Eleven Heaven

By JOE McFARLAND

They were dubbed “The New Britain 11.”

Heading into the Pacific Coast League (PCL) final against the Salt Lake Stingers, 11 members of the Edmonton Trappers were coming off a championship victory a year earlier with the Double-A New Britain Rock Cats … kind of.

In September 2001, they had been preparing for an Eastern League championship series against the Reading Phillies when the world paused in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The playoff series never happened, and the two finalists had been declared co-champions.

“A lot of guys here who weren’t on that team will joke with us,” Trapper outfielder Michael Restovich told the Edmonton Journal.

“They’ll say, ‘You ever won a championship?’ We’ll say, ‘Yeah.’ They’ll go, ‘Last year doesn’t count. Co-champs.’”

With something to prove, those 11 players wanted a chance to show that they were capable of winning a professional title, and they were afforded the opportunity just one year later with their new Triple-A squad.

“It’s pretty amazing. Some guys will play their whole 10-year career without getting a ring and we’ve got a chance to get two of them,” said closer Kevin Frederick, who, along with Restovich, were among the eleven.

“We clicked at the right time last year. We got a championship. It wasn’t a full win, but I thought we could have won that.”

Maybe. Maybe not.

After posting an 81-59 regular season record, the Trappers were about to find out if they had what it took to win a league title.

A LITTLE MORNEAU

The Trappers were one of just two teams in the PCL to register 80 or more wins on the season.

However, their first-round playoff series would pit them against the other top team, the Las Vegas 51s, who finished with an 85-59 mark.

While they might have been the underdog on paper, the Trappers quickly became a favourite after the 51s’ big league team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, announced a handful of call-ups right before the series.

Gone were second baseman Joe Thurston, catcher David Ross, outfielder Wilkin Ruan and pitcher Jeff Williams.

The Trappers, meantime, were left untouched by their parent club, the Minnesota Twins, outside of the promotion of Michael Cuddyer a week earlier.

“I’m glad they left us alone,” Trappers manager John Russell told the Journal. “They want us to win.”

The Cuddyer call-up also led to the Twins getting a pair of important pieces for a lengthy playoff run. Pitcher Juan Rincon was sent down, while promising first baseman and Canadian-born prospect Justin Morneau was promoted from Double-A.

“I’m excited to be here … it’s always fun to be playing in the playoffs,” Morneau, a 2001 Rock Cat, said.

“It’s a chance to get a ring, especially with this group of guys. We’ve got a good team.”

HOMER HAPPY

The Trappers were known for one thing during the 2002 season: the long ball.

The roster featured five players with 20-plus home runs (Michael Ryan – 31; Restovich – 29; Javier Valentin – 21; Todd Sears – 20; Cuddyer – 20) while four others had more than ten.

The 202 roundtrippers hit by the team easily led the PCL, and that power was on full display from the beginning against the 51s.

Ryan hit two more over the fence while Restovich also went yard in a 9-7 shootout to open up the series.

Las Vegas starter Lindsay Gulin was able to silence the Trapper bats in game two of the series, tossing a four-hit gem in a 7-3 victory, evening the series at a game apiece.

Future MLB players Casey Blake and Lew Ford cranked out home runs in game three to help the Trappers to the 8-6 win and a 2-1 series edge.

Rincon was the star in the fourth game, pitching three scoreless innings of relief to hold onto a 5-2 Trappers victory.

“Our bullpen was the key to this whole series,” Russell said.

“That was huge for us because, if you play a team like Las Vegas which can score runs and get hits, you’ve got to have somebody who can shut them down. Our bullpen did it again.”

It set the stage for a championship series against the Salt Lake Stingers.

AFFILIATE ANGUISH

Even before the two teams could take to the field, there was some off-field drama that was getting aired out again.

It all stemmed from the messy divorce between Salt Lake and the Twins just two years previous.

After seven years as Minnesota’s Triple-A affiliate, the Salt Lake organization surprisingly rejected the offer to return in 2001, opting instead to pair up with the Anaheim Angels, who had just parted ways with the Trappers.

“I’d like to beat them because we had seven years there and they kicked us out of town and I’d like for our boys to play well and win the championship,” Trappers coach Phil Roof told the Journal.

In an effort to come in with a clean slate, the team even changed its moniker from Buzz to Stingers.

The players, meantime, weren’t worried about what had transpired months earlier.

The Trappers stayed true to their reputation of a laid-back team, laughing and goofing around heading into the first game of the series.

“I’ve enjoyed myself so much this year,” Blake said.

“All the guys have. It’s a special group.”

A member of the 2000 Salt Lake team that lost in the PCL final, he was ready to finally get that championship ring.

“Obviously, after some of the stats we’ve put up this year, it’d be nice to win it all,” Blake said.

“It’s not too often you get your team into a position like this, having the kind of year we had, we were hoping to be in this spot right now.”

HOMESTAND SPLIT

It was a former Trapper who would get the best of his previous team in the opener of the best-of-five series.

Keith Johnson knocked in five runs, including three on a bases-loaded double in the top of the ninth, to help the Stingers pick up a 7-5 victory.

“Losing it the way we did is a little disappointing, but we’ll come back and be all right,” said Restovich.

“You’ve just got to take it as a five-game series. We don’t feel like now it’s over. There’s still a long way to go.”

The next day, another Johnson became the hero.

Trappers starter Adam Johnson, a former first-round MLB draft pick and one of the “New Britain 11,” scattered five hits over six innings as Edmonton took the 7-4 victory to even the series at a game apiece.

“It’s the playoffs and you’ve got to do everything you can to win,” Ford said.

“That’s what we did tonight. We had everything – the pitching and the key hitting and then we had the closer at the end shut them down.”

“We knew we had to win tonight.”

It was also the Trappers’ final home game of the year, as the rest of the series would be played out in Salt Lake.

Several players saluted the 6,620 fans in attendance by doffing their caps and Sears threw the game ball into the stands.

SALT LAKE SPLENDOR

It was only a matter of time before the Trappers’ most-recent addition made his presence felt in the playoffs.

In just his fourth game with his new team, Morneau went 4-for-5 including a two-run double to lift the Trappers to a 6-4 win and a 2-1 series edge.

“I wanted to do something tonight,” the New Westminster, BC native told the Journal.

Morneau wasn’t even sure he’d be able to see the field again after going 0-for-4 in the series opener. He hit into a double-play in the eighth inning and watched the Stingers come back to win.

The situation was also made worse by Valentin’s success as a designated hitter in game two.

“I was trying to hit a home run every time I was up there and I was just missing,” Morneau continued.

“I was hitting balls off the end of the bat. If I was more relaxed and just tried to stay with my approach, better things would have happened.”

Despite only being 21, the Canadian’s presence was felt by those in the dugout with him.

“It’s definitely a bonus having him on our team,” said Restovich.

“He’s always been a hitter. He had a great year in Double-A. When he came up here, all we wanted him to do is get some hits for us.”

Four hits later, the Trappers were now just one win away from winning it all.

MEETING EXPECTATIONS

To the surprise of no one, the bats came out one more time in game four of the PCL championship.

The Trappers and Stingers showed off their power by hitting a total of six home runs. And while Salt Lake had the 4-2 edge in dingers, it was Edmonton that came out on top with a 10-7 victory.

“To have the kind of season we put together, it wouldn’t have been as special if we hadn’t have won the whole thing,” Blake told the Journal.

“To end a season like this, I’ve never done it – I really can’t explain what I’m feeling.”

Jay Canizaro and Lew Ford hit dingers for the Trappers, with Ford (you guessed it: a 2001 Rock Cat) being named the Playoff MVP after batting .441 with 15 hits and 10 runs scored during the playoffs while also making outstanding plays in the outfield.

“This team has stuck together,” said Canizaro. “It was great. Man, this was a real team.”

Restovich, meantime, had a PCL-leading 12 RBI in the playoffs, and said he knew from spring training that the Trappers would be a team to beat.

“We had very high expectations,” he said. “To be able to take those expectations and finish it off and actually win it, and win it in the style we did, is special.”

EXTRA SPECIAL

While the players relished in becoming champions in the Pacific Coast League, one person on the team enjoyed it just a little bit more.

Phil Roof had gone 44 seasons in professional baseball without winning the last game of the year.

The 61-year-old was all smiles after the final out was recorded, admitting it was “a little bittersweet” to win it in Salt Lake, where he had managed six-straight winning seasons prior to joining the Trappers, losing in the finals in 1995 and 2000.

“I’m just glad to be a little part of it after all these years,” he told the Journal.

“We’ve got a good group of players here and they’re happy for me, so I’m glad.”

To say the players were happiest for Roof might have been an understatement, as many said he was the first person they thought of at the end of the game.

“This one means so much to us but we had him in the back of our minds the whole time,” said a teary-eyed Michael Ryan, who had spent the 2001 season with the 60-83 Trappers.

“I always imagined what it would feel like and this feels so much better than what I thought it would be like.”

It was the fourth title in Trappers history, and it would turn out to be the last, as they were sold in 2003 and moved to Round Rock, Texas following the 2004 season.

While the team was taken away from Edmonton, no one will be able to take the memories of the 2002 season away from the players, staff and fans who witnessed the last Pacific Coast League championship in Alberta.

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