SIOUX CITY -- I was there June 15, 1993, working for this newspaper in Rochester, Minn., the night Doug Simunic managed his first professional baseball game.
The visiting Sioux City Explorers, playing their first game ever, beat Simunic’s Rochester Aces 6-5 in a rickety, old ballpark with a plywood press box down the first base line.
Even 23 years after the birth of OSHA, there I sat in a wide-open box that afforded so little safety that a couple foul balls whistled past us and rattled around off the walls.
That’s a memory you tend to recall. Then again, so was the relay throw second baseman J.D. Ramirez made to catcher Tom Carcione, gunning down the potential tying run that Simunic, coaching third base, sent to the baseball gallows.
Here are two salient points I’ve come to embrace:
First, if God wants a baseball to take me out as I stare helplessly into the sunset, barely able to see the batter, let alone a ball headed for my face, God will find me just about anywhere.
Secondly, and more importantly, if you’re coaching third base at almost any level, probably even the majors, you always send the runner when he’s coming from second base on a ball into the gap in right-center. Without two perfect throws, which the Explorers managed to get on that particular play, it’s the smart thing to do.
Simunic has known baseball for most of his life, which included nine minor league seasons as a catcher, the only position from which you can view the entire game.
And, in his 25 seasons as a manager, all with independent professional teams in the Northern League and the American Association, he has put his knowledge to excellent use.
After those Rochester Aces and their inadequate ballpark managed to reach the playoff finals in that first season of the newly launched Northern League, the franchise made a prudent move to Winnipeg. He immediately won a championship there, defeating Sioux City in the finals, then moved down to Fargo when the RedHawks were born in 1996.
Twenty-two seasons later, after bringing that franchise four league championships and becoming the first indy baseball manager with 1,000 wins, he was still the Hawks’ pilot until Sunday. Then, the people who sign Simunic’s paychecks told the 61-year-old to hit the bricks with 24 games left on his schedule and at least a viable shot at a North Division title, he was out of a job.
Sunday afternoon, with pitching coach Michael Schlacht serving as the interim manager, the countdown reached 23 games after a 3-2 loss to Gary marked the team’s seventh setback in eight games since they surged into first place with a 15-1 rampage. They’re now five games in back of red-hot Winnipeg.
Fourth-year Sioux City Explorers Manager Steve Montgomery spent 13 years with Simunic, the last 10 as the RedHawks’ pitching coach. He didn’t mince words Monday.
“If 22 years of success, of dedication, of hard work, of everything Doug Simunic poured into that town isn’t worth 24 games, then why are any of us doing this? It’s crazy,’’ said the towering 43-year-old known as “Mongo.”
So, guess who’s coming to Lewis and Clark Park tonight for a three-game series. Yes, indeed, Fargo-Moorhead is the guest for the first three contests in a six-game homestand that will leave the Explorers with only six additional home dates.
A longtime rival, it’s the RedHawks’ lone visit here in what will hopefully be the last year the American Association plays 52-yard pick-up to formulate its schedule.
After back-to-back Central Division championships brought Sioux City’s 25-year-old baseball team its first consecutive playoff appearances, the quest to make that three in a row is pretty much over.
Still, in a quarter-century of baseball games here, I’ve seen some of the better performances turned in by teams, the Explorers included, that played for causes nobler than any so-called “big picture.” The consummate professionals will always play for pride and self-respect and, of course, sheer love of the game.
In the meantime, the loyal X’s fans who love their baseball, as well, have to wonder what lies ahead and how the situation in Fargo could impact their team. Montgomery, after all, was involved in four of Simunic’s five league titles and Steve’s wife is from Thief River Falls, Minn., two hours northeast of Newman Outdoor Field.
You also have the numbers. Things like Fargo’s metropolitan statistical area of 238,000 compared to Sioux City’s 170,000. More significantly, the RedHawks have drawn close to 4-million fans in 22 seasons, which is around twice the Sioux City attendance in the same span.
While Montgomery has worked considerable magic here, a Fargo-Moorhead club that reached the playoffs 16 of its first 18 years, has remained stuck on 16 with a big finish necessary if that drought is to end. Plenty of Fargo fans view him as the logical choice to take over. We certainly can’t blame him if he does.
As of Monday, though, the Mecca, Ohio, native remained loyal to the team that gave him a chance to run the show. Inclined as I am to steer clear of “bests,’’ he is certainly among the finer managerial minds I’ve encountered in the quarter-century that Sioux City has been blessed with some outstanding baseball.
Not even Miles Wolff, the Baseball America founder who launched both leagues in which the X’s have campaigned, could have envisioned how much these leagues have evolved. And, they have done so without sacrificing the one huge advantage they have over affiliated leagues -- actually playing to win.
Indeed, how the Explorers are still part of all this is largely attributable to the team owner, John Roost, and the financial sacrifice he’s made to keep the club afloat.
“My support (for Montgomery) is unchanged,’’ said Roost. “I don’t anticipate that we have an issue. Everything I’ve been told by Steve (implies) we’re in perfect, good shape. We’ve been talking about things we’re going to do in the offseason and talking about players for next year already.’’
Roost certainly hasn’t enjoyed the injury-riddled season that has topped the list of factors stacked against another playoff year for the X’s. No one has suffered more than the intensely competitive Montgomery.
“There’s not another team in this league that has missed four or five-hundred-some games from players that were signed,’’ he said, referring to injuries and also contracted players picked up by major league organizations.