Salina Stockade at Explorers baseball

Sioux City Field manager Steve Montgomery looks on as his team takes on Salina during baseball action at Lewis and Clark Park in Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday, July 20, 2017.(Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal)

Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal

SIOUX CITY -- There were 24 games left on the schedule and the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks were definitely in the running for their first American Association baseball playoff berth in four seasons.

That’s how things stood when Doug Simunic, the only manager the 22-year-old franchise had ever known, was “relieved of his duties’’ on Aug. 12.

Despite six losses in a seven-game tumble, Simunic’s team had gone 16-7 in their last 23 games when Michael Schlact, the Hawks’ 31-year-old pitching coach, took over as “interim manager.’’

Twenty-three games later, Schlact’s time at the helm, so to speak, had also yielded a 16-7 record, sending the RedHawks into the final day of the regular season with a one-game lead in the wild-card race over both the Gary SouthShore RailCats and the Kansas City T-Bones.

Having lost the season series to both of those teams -- the league’s main tiebreaker -- Fargo-Moorhead still controlled its own destiny. All it took was a season-ending win last Monday over the Winnipeg Goldeyes, a team that had nailed down the league’s North Division flag and had virtually nothing on the line.

Even with Gary and Kansas City both winning, leaving each of them with a 57-43 record, Schlact was at the wheel when the RedHawks careened out of that playoff slot, dropping an 8-3 verdict. And, in case you missed it, with the Hawks also winding up 57-43, it was Gary that held the advantage and moved forward into postseason play.

Last Thursday, three days after the costly season-ending loss, the Fargo-Moorhead franchise announced that Schlact, younger than quite a few players in the league, would be the official successor to the 61-year-old Simunic.

All of which brings me to a couple of tut-tuts to the front office of a team that control an independent professional team that has stared remarkable success in the face and totally taken it for granted.

Here’s a franchise with 19 winning records in 22 seasons and four league championships, all of this courtesy of Simunic. And, it’s an operation that has consistently averaged close to 4,000 fans per game throughout its existence, largely because they’ve had winners to follow.

I’ll let you in on a few things those proverbial “little birdies” have told me.

First, there was the rumor since May that Simunic would be finished after this season. After 16 playoff appearances in the Hawks’ previous 18 years, three straight years without one -- now four, of course -- was his unpardonable sin.

You’d almost think the F-M brass was getting a little nervous, wondering how they could possibly fire Simunic if this 2017 team got the RedHawks back in the playoffs. So, after seeing the team follow a 15-1 surge with that 1-6 hiccup, maybe it seemed like a good time to make that reportedly pre-ordained move.

So, it was bye-bye to Simunic, the first manager in independent baseball history to reach 1,000 wins (and, if I ciphered this correctly, a 25-year managerial ledger of 1,249 wins against 877 losses).

None of this would matter all that much to any of us except the Fargo playoff drought just happens to coincide with the four seasons since Steve Montgomery, the F-M pitching coach for 10 seasons, has spent posting a 222-178 record as the Sioux City Explorers’ field manager.

A lot of people in Fargo wanted to get Montgomery back as the replacement for Simunic. I’d have made a rare wager this would, indeed, be what happened. And, I’d have regretted seeing it happen, too, because our friend “Mongo,’’ as he’s known, may be as good at building and managing an independent pro baseball team as anyone I’ve seen try it the last 25 years.

With nearly all the other teams situated in larger markets, attendance here doesn’t measure up with most of the league. Even with a salary cap that’s supposed to level the playing field to some degree, Montgomery is still handicapped rather substantially when it comes to attracting players here.

It just so happened that Fargo’s only visit here this season was a three-game series starting Aug. 15, just three days after Simunic got the axe. I couldn’t help wondering if this factored into the timing of the move, as well.

“They contacted me when they were down here,’’ Montgomery told me Monday. “They had somebody ask me if I was interested and I said, ‘Not really.’ I like it here. It’s more difficult to win here, but I like being here.’’

Montgomery’s views on Simunic’s firing were quite apparent over the weekend when he tweeted, “16-8 over 24 games gets you fired. 16-8 over last 24 games gets you hired!!!”

Those weren’t sour grapes, he maintained. It was a transparent slam at his old employer.

“I thought they handled the Doug Simunic thing wrong,’’ summed up Montgomery, who believed Simunic, even if he wasn’t renewed for next season, should have been allowed to finish out the season.

I couldn’t agree more, I would add, even though I’m fully aware Doug’s league-wide fan club isn’t too large. Part of that is because of all the winners he’s fashioned. The rest stems from a temperament that doesn’t really paint an accurate picture. He’s just one of those people who don’t smile a lot.

Meanwhile, with the injury-ravaged Explorers missing out on the playoffs for the first time in three years, that swiftly completed four-game battle has come down to a best-of-five between Winnipeg and Wichita, the North and South Division champs. That’s the same matchup as last year, when Winnipeg became the fourth wild card in five years to win the title.

It won’t go that way this year because Wichita erased Gary in three games. Meanwhile, Winnipeg derailed Lincoln’s Central Division champs in a series that went four games, ending with a dramatic and unflattering 10-9 battle Sunday in Winnipeg.

The host Goldeyes saw an 8-6 lead vanish in the top of the ninth as Lincoln, hoping to force a fifth game, scored three times. Then, rather frustratingly, Winnipeg came back to score twice in the bottom of the ninth with only one base hit. Embarrassingly for Lincoln, the Goldeyes reached the finals with consecutive bases-loaded walks, both of them four-pitch catastrophes.

Montgomery, I should note, is still finishing up his postseason chores with the X’s, which means he was here in the wee hours of Monday morning, when the eye of Hurricane Irma passed over his home in Lithia, Florida, a suburb of Tampa. Montgomery’s wife along with the couple’s 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter spent the night in a closet, riding out the storm.

As of mid-day Monday, Montgomery was awaiting a more detailed damage report from his wife, whose initial overview involved lots of downed trees. Still, the family was quite grateful to be safe, needless to say, and still have electrical power, unlike nearly everyone else they know.


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