summertime attraction in Rochester, drawing 45,000 fans over 32 home dates. It snapped the clubs streak of five straight years of increased attendance, but the average of 1,406 fans per game was within 50 of the team record set in 2006. Honker’s players considered the 07 season a success, despite the final record.
“This was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a season, even with guys coming and going all the time,” Aaron Senne said. “We just had a great time, win or lose, and that was important.”
“You can’t say this was a bad year just because we finished a few games below .500,” pitcher Tim Radmacher said. “We still came out to the park every day and played hard and had fun, and you can’t replace that.”
2006 NWL CHAMPIONS! - 4th Championship! "It was all about Chemistry"
The Rochester Honkers had the best pitching and the most productive offense in the Northwoods League in 2006, so it was no mystery why they won a lot more games than they lost.
But if you asked the Honkers what was the key to their championship season, it wasn't the awesome arms or booming bats.
It was the chemistry. It was the random mix of the talents and personalities of 26 college men who came together here as strangers three months ago and leave as friends with a special bond and a place in Northwoods history.
"This is the best group I've ever been with in my entire life," said Scott Eckard, the winning pitcher Friday night in Rochester's 5-3 win over Thunder Bay at Mayo Field.
The Honkers completed a two-game sweep in the league championship series, after sweeping the Madison Mallards in the South Division playoffs earlier in the week. Rochester claimed its fourth crown in the league's 13-year history, and the first since 1999. It's also the first under the ownership of Dan Litzinger and Kim Archer, who bought the team in 2003 from Dick Radatz Jr.
"The team unity we had was unbelievable," said catcher Bill Musselman, whose three-run homer in the second inning gave Rochester a lead it never relinquished.
"Every single guy on this team got along," said Chris Jones, the Cal State Fullerton slugger who belted a solo homer in the fourth inning, his ninth this season.
Third-year Honker Dan Lyons sensed something different early on with this team.
"I knew we had something special right away," said Lyons. "It's definitely different from the last couple of seasons. No one had any problems with each other. We really meshed well right off the bat." Honkers assistant coach Kazuhiko Nagai left the team two weeks ago to return to his high school teaching career in Florida, but he flew back this week for the championship series.
"I couldn't miss this moment, no way," said Nagai. "Everybody on this team is best friends and that was a big key to our success. We definitely played as a team."
Honkers manager Greg Labbe said he hasn't decided yet if he will return in 2007 for a third season, and the same goes for assistant coaches Nagai and Mike Saddler.
"It depends how things work out with my teaching career," Labbe said. "I know that I don't want to coach anywhere else. This league, the Honkers owners, the city of Rochester are all very special to me."
If Labbe returns, he probably won't be the only familiar face. There were 11 underclassmen on the team and some were already talking about next year Friday night.
2005 Honkers Reach 400 Wins, Playoffs
The Rochester Honkers 2005 season was one for the record books as new standards of excellence were achieved by both the team and individual players. Led by first year field manager, Greg Labbe, and new assistant coaches Carlos Rodriguez and Mike Saddler, the 2005 Rochester Honkers finished with the best overall record in the Northwoods League (44-24; tied with Thunder Bay) and made their first playoff appearance since 2002. This was a welcomed change from the past two seasons that saw the Honkers on the outside looking in come playoff time, despite having the second best overall record in the NWL both seasons.
The 44 wins set two new milestones in both Honkers and Northwoods League annals. The first feat was a new Honkers franchise regular season total, overtaking the 41 wins in 1997. Second, the 44 wins in Labbe’s first season at the helm are the most ever by a first year Northwoods League Field Manager with no prior experience in the league. The record win total was established through a model of consistency, as the Honkers posted 22-12 records in both the first and second halves of the season.
On Sunday, June 19th the Honkers made Northwoods League history with their 4-0 victory over the Mankato MoonDogs. The win was the 400th in franchise history, and with that, the Honkers became the first team in Northwoods League history to attain 400 victories.
In a divisional race that went down to the wire, the first half saw the Honkers finish one game behind the Madison Mallards for the South division title. The Honkers won six of their final seven games but were denied the division crown when Madison defeated the Mankato MoonDogs in 10 innings on the final night of the first half.
A five game winning streak at the end of July and an eight game steak to close out August were the keys to the Honkers claiming the second half South division crown. Rochester finished two games ahead of Madison, the team they defeated in seven of eight games in the regular season and would face in the first round of the playoffs. The playoff series went to a decisive Game 3, with Madison advancing to the NWL Championship round.
Individually, the Honkers shined as well. Six players were selected to play in the mid-season All-Star Game; pitchers Ryan Bird (St. Louis), Brad Clipp (Pointe Loma Nazarene), and Tim Radmacher (Nebraska) along with First Baseman Efren Navarro Jr. (UNLV), Outfielder Luke Reiland (Campbell) and Infielder Dan Lyons (Iowa Central C.C.). Lyons was also named to the Post-Season All-Star team, as well as being only the third Honker in Franchise history to win a Northwoods League/Rawlings Silver Glove Award.
For his outstanding efforts with his bat and on the mound, Efren Navarro Jr. (UNLV) was named “Inspirational Player of the Year” for 2005. At the plate Navarro lead the team with a .316 average, second on the team in doubles and home runs and was fourth in runs batted in. Taking the mound for nine games (starting five), Efren posted a 3-1 record with a 1.42 earned run average, 30 strikeouts and only 15 walks.
Brad Clipp, the Honkers’ “2005 Pitcher of the Year”, arguably had the most dominate season on the mound in franchise history. As the Honkers closer, Clipp recorded 11 saves in 29 games with an ERA 1.09. Etching his name in the Honkers record book, he set single season and career records in hits per nine innings (4.91) and strikeouts per nine innings (13.91).
Rochester native and second year Honker, Dan Lyons, was named “Honker of the Year” in what was one of the most productive offensive seasons in franchise history. Lyons led the team in runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBI and walks. He also set a new Honkers record by playing in 67 games and found himself in the single season top ten in runs, hits, doubles, walks, at bats, total bases, extra base hits and hit by pitches. Lyons also stole 14 bases to give him 46 total in his two seasons as a Honker, a new career record.
Once again, the Honkers faithful set new attendance standards as 43,673 fans passed through the gates of Mayo Field, an average of 1,323 per game. It is the tenth time in the past eleven seasons that a new attendance mark has been established.
2004 Repeat of Not-So-Sweet Success
Rochester entered 2004 with plenty of reasons for optimism. Despite missing the 2003 Northwoods League playoffs, Rochester’s 40-23 finish gave the Honkers the second best overall record in the league, and field manager David Parra and Kyle Crookes didn’t see much reason to rock the boat. Maintaining the previous year’s momentum seemed to be a key to any playoff chances whatsoever, since the South Division contained all but one of the NWL franchises with a winning record in 2003. With the defending champion Wisconsin Woodchucks (41-22) and playoff qualifier Madison Mallards (38-26) looking to return to the postseason, and the 2002 NWL champion Waterloo Bucks (20-44) looking to return to prominence, success in 2004 would be well-earned for the Honkers.
The Honkers’ 10th Anniversary Season was preceded by one of the team’s great milestone events. Valentino Pascucci, the 1998 Honker of the Year and the owner of Rochester’s only no-hit game, was called up to the Montreal Expos in late April and became the first former Honker to play in the major leagues. Pascucci, who collected both the go-ahead RBI and a pitching save at the 1998 NWL All-Star Game, spent a month with the Expos before returning to the Pacific Coast League’s Edmonton Trappers for the rest of the Triple-A season, and was called up once again in September. Pascucci batted .298 with 25 homers, 92 RBI, a .577 slugging percentage and a .423 on-base percentage in 2004, his second full season at the Triple-A level.
Back in Rochester, things didn’t go according to plan for the Honkers early on. Three 2003 Northwoods League All-Stars slated to return to Rochester for a second year were unable to play in 2004. Outfielder Jesse Boyer had scholastic obligations to fulfill at the University of Nebraska, while pitcher Jimmy Conroy was recovering from an arm injury. Third baseman Chris Nowak, along with six other former Honkers including Conroy, was selected in the June Major League Baseball First-Year Players Draft. Nowak, the winner of the 2003 NWL All-Star Game Home Run Hitting Contest, spent the first week of the season with the Honkers and then signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization, becoming the latest Rochester Honker to move on to a pro career.
Once the season started, much to their chagrin, the Honkers found a familiar script playing out before their eyes—a close miss for a first-half playoff spot and a red-hot rival running away with the second half along with Rochester’s playoff hopes. A 1-4 start, including a two-game season-opening home sweep at the hands of the Duluth Huskies, left Rochester playing catch-up for the rest of the first half. The Honkers did rebound to win eight of their next ten, and then finished the first half with a season-best seven-game winning streak, but it wasn’t enough to catch La Crosse for the South’s opening playoff spot. In the second half, after a two-game opening stumble, Rochester tallied nine wins in their next thirteen games but still found themselves back of the eventual Northwoods League champion Madison Mallards, which started the second half 13-4 and later pulled off a 9-1 ten-game stretch to salt away the second half.
For the second consecutive year the Honkers, at 36-26 overall, found themselves with the second-best overall record in the Northwoods League but watched three teams with lower marks advance to the playoffs while Rochester sat on the sidelines. Amazingly, 2004 marked the first time in franchise history that Rochester failed to qualify for the league postseason in consecutive years, despite going 76-49 (.608) over the span. Part of the Honkers’ dilemma is the strength of their division; for the second straight year, only one North Division squad won more than they lost, and three of the league’s four best overall records belonged to South Division teams.
The hallmark of Rochester’s 2004 squad was a deep and dominating bullpen that carried more of the pitching load than any the team has ever had. Dustin Braud, Don Czyz, Trae Dauby and Mike Saddler all finished among the franchise’s top six hurlers for games pitched in a year. Braud broke Rochester’s one-year-old record for saves in a season with 15, and compiled a 2-1 record with a 3.10 ERA. Czyz earned a NWL Post-season All-Star nod and Honker Pitcher of the Year honors with a 5-3 mark, a 1.81 ERA, two saves and a whopping 63 strikeouts against only 14 walks in 44.2 innings. Dauby joined Czyz on the South Division pitching staff at the NWL All-Star Game; he finished 2-2 with a 1.47 ERA, nine walks and 37 strikeouts in 43 innings. Saddler finished 0-0 in 24 games with a pair of saves and 35 strikeouts against 14 walks.
Rochester’s contingent of five Florida Gators, the most ever from any one school on a Honkers team, accounted for many notable achievements during the 2004 season. Pitcher Adam Sanabria joined Pascucci in the Honkers record book when he no-hit the Mankato MoonDogs July 3rd in a rain-shortened, 13-0 affair. Rochester’s eight-run second inning that day featured another Gator stunner; third baseman Brandon McArthur hit two home runs in the inning, becoming the second Honker in two seasons to achieve that improbable feat. Matt Eckardt, 3-3 with a 3.38 ERA for Rochester in 11 starts, earned a Rawlings Silver Glove Award as the best fielder at his position in the Northwoods League. Eckardt is only the second Honker to win a Silver Glove since the award was instituted in 2002.
McArthur’s season with the Honkers was its own amazing achievement. In October 2003, McArthur was attacked shortly after leaving an off-campus restaurant in Gainesville, FL with teammates, including fellow Honker Jeff Corsaletti. A sucker punch from behind sent McArthur to the sidewalk; the head injury he suffered when his head struck the concrete left not only his promising baseball career but his life in jeopardy. After two brain surgeries and a three-week-long induced coma to stop the internal bleeding and swelling, McArthur began the journey back to baseball. On June 28th, the 2003 Minnesota Twins draft pick stepped back onto a baseball diamond for the first time since the attack, and went 1-for-2 win a run scored and another batted in during a 6-3 win over Madison.
Speaking of contingents, the 2004 Honkers also featured the first pair of Rochester natives to play a full season with the Honkers. Dan Lyons, a 2003 state high school champion for the Century Panthers and a member of the American Legion national champion Rochester A’s, came within two stolen bases of an eight-year-old team record by collecting a league-high 32; he also batted .235 with a home run and 10 RBI’s. Matt Meyer, a 2003 Mayo High School graduate who struck out 102 hitters that season to break the school record, pitched as both a starter and a reliever for the Honkers, going 2-3 with a 3.68 ERA and 55 strikeouts in only 44 innings.
Several Honkers, including Corsaletti, arrived in midseason and immediately added fuel to the offense. Corsaletti, a 2002 Honker who joined the team just days before McArthur last season, batted .293 with three home runs, 21 RBI and the best on-base percentage in the Northwoods League (.448). Outfielder Sergio Pedroza, who showed flashes of brilliance in his three-week stint with Rochester in 2003, helped Cal State-Fullerton to the 2004 NCAA championship before joining the Honkers in July and picking up right where he left off the previous year. Pedroza hit .286 with 16 RBI, a .514 slugging percentage and a team-high six home runs; in a 9-3 win over La Crosse on July 10th, he became the first Honker since 1995 to hit three home runs in a single game.
Some players’ roles changed quite a bit over the course of the season. John Hunter, a first baseman and occasional pitcher from Purdue University, joined the Honkers as the Big Ten’s biggest home run hitter in 2004. He played that part well, hitting .250 for the season with 15 RBI and tying for the league lead with five first-half homers, but his part-time pitching role turned into a permanent spot in the rotation; he finished with a 4-1 record and a sparkling 1.50 ERA. Brian Walker, a freshman catcher coming off a redshirt season at Arizona State, played his first competitive collegiate baseball in Rochester last summer. After struggling mightily in early June, with just six hits in his first 15 games, Walker got rolling and then got red-hot. In his final 36 games, he batted .322 with a .471 slugging percentage; he ended up with a .265 average, five home runs and 24 RBI.
The heart and soul of the 2004 Honkers, however, could be found right up the middle of the diamond. Joe Muich wrapped up a two-year career as Rochester’s starting catcher in 2004 and was bestowed the Honker of the Year award. Muich, now a senior at Wichita State, won the team batting crown with a .322 average, along with three home runs, 28 RBI and a .439 slugging percentage. He caught 89 games in his two years with Rochester and leaves the team with the best career fielding percentage (.988) ever by a Honkers catcher.
Toby Gardenhire also ended his Honkers career in style. The son of Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was named the 2004 Honker Inspiration of the Year for his leadership on and off the field. He made a name for himself as Rochester’s all-time leader with 168 games in a Honkers uniform, along with every career defensive record for Honkers shortstops, including games (127), fielding percentage (.936) and double plays (69). In 2004 Gardenhire batted .233 with 17 RBI, a .345 on-base percentage and a .939 fielding percentage, second-best among league starting shortstops.
Another era came to an end in 2004, as field manager David Parra left the Rochester Honkers to become the new manager of the Duluth Huskies, winners of the North Division last year. Parra won 108 games and lost 83, including a 1-2 playoff mark, in three years as the Honkers’ skipper. In September, the honor of becoming only Rochester’s third manager since 1998 was given to Greg Labbe. Labbe, along with new Honkers assistant coach Carlos Rodriguez, comes from the University of North Florida. The Ospreys have made it to the NCAA Division II World Series each of the last two years and will jump to Division I after the 2004-2005 season.
2003 Big Season, Little Reward
Parra returned to manage the Honkers in 2003, and he brought a heavy-duty assistant with him: 2002 Northwoods League Manager of the Year Kyle Crookes. Previously, Crookes had joined Parra in Brainerd as an assistant with the 2001 Mighty Gulls. Crookes, who assumed the Gulls’ managerial job when Parra joined Rochester in 2002, led Brainerd to its only North Division championship in team history that year. When financial problems forced Brainerd to fold after the season, Crookes and Parra were once again united on the 2003 Honkers staff. Despite Brainerd’s departure, the league expanded to ten teams, with the La Crosse Loggers, Duluth Huskies and Thunder Bay Border Cats coming on board.
2003 proved to be another bittersweet season for the Honkers, although for an unusual reason. In 2002 the Honkers had qualified for the playoffs despite a sub-.500 overall record, but the 2003 squad finished with the second-best overall record in the league at 40-23, but fell just short of the playoffs. (No team in league history with a better season record has ever done so.) That Honkers team matched a franchise record with an eight-game winning streak, became the first 40-game winner in three NWL seasons, and the first team in three years to win 20 games in each half of the season. Unfortunately, the Honkers got edged out by Madison’s 22 wins in the first half and Wisconsin’s 24 second-half victories, and found themselves out of the playoff picture. In the meantime, Wisconsin parlayed their second-half surge into three-game playoff series wins over Madison and St. Cloud for its second NWL title in three seasons.
Arguably the Honkers’ best starter-reliever tandem ever anchored the 2003 pitching staff. Second-year veteran Jimmy Conroy and 2003 Honker of the Year Jason Driscoll each corralled a handful of team records, with Conroy finishing 7-1 in 13 starts with a 1.98 ERA and 67 strikeouts while Driscoll, in 30 relief appearances, amassed 51 innings of work, a 6-2 record, a 1.76 ERA, 33 strikeouts, only nine walks, and 11 saves for a new team record. Conroy and Driscoll became the second Honkers duo to each record an earned run average under 2.00, and they rank one-two in team history in lowest opponents’ on-base percentage (Driscoll .234, Conroy .244). Conroy also achieved the team season (.162) and career (.216) records for lowest opponents’ batting average.
Rochester certainly didn’t lack for solid pitching in 2003. Owen Hoegh of Byron went 6-2 with a 2.84 ERA in 12 starts and led the team with 85 strikeouts. Wayzata native David O’Hagan began his second Honkers summer after competing in the NCAA College World Series with the Stanford Cardinal and went 2-3 with a 2.55 ERA and 34 strikeouts in only 35.1 innings; both of O’Hagan’s victories were complete-game 1-0 shutouts, making him the second Honker with two shutouts in a year. The Honkers staff (3.17) knocked a third of a run off the team’s previous best earned run average; along with Parra, a three-year pitcher in the Northwoods and a 1997 league All-Star, credit has to also go to Joe Muich, who caught 56 of the team’s 63 games.
Offensively, Chris Nowak emerged as the anchor of Rochester’s lineup, batting .292; his team highs included 8 home runs (most by a Honker since 1999), 45 runs batted in, 36 runs, 63 hits, 19 extra-base hits and a .454 slugging percentage. Nowak also won the NWL All-Star Game’s Home Run Hitting Contest and hit the team’s only grand slam of the season. Stephen Barton took the team batting title at .303, preventing Nowak from winning the team’s first Triple Crown since 1997 by eleven points; Barton added 31 RBI, 26 steals and a .435 on-base percentage. Nate Yoho added seven homers, 29 RBI’s and a .285 average. Sergio Pedroza joined the team with three weeks left in the season and electrified the Honkers, batting .323 with seven extra-base hits, including two homers, along with 13 RBI’s and a .500 slugging percentage. Reserve catcher Scott Sullivan hit just .091 in 12 games as a Honker, but he pulled off one of the truly stunning feats in Honkers history when he homered twice in one inning June 26th to help beat the Waterloo Bucks 13-0.
Rochester’s near-miss in the playoff chase magnified a handful of injuries to key players. First baseman Curtis Ledbetter was leading the league with a .382 average, with slugging and on-base percentages both near .500, before a late-June shoulder injury ended his season. Second-year Honker and fellow Nebraska Cornhusker Jesse Boyer had a .299 average, 20 steals and an NWL-best .481 on-base percentage when his season ended three weeks prematurely with an abdominal injury. Pitcher Jake Toohey started out 2-0 with a 2.67 ERA, 12 walks and 31 strikeouts, but then saw his season end after just five starts with an elbow injury.
2002 Back in the Playoff Picture
2001 marked the end of the Tom Fleenor-Mike Reid era in Rochester. Both coaches retired at the end of the season; Fleenor remains the all-time winningest manager in Honkers history, with a 147-106 regular-season record, a 6-5 postseason mark, and a Northwoods League title in 1999. Replacing Fleenor was longtime league veteran Dave Parra, who pitched three years for Waterloo and earned a NWL Post-season All-Star nod in 1997 before serving as the Bucks’ pitching coach for two years and winning the NWL Coach of the Year award each season. Parra then managed the Brainerd Mighty Gulls to a North Division playoff spot in 2001 before assuming the Honkers’ reins.
For the first time since 1996, there were no changes in the Northwoods League franchises, but there were a few power shifts in the league. For starters, Parra’s Honkers returned to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. An 18-14 first-half mark was good enough to clinch the South’s first playoff spot, and though Rochester ended the year a game under .500 (31-32), the Honkers would have themselves their traditional postseason showdown with the second-half champs, the Waterloo Bucks. Up North, the four-time defending divisional champion St. Cloud River Bats would face Brainerd for the fourth straight year in the playoffs; for the first time, however, Brainerd seemed like a worthy opponent, with not only their best record ever, at 39-25, but the best overall mark in the league.
Seeking their first playoff series win since the 1999 championship season, the Rochester Honkers wouldn’t find it in 2002. The Bucks clinched their second division title in three years with a Game Three 3-0 shutout of the Honkers in Waterloo, then proceeded to sweep surprising Brainerd 2-0 in the League Championship Series for their first Northwoods title since 1996.
Once again, the Honkers sported one of the league’s top starting tandems in 2002. Honker of the Year Connor Falkenbach finished 5-3 and a 1.67 ERA (the team’s best since 1998), with 85 strikeouts against only 17 walks; his 5.00 strikeouts-to-walks ratio is the team record. The Florida Gator righty also became the first Honker to record two shutouts in a season, pulling the feat off in consecutive starts with four hits, four walks and 25 strikeouts in the two games. In his 6-0 win over Waterloo June 26th, Falkenbach allowed the Bucks’ only hit with two out in the ninth; no other Honker has come as close to a nine-inning no-hitter. Nathan Hochgesang joined Falkenbach on the NWL Post-season All-Star Team after leading the staff with eight wins against two losses with an ERA of 2.69 and 44 strikeouts. David Bader anchored the bullpen with a 3-2 record, a 2.52 ERA and eight saves.
Rochester’s outfielders powered the Honkers offense in 2002. Left fielder Jeff Corsaletti batted .280 with a team-high 19 extra-base hits, including four home runs, 27 runs batted in, and 17 steals. Andre Ethier matched Corsaletti’s team high of four homers, batted .264, led the team with 34 RBI and won a Northwoods League Silver Glove for his defensive play in right field. Centerfielder Jesse Boyer led the team with a .295 average and drove in 18 runs.
2001 Upstarts for the First Time
The Northwoods League’s steady northwestern expansion reversed course in 2001. Both North Dakota teams—Minot and Grand Forks—called it quits. Meanwhile, the two new teams—the Madison Mallards and Alexandria Beetles—brought the league its largest and smallest cities ever. The Rochester Honkers stayed the course, with Fleenor and Reid looking to extend Rochester’s string of playoff appearances to six seasons.
As all good things do, the postseason streak ended in 2001 with a 31-33 regular season, just the second losing campaign in Rochester’s eight years in the league. With Waterloo winning 20 games to salt away the South Division first half, the Wisconsin Woodchucks pulled off a 20-12 second half to reach the postseason. In the first seven years of the league, Rochester had collected three titles while the Woodchucks, the only other original team left in the league, had only one playoff appearance and no postseason victories to its credit. As if to reinforce the fact, Rochester had won the last six season series against Wausau/Wisconsin. Wisconsin buried its past in 2001 by beating the Honkers seven out of ten tries, and eventually picking up 2-1 series victories over both Waterloo and St. Cloud to win its first Northwoods League title.
Although the Honkers as a whole suffered through a disappointing campaign, a handful of players bound for bigger and better things made their presence known in 2001. Pitchers Sam Smith and Enriques Baca, onetime teammates with the Southern Minny Stars, pitched more innings than any other Honkers duo in history. Smith, who joined Rochester after the Stars bolted Austin after the 1999 season, became the first (and still only) Honker to start 14 games. He tied the club record of four complete games for the second straight season (and took firm hold of the career lead with eight), finished 5-7 with a 4.15 ERA in 91 innings, and struck out 63 men. Baca, who spent 2000 with Mankato and thus became the first Northwoods Leaguer to play for three teams, went 6-5 in his 12 starts, compiled a 3.31 ERA, and struck out almost four times as many men as he walked (87, 23).
One man, however, may have qualified as both Rochester’s best starting pitcher and relief pitcher in 2001. Jaymie Russ spent both the early and late part of the season in the starting rotation, and served as the closer in-between. All in all, he started seven games, finished 12, and had a 6-5 record with a 2.73 ERA and five saves on his way to the Honker of the Year award. Russ struck out 64 hitters, walked only 29, and held hitters to a .223 batting average.
Russ and catcher Cory Von Tungeln represented Rochester in a unique Northwoods League All-Star Game. Instead of pitting North against South as usual, the league sent an all-Northwoods team up against the U.S.A. National Baseball Team in a one-time showcase, and the Northwoods All-Stars pulled off a ten-inning 1-0 victory in St. Cloud. Von Tungeln batted .303 in his second Honkers season; fellow catcher Chris Miller hit .271 with five homers and 41 RBI to anchor the Honkers offense. Mike Cunningham set the table, batting .276 and stealing 31 bases while being caught only twice; his .939 stolen-base percentage is the team record for players with at least ten steal attempts.
2000 Barely Bested by the Bucks
In 2000 Fleenor and Reid became the first Honkers manager-coach tandem to return intact for a second season since 1995. Also intact was Rochester and Waterloo’s status as kings of the South Division; Austin’s Southern Minny Stars relocated to North Dakota and became the Minot Greenheads; Mankato shifted to the South and, along with Wisconsin, were left to mount a challenge to the two perennial playoff qualifiers.
Nothing happened in 2000 to change things for the Honkers and Bucks, though it took the Honkers a while to hold up their end of the bargain. Despite a seven-game winning streak in June, the Honkers didn’t push their record above the .500 mark for good until after the league All-Star break. A visit to Minot sparked a six-game win streak, and the Honkers finished 20-5 in their last 25 games to lock down the South’s second-half title and earn a playoff showdown with Waterloo for a fifth straight year.
Unfortunately for the Honkers, here’s where things changed. First, the Honkers (39-25) edged Waterloo by half a game in the overall standings, so for the first (and still the only) time in history Rochester had home-field advantage in a playoff series. That evaporated with a 10-5 win in Game 1 for Waterloo at Mayo Field, as did Rochester’s repeat hopes with a 4-0 Bucks clincher at Riverfront Stadium the following night.
It was a sad ending to what otherwise was a hallmark season for one of the all-time Honkers greats. Dan Lawler hit .377 to win the Northwoods League batting crown and demolish a six-year-old team record by 20 points. He went deep twice, drove in a team-high 43 runs, and set more Honkers season record by walking 49 times, posting a .514 on-base percentage and playing 63 games. Lawler’s many team career marks include 107 runs scored, a .445 on-base percentage and 44 hit-by-pitches (nearly three times the next closest amount). His 164 games played stood as the team record for five seasons, and with 125 games at first base he holds every career record, including fielding percentage (.994), at the position.
Lawler’s best offensive support came from a player who over the course of the year elevated himself from reserve outfielder to one of the team’s most feared hitters ever. Jay Caligiuri emerged from the league All-Star break with a .255 average and only two extra-base hits. He proceeded to scorch league pitchers over his last 23 games, batting .404 with a .719 slugging percentage, an on-base percentage of almost .500, and all six of his home runs over that span. Even with the modest start, his season numbers rank him among the Honkers’ all-time best: a .347 average, 27 RBI’s (21 after the All-Star break), and 27 walks versus only 17 strikeouts. Caligiuri’s .563 slugging percentage and .455 on-base percentage both rank among the team’s five best of all time, an accomplishment unmatched by any other Rochester Honker.
A pair of Iowa Hawkeyes amplified the Rochester offense. Andy Jansen batted .320 with five homers, 31 RBI’s, a .489 slugging percentage and a .404 on-base percentage. Kurt Vitense was the Cal Ripken of Rochester, matching Lawler’s team-record 63 games played and doing so exclusively at shortstop. Vitense took sole possession of the record for most plate appearances in a Honkers season (305) and batted .292 with 26 RBI’s and nine steals.
The Honkers’ 2000 starting rotation featured four pitchers with 60 innings pitched, five wins and an earned run average under 3.00. Jason Paul won more games without a loss than any Honker ever, going 7-0 with a 2.11 ERA and 60 strikeouts. Dan Gooris went 6-2 with a 2.48 ERA and a team-high 73 strikeouts. Sam Smith tied a team record with four complete games despite making only seven starts; he finished the year with a 5-1 mark, a 2.17 ERA and the team’s only complete-game shutout. Jay Garner was 7-3 with a 2.83 ERA and a team-best .202 opponents’ average.
1999 Three-Time Champs!
1999 presented more change to the Northwoods League lineup. The Kenosha Kroakers, league champs in 1995, folded, leaving the Honkers and the Wisconsin (nee Wausau) Woodchucks as the only remaining teams from the league’s inaugural season. The Mankato Mashers were added to the fold, joining the North Division as Wisconsin shifted to the South with Rochester, Waterloo and Southern Minny. Stability was the Honkers’ hallmark by comparison; Rochester’s one major off-season change was the arrival of pitching coach Mike Reid, who would serve as Fleenor’s assistant for the next three years.
The Honkers were accustomed to the high expectations facing them in 1999. Once again, Rochester would find Waterloo its most potent divisional rival, and 1999 added extra thrills to the rivalry atop the South Division food chain. Rochester won seven of its last eight first-half games to erase a 5-1/2 game deficit and overtake Waterloo for the first South Division playoff berth. The Bucks’ mid-season slump proved to be just a hiccup as Waterloo took the second half and posted the league’s best overall record (44-19) for the second straight year.
The playoffs saw no change to the script that seemed to be acted out every year without fail. Waterloo fell in the playoffs to Rochester, despite home-field advantage and a regular-season series win (7-3 in 1999). The Honkers swept the Bucks 2-0 to earn a championship berth against St. Cloud, who had swept Brainerd in two games to keep alive their hopes for a repeat. Rochester dashed those hopes with a 2-1 series victory, clinching the NWL title with a 3-1 win in St. Cloud. For the Honkers, it made them the first (and still the only) three-time Northwoods League champions, made sweeter by the fact that they got to celebrate on St. Cloud’s diamond one year after the River Bats had celebrated their 1998 title at Mayo Field.
Honker of the Year award winner Jesse Zimmer took his offense to another level in 1999. With 13 home runs, the Princeton, MN native collected the most homers of any Honker since 1994 and became the only Honker ever to hit more than ten homers in a year twice. Also, having missed out on the Honkers’ grand slam splurge the year before, Zimmer came up with both of Rochester’s slams, single-handedly making the 1999 Honkers one of only two teams in franchise history to get more than one in a season. Zimmer also elevated his batting average to .304, set the team record for RBI’s with 61, and posted a .556 slugging percentage.
Rochester native Dan Lawler emerged as an offensive force in his second summer with the Honkers, batting .314 with eight homers and 41 RBI and an astounding 22 hit-by-pitches, not only the Honkers season record but more than any other player’s career total. Chad Hill set a team mark with five triples while batting .303 with eight homers, 37 RBI’s and 22 steals. Dave Sark won the team batting crown with a .333 mark along with five homers and 45 RBI’s. Jeremy Vidales hit .294 with seven home runs and 42 RBI’s and tied a team record by scoring 57 runs. Nic Ungs anchored the pitching staff with a dominating 1999 season for Rochester. He went 8-3 with a 3.12 ERA in 12 starts, threw three complete games (including a shutout), and delivered consecutive one-hitters in June.
1999 marked the end of some outstanding Honkers careers. Vidales, at second base, and catcher Jeff Stevens finished the season as the all-time leaders in games played at their positions; Stevens is the only man to play for two Northwoods League champions as a Rochester Honker. Vidales and Burney Hutchinson are still 1-2 in the Honkers record book for career walks (90, 83). Zimmer’s 99 career runs batted in remains the team standard, and his 25 homers and .511 career slugging percentage are the best by any Honker since 1996.
1998 Launch of the Fleenor Era
1998 marked the beginning of a distinct era in the Honkers organization. Between the lines, Rollins (FL) College assistant Tom Fleenor took over as manager, beginning a four-year stint as the Honkers’ skipper, with veteran California junior college coach Brad Peek on board as his assistant.
It was also a major year of transition for the Northwoods League as well. Despite the end of another original franchise, with the Manitowoc Skunks (the league runner-up in 1995) folding operations, the league expanded for the first time since 1995. The demise of the independent professional Prairie League (which in 1995 tried to place a team in Rochester and thus evict the Honkers from Mayo Field) paved the way for three new Northwoods franchises. From the Prairie’s ashes emerged the Brainerd Mighty Gulls, the Grand Forks Channel Cats, and the Southern Minny Stars, who became Rochester’s closest geographical rival, based in Austin. With eight teams now, the league instituted divisional play; Southern Minny, Waterloo and Kenosha joined Rochester in the South Division, with Brainerd, Grand Forks, St. Cloud and Wausau forming the North Division. The playoff format expanded to include a best-of-three divisional playoff round as well as the best-of-three NWL Championship Series, and the Northwoods League All-Star Game carried a more authentic flavor, having featured an arbitrary East-West match-up in prior years.
Assuming the role of the hunted instead of the hunter, the 1998 Honkers came out of the blocks strong once again with a five-game winning streak. The momentum didn’t last, however, as a six-game skid sent Rochester to the middle of the South Division pack for the season’s first half. In the meantime, Waterloo and St. Cloud took the league by storm. In their sophomore season, the River Bats looked like they would outdo the Bucks early on; St. Cloud set a NWL record by winning its first 14 games of the season, with Rochester ending the streak by beating the Bats 9-6 at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud. But the Bucks emerged on top, recording the best regular season in league history, with a 46-17 mark and a .730 winning percentage.
The Honkers recovered solidly with an 11-1 mid-July stretch and finished 37-25, setting up a playoff match-up with the Waterloo Bucks for the third straight year. Waterloo had bounced back in overpowering fashion from their 1997 championship loss to Rochester, winning both halves of the South Division and beating Rochester seven out of nine times along the way. Though Rochester didn’t win either half, Waterloo’s two half-titles opened the door for Rochester to enter the playoffs by owning the division’s second-best overall record.
Despite Waterloo’s regular-season domination, the postseason would feature no change of fortune for the two teams. Rochester beat the Bucks twice in a row and swept their way to the first-ever South Division title and a NWL Championship Series showdown with the St. Cloud River Bats, winners over 30-33 Wausau in the North Division series. For the second time in three years, the Honkers found themselves victim to a second-year franchise in the finals; St. Cloud swept Rochester in two games for their first title. Game 2 of the series was arguably the most remarkable in Rochester Honkers, if not Northwoods League, history; St. Cloud scored ten times in the top of the first inning, but Rochester stormed back with a nine-run fourth and actually held an 11-10 lead before the River Bats scored twice in the ninth and won 13-11.
Little did Honkers fans know at the time, but Rochester’s first future major leaguer was making his mark as the franchise’s most outstanding two-way player ever. Valentino Pascucci pitched the first no-hitter by a Honker with a 9-0 shutout of the Southern Minny Stars on July 16th. Nine days later, at the NWL All-Star Game, he earned MVP honors for hitting the go-ahead eighth-inning home run and then earning the pitching save in a South Division 5-4 victory. Pascucci batted .289 with 11 home runs, 49 RBI, 13 steals, a .509 slugging percentage and a .397 on-base percentage. On the mound, his record was 2-3 with a 3.06 ERA.
Pascucci was named to the 1998 Northwoods League Post-season All-Star Team as the league’s best right fielder, and he shared Honker of the Year honors with pitcher Scott Albin. Albin, who joined the Honkers in 1997 after one season in Waterloo, carried the biggest workload with 12 starts and 94 innings, became the first (and still only) nine-game winner for the Honkers while losing only three games, struck out a record 104 hitters and posted a sparkling 1.72 ERA. Albin still holds team career records with 15 wins, a 2.67 ERA, 159 strikeouts and only 2.5 walks per nine innings.
The team earned-run crown, however, belonged to Kevin Davis, who despite pitching exclusively in relief threw enough innings to qualify as the league ERA leader at 1.56. Davis finished 3-2, appearing in a team-record 32 games (and finishing a record 29 of them), saved nine to tie the team record, and held opponents to record-lows in batting average (.178) and hits per nine innings (5.19). One of Rochester’s deepest starting rotations also included Auvin Sierra (3-4, 2.29 ERA, 55 innings, 65 strikeouts, .196 opp. avg.), Dan Huesgen (7-2, 3.65 ERA, 4 complete games – Honkers record) and Charles Aulet (6-1, 4.03 ERA, 3 complete games).
Pascucci had a potent power partner in Jesse Zimmer, who batted .264, drove in 38 runs, led the team with 12 home runs and, with Pascucci, formed the second (and most recent) pair of Honkers with double-digits each in homers. A college teammate of Pascucci was Rochester’s batting champ in 1998; fellow Oklahoma Sooner Jeremy Vidales hit .344 with three home runs, drove in 24 RBI and recorded a team-record .464 on-base percentage. Burney Hutchinson batted .309 with five homers, 38 RBI and a .473 slugging percentage; he also handled 61 fielding chances flawlessly to become the only non-pitcher in Honkers history with a perfect fielding percentage (1.000). Todd Fox hit .325, drove in 40 runs, and tied Shawn Leimbek’s record of 20 doubles in a season.
Pascucci and Zimmer accounted for more than half of Rochester’s home runs in 1998 but they were not responsible for any of the Honkers’ league-record four grand slams. On June 28 centerfielder Chris Yeo hit a walk-off come-from-behind grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Southern Minny Stars 7-6. Improbably, just two nights later, Yeo came up with another slam, and shortstop Steve Lowe pulled off one of his own too, in a 12-2 win over Brainerd. Catcher Josh Pride smashed the Honkers’ fourth grand slam of the season July 23 to help beat Southern Minny 14-3. Amazingly, Pride’s slam was his only homer of the season, and Yeo and Lowe, who will probably remain the only pair of Honkers to hit grand slams in the same game for a very, very long time, each came up with only one home run the rest of the year.
1997 Restoration of NWL Hardware - 2nd NWL Championship
The Honkers prepared for 1997 with a lot of optimism. With the team from the previous year bouncing back from a sub-five-hundred season to get into the playoffs for the first time, this season’s road map seemed cut-and-dry. The next goal for Rochester was the NWL championship, and the Honkers would have to solve the Waterloo Bucks to accomplish this. Remove their head-to-head battles in 1996, and the Honkers would have finished with a 34-12 record, 6-1/2 games better than the Bucks. In the front office, Wood departed after four years as general manager; he would return to the league in 2001 as an umpires’ supervisor. Litzinger assumed the general manager’s post, which he holds today along with the title of co-owner.
Rochester would be lacking one partner in their recent success. For the first time, a league franchise folded, with the Dubuque Mudpuppies replaced by the St. Cloud River Bats. The Honkers would miss Dubuque; Rochester had been 18-5 against the Puppies the previous two seasons. The all-time series against Dubuque ended on a somewhat fitting note in 1996. The Honkers traveled to Dubuque for a Sunday afternoon game to discover upon their arrival that, in “Bull Durham” fashion, the ballpark sprinklers had been left on overnight and the field was left in unplayable condition, forcing the game’s cancellation.
Rochester started the 1997 season in the most satisfying fashion possible. The Honkers, 1-12 against Waterloo the previous season, swept a season-opening three-game series against the Bucks and went on to win a franchise-record eight straight. Rochester started with 20 wins in their first 26 games and coasted to the first-half league title. With a playoff berth assured, the Honkers overcame a slight mid-season lull and roared to the finish with 11 wins in their last 14 games. Appropriately, Rochester’s final step would have to be through Waterloo—not only did the defending champion Bucks earn another NWL playoff berth, but they also won the second half title outright and again earned home-field advantage for the playoffs.
In addition to the excitement surrounding the Northwoods League pennant chase, Rochester had the additional honor of hosting the Northwoods League All-Star Game for the first (and so far, only) time. The Honkers sent a team-record ten players to the South Division team, including two-time qualifiers Lucas (.266, 1 HR, 17 RBI, 10 steals in ’97) and pitcher Brad Heuring (6-2, 2.57 ERA, 28 walks, 59 strikeouts). (With each division now containing six teams instead of four, this record is close to unbreakable.) Unfortunately for the Honkers and fellow South Division players involved, the North squad pulled off a 6-2 victory at Mayo Field.
Things were truly different this season for the Honkers, though; Rochester finished the season in the same satisfying way it began, with a 2-games-to-1 series win against the Bucks and the franchise’s second Northwoods League championship. The Honkers became the first two-time league champion, finishing the season 11-8 against Waterloo, and in the process cementing what is still the best rivalry the league has ever seen.
Offensively, Rochester native and 1997 Honker of the Year Shawn Leimbek assumed the role of the most clearly dominant batter on the team, following in the footsteps of Washam, Kneeshaw and Poepard. The first baseman became the third player in the Honkers’ four years to win the team Triple Crown by batting .341 with 10 home runs and a record-tying 54 runs batted in. (What seemed like an annual occurrence at the time is now a rare event; no Honker has accomplished the feat since.) Leimbek set a team record with 20 doubles and, at 31 extra-base hits, fell just three short of another. He also anchored the Honkers’ most prolific double-play combination ever; shortstop Randy Meadows (37), second baseman Ryan O’Donovan (34) and Leimbek (45) all set team marks for double plays at their respective positions. (Only Meadows’ record, which lasted until 2004, has been broken.)
One of Rochester’s all-time pitching workhorses threw for the Honkers in 1997. Chad Kirby still holds the team record with 100 innings pitched, going 7-2 with a 3.06 ERA in the process. Kirby also set records with 13 starts and 3 complete games. His control certainly helped his durability; he walked only 15 men all year, and his 1.35 walks per nine innings is another team record to Kirby’s credit. Rochester’s first marquee closer left the Honkers with merely a taste of what could have been; Adam Biggs collected a record-breaking nine saves in just the season’s first half, but back spasms kept him out of action for the duration of the season. University of Minnesota pitcher Ben Birk, older brother of Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, went 5-1 with a 3.99 ERA on the mound but used his bat to etch his name in Rochester’s record book. On July 15 against Wisconsin, Birk became the first, and remains the only, Honker to hit for the cycle.
1996 A Hard-Fought Playoff Berth
1996 marked the first year of major transition in the Honkers organization. Carr departed and Owens, now the pitching coach at the University of Louisville, stepped up to take the reins. Kneeshaw, who had just completed his playing career at Southwest Missouri State, became the first ex-Honker player to return as an assistant coach.
While the Honkers were the Northwoods League’s first-ever champion in 1994, Rochester had not yet been to a NWL postseason, and the team looked to change that in 1996. The Honkers got off on the right foot, thanks to a team record-tying seven wins in a row in June, and finished the first half at 19-11. Unfortunately, the Waterloo Bucks bested the Honkers by one game despite dropping their last six of the first half. Rochester won the second half’s first five games, tapered off to a 13-13 record, but then pulled off a three-game season-ending sweep of defending league champion Kenosha to qualify for the postseason. The Bucks also took the NWL second half, with the Honkers entering the postseason with the second-best overall league mark (35-24).
Rochester had a powerful trend to “buck” in the 1996 Northwoods League Championship Series. The Honkers had dropped 12 of 13 games against Waterloo in the regular season, and the Bucks owned home-field advantage in the series. The series would reveal no answers to the Honkers; Waterloo earned a 7-0 home shutout to open the series and clinched their first Northwoods League championship with an 8-6 win at Mayo Field the following night.
After two years of fireworks from Honkers hitters, a pitcher turned in 1996’s marquee performance. Minnesota Golden Gopher and Rochester Honker of the Year Mike Diebolt went 5-0 with a 1.48 ERA, still the lowest in team history (among qualifiers with 0.8 innings per scheduled game), and set a team record (as did teammate Ryan Van Gilder) with 74 strikeouts. (Tragically, Diebolt passed away the following year in a car crash.) Van Gilder went 5-3 with a 3.41 ERA in 74 innings.
Offensively, the Honkers were once again built for speed. Kevin Lucas and Torre Tyson collected what are still the two highest stolen base totals in team history, with Lucas edging Tyson 34 steals to 33. Lucas also led the Honkers with a .355 average and 88 hits (still a team record), while Tyson scored a team-high 46 runs. The team’s most dominant hitter was Scott Poepard, a member of the original 1994 Honkers who returned to the team after a one-summer absence. The Forest Lake native batted .342 with seven homers and 29 RBI, led the team with 27 extra-base hits and sported both the team’s best on-base percentage (.427) and slugging percentage (.576 – 2nd all-time for Rochester).
Two Honkers closed out the first three-year careers in franchise history. Mike Maslowski, from suburban New Brighton, played in 157 games and is still the franchise leader in at-bats, plate appearances, hits, doubles, total bases, and games in the outfield. Maslowski capped his career by batting .299 with six homers and 42 RBI, and threw out nine base runners from the outfield to set a Honkers record. Another Minnesota native, Colin Brackeen of Mounds View, went 3-1 in eight starts with a 2.96 ERA and 58 strikeouts; he remains the franchise leader in career games pitched (37), starts (22), and innings (177.0).
Brackeen led an eight-man team contingent to the Northwoods League All-Star Game and became the first Honker to play in the contest twice. Tyson brought home Rochester’s first All-Star Game MVP award after Rochester and the other West All-Stars beat the East 3-1. Postseason awards included the Coach of the Year award for Owens (a franchise first) and Northwoods League All-Star Team roster spots for Diebolt, Lucas, Van Gilder, catcher Andrew Thompson (.308, 2 HR, 34 RBI) and pitcher Ben Sickler (6-3, 2.64 ERA, 1 shutout, 62 strikeouts).
1995 Stiffer 2nd-Year Competition
With a successful first year under both the Honkers’ and the league’s belts, several added details turned the Northwoods into the league we recognize today. The Northwoods League Championship Series, featuring the league’s split-season champions, and the annual league All-Star Game made their debut in 1995. But best of all, for both the Honkers and the league, the Waterloo Bucks came on board in 1995. Not only did the NWL’s first expansion team erase all the odd-team scheduling headaches from the previous year, it gave the Rochester Honkers an instant and lasting archrival. The Bucks threw down the gauntlet by splitting their season series 6-6 against the defending champs; only two of eleven expansion teams have since avoided a losing record against Rochester in their first year.
Rochester came back down to earth against the rest of the league as well, finishing 29-31 and missing the playoffs. The Honkers started strong out of the gate again, winning six of their first eight, but nine losses in their next eleven games took them out of the running in the first half, and despite a six-game July winning streak the Honkers couldn’t keep up the pace in the second half.
For the second straight season, a Honker pulled off a team Triple Crown, leading the team in average, home runs and runs batted in. This year, however, it was Kneeshaw with a .353 mark, 10 homers, a team-record 54 RBI (broken in 1999) and the only six-hit game in franchise history, in the August 10th season finale. Washam chipped in with a .305 average, nine home runs and 47 RBI. The pair remains the most powerful offensive tandem in club history; Washam and Kneeshaw remain 1-2 in Honkers career slugging percentage (.615-.551) to this day. Washam still holds team career records with 28 homers and 52 extra-base hits, and Kneeshaw’s .352 two-year average remains the team’s all-time best. Both sluggers received their second Northwoods League Post-season All-Star honors and are still the only two-time NWL All-Stars the Honkers have ever had.
Rochester’s 1995 offense demonstrated speed as well as power, garnering 30 steals from both Bo Hundt and Jason McConnell; Hundt’s .296 average and five homers earned him NWL All-Star honors. An All-Star nod came David Huggins’ way as well; the starter went 5-2 with a 4.96 ERA, struck out 65 in 65-1/3 innings, and pitched the team’s first three-hitter in a July 15th 3-0 shutout over Dubuque. Second-year Honker Brackeen joined the starting rotation in 1995 and went 5-4 with a 5.06 ERA; his four complete games still holds a share of the team record. Among the seasons’ notable individual achievements: third baseman Matt Purkiss hit the team’s first-ever grand slam in a 13-10 Independence Day loss at Wausau, and utilityman Doug Barner (.333, 7 HR, 30 RBI; 2-0, 3.60 ERA in 20 innings) bashed three home runs to help beat Dubuque 10-7 on August 1st.
1994 Taking the Inaugural Title
As one of five original Northwoods League teams, the Rochester Honkers helped usher in a new concept for baseball in America. The league modeled itself as a typical professional minor league, with stadiums seating thousands of people featuring special promotions every night of the season. The teams would play virtually every night, traveling across the Upper Midwest. What would set the Northwoods League apart would be the use of college athletes. Baseball players from universities across the country would have the opportunity to experience what real minor-league baseball was like without having to go pro and forsake their college eligibility.
Like the other league teams, the Honkers were owned by the league itself, led by president George MacDonald, Jr. and executive vice president Dick Radatz, Jr. McDonald had spent eighteen years as president of the Class A Florida State League, while Radatz, the son of the 1960’s Boston Red Sox reliever, had been president of the Florida State League’s Red Sox affiliate. Rochester’s local administration featured general manager Winston Wood, fresh from a stint with the independent Northern League’s Sioux Falls Canaries. Wood’s assistant GM was Dan Litzinger, who accepted a Honkers summer internship while a Rochester Athletic Club staffer and then quickly advanced to a full-time position weeks before the start of the season.
Manager Tom Carr, whom at age 27 was already a seasoned coaching veteran at the college level, and Pitching Coach, and former minor league hurler, Larry Owens took on the task of putting the first 22-man Honkers roster together. Rochester would play a 54-game season including only 46 league contests; with only five teams in the league that first year, one squad lacked a league opponent every night. (Rochester fleshed out its schedule with eight contests against area amateur teams, including five games against the Rochester Royals)
The Northwoods League did not incorporate a playoff format into its inaugural season, and it didn’t take very long for Rochester to remove almost all doubt from the pennant chase. Driven by an offense that led the league in batting, home runs and runs scored, the Honkers won their first five games and opened 15-2, which remains the franchise’s best-ever 17-game stretch. Rochester had a five-game lead before Independence Day, then cruised to a 31-15 finish and went on to win the first ever Northwoods League crown.
Postseason awards came aplenty to the Rochester Honkers in 1994. NWL Manager of the Year Tom Carr and league Most Valuable Player Jason Washam remain the only Honkers ever to win those awards. Washam enjoyed one of the Northwoods League’s all-time best offensive seasons. Even though the NWL schedule has had at least 60 games in every subsequent year, Washam still holds the league record with 19 homers in only 46 games in 1994. His team record .775 slugging percentage and 1.220 OPS (on-base plus slugging) are both about 200 points better than the next closest entries in the Honkers’ record book. In addition, his .357 batting average lasted for six years as the franchise record and he still holds team marks with 57 runs, 141 total bases, and 34 extra-base hits.
But Washam had plenty of help; along with him at catcher, six other Honkers were named 1994 NWL All-Stars. Right fielder Andrew Cornell hit .264 with 13 home runs, earning him the nod as the All-Star team’s designated hitter; his homer total is still tied for second-most in a Honkers season. Left fielder Dan Kneeshaw batted .353 with five of Rochester’s league-high 54 homers. Josh Bishop went 6-1 to anchor the rotation; he posted a 3.50 ERA and held opponents to a .195 batting average, a team record which stood until 1998. Reliever Colin Brackeen, a Twin Cities native, finished 6-1 as well and sported a 4.72 ERA. Centerfielder Matt Ostrom (.325, 3 home runs, 29 RBI, 23 steals) and relief pitcher Chris Giuliani (3-1, 2.67 ERA, 5 saves) also earned NWL Post-season All-Star honors.
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