Brad Rock: Bill Murray and Trappers in a league of their own
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The guy in the Hawaiian shirt, shorts and bucket cap looked familiar, but so did a lot of guys on Thursday at Spring Mobile Ballpark. He sounded familiar, too, especially when he started razzing the Salt Lake Bees as they took batting practice.
"You guys can't play!" he called. "You! Guys! Can't! Plaaaaay!"
Bill Murray — the one and only Carl Spackler from "Caddyshack" — was back at scene of the crime.
"You jumping in?" said one of the Bees, motioning toward the batter's box.
"I can't hit 'til after you guys hit," Murray said.
And then he did. Truth is, he showed a decent, level swing. It started with a few foul balls and weak grounders, but just before his arms tired, Murray cracked a couple of line drives out of the infield. What he didn't crack was a ton of jokes, mainly because he didn't want to entirely upstage the show, even though he was once a part-owner of the Salt Lake Trappers. This one was for history's team, the 1987 Trappers, who 25 years ago this week set the all-time baseball record for consecutive wins.
"It was unbelievable," said former infielder Matt Huff.
Not just the record-setting 29 consecutive wins, but the feel.
"We ," said Huff, his mind drifting back across the years, "were in the moment."
Ah yes, the moment. A mishmash of players nobody but an unaffiliated Trappers team wanted. A summer when everything was simultaneously cool and hot: late inning rallies, snow-cone catches, clutch pitching. At one point, three Trappers players were hitting above .400. Outfielder Mike Malinak led the Pioneer League in home runs, Huff and teammate Frank Colston were one-two in batting and pitcher Kent Hetrick was second in the league in wins.
"Unheard of," Huff said.
The record was good, but it wasn't just the winning. It was the sense of being someone, somewhere. One night Murray, brother Brian Doyle-Murray and rock star Huey Lewis were at the park — as well as in the clubhouse. Murray sometimes coached from first base and sat in the dugout.
"It was the celebrity factor," Huff said.
Thus, Thursday's Bees-Sacramento game was as much about 1987 as it was 2012. The Bees wore Trappers uniforms. Former players were introduced along the first-base line along with Murray, who also threw out the first pitch — in a way. He tipped his cap to the crowd, slowly wound up and launched the ball into the first base grandstands, joking afterward about it being a step toward a Major League career.
Exactly how big a 29-game win streak depends on whom you ask. It's not as long as the Los Angeles Lakers' 33-game win streak in 1971-72, nor UCLA's 88-game streak in the era of John Wooden. Yet it remains three more wins than the 1916 New York Giants baseball team could muster. It's a nice statistic in a game of statistics.
Though not listed in everyone's publication as a key accomplishment, the Trappers, then and now, say to heck with that. They beat everyone in their time zone. Twelve players from that team were signed to contracts by MLB organizations, though none made the major leagues. Crowds flocked to see the biggest little team ever to pull on polyester and stirrup socks — or gray flannels, for that matter. That was a far cry from Thursday, when a sparse crowd showed up. But it didn't dismay yesteryear's players, who were there to remember their season in the sun.
"The smells are the same, the feel of the grass …" Huff continued.
When you come back home like these guys did, it's like coming back to the summer of their lives, too. Now they have real jobs. The players have moved on into middle age. Some have waistbands to match the size of their bats.
Which is exactly as it should be.
It's their record that is frozen in time, not their bodies.
Critics have dismissed the '87 Trappers for being a lowly Pioneer League team. The idea is that it doesn't count unless it was in the major leagues. But wins are wins. It's not as though the opponents weren't trying. The Trappers didn't do it against lower competition. All were cut from the same rookie league piece of cloth.
They succeeded among their peers.
"There is no defending it," said Colston. "We were doing what we could do, when we could do it."
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