The corks were popping and the champagne was sloshing. Coaches yowled happily as the players hauled them off to the showers in full uniform. It was standard baseball bedlam Saturday night in the home team's clubhouse at Derks Field in Salt Lake City. And then the chant went up: "Re-jects! Re-jects! Re-jects!..."
The Salt Lake Trappers of the Pioneer League—a short-season rookie circuit—were partying for posterity, but the wild joy of the occasion was tinged with a sense of grim satisfaction. By beating the Pocatello Giants 13-3 a few minutes earlier, the Trappers had accomplished an extraordinary feat, matched by no other team in the 117-year history of organized professional baseball: 28 consecutive victories. And this by a team of overlooked overachievers that no other team in baseball had wanted.
Catcher Frank Colston and pitcher John Groennert hugged each other, their undershirts plastered to their skin with champagne, the heroes of the night. It was Colston who had driven in six runs—three on a second-inning double, the game's big blow. It was Groennert who had taken the mound with one out in the second inning, bases loaded, and fanned the next two batters; he pitched seven more innings for the win, striking out eight and walking none. The two had played American Legion ball against each other in southern Illinois, and this was the sweetest moment they had ever shared. "We want to say hello to everybody in Clinton County," Colston yelled.
He needn't have bothered. With 28 straight, the Trappers had shouted a big hello to everybody in the baseball world and had written a singular page in its history book. And even as the champagne flowed, a ball from the game made the rounds, gathering signatures. Its destination is Cooperstown.
But years from now the ball won't tell visitors to the Hall of Fame that the team's designated hitter was born in Pago Pago and made earthenware pottery in his spare time. Or that the pitching ace was from Kobe, Japan, and pronounced his profession as "baseba-ru." Or that the shortstop played the stock market and auditioned for roles on TV soap operas. Or that one of the owners was a big-time comedian who starred in a movie called Ghostbusters.
The independent Trappers are one of a handful of ball clubs in the country without a major league affiliation. None of the players was ever drafted, but somehow these lowest of the low have defied all the odds—and all the scouts.
The previous record had been shared by two teams on the fence line of baseball memory: the 1902 Corsicana Oilers of the Texas League and the 1921 Baltimore Orioles of the International League. Corsicana, 50 miles south of Dallas, hasn't had a pro team for nearly 60 years, so you don't find a lot of old-timers there reminiscing about the Oilers' streak, not even the 51-3 drubbing of Texarkana, in which catcher Nig Clarke hit eight home runs in eight at bats. The Orioles of the early '20s are not so faceless. With Hall-of-Famer-to-be Lefty Grove anchoring the pitching staff, the Orioles won 25 in a row in 1920, then tied the Oilers' record with a 27-game string in '21. The major league record of 26 straight belongs to John McGraw's 1916 New York Giants.
On June 25, in their first home game of '87, the Trappers beat Pocatello 12-6 (making their season record four wins, three losses). That one was easy—but more than a few of the games to follow were a little scary. On July 5, down 6-4 in the ninth, Salt Lake rallied for three runs to edge Medicine Hat. On July 12 the Trappers nipped Medicine Hat 4-3 in the 10th. By July 15 the team had won 18 in a row and was beginning to attract media attention as it closed in on the Pioneer League record of 19. "The only time they got tight," recalls team broadcaster Randy Kerdoon, "was when they went up to Idaho Falls and saw the TV trucks and satellite dishes in the parking lot." The Trappers swallowed their butterflies and whomped Idaho Falls 13-0. On July 18, the Trapper bats went flat in Pocatello, but they escaped with a 3-1 victory in 12 innings.
Came a pip on July 20. Playing at Pocatello, the Trappers trailed by six runs in the seventh—when rain began to fall. "I thought for sure it was over," says manager Jim Gilligan. "The P.A. announcer even said, 'The streak is over.' " But lo, the rain stopped and a rainbow appeared. The Trappers scored eight runs in the inning. They won 13-10.
Gilligan's primary job as manager has been to make believers of his players, many of whom came to pro ball with injured egos. Gilligan, himself a Detroit Tigers farmhand whose playing career was ended by a rotator-cuff injury in 1968 and who coached for 14 years at Lamar University, says, "A lot of these players were actually angry that they weren't drafted. This has given them a reprieve." Some might call it revenge. A pleasant enough bunch off the field, the Trappers have cultivated a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude between the lines. "We weren't drafted, we're rejects," says first baseman Neil Reynolds. "We're on the bench saying, 'Let's beat these guys; they got drafted.' "