THEY REMEMBER when Vida Blue pitched here in 1968, when the ballpark burned in '71, when a home run smacked the flagpole in right center and ricocheted back onto the field. The fans of Burlington, Iowa, have seen some amazing things in 90 years of minor league baseball. But nothing like the game on Wednesday, May 7, when their Bees had a 16-run lead and gave it up.
The Angels' affiliate in the Class A Midwest League plays two miles west of the Mississippi River in a ballpark named Community Field, on grass so fastidiously trimmed that some mistake it for artificial turf. On a warm, windy evening last week everything was going right. Burlington sent 11 batters to the plate in the second inning, scoring seven runs, and starting pitcher Garrett Nuss was throwing low strikes. He was helped out by a double play in the second and an outfield assist in the third. Through three innings he faced the minimum number of Clinton LumberKings.
"All right, fans!" public address announcer Sean Cockrell said in the middle of the third. "Who wants an eyeball from American Eyecare?"
The press box windows opened, and promotional eyeballs rained down. A folk hero known as Dancin' Bobby shook his rump to the music. The Bees turned another double play in the fourth and held the LumberKings to one run in the fifth. The fans screamed for free pizza from Napoli's. The Bees were just getting started. Cambric Moye, the 11th batter of the home half of the fifth, smashed one over the leftfield wall. Grand slam. Burlington led 17--1.
Bees manager Bill Richardson is a serious man, and he does not believe in excuses. Thus, Garrett Nuss does not believe in excuses. The 21-year-old righthander would never blame the long rest during his teammates' nine-run fifth for his own collapse in the top of the sixth. Nor would he blame the wind, which was blowing hard to center. The inning began triple, strikeout, single, home run, double. The LumberKings had not given up. Meanwhile, the Bees were losing focus. The third baseman, Ismael Dionicio, made a throwing error. Nuss threw two wild pitches. With one out, Richardson gave him the hook. It was 17--5.
The LumberKings, part of the Mariners' system, play in Clinton, Iowa, a major corn-processing center about a hundred miles upriver. They had at least one fan in Burlington that night: Joyce Wilkerson, a 62-year-old pit boss from the Wild Rose Casino in Clinton. Wilkerson treats the LumberKings like grandsons, and first baseman--DH Justin Seager always puts her on the visitor list for road games so she can get in free. On this night his faithfulness paid off. After the pitching change, LumberKings third baseman Joseph DeCarlo hit a fly to right. "SUN'S IN YOUR EYES!" Wilkerson yelled from her seat, and the rightfielder dropped the ball.
Two batters later, Seager popped up to shallow right. "SUN'S IN YOUR EYES!" Wilkerson yelled, and it was misplayed into a hit. Another run scored. It was still 17--7 going into the eighth when Richardson put in a lefty reliever nicknamed Jimmy.
JIMMY (FULL name: Eswarlin Jimenez) spent his nights in a pink bedroom that once belonged to a teenage girl. He and teammate Angel Rosa lived with the Ruckers, one of several host families for the Bees. The Bees loved Jimmy, a 22-year-old from the Dominican Republic, and so did the Ruckers. He must have thanked them 20 times a day: when they dropped him off at the stadium, when they took him through the drive-through at McDonald's, when they drove him to Hy-Vee to cash his paycheck and wire most of the money home to his family. Cathy Rucker once saw him on a video call with his infant daughter, talking baby talk in Spanish.
Not long ago Jimmy was a bright star in the Angels' system. From ages 17 to 19 he blazed through the Dominican Summer League. At 20 he was called up to High A Inland Empire, a step above the Bees, recording a 2.75 ERA with 14 strikeouts and only one walk in three starts. But he'd regressed since that 2012 season, and now he was holding on for dear life. His fastball had lost velocity. His shoulder hurt when he threw his slider. "What's wrong with me?" he asked Rosa. Nobody knew. He was 22, family depending on him from afar, and maybe he was afraid.
Jimmy gave up a homer, a single, a double. Jeff Rucker watched from the stands, hurting as if Jimmy were his son. Jimmy allowed five runs in one inning of work, raising his ERA to 21.60 for the month of May. The Bees led 17--12 going to the ninth.
The crowd of 558 had diminished considerably by then, and those remaining began to rethink their allegiance. Paul Waring and Mike Foster, two of the Bees' most loyal fans, watched the collapse with what Waring describes as "morbid curiosity." Sure, they wanted the Bees to win, but if the LumberKings finished the comeback? That would be history.
Clinton loaded the bases with one out, bringing up shortstop Zach Shank. "The pitch," said Cheyne Reiter, the LumberKings' radio announcer. "Line drive to the right side, off the glove of the first baseman! It's an infield single. I think that went off his face."
It did. Bees first baseman Ryan Dalton is a gamer, as his manager says, and he did all he could. He got low, trying to block the ball with his body, and it took a bad hop, catching him between the eyes. Blood spurted from his broken nose. Dalton went to the hospital. He would get a few stitches and return to the clubhouse later that night.
Now it was 17--13, one out, bases loaded, catcher Marcus Littlewood coming up. His wife, Nicole, standing behind home plate, pressed record on her iPad. Littlewood did not feel nervous. He envisioned a single up the middle. And then the 2--1 pitch came in, a fastball up in the zone. He swung.
"Drilled out to deep centerfield," Reiter said, beginning to lose his voice. "Back near the track, at the wall, THAT BALL IS GONE! ARE YOU KIDDING ME? A GRAND SLAM. MARCUS LITTLEWOOD. WE'RE TIED UP 17--17!"
BOTTOM OF the ninth and the LumberKings were running out of pitchers. They brought in their closer, Emilio Pagan, a righthander drafted out of Belmont Abbey College in the 10th round last summer. He worked a scoreless ninth, a scoreless 10th and then a scoreless 11th. Top 12, game still tied at 17. The LumberKings loaded the bases with one out. Seager grounded to third, but Dionicio inexplicably threw to first instead of going home, where he had the force-out. The next batter, second baseman Lonnie Kauppila, hit a two-run single to make it 20--17. The LumberKings had scored 19 unanswered runs.
Who would get the save? Manager Scott Steinmann wouldn't let his closer pitch a fourth inning. Nor did he have anyone else left in the bullpen. He brought in Kauppila, 22. Aside from one inning in high school, he had last been a pitcher in eighth grade.
The pitching coach told him to keep it around 85% so he wouldn't blow out his arm. Kauppila agreed. Then he went out and threw 100%, with a fastball topping out at 86 mph. There was no sense of desperation. If baseball worked out, he'd be happy. If not, he could fall back on his degree from Stanford in science, technology and society. He had an advantage over Jimenez. For Kauppila, baseball could be a game.
The first batter hit a hard line drive, but rightfielder Burt Reynolds—yes, that's his name—made a leaping catch. Reynolds is a cousin of Robinson Cano, and he had homered in the eighth inning to make the score 17--8. Two days later he would be promoted to High A, only three steps away from his cousin on the Mariners. Reynolds caught another fly ball for the second out. Littlewood, the catcher, was astonished. Kauppila was varying arm slots, shaking off signs, throwing changeups. He got ahead in every count.
Stephen McGee stepped in for Burlington. "Two-two pitch," Reiter said. "Popped up in foul territory. Littlewood giving chase. He's underneath it. HE'S GOT IT! AND THE LUMBERKINGS HAVE DONE IT!"
Reiter stayed up most of the night editing his broadcast into a 12-minute clip that narrated all 37 runs. Littlewood gave an interview on ESPN, which aired the grand-slam footage from his wife's iPad. The Clinton LumberKings were national news, the feel-good story of the minor league season.
DOWN IN Burlington, Bill Richardson gathered the Bees on Thursday for a series of meetings that felt like an intervention. There was only one way to handle it: Own up to your mistakes and move on. An Angels official called with an order, and Richardson summoned Eswarlin (Jimmy) Jimenez into his office: After five years, the Angels were releasing him. "Papi, smile," Jimmy told Mike Smith, another reliever, before he left. "It's O.K."
On Friday morning Jimmy hugged Cathy Rucker 10 times and said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you." Unofficial Bees chauffeur Dennis Imler picked him up and drove him past the fresh-planted cornfields to Quad City International Airport for a flight to Miami, where he would stay with relatives.
"We loved having you here," Imler said, hugging him one last time. Jimmy smiled and walked into the airport. That afternoon other Bees relievers took a red Sharpie and wrote his number 46 on their chests, over their hearts. Then they put on their uniforms and took the field.
Bees fans were watching with "morbid curiosity." They wanted their team to win, but if the comeback was completed, that would be history.
Rally Big Shows
There are no official records for the biggest rally in minor league history. But the LumberKings definitely outdid any comeback in the majors, where the largest deficit overcome is 12 runs.
JUNE 18, 1911
Tigers 16, White Sox 15
Chicago led 13--1 after five innings in Detroit and still held a two-run lead going into the ninth, but a pair of future Hall of Famers put the Tigers over the top: Sam Crawford doubled home Ty Cobb (left) for the win.
JUNE 15, 1925
Philadelphia A's 17, Indians 15
Cleveland led 15--3 going into the bottom of the seventh in Philly before collapsing. The A's scored a run in the seventh and 13 in the eighth. The big hit: a go-ahead three-run homer by Hall of Famer Al Simmons (left).
AUG. 5, 2001
Indians 15, Mariners 14
Seattle, which won an AL-record 116 games in 2001, took leads of 12--0 and 14--2. But Cleveland tied it at 14 with five runs in the bottom of the ninth, then won when Jolbert Cabrera singled in the 14th.
Photograph by Dilip Vishwanat for Sports Illustrated
DEFICIT REDUCERS The LumberKings' key comebackers, from left: Kauppila, Seager, first baseman Jeff Zimmerman, centerfielder Ian Miller (with pink bat), Shank, Pagan, Steinman and Littlewood.
[See caption above]
CANNONBALL RUNNER Reynolds (37) brought Clinton a bit closer—and did big league cousin Cano proud—with an eighth-inning homer.
MARK RUCKER/TRANSCENDENTAL GRAPHICS/GETTY IMAGES
NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES