Dodgers’ slugger Manny Ramirez playing in Albuquerque tops the list
Alphabetically, the list begins with Reggie Abercrombie. Amiable guy from Georgia, got in a beanball brawl and was willing to talk about it postgame one night. A reporter likes that.
It ends with Mauro Zarate, a pitcher who turned the first triple play in Isotopes history and spoke so little English, he was uninterviewable afterward. (Is that even a word? Maybe I don’t speak English.)
Through 10 years of Albuquerque Isotopes players, there have been some colorful players — and not just Dee Brown, Nick Green, Tim Redding and Cody White. Grounded guys like Nate Bump (who went to the mound), Jason Hill (who didn’t), and Jerry Sands. Workmanlike souls like Kevin Barker, John Baker and Jai Miller.
None of them saw Isotopes Park as a destination, but a step along the way. Many of them would be forgotten as soon as they left town — or maybe as soon as you left the ballpark postgame and got on the freeway.
Nonetheless, the symbiotic relationship between performer and fan has created a few memorable moments. If you can get access to the suite level of Isotopes Park, look at what Kris Shepard has done impressively with a series of collages along one wall that illustrate with photos not only the history of the Isotopes, but of pro baseball in Albuquerque.
Anyway, here’s a subjective list of some human highlights:
1. Manny shows, goes
For a handful of days in July 2009, Albuquerque was the focus of the baseball world. Suspended slugger Manny Ramirez was a ‘Topes farmhand for a few days at the end of his suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.
A media throng of 100, including reporters from ESPN and other national outlets, descended on the Duke City to chronicle Manny’s every move. A then-record crowd of 15,321 showed up for Ramirez’s first game, which moved TV commentator Bob Costas to scold fans for their adoration of Ramirez — and the Isotopes themselves for running promotions associated with Ramirez’s return. (Remember the dreaded dreadlock wigs?)
Ramirez was supposed to play at least parts of three games at Isotopes Park with the home team. But with a wet outfield on the third night, he slipped out of the ballpark while some fans were still filing in, leaving Isotopes manager John Traub the daunting task of breaking the bad news to 15,083 fans as to why Manny wouldn’t be playing.
2. Rally for the ages
The number of big Isotopes rallies from big deficits is countless. But among them all, last Sept. 8 stands out. Tony Gwynn Jr.’s three-run homer capped a nine-run seventh inning, lifting Albuquerque to a dramatic 12-10 win over Omaha in an elimination Pacific Coast League playoff game.
Alas, the Isotopes couldn’t finish the deal, losing Game 5 the next day — and probably costing this particular moment a higher ranking. In baseball, momentum is as good as your next day’s pitcher.
3. Frozen Fish
Nine years ago today, the marriage of the Florida Marlins and the Triple-A Isotopes remained in the honeymoon phase. The parent club, which won a World Series six months earlier, went out of its way for the Isotopes — meeting them in the final exhibition game of spring on a cold, wet Sunday afternoon at Isotopes Park. A then-record crowd of 14,177 braved wind chills of 34 degrees to see the ’03 World Series champs, who played like they didn’t want to be here in a 9-1 loss.
Crusty cigar-smoking Marlins manager Jack McKeon certainly didn’t care. About the loss, about the Isotopes, about anything related to the Triple-A club. But Marlins lefty Darren Oliver apparently did. After Isotope Wilson Valdez stole four bases, a miffed Oliver buzzed a pitch behind Valdez’s head on a later plate appearance.
McKeon’s response to the Isotopes trying to impress him: “They’ve been with us all spring. How are they going to show us something in one game?”
4. Leave now
It’s one anomaly when wind, not rain, prevents play. But how about when a game is suspended because of weather hundreds of miles away? On April 12, 2007, in the middle of the sixth inning of an afternoon game to conclude a homestand, the Isotopes and the Iowa Cubs walked off the field. The Isotopes had a plane to catch. Bad weather in Denver had forced cancellation of their connecting commercial flight there on the next day to Omaha. The only way Traub found to get the team there was to catch a flight in a few hours for Dallas, then connect. “I know you’re not happy to hear this,” Traub said into a cordless microphone as he began to break the news to a crowd of 4,327. “I’ve never seen nothing like this,” Abercrombie said.
5. The rebirth
On April 11, 2003, a new era in Albuquerque baseball began with a 5-3 loss to Oklahoma that mattered not.
What mattered was that baseball was back after two seasons without. This time, it was in a shiny new $25 million Isotopes Park, built on the same footprint as its ancestral Albuquerque Sports Stadium.
A dignitary-splashed crowd of 12,215 turned out. The spectacle included pregame fireworks and a thunder-and-lightning flyover of four F-16 fighter jets.
Not all went as planned. A light pole in left field didn’t come on until just before game time. A snafu with scanning duplicated at least 40 tickets and refused admission to about 100 ticket-holders. Other tickets had to be torn, displeasing fans who wanted a pristine souvenir from the historic night. Otherwise, the beer was cold, hot dogs served warm, toilets flushed.
And fans have come back again and again.
— This article appeared on page D3 of the Albuquerque Journal