It's closing time at Frank's Corner Kitchen, and owner Frank Colston is cleaning up from a long day serving his local customers. It's been a while since anyone asked him about his playing days as a minor league catcher for the Salt Lake Trappers. It's just another late night for Colston, who owns this small, family restaurant and sports bar in Beckemeyer, Ill., a quiet Midwestern town where Frank grew up.
Tucked away in the corner of the bar, in a small display case, is a worn team photo of the 1987 Salt Lake Trappers signed by all his teammates and coaches from a historic winning streak — 29 games in a row. But for Colston, being a long way from Salt Lake City and out of baseball all these years hasn't dimmed the memories of that historic summer.
"Sports has a cruel way of dealing with retired players and with history," Colston says. "I can remember things from that season like it was yesterday, but it's hard to describe the magnitude and excitement of that experience to someone who never heard of 'The Streak.'
"Heck, I had to convince my own daughter that a bat I used and a baseball I signed is sitting in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. She didn't believe me at first. That's the kind of stuff I'm talking about."
For Colston and many others, time has passed but the memories and experiences are still very much alive from that unforgettable season. Taking a look back, for one short, 70-game season, the Salt Lake Trappers were in the center of the national baseball conversation.
Now, 25 years later, what has become of those undrafted, independent team players? How did that season change them? What impact, if any, did being a small part of baseball history have on them?
Gone is historic Derks Field, with its decaying concrete and cinder block outfield wall, replaced by the clean lines of structural steel, a grassy berm beyond the outfield fence and state-of-the-art architecture of Spring Mobile Ballpark.
"Derks Field was an amazing place," said Adam Casillas, who played outfield that year. "After that season, I realized how spoiled we really were. I always loved playing in Salt Lake City. I spent almost a decade in professional baseball, and there is no prettier ballpark I've played in anywhere."
For Casillas and the other members of that 1987 Trappers' team, the journey to Salt Lake City was an interesting path.
Making of a franchise
For many of the 1987 Trappers, it was their first taste of professional baseball. The Trappers were part of a unique fraternity of independently owned and operated minor league franchises. The pipeline for players into Salt Lake City was driven primarily by owner and scout Van Schley, whose baseball background was somewhat unorthodox.
In 1977, while living in Los Angeles as an aspiring artist, Schley, who had a passion for baseball, had a vision to one day own a franchise. Networking within the baseball community, Schley bought his first team in Texas City for $500.
He then went on to own teams in Canada (Victoria, British Columbia) and Utica of the New York-Penn League. But when the Seattle Mariners' Triple-A team, the Salt Lake Gulls, went bankrupt in 1984, and the opportunity to secure franchise rights in Salt Lake City came up, he jumped at the chance.
Schley also worked on investment capital for this new franchise. The Trappers' 16 owners included Phoenix businessman Steve Butterfield, Utah food broker Ron Sabala, longtime baseball executive Jack Donovan, and actor Bill Murray, who held a 5 percent share.
In 1985, Schley met Jim Gilligan, then Lamar University's head baseball coach, and hired him as the Trappers' pitching coach. He later contacted Barry Moss, who had spent 11 years as a player in the minors and wanted to get into managing a team. The two were assistant coaches in 1986; Gilligan took over as manager in 1987.
A friendship was born, but the reality of competing with organizations like the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants was no easy task. Schley had to rely on contacts and his scouting network to find players, all the while funding much of the initial costs associated with starting the team with his personal American Express card. Despite these challenges, Schley was not discouraged. With his management team in place, Schley and his staff were now ready to begin building a team.
"We told Van we need strong pitching and offense, and he listened," Gilligan said. "We had no idea what we would get in terms of players defensively, but I knew we were going to hit."
Through Schley's Texas Star baseball network, Gilligan set up a series of open tryouts, posted in such publications as Baseball America, for would-be players who could show up and show what they had. The tryouts were held in such places as Malibu, Calif.; Beaumont, Texas, and Miami — with 100 to 150 players participating in a series of drills to determine if any had the skills Gilligan sought.
Although only a small number who attended the tryouts were invited to then practice with the team, the opportunity for the experience was an investment many aspiring, young players could not pass up. Plus, it was good publicity for Schley and his fledgling team.
At the open tryout in Salt Lake City, the players came in all shapes and sizes to try for their shot at playing professional baseball and the chance to earn $500 per month — plus the $11 a day in meal money.
"We had one guy who had been on a three-day bus ride from Pittsburgh show up at Derks Field at 6 a.m. ready to show how good a pitcher he was and another player who wore overalls and work boots to the tryout," remembers Dave Baggott, who played in 1986 for the Trappers and then moved to the front office as assistant general manager in 1987. "It was certainly a broad spectrum of baseball talent that came to these open tryouts."
But most of the players who made up the '87 Trappers played college baseball and came from recognized programs with a solid pedigree. For various reasons, though, they'd been overlooked and were not selected in the draft.
"No manager gets the kind of players and personalities that I had on that '87 team," Gilligan said. "Jimmy Ferguson had that movie-star smile, hit .329, and Colston, well, I can't tell any of the stories about Frank that you can print. But he was a character, and he led the league hitting nearly .400 that year. All of the players brought some element of character and personality to the team. That was key to our team chemistry."
In retrospect, the real benefit to the Trappers was the focus that Schley, Gilligan and Moss put on those overlooked college players. Many of the players who were recruited were all-conference or led their teams in any number of statistical categories. Some were just coming off playing in the College World Series, while others had been selected from other teams in the minors.
How did this all factor into the psyche of the team?
"Many of our players were obviously scouted by the heads of their major league organizations, and for some reason they were overlooked," Gilligan said. "It didn't mean these weren't good players, it just meant that they felt another player was a better fit for their situation.
"What drove this group of players," Gilligan added, "was the fact they hated to lose — that's what motivated them."
In the end, the chemistry experiment would be put to the test as the Trappers ended up playing against what the establishment deemed future major league stars.
Randy Kerdoon, the radio play-by-play man for the Trappers that year, recalls how he became the Trappers' announcer.
"I was doing (Salt Lake) Golden Eagles hockey games and was offered to do play-by-play for the Trappers for $25 a game," he said. "I loved baseball so much that I took the job. Looking back, I'm glad I did.
"At the start of the season," Kerdoon continues, "we didn't know what we had. I was just trying to learn all the players' names. We were all in the minor leagues, trying to prove ourselves. We were all looking to get to the major leagues."
With the engineering and the building of a team in the hands of Schley and his staff, the focus turned to getting people in the stands to see this collection of players. That responsibility fell on the shoulders of general manager Steve Pearson and Baggott.
Both men shared a common passion for baseball and promotion. Both had been in various sales and marketing roles before joining the Trappers, and both understood that putting a winning team together was only one piece of the puzzle to make the franchise a success. The challenge they had was to figure out how to get people to buy tickets.
Together, they surmised that in order to create franchise awareness and increase attendance, they needed promotions and incentives to get the casual fan to sample the product. With 35 home games, the schedule of events included such standard grabbers as The Famous Chicken Night, a performance by Max Patkin "The Clown Prince of Baseball" and the Fourth of July fireworks night.
But with a keen understanding of the Utah market and having a knack for connecting corporate America to baseball, Pearson and Baggott began approaching local businesses with the proposition of the concept of a "buyout night" for their company. The approach worked, with companies purchasing large blocs of seats for employees and clients.
It was through these series of connecting the local businesses and their customers to the Trappers that Pearson and Baggott found their real golden nugget. Business leaders realized that if they could increase foot traffic into their businesses with a promotion night or offer their employees a "company night" at the game, they would benefit from the added goodwill and exposure connecting, for instance, dentists and their patients.
With a season-ticket base of 3,500, these nights, along with other promotions, exposed rookie-league baseball to the part-time sports fan at a reasonable price.
"At the end of the day, the business model worked," Pearson recalls. "With the help of Ron Sabala, one of our owners, we were able to connect with many of the retail grocers in Salt Lake City, and we developed a tight connection with the business and their customers during the season."
Of course those fans would bring friends and family members along and undoubtedly invest in parking, concessions and souvenirs. This simple lesson in economics allowed the Trappers to expand their fan base and increase interest while watching revenues soar. This piece of the puzzle dovetailed into the overall plan.
Then "The Streak" that no one expected happened and everything came together.
"I am sincere when I say that everyone from the groundskeepers, players, front office and the owners were all focused on making the Trappers a success, and you don't have that in college sports because baseball is just one of many sports the university has to support," Gilligan said. "It really comes together when everyone is focused on the task at hand."
As expected, the Trappers, under the Pearson-Baggott business model, led the Pioneer League in attendance and were the envy of many Double-A and Triple-A teams. By season's end, the Trappers boasted a league-leading 170,714 in attendance — an average of 5,004 per game — in 1987. The team eclipsed 200,000 fans just two years later.
With the operations side in place and with the roster selected, it was time for the piece that everyone was waiting for: the games.
"The Streak," as it is known, began June 25 on an uneventful evening at Derks Field, with the Trappers — who had started the season 3-3 — taking a series-opening win over the Pocatello Giants. The Trappers then beat the Giants the next night, 8-5, and took two from the Idaho Falls Braves, 9-8 and 14-12. The Trappers then swept a three-game set with Great Falls on the road to run their record to 10-3.
"There was no doubt we had a lot of talent that year. We knew we could hit because we had guys with such strong backgrounds," Gilligan said.
"The one thing that distinguished the ballclub was the toughness of the players. Before the season started, there was no way you could know until you got into the season. But I later realized that I had a collection of really tough kids."
The Trappers then went to Medicine Hat, Alberta, and after an 18-hour bus ride, they swept four games from the Blue Jays, pushing the streak to 11.
Matt Huff, who played first base for the Trappers, recalls, "I'll never forget that final game of that road trip against Medicine Hat. Earlier in the game, we pulled the old hidden ball trick and I tagged out one of the league leader in steals. I couldn't believe it worked.
"But we were still losing the game in the top of the ninth inning. That's when Jon Beuder stole home and Anthony Blackmon scored on a wild pitch and we won the game 7-6. I've never seen that happen in a professional game."
With the confidence of the team building, the Trappers returned home for a seven-game homestand. Wins No. 12, 13, 14 and 15 came once again against Great Falls, and Medicine Hat obliged, too, giving Salt Lake three more wins to make it 18 straight.
Back on the road, the Trappers headed to Idaho Falls with a 21-3 record and promptly beat the Braves for wins 19 and 20, surpassing the Pioneer League record for most consecutive wins of 19, set by Lethbridge in 1980.
The Trappers continued to roll, moving on to play Pocatello and again paying little attention to the notoriety of the local press, beating the Giants for their 21st and 22nd wins of the streak.
"When you manage a team, you hope for that one guy on the bench who you can call on to be your go-to guy. On that '87 team, we had five or six guys who could step up and be that go-to guy." Gilligan said.
Feeling tired and possibly a bit overconfident, the Trappers found themselves going for win No. 23 against — guess who? — the Giants. The Trappers prevailed, but not without some late-inning drama. In the top of the seventh inning, trailing the Giants 9-3, the public-address announcer said, "The streak is over!" thus violating one of baseball's superstitious rules.
Gilligan recalls, "I will never forget that game. It sounds like a fairy-tale story to think about it, but we were in the top of the seventh inning and the dark clouds started to come in from the distance. Everyone was sure it was going to rain, and the game would be called. The Giants had a six-run lead when the P.A. guy said 'The streak is over!' I was standing on the third-base side and looked at the third baseman, and he just shook his head and said, 'Why did he say that?' "
Moments later, Giants manager Rafael Landestoy started yelling in the direction of the press box at the announcer.
"We went on to score eight runs, hit three home runs, the sky cleared that inning and a giant rainbow was seen in the outfield," Gilligan said. "It was a moment I will never forget."
The Trappers' Jim Ferguson belted a solo homer, Ed Citronnelli blasted a three-run shot, and the pitching staff closed the door. Disaster was averted.
"The Streak" was still alive.
"After that game, we were on the bus on our way back to Salt Lake City and there was talk if we broke the record of 27 in a row we might end up with our names in the Hall of Fame," Colston said "We started to realize that we actually had a shot at making history."
By this time, the phones at the Trappers' front office were buzzing with inquiries from local media as to when the Trappers would conceivably break the record. The professional baseball record was held by the 1902 Corsicana Oilers (of the Texas League) and the 1921 Baltimore Orioles (of the International League), who had both recorded 27 straight victories.
Fans and ticket brokers were starting to snatch up tickets for the potential tying and subsequent breaking of the record.
"I remember a set of four box seats going for $150. We also had some guy in front of the stadium selling counterfeit Salt Lake Trappers 'Streak' T-shirts," said Baggott.
The national media were starting to catch onto the story as well, but the magnitude of what was happening had not fully sunk in — at least not with the players.
In a doubleheader, the Trappers beat the Braves again for wins 24 and 25. They delivered win No. 26 in a 14-4 pounding of the Braves to set the stage for a chance to tie the record.
For that potential 27th consecutive win, the Trappers took the field on Pioneer Day. A capacity crowd packed Derks Field to see the fireworks both on and off the field.
Trapper outfielder Beuder did not disappoint, blasting a towering first-inning grand slam. The score after the first inning was 6-0. The Trappers cruised to victory.
By now, members of the national media were involved, and credential requests flooded in. News media from all over the country came to see this "unbeatable team." Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, ESPN and CNN all jumped in. ABC's "Wide World of Sports" named Colston and Ferguson its athletes of the week.
Before the historic 28th game, the atmosphere around Derks Field was electric. There was even talk Murray, who was in Paris, would fly back on the Concord to make it in time for the game.
"That game was the most incredible site I have seen at a baseball game," Kerdoon said. "Kids in trees watching the game, people on rooftops, scalpers selling tickets. This is what you expect to see at a Cubs game."
Added Pearson: "It was one of those magical things that everyone wanted to be a part of. I run into people today who claim to have been there for the historic game. By my unofficial count, everyone in the valley was there."
Pearson's perspective was somewhat unique because he had to deal with the baseball skeptics who wondered how a Rookie League team would be received in the Salt Lake community right after the departure of the Gulls' franchise.
"People were a little bit disappointed with a Rookie League team coming in because they felt the quality of baseball was not going to be the same," he said. "But that's what made the Trappers' situation with 'The Streak' so special. You had to understand how far we had to come to even get to this point of acceptance. You don't understand. This type of exposure never happens to a Rookie League baseball team. That's why it was satisfying to see."
All of the Trappers' media coverage was not positive. There were comments from Sheldon Bender, the Cincinnati Reds director of player personnel, claiming the Trappers had an unfair advantage due to the number of college players they had. Others like Gord Ash, in the same role for the Toronto Blue Jays, jumped into the fray with similar concerns. Even St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog knocked the Trappers for having too much experience.
To that, the local press said it was just sour grapes. The Trappers had followed all of the Pioneer League bylaws. Players could only play for the same team two years in a row, and league rules stated teams could only bring back five players from the previous year. The Trappers met those stipulations.
It was a warm summer night on July 25 in front of the largest crowd of the season, and 9,968 fans witnessed history. Those who couldn't get inside the park to see the action close up watched from the rooftops of neighboring businesses, others listened to their radios. WFAN in New York even took the radio feed on its station to air the game.
The Trappers took the field, just as they had 27 times before that night. The tension was thick.
Colston remembers how the team felt leading up to the start of the game: "Everything in the clubhouse was very quiet that night. Max Patkin, "The Clown Prince of Baseball," was talking with the players before telling us about Babe Ruth and the legends of the game trying to lighten the mood, but everyone was focused."
Ironically it was Schley's eye for talent and Gilligan's years of managing expertise that all came into focus as the Trappers were in a position to break the record. Starting behind the plate was Colston, a converted catcher in college who had grown up in Illinois playing for American Legion teams. Reliever John Groennert, also an Illinois native, had actually played against Colston in high school and now they stood on the doorstep of history.
"In high school, we were playing against Frank's team, so I knew what kind of player he was, and he called a great game that night," Groennert said.
Groennert's journey to the Trappers was one of the more unique stories. He joined the team after the start of the season. In early July, Gilligan and Schley were looking for another solid starting pitcher when Colston gave his bosses a tip on a player he caught for back in American Legion ball. Through a series of phone calls and searches, the Trappers located Groennert eating dinner at a pizza parlor in Illinois.
Groennert remembers it this way.
"I was having dinner with some friends when a call came. At first I wasn't sure what to think, but after hearing the offer to play again, I was on a plane to Salt Lake City within 24 hours," he said.
As fate would have it, Groennert would play a critical role in helping to break the record.
After Pocatello loaded the bases in the top of the second inning, Groennert was called on in relief to take the mound.
"It was a pretty tough situation when I came into the game," Groennert recalled. "I kept thinking, 'Just limit the damage and throw strikes. Keep the ball down and throw strikes.' I really wasn't nervous; I just thought about what I had to do and stayed focused on throwing strikes."
That's exactly what he did, working his way through that second inning and going on to strike out eight batters. He issued no walks, yielded only five hits, and allowed only one earned run to earn the victory.
Colston had a night to remember, too, with six RBIs to lead the offensive barrage. Beuder's RBI and Neil Reynolds' two-run double helped secure the 13-3 victory.
After the game, the clubhouse was filled with cigar smoke, champagne was spraying and the players laughed heartily. The manager and coaches cried and cheered for what they had accomplished. They were on top of the sporting world; no professional baseball team had ever won as many consecutive games. This group of baseball orphans proved to the baseball world they could play the game.
Trappers P.A. announcer Mike Runge exclaimed, "In the history of baseball, there has never been a streak like this one."
Players circled the field waving to fans and shaking hands. Fans stood, and for more than 10 minutes gave the team a standing ovation.
"For me, 'The Streak' was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I've won a state legion championship, taken teams to the state tournament as a high school coach, but winning that 28th game the way we did has a special place in my heart," Groennert said.
"Looking back, I don't think this streak will ever be broken," Tim Peters said. "There are just too many things that can trip you up in a game. It's just too hard to win that many games in a row these days."
Neil Reynolds, who played third base for the Trappers, said, "Some guys play their whole career and never get mentioned in Sports Illustrated. We were fortunate in one season to get a feature story. I've got the article framed and sitting on my wall at home. I'll never forget that."
There was talk of a movie, and initial inquiries came to the Trappers from Hollywood director Ron Howard, but nothing came of it.
There was, however, a feature story, "Streak City," in Sports Illustrated.
The late Herman Franks, a long-time Major League manager and Salt Lake resident, said, "Winning 28 games in a row is a hell of a feat. I don't care what classification you're playing in."
With the electricity of that record-breaking night behind them, the Trappers beat Pocatello the next night for win No. 29 before the streak finally ended in Billings with the Trappers losing by a count of 7-5.
"You always know you can lose," said Trappers catcher Todd Noonan. "We just have to go and try and start a new streak."
They almost quietly went on to win the Pioneer League championship, beating Helena for the crown. But even the league championship didn't seem to have the kind of impact that "The Streak" had on the team and its fans.
"When we won the Pioneer League championship, someone asked me if this was a greater accomplishment than 'The Streak,' " Gilligan says. "My answer was right then and there the championship was, but in five or 10 years, it will be 'The Streak' that everyone remembers. Nineteen-eighty-seven was one of the greatest years of my life, and for many of these players it was the greatest year of their baseball careers."
Looking back, Kerdoon said, "My experience with the Trappers was really my core as a broadcaster. Some years later, I was in upstate New York and visited the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I got there, I asked the ticket person 'Do you need to pay if you are actually in the Hall of Fame?' They said no, and I explained I was part of the Trappers' streak. They treated me like I was Babe Ruth and escorted me to the display, and there it was — Colston's bat, the ball we all signed, right there in the Hall of Fame. I will never forget that."
"In my professional career, it was absolutely at the top," Pearson said. "We had to overcome so much to get to that point. That's what I was so proud of."
"Baseball is a part of my life," Colston admits. "Salt Lake City and that summer with the Trappers was the best part of that baseball life."
Back on Old Route 50 in Beckemeyer, Ill., at Frank's Corner Kitchen, Colston leans back on his bar stool and reflects on his playing days. Asked if he had any regrets, Colston ponders the question.
"I can say without a doubt I wouldn't change a thing. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I'm glad I was a part of it."
As for the movie rights, Colston admits he was working on a screenplay in his spare time but hasn't finished it.
We all know how the story ends. We'll just have to wait to see who plays Colston and the rest of the Trappers in the movie.
Glenn Seninger was the director of media relations for the 1987-88 Trappers. He and his family make their home in Salt Lake City.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company