North Adams, MA – Justin Leeson arrived in North Adams just days before the start of the 2011 regular season, fresh off a terrific sophomore year batting leadoff for the Georgetown Hoyas in the highly competitive Big East Conference. Perhaps, by no fault of his own, he teased the organization and a record-setting Opening Day crowd of 1,908 at Joe Wolfe Field when he tripled against the Vermont Mountaineers on June 10 in the team’s first at-bat of the season. Despite losing that day 9-4, the ‘Cats responded the next time out with a gritty 2-0 win against the defending league champion North Shore Navigators on Sunday. It was the first of several hopeful starts for tall right-hander Cameron Copping, the lone ‘Cats pitcher that would later be sent to represent the Western Division at the All-Star Game. The 4:30 start time also ushered in another season of $1 Hot Dog Nights at the Joe, which once again was one of the most successful promotions at the concession stand when being held for every Sunday game. New Team President Dan Bosley and long-time General Manager Sean McGrath were optimistic and bright after a successful opening weekend that sent over 2,500 fans to the Joe for just two games. As Bosley said after Friday night’s loss, “Heck, we ran out of food in the seventh inning and as far as I know, that’s never happened here before.”
The positive vibrations humming through the Berkshires quickly vanished into thin air when the ‘Cats loss their first road game of the season in a thrilling 4-3, 11-inning affair in Holyoke the following night. Closer Gray Carden quickly showed why he was a favorite amongst the coaching staff and the supportive fans, by coming out for the eleventh inning after pitching the previous two. Disappointed and standing by himself with a large ice pack covering his elbow after the game, he told me that although he “had nothing left” after two innings of relief, he could not let his team down and “had to come out” to pitch the eleventh. That spirit was contagious amongst many members of this year’s team, who did not stop fighting at any point during the year although it did not always seem that way. Trust me, because I was around them for all but two games in this trying and disappointing season. I saw the looks of anguish after a difficult road loss or the awkward silence that sometimes cut the air like a knife on long bus rides home. The loss to Holyoke set off a string of eight straight losses that set the tone for the remainder of the season, and essentially dropped the team into an early but deep grave within the Western Division. During the middle of the losing streak, All-Star outfielder/DH Jacob Daniel was unwavering in support of his teammates, saying that he knew if they all came together and played team baseball that they could hang with any team in the NECBL. Later in the season, first-year manager Clayton Kuklick pointed out that the losing streak was too tough to overcome given the brevity of a 42-game regular season.
When the season ended with a 6-2 loss to Keene on Monday night, catcher Brett Frantini wrote in his player survey that Kuklick was the best manager he’s ever played for. A former catcher, Kuklick had played several seasons professionally with the New Jersey Jackals in the Can-Am League, catching two of them for this year’s pitching coach and another former Jackal Mike Vicaro. Ask anyone who was fortunate enough to catch a session of SteepleCats batting practice before a game this season, and they will tell you about Clayton’s attention to detail and how intently he watched each player’s rounds of BP from behind his Oakley sunglasses. A cerebral coach who’s very stat-driven and focused on the psychology behind what makes a great leader, he would often spend minutes talking individually with a certain player or pitcher before each game. Just ask Chantz Mack, right-handed starter Trent Franzago, or Carden.
After another loss to Holyoke on June 19, the SteepleCats realized they had found their new leadoff hitter in a surprising but very familiar source. That day, 2010 SteepleCat Chantz Mack rode the bus after arriving from Homestead, Florida, looking to improve upon a disappointing season as a member of North Adams’ best team in franchise history. Despite having never batted leadoff in his career, Mack would remain atop the order for the remainder of the year, becoming one of the league’s most reliable number 1 hitters and raising his average from the previous season by nearly 100 points. Less than two weeks later, he was joined by friend and another 2010 SteepleCat, Mike LeBel. The junior from URI flashed nice leather at shortstop last season and even made the All-Star team with a .255 average. As one of the hottest commodities in the league and a year wiser after a cup of coffee in the Cape Cod League, LeBel made his second straight Western Division All-Star team by making the entire team better. He also led the offense with a .333 average and four home runs. (Note: He returned to the Bourne Braves for the CCL’s postseason beginning this week)
The month of June ended with a 5-3 loss in North Shore that dropped the team’s record to 5-12. At that point in the season, the SteepleCats had played more games than anyone, having lost just one game to rain that consistently poured on every other team through the first 5-6 weeks of the season. From a front office and tickets, concessions, and merchandise standpoint, this was the best news in the world. But on the field, the ‘Cats had the second-worst record behind Old Orchard Beach, and probably could have benefitted from a few unscheduled days off other teams had enjoyed. Meanwhile, the deficit in the standings continued to mount as Danbury, Vermont, Holyoke, and Keene continued to battle for the top four spots in an odyssey that would take them to the final day of the regular season. In between innings, the support from the loyal SteepleCats fans who continued to make their way out to the Joe was only aided by two individuals. On-field entertainer Kolby Kilhart, an incoming senior at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, quickly became one of the biggest attractions at Joe Wolfe Field for his engaging antics and humor with both the fans in the stands and children on the field. Local resident Eric Wilson, who had assisted the organization in various capacities in previous seasons, stepped up and donned the “00” and established himself as the most passionate and caring Slider in the franchise’s ten-year history. Both men have expressed interest in being back with the team next summer.
Nationwide, the biggest night of the summer is July 4th, and it’s no different at the Joe thanks to Hoosac Bank’s annual Fireworks Extravaganza following that night’s game. Just days earlier, the ‘Cats had used late-inning magic in dramatic, comeback victories within two days of one another at Holyoke and Keene. On that night, Copping punched his ticket to the All-Star Game and was named NECBL pitcher of the week with a 7-inning, two-hit gem, in which he struck out a season-high eight Mystic Schooners. Everything was flying off the shelves once again as a joyous crowd of 4,253 filled Joe Wolfe Field and invaded the grass beyond the left field wall to get closer to the bright lights and loud booms that filled the night sky on Independence Day. The following night, the ‘Cats once again defeated Holyoke, the only Western Division team they beat more than once all season, as they eventually closed out the year with a division record of 5-25. The running joke that picked up steam as time wore on was that the team would probably be in second place as a member of the Eastern Division. And the numbers didn’t lie either, as the SteepleCats finished with an impressive 8-4 record against the East, including at least one victory against each of the six teams. An even more telling stat, that is perhaps the biggest litmus test of the team’s struggles this summer, was the fact that it won two games in a row five separate times. However, the boys in black and yellow could never win that elusive third game in a row.
The oddest night of the season came Wednesday, July 6 in Vermont thanks to a season-high 2 hour and 24 minute rain delay. Both the SteepleCats and Mountaineers delighted the crowd with some vaudevillian acts that featured a ladies’ Wimbledon final between Maria Sharapova (left-handed pitcher Curtis Arsi) and Serena Williams (Mack), second baseman Nico Hernandez hopping on catcher Mike Zavala’s back in a re-creation of A Knight’s Tale, and Frantini rapidly hitting several of his teammates in a SteepleCats version of Wack-a-Mole. When the rain cleared, the Mountaineers won 17-4 thanks in large part to a season-worst seven errors by the ‘Cats, as the teams only intensified their long-standing rivalry for the remainder of the year. One of the most enjoyable nights of the year came a few weeks later when the ‘Cats used a 4-run top of the tenth to upend the regular season champion Newport Gulls at historic and eccentric Cardines Field. The players delighted in the ballpark’s dimensions and features, including adjacent dugouts on the first-base side of the diamond, before laughing and hooting on the long bus ride home after a hard-fought victory.
On Monday night, the ‘Cats ended the season at home with a 6-2 loss to Keene that closed the book on the summer with six straight losses. The scene that ensued thereafter was bittersweet as the players and coaches said their good-byes for the final time. Many were sad, not because of the disheartening results from start to finish, but because they would never play together as a team again. Friendships and bonds were formed in that dugout and on those bus trips that can never be broken or severed, and that roster of 20+ joined together and united as one in more losses than wins. They will go their separate ways back to New Jersey, Georgia, Alabama, and California, and their paths may never cross again, but they will forever be SteepleCats.