SALT LAKE CITY — They're salesmen now, and insurance agents, and realtors and car dealers and high school coaches and family men. One of them owns his own restaurant. They're a lot closer to 50 than they are 40.
But when they made their way back to Salt Lake City, aka Streak City, this week, first stopping for a get-together at Duffy's Tavern, their old home away from home, then at the ballpark formerly known as Derks Field, the quarter of a century that has transpired since they won 29 baseball games in a row, not losing for more than a month, melted away like shaved ice.
The year was 1987 when the Salt Lake Trappers of the Pioneer League went on a roll of rolls, beating Pocatello on June 25 and winning on nearly a daily basis all the way through July 26. Their 29 straight victories set a standard for winning streaks that hadn't been equaled before and sure hasn't been since. Like DiMaggio's run of hitting in 56 straight games, it's a record that just might last forever.
I was a sports columnist back then, and in my 20-plus years writing sports, I never covered a story I enjoyed more.
Unless you were the Pocatello Giants or the Great Falls Dodgers or the Medicine Hat Blue Jays or the Idaho Falls Braves, there wasn't much not to like about the Salt Lake Trappers, a collection of guys nobody else wanted that turned into the team that couldn't lose.
The roster was made up entirely of ballplayers who had gone ignored in the draft; the orphans of baseball, as it were. Most of them had played in college and were now, at 20 and 21, for the first time in their lives, facing a future without baseball. That is, until Van Schley, a combination mad scientist/nonconformist/baseball genius from Los Angeles stepped in and put them all on the same team.
The ownership team Schley assembled was also very un-baseball-like, a disparate collection of 16 friends he rounded up, including actor Bill Murray, to help him pay the bills.
The result was an independent organization as outside-the-box as any professional team baseball had ever seen — and one that changed the way teams have drafted ever since.
As Schley said this week, "We sorta played moneyball before there was 'Moneyball.' "
Everybody had a chip on his shoulder; everybody had something to prove..
And it was Salt Lake's story to tell.
As the streak progressed, I found myself writing a lot of columns about the Trappers and constantly talking to the players. No one ducked an interview. No one gave one-word answers. And the longer the streak went on, the looser the interviews and the lighter the overall mood of the team.
Rarely have I seen professional athletes enjoy the moment any better.
It also didn't hurt to have people like Bill Murray around to help ease the tension. The famous comic actor came to town occasionally, and his actor brother Brian Doyle-Murray was almost a constant presence that summer. On road trips to Idaho and Montana, he'd ride shotgun on the team bus next to manager Jim Gilligan.Comment on this story
Doyle-Murray, too, was back in Salt Lake City this week to toast the 25-year anniversary of the streak.
"Gilligan called me and told me about it, and at first, I told him I was real busy and I said no," said Doyle Murray. "Then, I said, wait a minute, yeah, that was an incredible summer. I'm in."
All week, they've been remembering that incredible, improbable summer, as have I, and enjoying it like it happened just yesterday.
"We're all just big overgrown kids," said Schley as he soaked in the old-new atmosphere at Duffy's on Wednesday night. "That hasn't changed. We were then, we are now."