By IAN WILSON
They were bad.
No, like really terrible.
They were, in fact, dreadful.
Place the word “historically” in front of those adjectives and you still don’t come close to capturing the futility of the 1988 Medicine Hat Blue Jays.
The Baby Jays participated in 70 games that season and had just 12 wins to show for it. Paired with a Pioneer League-record 58 losses, the sorry squad had a .171 winning percentage and finished some 40 games back of the league champion Great Falls Dodgers in the standings. Medicine Hat gave up 544 runs during the season, almost eight scores per game. The offence countered with 253 runs, which amounted to an average of just over 3.5 runs each outing. Those same batters were punched out 658 times – more than nine strikeouts a game.
Dean Linden just happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness the three-ring circus, and at times, contribute a side show down at Athletic Park.
“That was a trip, man … a real trip,” said Linden, who was just 19 years old when he left a job at the Westlander Inn to become the general manager of the team.
“That is one of the things that is so amazing about it, because it would never happen today.”
YUILL NEVER BELIEVE IT
How does a young man recently out of high school, doing promotions work for a hotel that was most well-known for its strip club, end up running a professional baseball team?
On the ball club’s side of things, they began the 1987 season with Ed Taylor in the GM’s chair, but he quit to become an electrician with the City of Medicine Hat. His replacement, Craig Brasfield of Mississippi, resigned in October to take a job with the Danville Pirates of the Appalachian League. Bill Yuill, the owner of the Hat Jays, later revealed to the Medicine Hat News that Brasfield was “in the country illegally.”
Enter Linden, who was up against six other candidates when he submitted his application to Russ Williams, the vice president of Yuill’s Consolidated Sports Holdings.
“I got my resume together and I dutifully marched down there and – unbeknownst to me, I thought I was going in for the ballpark operations and promotions department – I met with Russ Williams for probably an hour and he said, ‘When can you start?’ By the end of the day, they were holding a press conference naming me general manager of the team,” Linden told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“It wasn’t all that unbelievable in the respect that at the Westlander Inn, I’d gotten to do a lot of things. I never waited a table, I was always kind of in management. It really didn’t seem like that big of a leap, oddly it didn’t.
“It was incredible how they just kind of threw me the keys to this professional baseball team.”
At the mid-January press conference that introduced Linden to the media, ownership emphasized the importance of having someone local in place who understood the Medicine Hat market.
“The reason why they were panicking was they didn’t have any advertising sold. They didn’t have the programs sold, and they needed somebody who could hustle around town and sell out the program and get the sponsorships and arrange all that stuff and it was such a short window that they had to get that position filled and I happened to show up,” recalled Linden.
“It was just a blur and I didn’t really pinch myself because they just said, ‘Here, go out and start selling the outfield ads and the program … you’ve got to get going on it right now.’ There was no honeymoon.”
BAND OF BROTHERS
The Linden name was, and still is, recognizable to residents of The Gas City. Trevor Linden helped guide the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League (WHL) to consecutive Memorial Cup championships in 1987 and 1988 before embarking on a 19-year career in the National Hockey League (NHL). Younger brother, Jamie, also played in the WHL, including a season with the Tigers, and skated briefly with the Florida Panthers.
“I was the oldest of three boys and I’d really enjoyed being the bigger, stronger, faster one through most of our childhood. It was really sinking in that summer that I wasn’t the cock of the walk anymore, even in that house. Trev had surpassed me in notoriety,” noted Linden.
“In the span of two years he went from a complete unknown to a Memorial Cup champion and first-round draft pick and all those types of things. I don’t know if he would agree that it was a competition, but I was feeling like I was getting caught and passed. For me, having a bit of a profile, not anything close to what he had, it was nice. I needed it for my frail 19-year-old ego.”
The Vancouver Canucks made Trevor Linden the second-overall selection in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft on June 11th in Montreal. Dean made the trip to Quebec for the momentous day for the family, but it was a quick turnaround back to Alberta to prepare for the rapidly-approaching Pioneer League season.
‘THIS TEAM SUCKS’
The rookie GM was tasked with renting a van and picking up all the players from the airport and getting them settled at their summer lodgings at the Cloverleaf Motel. During one of his shuttle runs, Linden received prophetic words from Ray Giannelli, a third baseman from New York who was drafted in the 38th round.
“Ray jumped into the passenger seat of the van. The first words he said to me were, in his Long Island accent, ‘Hey boss, this team sucks balls.’ I’m like, what?” laughed Linden, who didn’t have much time to give the proclamation any serious thought at that point.
It didn’t take too long for the freshly-minted manager to realize that his corner infielder might be right.
“We knew we were going to be very young but at that point we were all just excited to start,” said Tim Bruzdewicz, a lefty pitcher from Imperial, Pennsylvania who was drafted in the 19th round.
“As we started seeing what we had, it wasn’t very good. For me there were early warning signs because we did have a lot of project pitchers and we also had a major language barrier.”
Field manager Rocket Wheeler, however, expressed optimism heading into the season.
“I’m real confident. The kids are excited to get going, too. They have been practising for 15 days, so they’re anxious to get at it,” Wheeler told Medicine Hat News reporter Scott Cruickshank ahead of the squad’s opening, three-game series in Billings, Montana.
“The kids might be happy to get the jitters out on the road … I would like to see us win two out of three games there and I think that’s realistic.”
It was, unfortunately, not realistic. After suffering an 11-6 loss at the hands of the Mustangs in the first game of the year, the Jays were swept by Billings.
The return to Medicine Hat did little to help the club, which dropped a pair of home-opening games to the Helena Brewers.
It only got worse from there. The Great Falls Dodgers, with a roster that included future National League Rookie of the Year Erik Karros and soon-to-be MLB shortstop Jose Offerman, erupted. They produced runs in the double-digits in four straight contests, capped off by a 16-0 drubbing that saw Medicine Hat fielders commit seven errors while the batters struck out 17 times. Bobby Mattick, head of player development for the Toronto Blue Jays, was in attendance for the embarrassing display.
“Right now, we’re the whipping boys. I guarantee you by the end of the year that will change,” said the ever-optimistic Wheeler. “We’re a young, green team. There’s only one way for us to go.”
It was after the eighth loss that Linden decided to take action. His plan was lifted, in part, from Ken Shepard, the general manager of the Geneva Cubs of the New York-Penn League. Shepard’s team started the 1988 season with a 1-10 record and after their losing skid reached six games, he vowed to sleep in the press box until the Cubs won a game. That stunt left Shepard in cramped quarters for 17 consecutive nights. (An award for promotional excellence has since been created in his honour).
In a move that would make Bill Veeck proud, Linden built on Shepard’s idea and committed to camping out at Athletic Park until the Baby Jays snapped their winless streak.
“I phoned around and it was really fun from the perspective that everybody got behind it really quick. Canadian Tire donated all my camping equipment and all that type of stuff. I was set up really quick. The guys were on the road when I started the camp out, so it was kind of lonely down there and there weren’t a lot of fans down there. I kind of did it without talking to anybody. I just did it,” remembered Linden.
The parent club was less than impressed.
“Somebody said they want me to apologize. Why should I be apologizing to them? I’m the one sleeping in the rain,” Linden told News sports editor Grant Granger in the June 29th edition of the paper.
“I hope someone takes notice in Toronto. They told me they would have a competitive team and went around selling advertising to merchants with that in mind and in some ways I feel I’ve ripped those people off now.”
The errors continued to mount, the team’s collective earned run average ballooned, hits remained elusive for Medicine Hat batters and as the calendar flipped from June to July, the Blue Jays still sought a victory.
A home date for Canada Day didn’t turn the tide. The punchless Jays gift-wrapped the win for the Helena Brewers during an 11-0 blowout. The only fireworks for fans at Athletic Park that night were of the post-game variety, and Medicine Hat had now recorded a dozen straight losses.
The players and coaches, meanwhile, got a first-hand look at their GM’s publicity gimmick.
“I’ll never forget the morning the guys came in. The sun had just come up, the guys were on a road trip and they pulled into the parking lot and I woke up to twenty guys standing around my tent out by the pitcher’s mound. I crawled out of my tent and they said, ‘We heard about this.’ I was really worried that they would feel like I was drawing attention to their sorrow a little bit, or their pain or futility. I was worried about that, how they would take this little stunt. They were fantastic,” said Linden.
Not everyone on the team embraced the idea.
“As far as our GM’s stunt went, I absolutely hated it. I’m an old school baseball guy who learned from my dad that if you are losing games, work harder. I did like Dean Linden though,” Bruzdewicz admitted to Alberta Dugout Stories.
Roughing it at the ballpark provided its own set of challenges for Linden. When it wasn’t raining, he had tornado warnings, squawking birds and sprinklers to contend with.
“I’d lived in Medicine Hat my entire life and I never really paid attention to tornado warnings. It wasn’t something that even occurred to me,” he said.
“I remember the wind blowing so hard that it was catching my tent and it was hitting it so hard that my feet were elevated. It was actually picking up my feet in the tent.”
The sprinklers would often go off in the middle of the night and leave Linden scrambling to move his tent.
“By the end of the night some nights I was sleeping in the dugout. I wasn’t always in the tent – it was wherever I could find a dry place,” said Linden.
FOR THE WIN
For an organization that was so desperate for a win, Linden provided it … promotionally speaking.
It didn’t necessarily put more butts in the seats. The Blue Jays ranked last in the league in attendance, welcoming 10,553 fans to the ballpark for an average crowd of 302 onlookers per game.
But the media took notice in Alberta and across North America.
The Los Angeles Times was one of many prominent U.S. newspapers to pick up on the story, and Linden was a frequent guest on Canada’s morning radio shows. Late-night TV shows even took an interest.
“(Local TV station) CHAT would set up a camera and for a week they did remote weather from my tent site. They would have me sit in my lawn chair and have me doing something like throwing a ball up in the air or something, and they would talk about the weather with me as sort of a backdrop,” said Linden.
“Every morning I’d wake up and go to the office and I would take a call from the CBC, I would call into three or four different radio stations around the country on the morning drives and that sort of stuff. It gave me something to do. It was the one thing that I could do that I didn’t feel like I was in over my head. I was kind of a natural promoter and I just gravitated to that because I was good at it, as dumb as that may sound.”
Adding to the interest in minor-league baseball at the time was the mid-June release of a sports movie starring Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon.
“Bull Durham came out that summer, so there was this whole heightened romanticism about minor-league baseball. It seemed like everybody was more interested in minor-league baseball then they otherwise would be,” said Linden.
Brasfield, Linden’s predecessor, was witnessing the Bull Durham craze up close. When the bid by the Danville Pirates to join the Appalachian League was turned down, Brasfield became the concessions manager of the Durham Bulls, the Class-A Carolina League team that was featured prominently in the film. While Athletic Park concessions workers had no problem catering to the few hundred fans at the ballpark, Brasfield was in charge of eight stations that were feeding and hydrating record crowds of anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 people.
“This is one of the biggest operations in the minor leagues,” Brasfield told Granger.
“We’ve got people coming to take pictures of the automated bull in the outfield that blows smoke out of its nose … it’s been just phenomenal. We’re getting souvenir orders from all over, even out of the country.”
Linden, meanwhile, was hoping to capture some airtime with the king of late-night television comedy on the backs of his lollygaggers.
“A producer for Late Night with David Letterman called and they wanted to do a feature on the whole campout thing and probably just make fun of me, how David Letterman did. That was happening. They were arranging it,” he said.
Alas, all things must come to an end, whether they’re good or bad.
Just as Linden was working out the details of a major publicity victory, the improbable happened: the Medicine Hat Blue Jays won a game.
With a Pioneer League record 16-straight losses under their belt to start the season, the Jays finally came out on the right side of the box score.
The team started the front half of a July 6th doubleheader against the Billings Mustangs with a familiar result that was delivered in an unusual way. With the score tied in the eighth inning, Mustang Dante Johnson faked running home from third base, which prompted Medicine Hat backstop Juan Jaime to leave the catcher’s box before reliever Eric Bradley delivered his throw. Johnson was awarded home plate on a rare “catcher’s balk” and Billings won 4-3.
Playing the second tilt in front of 209 seemingly masochistic fans at Athletic Park, the Hat Jays bounced back on the strength of Jose Guarache’s three-run homer and five innings of two-hit ball from pitcher Benigno Placeres, who helped lift the battered baseballers to a 5-0 victory.
“I packed up my tent,” said Linden, who also stopped shaving during his camping adventure.
“That’s when it really occurred to me. Oh, you know what? I’m not going to be featured on David Letterman’s show. Now it’s just kind of back to work. Up until that time it was fun and games.”
Granger’s newspaper column – entitled “Streak Autopsy” – lamented the end of the streak.
“It stopped at 16, mercifully. Some of the losses hurt a baseball lover’s eyes. The pitcher’s looked like little leaguers. The batters swung with the coordination of a sports editor,” wrote Granger.
“The streak’s promotional potential was as awesome as a Jose Canseco homer. With it over, the Jays are simply a bad team. If the streak continued it could’ve become absolutely awful, which is big news.”
Perhaps the diamond duds from the Hat read that and thought: challenge accepted.
YOU COULD DO WORSE
The end of the losing skid did not prove to be a turning point. The scores started getting closer, but the Baby Jays continued to drop games in bunches, although none of those stretches would provide the exclamation point of their season-starting woes.
When the club’s record fell to 2-22, an exasperated Wheeler tried to shake them out of their funk.
“We’re not losers. We’ve got a bad record but we’re not losers and I don’t want them starting to believe they are and that’s the rut they’re falling into,” read his quotes in the Medicine Hat News.
“They’ve got some ability and they’ve got to stop looking to find a new way to lose.”
By mid-July, outside help arrived in the form of sports psychologist Sam McDowell, who was a six-time MLB All-Star pitcher and the inspiration for the character Sam Malone, played by Emmy-winning actor Ted Danson in the TV show Cheers.
“The stress they were putting on themselves was unnerving. Their inability to control themselves or their talent was vividly demonstrated on the field,” observed McDowell of the rookie-level affiliate.
“Confidence is misunderstood. Some people think you can have it one day and the next day you don’t. It’s a progressive act where you work at it continually. Some people say you have to win to have confidence and you have to have confidence to win. That’s B.S. A baseball player doesn’t have control over who wins.”
McDowell’s visit seemed to have little impact. A road trip to Salt Lake City, Utah a week later saw the Jays get pounded 52-13 by the Trappers over the course of a four-game sweep. The only fight Medicine Hat put up was in the form of a dugout-clearing brawl in the third game.
When that was followed by a 10-0 beating at the hands of the Pocatello Giants, the press reports got really grim. Wheeler passed over Bull Durham at the Idaho theatre in favour of Clint Eastwood’s The Dead Pool after that drubbing.
“Rocket’s had a rough kind of week,” fellow coach Bob Nandin confessed to the News.
“It’s eating him up and it’s eating me up. Rocket’s going to have a heart attack. He looks sick.”
The coaching staff ditched kid-gloves approaches for shorter-leash methods.
“I don’t know what to say. We’re trying to motivate them. We’re trying to make them think but their heads are just not in the game. They’re in another world. We’re trying to get them fired up and mean,” said Nandin.
“We’re going to make life miserable for them. We’re going to check curfews, make sure they’re on time and doing things right – just being jerks, that’s what we’ve got to do.”
The strategy paid off in the short term, as the Blue Jays picked up back-to-back wins and claimed victory in three of their next four games.
Medicine Hat returned to their losing ways in August, narrowly dodging being no-hit in the first game of that month against the Mustangs. Billings starting pitcher Carl Nordstrom, who was good friends with Bruzdewicz of the Jays, put up zeros through 8.2 innings, but Jaime managed a two-strike single up the middle before Nordstrom put down the next batter.
More losses befell the Blue Jays. Local media continued to take shots at Toronto for not providing a better product to the fans. Wheeler took aim at the umpiring crew in his Aug. 4th post-game comments after a 12-6 loss to Billings. It was the 18th time the Jays surrendered double-digit runs to their opponents and the seven-game slump they were mired in put their record at 6-39.
The “Blues” Jays – as they had been dubbed by sports scribes – improved their play enough to boost their win total to an even dozen by the end of the season, but there were few bright spots to offset the horrific campaign.
Ace pitcher Rich Nowak was one of the feel-good stories. The 22-year-old righthander from California went 2-5 over 11 starts and 64 innings for Medicine Hat. His 3.09 ERA was the best on the team and he was named a Pioneer League All-Star.
Outfielder Eddy Mendez was named the most-valuable player on the squad. The 21-year-old led the Jays in hits (70), doubles (11), triples (5), runs (24) and batting average (.307).
The best of the bunch, though, was Giannelli.
“He was a little older and he wasn’t happy about where he was being sent because he was our best player but he was not in the plans. He was there just to make us respectable but he wasn’t there to be developed,” said Linden of the lone player to crack a major-league roster from the team.
Linden gave Giannelli a ride home to his motel room after most home games, stopping at the office first to fax Wheeler’s “strictly confidential” game report to Mattick in Toronto.
“The first half of the year I was a rule follower, but as time went on Ray would be like, ‘Am I in that report? Are they talking about me at all?’ I was like: ‘Ray, I can’t discuss it with you. I cannot.’ But as time wore on that season he got really discouraged, just because he realized. He was pretty street wise. I never showed him the report, but there was a time I just said, ‘Ray, they’re talking about you. You’re getting talked about a lot.’ The second half of the year, he just totally raked. It would’ve been hard to not talk about him,” said Linden.
“By the end of the season he was filling up that report like crazy, but he didn’t know it and he was discouraged and he was thinking about hanging it up. When he got called up to the Blue Jays, to the major leagues, I hadn’t heard from him for a long time. He actually called me from the SkyDome hotel and said thanks. You don’t know what goes through a guy’s head. I didn’t know it was that important to him that he was being talked about in those game reports. It was certainly in violation of, it was unprofessional of me to do that, but I could see how discouraged he was getting. That was maybe the highlight of that for me, was that he ended up making it to the big leagues.”
In 47 games and 123 at bats for Medicine Hat, Giannelli hit four long balls and he led the Baby Jays in runs batted in, with 28. The slugger managed to appear in 18 MLB games, nine with Toronto in 1991 and another nine with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1995.
Giannelli still recalls the lengthy bus rides the Pioneer League put players through, but he said the idea of quitting on baseball didn’t cross his mind.
“I actually thought I was going to be released at the end of the season,” he told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“Memories from that summer were all good. Even though we lost a lot, we had a great bunch of guys and had a lot of fun. I had a few big hits late in that season, which today I believe kept my career going.”
The 54-year-old father of four – who last year served as an assistant coach on a New York Tech Bears team that made the NCAA Division II World Series – also remained pals with the Lindens long after he left southern Alberta.
“I enjoyed Medicine Hat. The people were great and I was lucky to become good friends with Dean Linden and his brothers … Dean came out to visit me in New York for Thanksgiving one year. Also, I was able to see Trevor play against the Islanders and Rangers every year,” said Giannelli.
One of Linden’s last responsibilities for the organization was to ensure the players from the Dominican Republic and South America got on a plane in Great Falls and went home. It was not an insignificant task for Linden, who got a call from immigration officials at one point informing him that two of his players were found to have forged documents. A pair of his pitchers from Venezuela apparently lied about their age in an attempt to latch on with the Jays as prospects.
“I took the bus down there with the guys, made sure everybody got on the plane, checked their tickets and got whatever signatures I required. I vividly remember the sun coming up on the way back from Great Falls. I was the only one on this motor coach and I knew I wasn’t coming back the next year,” said Linden, who took a public relations job with the Medicine Hat Tigers in the fall of 1988.
“I just remember an unbelievable sense of adventure that it was. I knew then that it was kind of a thing that was probably transforming my life. It helped me understand and it kind of set a pattern for my life. I think that everything that I’ve done since I’ve been able to get in a little bit over my head … nothing is really too big for me. I think that experience shaped me more than anything else that I can think of. Being that age and just surviving it.”
Linden admitted to floundering for a few years in Medicine Hat after his brush with baseball infamy. He moved to Vancouver in 1991, where he drove a forklift at a warehouse. The enterprising Albertan went back to school before landing on his feet doing investor relations with ID Biomedical in the late 1990s. That company was sold to Glaxo SmithKline for $1.7 billion in 2005, which set Linden up as a managing partner with Cypress Hills Partners.
“I’ve had an amazing adventure on the business side as well. I really believe that it was all kind of set up by the summer of ’88,” he said. “It shouldn’t have happened and it wouldn’t happen today but it happened to me.”
Now living in Seattle, Linden is a 15-minute drive from T-Mobile Park and he said Mariner radio broadcasts are the soundtrack of his summers.
“I love baseball. I love everything about it. To me, it’s not as much of a sport as it is a mood,” said Linden, who still visits family in Medicine Hat a few times each year.
Bruzdewicz, whose two victories gave him a share of the team lead in wins that ill-fated summer, also took some positives away from the experience.
“I still use some of Rocket Wheeler’s thought processes now at the high school level,” said the southpaw, who is the head baseball coach at Canon-MacMillan High School in Pittsburgh.
“I stayed in baseball to give something back to my mentors, and because I’m so competitive.”
In addition to guiding his high school team to a state championship in 2018, Bruzdewicz also served as a lucky charm to his minor-league roommates. All three of his roomies – Giannelli, Pat Hentgen, and Woody Williams – went on to have MLB careers.
Yes, those 1988 Medicine Hat Blue Jays were something else, but maybe it wasn’t all bad.