Where Hope Springs Eternal, Part 1 – 1998 Port Charlotte Rangers
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.” – A. Bartlett Giamatti, “The Green Fields of the Mind”
There is a place beyond spring where hope breathes eternal. Sometimes, the fields are raucous and the stands packed. Sometimes, silent sun or snow blankets a quiet greenscape. But always, it is there. It is minor league baseball.
It lives in thousands of towns, millions of hearts, and endless hopes. Most of the time, it is dreamers watching dreamers. They are separated by little more than drive, opportunity, native talent, and a ballpark’s railing.
Once in a while, it rises to a level worthy of memory. More rarely, it raises the dreamers with it.
These are the greatest minor league teams of all time. But how do we know; easy, and anything but. Stats, heart, feel, and gut.
I assessed each team based on every standard hitting and pitching statistic, but more advanced stats (WAR, ERA+, WPA, etc.) were not available. Also, I did not factor fielding in heavily, as each of the leading teams were generally average at best, and errors are what minor leaguers are there to fix. Similarly, while some teams were dominant on the mound and others at the plate, I strove for balance. Teams needed to be at least league average in each to crack my top 3. Finally, I did factor in future big leaguers produced. That point plays heavily in the Number 3 team, which might easily have fallen behind two very close also-rans – The OKC 89ers of 1985, which we covered last week, and the 1974 Spokane Indians, which I’ll try to touch on in a later piece.
But first, to the third-best Rangers minor league team of all time: the 1998 Port Charlotte Rangers.
Wins alone leave this team in the middle of the pack versus of a number of Class A affiliates, especially from the early 90s. They fall short of some talented Frisco and OKC clubs from 1998 to 2007, and in pure run differential, they can’t match the 1990 Port Charlotte Rangers. However, there are extenuating circumstances that bring this club up in the rankings. More to those in a bit.
On a deep-dive look at numbers alone, this team is still nothing to scoff at. Here are the key metrics as I ranked the team, and how it rated vs. every other Single A / High-A Rangers affiliate from 1972 to 2014 with a run differential of +15% or higher over their competition:
This team had some hitters, but made its mark with arms. Thus is the usual with A-ball teams, where hitters are adjusting to wood bats, whereas the seams and stitches don’t much change, and the circumference and weight of the ball is the same. Pitchers have the edge, but more teams than not fail to take advantage of it. This Rangers team did. Among similar winners, they were dominant. What set them apart was the comparable bats, with that leading .772 on-base plus slugging to go along with so many Top 5 pitching metrics.
A closer look will be a walk down some sad memory lanes for many of you, including me, but let’s revel in the hope that came with the big league names that played big parts on this roster, whether flamed out or famed: Kelly Dransfeldt, Mike Lamb, Craig Monroe, Scott Podsednik, Doug Davis, RA Dickey, and Jeff Zimmerman.
Doubles machine Mike Lamb gave a preview of what was to come in Tulsa a year later by hitting 35 doubles in 135 games (he’d hit 51 in 137 games for those ’99 Drillers and turn himself into the latest in a long line of salivation-worthy prospects for Texas, rising to Dransfeldt and Mateo levels.
Beyond them, there were standout performances from career minor leaguers Sean Gallagher, Adrian Myers, Tom Sergio, Bucky Buckles (great baseball name), Derrick Cook, Dan DeYoung, Jose Martinez, Trey Poland and Gabe Sollecito.
Those guys made up a team with speed; as a whole, the club stole 271 bases in 138 games and had a 71.3% success rate. Monroe, Myers, and Sergio all stole at least 30 bases, with Monroe and Myers topping 50. That’s not Billy Hamilton or Rickey Henderson, but it’s enough to make a catcher have night sweats.
Finally, we had cups of coffee from two perennial prospects, one an eventual all-star, the other a flame out: Carlos Pena and Ruben Mateo, but given their very limited time, we’ll not focus on either.
Most of the big league stars you know, but let’s look at some of the could-have-beens.
For any Rangers fan of the late 90s, Kelly Dransfeldt had the same ring as Elvis Andrus did a decade later. Consider Baseball America’s scouting report on him for 1999, based on the great ’98 Port Charlotte season (where he spent half a year) and his promotion and performance at AA Tulsa for the second half of the season (he cooled off, but certainly didn’t crash):
Always regarded as a superior athlete by scouts, Dransfeldt’s performance had lagged behind his potential, even in college. Under the tutelage of former Rangers hitting instructor Don Reynolds, Dransfeldt exploded in 1998.
- Strengths: Dransfeldt combines the quickness and actions of a smaller player with the power and strength of other players his size. His range and hands are good enough for him to play shortstop, but he will move to second base this season after Royce Clayton was re-signed. Dransfeldt has a tremendous throwing arm and he is “positively frightening” coming across the bag on the double play.
- Weaknesses: Prior to 1998, Dransfeldt’s swing was very long and he was frequently jammed by mediocre stuff. His reconstructed swing is both shorter and quicker. Another factor in Dransfeldt’s improvement, according to Rangers officials, was getting him to cut back on his addictive passion for golf.
- The Future: Dransfeldt could potentially become a spectacular defensive third or second baseman. The key will be maintaining the growth he showed with his bat last season.
There’s some great stuff there, including the image of this beast of a 6’3”, 195lb kid turning the double play with Royce Clayton. Let’s look at one thing there in the report that stands out, but may say ALOT: “Another factor in Dransfeldt’s improvement, according to Rangers officials, was getting him to cut back on his addictive passion for golf.”
That could mean two things. One, golf calms him. It centers him. He caddied for the Dalai Lama or something, so he has that going for him, which is NICE. Whatever. But there’s a second thing it tells me: I’ve never seen a position player outside of Mike Piazza who could use the mechanics of a golf swing in baseball. The hand strength needed is incredible, and the likelihood of getting long and rolling over the ball is very high. As we see from the report above, Dransfeldt’s great 1998 campaign with Port Charlotte came because he got short and strong to the ball. For a young player, I can see occasional golf having the former effect noted, but at length, it could easily have the latter with a 6’3” body type, making him long but not strong. But for one wonderful summer, Dransfeldt was short to the ball and long on contact, as his stats show, highlighted by a 1.000+ OPS:
His defense was spotty at best; he had a range factor of 4.62, but made 19 errors in 66 games and 324 chances. That’s below average, especially because he wasn’t yet trying to make the move to second that would have slotted him in with Clayton. But his bat more than made up for the few lapses on defense.
Ultimately, Dransfeldt failed to live up to his promise coming out of the University of Michigan, but hung on in pro ball until 2004 between the Show and minor league ball. But for someone who had been once considered potentially “spectacular”, 1998 was his undoubtable zenith in baseball. Outside of it, he’s turned out ok: He currently works as a stock portfolio advisor and gives in-depth daily market reports on local radio in Morris, Illinois as a locally-based stock market expert. My guess is that golf still plays a big part in helping his performance, albeit in a different field.
As noted, Mike Lamb would play to greater heights in both the minors and majors, but 1998 was a foundational season for a player waiting to break out. Craig Monroe, too, became a solid big leaguer, although mainly with Detroit, but both raked shots all over Port Charlotte, and played the speed game to boot:
Then there was Sean Gallagher. Wow.
Now, he never turned out to be what his potential promised, but remember, as Baseball America’s 1998 report shows, he was one of the great high school hitters ever; few ever could live up to that. See his 1999 scouting report, which gives an idea of just how special 1998 was:
Gallagher is one of the greatest high school hitters of all time, co-holding the national record for longest hitting streak at 51 games. In one of those games he tied another national record with five home runs. After struggling professionally for three years, Gallagher dominated the Florida State League in 1998 with an MVP season.
Strengths: With a more relaxed approach at the plate in 1998, Gallagher showed he’s still a pure hitter with good bat speed, plate coverage and power potential. He has a relentless work ethic.
Weaknesses: Gallagher is just a fair defensive first baseman. The Rangers have tried him in the outfield and at third base with no success. His running speed is below average, though he is a good instinctive base runner.
The Future: It’s been a long time since anyone, let along a 21-year, put up such impressive numbers in the FSL. His biggest obstacle will be the organization’s first base depth, with Palmeiro and his five-year contract ahead of him and fellow prospect Pena behind him.
But forget about why Gallagher didn’t make it. Consider him when he did, in 1998 at Port Charlotte, and what he made of his life after.
On pure numbers, Gallagher had one of the best Single A seasons in Rangers history. And he wasn’t even the best hitter on this TEAM, as Dransfeldt topped him.
But Gallagher’s 1998 was the first season he flashed the bat that got him drafted and made him a high school legend.
Gallagher roomed with R.A. Dickey, which has to be about as good for character and development as anything can be. His record for homers wasn’t surpassed by anyone – Carlos Pena, Travis Hafner, etc. – Until Kevin Mench arrived two years later and hit 28.
The character of Dickey clearly was a good match for Gallagher, given his post-baseball life. On road trips with Port Charlotte and other teams, the high school grad read books and articles on the quantum mechanics of physics and mathematics, subjects in which he had a natural talent. He applied to and was accepted to MIT – yes, a high school graduate minor league baller was good enough to make the cut for MIT.
Then again, Gallagher was pretty well-equipped. Consider this from Chuck Carre at StarNewsOnline (of Hanover, NH):
In 1995, Gallagher hit .591 and collected 65 hits after batting .500 in 1994.
“I thought he was one of the best pure high school hitters I had ever seen, even to this day he is still the best high school hitter I have seen,” former Laney (Hanover, NH high school) coach Trent Mongero said.
The illustrious prep career was no fluke, just an example of extreme devotion. His parents purchased a $3,500 batting cage for the backyard, and it was not uncommon for Gallagher to hit up to 10 hours a day.
He kept that attitude once baseball was in his past, as well.
“That work ethic or dedication I had toward that goal of being a better baseball player gave me a lot of lessons I apply to life,” Gallagher said. “It was same dedication I applied at MIT and to the work at the White House.
“There are a lot of lessons from playing team sports where you end up successful in jobs or careers because you are forced to set goals for yourself and help your team and come together for the betterment of all. So a lot of those lessons were not about the mechanics of hitting.”
Making seven outs in 10 at bats is considered good in baseball. At MIT, Gallagher’s success rate was even better.
“It blew us away the type of success he had in the classes there,” Ed Gallagher said.
Not quite Will Hunting, but maybe more impressive. Married and within an infant daughter as a freshman, he graduated in only four years with undergraduate degrees in physics and nuclear engineering and a masters in nuclear engineering. He was the first MIT nuclear engineering major to earn both undergraduate and master degrees in four years. 15 years later, he’d used that bus and classroom time to good effect: the White House hired him in early 2010 to work on the nuclear security summit after he spent three years with the Department of Homeland Security as its global director for nuclear threat reduction. For the next three years, he was the director for nuclear threat reduction on the National Security Council.
Doug Davis and R.A. Dickey threw very well for this team, putting up the following key splits, Davis as top starter, Dickey in lock-down closer role with 38 saves:
But really, it was the “other arms” that pulled this team to the heights of greatness.
Derrick Cook, Dan DeYoung, Jose Martinez and Trey Poland made up the core of the non-Big League portion of the starting five. Their starts and performance, with Davis as the anchor, were the backbone of a great season:
None of these three ever cracked the Baseball America Top 10, and with their ages in A-ball (22, 22, and 23, respectively), and future performance, it’s understandable. Cook pitched three more seasons, topping out at AA and ending up in the Cubs org, but he never came close to 1998 again. 167 innings at 22 can sometimes do that. 1998 was DeYoung’s last season. He was acquired by Florida and ended with a subpar performance at Broward County, then hung it up. I’ve known more than one friend who can tell the same story. They do the age vs. classification calculus and quickly realize it’s a lifetime of busses between small Midwest or Southern towns, a future as Crash Davis minor the homers or Annie Savoy, and decide a family and career in pharmaceutical sales is a better choice.
Martinez shuttled between Tulsa and OKC the next three seasons, even having a solid year at Tulsa in 2000, but also never matched 1998. He advanced higher than any of the other three, but never did much to dent either Triple A bats or the Rangers promotional plans. By 26, he was done, but shared something more than the “career minor leaguer” label with Cook and DeYoung. They, along with more esteemed colleagues Davis and Dickey, leave a legacy as a member of one of the best starting fives in Rangers history for a spectacular summer near the end of the century.
Here’s the average season across all five of those guys’ seasons:
They averaged nearly six innings a start, and threw 7 complete games – not staggering, but not bad for A-ball in the era of taking it easy on arms. And what about when they had to bridge the gap to the 9th. Well, there was the aforementioned pre-knuckler R.A. Dickey to close. And then, there were Bucky and Gabe.
Bucky Buckles was solid, and Gabe Sollecito was staggeringly good; Bucky in limited action, Gabe as a cornerstone that only the likes of Dickey could match in the bullpen. Age probably helped both, as Buckles was 25 and Sollecito 26, easily 3-5 years older than much of their competition. Consider the numbers:
On a team with an emerging Jeff Zimmerman, Sollecito did his best imitation of the 1999 Rangers phenomenal pre-All Star untouchable hurling. It couldn’t have hurt Zimmerman, who put up a .767 WHIP in 14.1 innings across 10 games, to sit in the pen and watch the likes of R.A., Bucky and Gabe work.
But from any seat, from the stands to the bullpen to the dugouts, the 1998 Port Charlotte Rangers put on a show. With amazing arms, staggering speed, and a one-two punch of historic proportions in Dransfeldt and Gallagher, this team is memorable even as most of its players are now pushing 40.
Such is the makings of a great team, and this Rangers team is, by my estimation and analysis, at least the third best of all time. Stay tuned for numbers two and one, from your purveyor of flashbacks, in columns to come.