The roller-coaster season ended on a downer. For only the second time in their five-year history, the Salt Lake Buzz will not participate in the postseason. The Buzz dropped 10 of their final 14 games in Franklin Covey Field and had a four-game losing streak in the last week of the season while still in the thick of the divisional pennant race.
Still, it was a solid campaign overall. In fact, the Buzz's 79 victories tied a franchise record in that department. And if the PCL would have played by the same rules as it had during the first four Buzz years - with split-season champions - Salt Lake would have taken part in postseason baseball again this year. Its record the second half of the season was the best in its division."We know that we did make an effort and did give it a good try," said veteran Buzz manager Phil Roof after his team fell two wins away from a divisional crown. "It just didn't come to fruition, that's all."
The Buzz seemed hopelessly out of the playoff chase in June. They were a dismal 4-14 during the final 18 games of the month.
They were even as many as 141/2 games behind Fresno into July. But the Buzz went 20-8 in July and then opened August with a franchise-record nine-game winning streak. At the same time the Buzz started to win, Fresno began sliding. Suddenly the team that had been hopelessly trailing the Grizzlies was breathing down their necks. The Buzz went ahead in the standings - albeit by never more than one game - during a five-day stretch in mid-August. But two rough homestands to finish the year ended Salt Lake's hopes for the playoffs.
"I'm proud of my boys, I really am," said Roof. "I'm proud of the way they played the last two months. It showed character."
Five who finished the year with the Buzz - and Roof himself - are now up with the parent Minnesota Twins. Pitchers Benj Sampson and Travis Miller, third baseman Corey Koskie, catcher A.J. Pierzynski and outfielder Chris Latham were all added to the Twins roster as late-season call-ups. For Pierzynski, Sampson and Koskie, it's their first taste of the majors.
Roof, who spent part or all of 17 seasons as a major-league player and many more as a coach, was invited to join the Twins for the homestretch as an extra coach. It's Roof's first trip to the big leagues since 1991, when he worked for the Cubs.
Like always when it comes to triple-A baseball, next year's team will have plenty of new faces. It may even have a new manager. Roof has led the Buzz for four straight seasons, which is a rarity in minor-league baseball. He may or may not be back for a fifth campaign. If not, Al Newman, who coached third base for the Buzz this year, could be a candidate for the job.
Koskie was the team's most valuable player in his first season at the triple-A level. He hit for average (.304) and power (team-leading 26 homers) while driving in 104 runs, which was third best in the league. The 25-year-old prospect also played outstanding defense at third base. While he may be back with the Buzz next season, chances are he'll get a shot at the big-league level out of training camp first.
Pierzynski is the Twins' catcher of the future, but he figures to get more seasoning in Salt Lake next year. He won't turn 22 until December. Sampson, who led the Buzz with 10 pitching victories, also may make a return visit to Salt Lake next year.
One major contributor who won't likely be back is first baseman Scott Stahoviak, an original Buzzman of five years ago who returned after years in the majors this season to hit 18 homers with 82 RBI for Salt Lake. He was taken off the Twins' 40-man roster this season, and his career with the franchise appears to be over.
A player to watch for next season may be Matt LeCroy, the Twins' first-round draft pick in 1997. He joined the Buzz for the last few games of the season and pounded a pair of home runs in the final day of the season.
For the fifth consecutive season the Buzz led the PCL in attendance. But after setting the league's attendance record in 1994, crowds have decreased each year. New Orleans averaged some 600 fewer fans per game this year, and Salt Lake's reign as attendance champions appears vulnerable next season.
The Buzz will continue to be affiliated with the Twins, as a new three-year agreement was reached be-tween owner Joe Buzas and Minnesota earlier this summer.
Of course, that's if the Buzz are still around.
Actually, Salt Lake baseball fans need not worry. There will be a triple-A franchise playing in Franklin Covey Field next summer. The question is whether or not the name will still be the Buzz. They may have to undergo a name change - like the stadium which replaced "Quest" with "Covey" at midseason. Buzas is still fighting a legal battle with Georgia Tech, which has the copyright to the nickname.
Who knows? Maybe next year people will be cheering on the Salt Lake Gulls, again.
Or would that be Gullzz?