July 31, 2012
LU head coach Jim Gilligan and the 1987 Salt Lake Trappers were honored last week in Salt Lake City on the 25th anniversary of their 29th consecutive baseball win. Photo Gallery
It was 25 years ago last Thursday (July 26, 1987), a day that put a distinct Lamar influence into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Former Cardinals Matt Huff and Neil Reynolds combined with legendary skipper Jim Gilligan and the rest of the Salt Lake Trappers organization to cement the longest winning streak in professional baseball history. It's a mark that has yet to be matched.
"We just had a dream season," Gilligan said. "We had the championship and the 29-game winning streak, but the streak is the thing that really stands out. A team wins a championship every year. That streak is something that is going to be hard to beat. To get together after 25 years and see those guys again, it was like it happened just three or four years ago. It was a super night."
So how did a team with a first year professional manager, a group of players that no one else wanted and a city not exactly known for baseball accomplish something that no team in the history of the sport has topped?
Making The Move
By the time the 1986 season concluded for Lamar, Gilligan had already made a name for himself as a Cardinal legend. He'd been a standout pitcher for the school in the '60s and after a short stint in the Detroit Tigers organization, he returned to campus, eventually taking the reins of the program prior to the 1973 season.
The rest, as they say, was history. He guided the Cards to a Southland title in 1975, and put together back-to-back trips to NCAA Regionals in 1976 and 1977.
After four more trips to the NCAAs, including a school-record 54-win campaign in 1981, Gilligan began a professional relationship with the Trappers in 1986, serving successfully as the club's pitching coach. So when presented with the opportunity to take over the lead role in the organization, Gilligan jumped at the opportunity.
"We won the championship in '86 and I had a great time doing that," Gilligan said. "I remember going back home and watching the Houston Astros in the playoffs. Seeing a big crowd like that just let me know that I wanted to head back up there. We drew a lot of people when I was at Salt Lake. It was that same kind of atmosphere, just on a smaller scale."
Van Schley, who headed up an ownership group that included actor Bill Murray, backed the idea, and shortly thereafter Gilligan was named the third Trapper manager in as many seasons.
A Team Without
The Trappers entered the 1987 Pioneer League season as the two-time defending champions, but make no mistake, they were no unbeatable powerhouse.
At least not yet.
Due to a lack of Major League club affiliation and the rules for rookie league baseball, Gilligan and the Trappers were set with the task of putting together a new team every season, and one that can compete with the high-priced talent around the rest of the league.
"It wasn't hard to recruit good guys because every year, there are players that deserve to sign but just don't have a place," Gilligan said. "I know that some of our guys were turned in by the scouts, but just didn't get drafted. They came in with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. They knew they were good enough. That's always a good way to start out, with guys trying to prove people wrong."
"It was kind of like our guys here at Lamar. You go up against these big teams, and try to prove that you're as good as or better than them. It's fun when that happens. That's what all my good teams here did, and that's what Salt Lake did in '87."
Naturally, Gilligan looked to his own backyard for a pair of individuals in Reynolds and Huff that had already proven their ability to him.
"My guys were obvious," Gilligan recalled. "Neil was a good ball player who had a great swing, and Huff could hit the ball out of sight. He hit some balls that season that I will never forget."
Huff led the Pioneer League that year with an outstanding .417 batting average and seven homers, and Reynolds, a third generation professional player, was integral in the offense as well, scoring 44 runs and knocking in 43 more.
On June 24, the Trappers weren't looking like the unstoppable juggernaut they were to become. They'd just dropped a game to the Butte Copper Kings to fall to a pedestrian 3-3 record on the season.
They wouldn't lose again until July 27.
It was certainly an inauspicious beginning to the unbeaten run, faced with a 6-0 deficit in the first inning of the home opener at Derks Field in Salt Lake City, the bats came alive for a 10-run rally in the fourth and fifth frames to coast to a 12-6 victory over the Pocatello Giants.
There would be many games like that over the course of the winning streak, but Gilligan credits the team's toughness and work ethic for overcoming the countless obstacles a team encounters on a streak of that magnitude.
"They were 23 of the toughest guys that I've ever seen put together on one team," he said. "It was great for me as a coach because it let me know what I'm supposed to be looking for in players. It's not all about ability. I mean, ability is important and it goes a long way, but you need to have guys with that inner strength, toughness and character."
"And talk about chemistry. We had what every coach is looking to put together. A team that loves each other and wants to hang around each other on and off the field. They were as concerned about their teammates as they were about themselves. That's what our ball club had. Guys that were truly unselfish and had very little ego."
Gilligan, who had experienced 25-game and 24-game unbeaten runs while at the helm of Lamar, also stressed how much harder it is to accomplish the feat at the professional level in comparison.
"The thing about pro ball that makes it more difficult is that teams will start matching up their number one pitcher against your number five, or they'll start putting everything into trying to take one win out of a three-game series. And with games almost every day, you have to work hard to stay up and maintain your focus. In professional baseball, you really do have to take it day-by-day and stay steady. Don't get too up and don't get too down. That's why you hear stuff like that from everybody."
By the time the streak reached 27 straight, tying the previous marks by the 1921 Baltimore Orioles and 1902 Corsicana Oilers, the Trappers were one of the biggest sports stories in the country, drawing interest from coast-to-coast with stories appearing in both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and culminating with a spread in Sports Illustrated.
"That's one of the things that I really respected about my club," Gilligan said. "You had everybody from Miami, L.A. and New York. We were being interviewed everyday by stations all over the country, and it only fueled my guys. I thought that the other teams and umpires were more nervous about it than we were."
The record-breaking night was anti-climactic in comparison. The Trappers pushed two across in the opening frame, and Frank Colston knocked in six runs to lead Salt Lake to a 13-3 victory.
Following the game, Gilligan's jersey, Colston's bat, pitcher John Groennert's hat, a team picture and a signed baseball were sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The items are on permanent display.
"I remember the night they told us about going into the Hall of Fame," Gilligan said. "I've kind of gotten used to it over the years, but it was really hard to process. That was just off the charts, and it was just icing on the cake of a good season."
After closing out the homestand with a 29th consecutive win, the team saw the impressive run come to an end against the Billings Mustangs in Billings, Mont. The pain was only temporary, however, as Salt Lake went on to win a third consecutive Pioneer League title.
Returning to Beaumont
Gilligan would continue to work on the minor league circuit over the course of the next four seasons before finally making the trek back to LU, a post he's held to this day. After a 31-22 season in 1992, everything was back-to-normal at Vincent-Beck Stadium, as the Cardinals put together a 44-18 season in 1993 to head back to the NCAA Regionals.
Gilligan has since guided the team to five more NCAA Regionals and will be entering his 36th season in the red and white next season. With 1,228 career wins, he sits as one of the winningest active coaches in the country, but his short stay in Salt Lake in 1987 will always hold a place in history.
"You know it's hard to talk to our guys right now about something that happened 25 years ago when they aren't even 25 years old," Gilligan said. "I don't think that they'll ever get a sense of what that meant to me, but I've got some videos of that team that I want to show our guys. My guys here love to play just as much as my guys did back then, and I think that we can infuse a bit of that old time mentality into them. Some already have it. That's when it gets fun."