Of all the players selected in the
first round of the 1999 inaugural BDBL draft, perhaps no player made
more of an impact, and for as many years, as Pedro Martinez. In eight
years -- all with the Akron Ryche -- Martinez won a total of 128 games
and compiled an ERA of 2.82. During that time, he won four Eck
League Cy Young awards, and established single-season records for lowest
ERA (1.81), opponents BA (.174), OBP (.234) and slugging (.259.)
In retrospect, it seems incomprehensible that a pitcher so great and so
dominant, pitching at the peak age of 27, lasted until the 11th pick of
the draft. And yet, that is where he was selected by Akron GM D.J.
Shepard in the league's inaugural draft of 1999.
Shepard was introduced to the fledgling
Big Daddy Baseball League on November 26th as the seventh member of the
24-member league. A 30-year-old Pepsi truck driver from Akron,
Ohio, Shepard proclaimed that he was "ready to find out if [he had] what
it takes to succeed in a competitive league like [the BDBL.]" He
didn't waste any time proving that he did with the selection of Martinez.
Playing in a ballpark modeled after
his favorite MLB team's Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Shepard made his team-building philosophy
clear by selecting pitchers with his next two picks as well: Kenny
Rogers and Ugueth Urbina. Rogers tossed more than 257 innings for
the Ryche in 1999, with an ERA of 3.50 and a 17-10 record, while Urbina
added a 2.09 ERA while pitching 56+ innings in relief.
As for Martinez, he endured one of the
more unusual pitching seasons in the history of the BDBL. Despite
an ERA of 3.33 in over 254 innings, Martinez managed to win just 8 games
against 16 losses. His average run support that season was just
3.7 runs per game -- the third-lowest average of any pitcher in the BDBL
Shepard drafted his first two hitters
-- Damion Easley (.299/.362/.475, 22 HR, 107.2 RC) and Robin Ventura
(.276/.339/.370) -- with his next two picks, before returning to the
pitching staff, to which he added Rick Reed (12-9, 3.89 ERA in 222+ IP
combined) and Jason Christiansen (54+ IP, 3.15 ERA in relief.)
Playing in the Ozzie League's Benes
Division against the Marlboro Hammerheads, Plattsburgh Champs and Salem
Cowtippers, the Ryche were considered to be a borderline contender with
a very strong starting rotation and bullpen, but a very weak lineup.
That assessment proved accurate, as Akron finished 11th in the OL with
727 runs scored, and 8th in ERA at 4.34.
Surprisingly, Akron jumped out to a
division-best 17-8 start to the season in Chapter One, but their
fortunes reversed in Chapter Two with a 13-17 record. By the
all-star break, the Ryche owned an impressive a 46-34 (.575) record, and
trailed the division-leading Cowtippers and Champs by only one game.
Prior to the Chapter Three deadline,
Shepard made his first trade in the BDBL, dealing Rickey Henderson, Reed
and Vic Darensbourg to the Delafield Ogres in exchange for
Eric Davis and Scott Karl. At the time, Davis was leading the Eck
League in several categories, and was hitting .375/.426/.704 overall,
with 18 home runs in just 216 at-bats. He continued his hot
hitting with Akron, hitting .351/.426/.535 over the next two chapters.
But at the final trading deadline of the season, Davis was on the move
again, as Shepard shipped him off to the Stamford Zoots in exchange for
promising young hitter Darin Erstad.
Despite the acquisition of Davis, the
Ryche fell to 10-17 in Chapter Four, and by the end of five chapters,
their deficit in the division had grown to a dozen games. They
closed out the year with an 82-78 record -- good for third place.
In the winter of 2000, the Akron
franchise was moved into the Eck League's Hrbek Division following the
introduction of Cleveland native Mike Stein to the league. With
Massillon Tigerstrikes owner Mike Ries -- a co-worker of Shepard's -- also
a member of the Eck League, it was felt Akron was a more natural fit
with their Ohio rivals.
That winter, Shepard made just three
trades, including sending Rogers and their #1 pick to the New Milford
Blazers in exchange for Livan Hernandez and Todd Stottlemyre. The
trade was a disaster for all involved, as Rogers went just 7-15 with a
5.60 CERA in 2000, that #1 pick was used to select a $10 million
reliever in Matt Mantei, Hernandez was a disaster (6.67 ERA in 81 IP)
and Stottlemyre (7-8, 5.29 ERA in 107+ IP) wasn't much help, either.
The Ryche went into the 2000 season
with much the same roster as the year before, with Martinez still leading
the rotation, Urbina still heading the bullpen, and Easley and Ventura
still manning the heart of the lineup. But with Ventura
(.272/.365/.439 in 412 AB) improving, and 1999 14th round pick Mike
Lieberthal (.271/.349/.485 with 26 HR) stepping up their games a bit,
the Akron lineup was considerably stronger than the year before, and the
Ryche were picked to finish in third place.
Akron got off to a respectable
12-12 start in Chapter One -- only two games behind the front-running
Chicago Black Sox, who were expected to dominate the division after
taking all of 1999 to rebuild. But after a disastrous 10-14
Chapter Two, and equally disastrous 11-15 Chapter Three, it became clear
that 2000 would not be Akron's year.
At the all-star break, Shepard dealt
Hernandez to the Kansas Law Dogs in exchange for prospects Alex Escobar
and Wilton Guerrero. And the following chapter, he traded several
remaining impact players, including Harold Baines, Scott Sauerbeck,
Easley, Ventura, Urbina and Charles Nagy. In exchange, he received
several young players, including Adrian Beltre, Ryan Klesko, Tomo Ohka,
Mark Quinn and Justin Speier.
Akron went 31-54 in the second half,
and finished a distant third with a 65-95 record. The lone bright
spot for Akron that season was Martinez, who went 18-8 with a 2.13 ERA
and 354 strikeouts (against only 46 walks) in 228+ innings. He led
the league in ERA, strikeouts, wins, opponents batting average, OBP and
slugging, hits per nine (just 5.9), and base runners per nine (8.1), and
easily won his first of many EL Cy Young awards by a unanimous vote.
Heading into the winter of 2001,
Shepard had several reasons for optimism. Martinez would be
brilliant once again, and would set a career-high with 23 wins (and only
3 losses), with a 2.38 CERA in 231 innings, with only 168 hits allowed,
36 walks and 334 strikeouts. Jeff Weaver, Shepard's first pick in
the 1999 farm draft, was considered to be among the brightest young arms
in the game. Beltre (.284/.331/.469, 83.1 RC) and Klesko
(.306/.431/.547, 114.5 RC) proved to be valuable acquisitions. And
Erstad (.364/.420/.574, 164.8 RC) came out of nowhere to have a career
year unlike any he'd ever experienced before or since.
Shepard was unusually active on the
trading market that winter, and made six trades in which he acquired
Ramon Ortiz (5-3, 5.18 ERA in 106 IP), Sidney Ponson (10-9, 5.75 ERA in
169 IP) and Jarrod Washburn (9-1, 4.44 ERA in 85+ IP) in exchange for
assorted spare parts.
With the Black Sox considered to be
strong contenders once again, the Ryche were picked to finish first in
the division. Akron's 21-7 start that season was the best in the
Eck League, and by the end of two chapters, they appeared to be running
away with the division, with a league-best 37-17 (.685) record.
They stumbled in Chapter Three, however, going 13-13, and headed into
the break with a lead of only two games over the surprising Cleveland
Rocks, and three games over the Black Sox.
Prior to Chapter Two, Shepard added
Woody Williams from the Los Altos Undertakers, and Williams went 10-5
down the stretch, with a 3.56 ERA in 149+ innings. Then, with his
team now holding a four-game lead at the end of four chapters, Shepard
made three more trades. In one of those trades, he dealt two of
his brightest young players, Weaver and Dunn. In exchange, he
received free-agent-to-be closer Trevor Hoffman (1-1, 3.91 ERA in 16+ IP
for Akron) and a 25-year-old rookie pitcher Tim Hudson. At
the time, Hudson was considered to be among the best young pitchers in
the game. He went 6-3 with a 3.29 CERA for Akron over the final
two chapters, and formed a dynamic one-two punch with Martinez in the
Ryche rotation over the next two years.
Akron went 38-16 (.704) over the final
two chapters, yet struggled to maintain their lead against the
hard-charging Black Sox, who went a remarkable 41-13 (.759.)
Chicago took over the division lead during the final week of the season,
but Akron went 6-2 over their final eight games and clinched the
division by just one game, with an Eck League-best total of 107 wins.
That November, Shepard was tasked with
facing the South Carolina Sea Cats, who owned a pair of aces of their
own in Tom Glavine and Roger Clemens. Game One went into extra
innings, and was won on an RBI single by Akron shortstop Ricky Gutierrez
in the bottom of the 10th. In the next game, Hudson combined with
four relievers to shut out the Carolina lineup in a 2-0 Akron win.
When the series shifted to South
Carolina, so did the momentum. Williams was pounded by South
Carolina for six runs in four innings in a Game Three loss. And in
Game Four, Washburn was pounded for six runs in just three innings,
which tied the series. But Martinez played the role of stopper in
Game Five, and struck out 11 batters in six innings en route to a 9-3
Akron win. Hudson then closed it out with his second win of the
series in Game Six, allowing just one run on five hits through seven
In the ELCS, Akron faced the Kansas Law
Dogs, who had set several offensive records during the regular season,
including batting average (.321), on-base percentage (.398), slugging
(.580), home runs (364) and runs scored (1,282.) But pitching on
just three days of rest, Martinez shut down that vaunted offense in Game
One, allowing just two runs through seven innings. Akron then took
a 2-0 series lead with a come-from-behind 6-5 win in Game Two, capped by
a walk-off home run by Klesko.
When the series shifted to Kansas' home
ballpark, modeled after the most hitter-friendly ballpark in baseball
history (Coors Field in Denver), the series changed dramatically.
Kansas took a commanding 11-1 lead into the eighth inning of Game Three,
but Akron then scored five runs in the eighth and another five in the
ninth to tie the game. The two teams then played six extra innings
before Hoffman allowed a walk-off home run to Ivan Rodriguez with one
out in the bottom of the 15th inning.
The next game, Kansas thrashed Akron
starter Ramon Ortiz for ten runs in just three innings, en route to a
13-9 victory. For the second series in a row, Akron turned a 2-0
series lead into a 2-2 tie. But once again, Martinez was
brilliant in Game Five, striking out a dozen Law Dogs in seven innings,
and the Ryche offense scored 15 runs on 20 hits to take the series lead once
again. And with the series shifting back to the more
pitcher-friendly MDS Memorial Stadium in Akron, Shepard's hopes were
high that he could win one of the two remaining games.
But Williams was pounded once again in
Game Six, allowing six runs in six innings, and Akron lost by a score of
7-6. Then, in Game Seven, Hudson failed to get the job done,
allowing four runs in seven innings, while Kansas starter Rick Reed
allowed just one run through eight innings. Akron lost by a final
score of 4-1, thus ending their season.
With Martinez relegated to half a
season due to injuries, and Erstad returning to his normal level of
production, the Ryche were missing two key ingredients heading into the
2002 season. But Martinez's loss was offset by the the emergence
of Shepard's #2 farm pick in 1999, Mark Mulder (18-9, 3.47 ERA in 249+
IP.) And thanks to several trades made by Shepard that winter, the
Ryche were once again well-positioned to contend.
In one of the six trades he made that
winter, Shepard unloaded Erstad, Washburn and prospect Alex Escobar to
the Marlboro Hammerheads, getting John Olerud (.282/.371/.437, 96.7 RC)
and Jason Varitek (.298/.381/.536 in 181 AB) in exchange. And in
another deal, Shepard traded top prospect Mark Prior for all-star third
baseman Scott Rolen. Shepard had acquired Prior -- the #2 overall
pick in the 2001 MLB draft -- with the fifth overall pick of the 2001
farm draft. While Prior enjoyed some success (when he wasn't
injured) over the next few years, Rolen would be an immediate asset to
the team, hitting .263/.367/.432 with 96.5 RC in 2002.
With the Black Sox ownership again
calling it quits before the season even began, and the rest of the
division looking weak, the Ryche were clearly the best of a mediocre
lot. By the end of two chapters of play, however, it appeared that no one
from the Hrbek Division wanted to win the division. The Ryche led
the pack with a record of just 24-30 (.444), while the Rocks trailed a
game behind. The Atlanta Fire Ants owned a record of just 19-35
(.352), while the Black Sox trailed the entire league with a miserable
record of 11-43 (.204.)
Heading into the all-star break, Akron
finally managed to pull even with a 40-40 record, while Cleveland
trailed by three games. While the Rocks desperately tried to gain
ground by trading several young players (such as Joel Piniero, Roy
Halladay and Jeremy Affeldt), Shepard stood pat and refused to make any
trades throughout the entire season.
In Chapter Four, the Ryche went just
12-14, but that record was good enough to lead the division, as the
Rocks suffered through a miserable 9-17 chapter. The Ryche headed into the
final chapter four games below .500, yet leading the division by five
games. Finally, in Chapter Six, they managed to put it all
together, and went 17-11 to close out the year at 81-79.
Akron scored 781 runs and allowed the
exact same number during the regular season. In the Division
Series, their opponents would be the Allentown Ridgebacks, who set a BDBL record by outscoring their opponents by a whopping 433 runs -- an
average of 2.7 runs per game. Needless to say, Akron was a
million-to-one underdog heading into this series. But as was proven
many times throughout BDBL playoffs history, anything was possible in a
short series. And Akron put up much more of a fight than anyone
Right out of the gate, the Ryche jumped out
to a 2-0 series lead, thanks to the pitching of Martinez and Mulder, who
held the powerful Allentown offense to just four runs in the two games
combined. But for the third playoff series in a row, Akron gave up
that lead, and the series was tied after four games.
Game Five featured a pitching match-up
between the league's greatest all-time pitchers, Martinez and Randy
Johnson. Combined, the two pitchers won nine BDBL Cy Young awards
in the league's first decade, and owned the Eck League award in every
year from 2000 - 2006. While Martinez won the first match-up in
Game One, Johnson earned the upper hand in Game Five. Both
pitchers struck out ten batters in six innings, but Allentown slugger
Manny Ramirez launched the decisive blow with a three-run home run in
the third inning. Allentown's 6-2 win put them one win away from
advancing to the ELCS.
Far from done, Akron fought back in Game Six.
Trailing by a score of 5-1 in the eighth inning, Akron put six runs on
the board, thanks to an error by Allentown catcher Kelly Stinnett.
Akron won by a score of 8-5, forcing an improbable Game Seven. But
they then ran into a brick wall by the name of Roy Oswalt, who was well
on his way to establishing a reputation as the greatest post-season
pitcher in league history. Oswalt held the Ryche scoreless through
seven innings, and the Ridgebacks won a 7-0 laugher.
With both Martinez (17-6, 2.41 ERA in
209 IP, with 217 K in BDBL '03) and Mulder (18-6, 3.47 ERA in 215+ IP)
returning to the starting rotation, Akron once again owned one of the
best rotations in the league heading into the 2003 season. That
rotation was so strong, in fact, that Shepard felt comfortable trading
his third ace, Hudson, to the Stamford Zoots that winter. In
exchange, he received slugger Magglio Ordonez, who carried the Akron
lineup by hitting .323/.375/.576 with 53 doubles, 33 homers and 131.4
runs created. But while Ordonez was a free agent at the end of the
2003 season, Hudson still had four years remaining on his contract, and
owned a salary that was nearly $3 million less than Ordonez's.
With $24.8 million to spend in the
BDBL's first-ever free agent auction, Shepard signed Ellis Burks
(.293/.345/.534, 95.6 RC) in the very first lot, at a salary of $5.5M.
He then spread his money around in the draft, adding Jason Varitek
(.297/.349/.458), Terry Adams (7-5, 4.39 ERA in 141 IP), Mark Loretta
(.323/.376/.450) and Richard Hidalgo (.316/.374/.463) with his first
Once again, the Ryche were picked to
win their division, and once again, they wasted no time establishing
their dominance, going 19-9 in Chapter One and 17-9 in Chapter Two.
Around that time, the Salem Cowtippers announced the availability of
several star players, including Bernie Williams and Woody Williams.
Shepard jumped on the opportunity, and acquired both players in exchange
for several young players, including Rich Harden, Brad Lidge and Cliff
Lee. Bernie Williams hit .320/.394/.473 for Akron over the final
four chapters, while Woody Williams went 5-4 with a 3.93 ERA in 68+
Meanwhile, Akron continued to dominate
the division, and by the all-star break, they held a comfortable 10-game
lead over the Cleveland Rocks. At the break, Shepard added Rusty
Greer (.330/.384/.524 for Akron) in a trade with the Wapakoneta Hippos.
Then, at the season's final trading deadline, he made four more trades,
adding Jason Giambi (.400/.508/.705 in 190 AB over the final two
chapters), Roberto Alomar (.265/.329/.382) and Jason Schmidt (4-4, 4.58
ERA in 70+ IP) from the Los Altos Undertakers, closer Billy Koch (7-1,
2.60 ERA in 34+ IP) from the SoCal Slyme, and reliever Arthur Rhodes
(1-2, 3.00 ERA in 18 IP) from the Litchfield Lightning.
With all of those new additions in
place, Akron played .700 ball (38-16) over the final two chapters, and
finished with a franchise-high 108 wins. With the #1 seed in the
Eck League bracket of the playoffs, the Ryche rolled over the Hippos in
five games, as Martinez earned the series MVP award by allowing just one
run through 13+ innings, including a thrilling 1-0 win in Game Five that
launched the Ryche into the ELCS for the second time in three years.
Akron then faced the Ridgebacks for the
second year in a row. And once again, they were tasked with
finding a way to defeat Allentown's unstoppable pitching trio of Randy
Johnson, Curt Schilling and Roy Oswalt. A rain delay in Game One
forced both Schilling and Martinez out of the game in the third inning.
Akron reliever Terry Adams was then shellacked for five runs in just two
innings, and the Ridgebacks went on to win by a score of 8-5. But
Akron then tied the series when Allentown's dominant closer, Eric Gagne,
intentionally walked the bases full in Game Two, and then unintentionally walked
home the winning run in the form of Greer.
In Game Three, Akron broke open a 1-1
game by scoring six runs in the eighth inning against the Allentown
bullpen, giving them a key win in a game started by Oswalt. But
Allentown roared back in the next game when Allentown returned the favor
by breaking open a 1-1 game by scoring three runs in the eighth on a
Barry Bonds home run off of Rhodes.
In Game Five, Akron built a 5-4 lead
heading into the bottom of the ninth. But once again, Rhodes was
called upon to retire Bonds, and once again, he failed. Bonds hit
a two-run walk-off home run to win the game, putting Allentown just one
win away from advancing to the World Series.
Shepard then found himself in a
familiar position in Game Six, facing elimination with Roy Oswalt on the
hill for the Ridgebacks. And history repeated itself, as Oswalt
held the Ryche scoreless through eight innings before giving way to
Gagne to preserve the shutout. For the second year in a row,
Shepard was sent packing by the Allentown Ridgebacks.
After winning three straight division
titles, it appeared as though that streak would come to an end in 2004.
Chicago GM John Gill's all-or-nothing philosophy resulted in a very
strong 2004 team, while Akron's rotation was decimated by the trades of
Prior and Hudson the year before. Shepard then exacerbated the
problem by trading Mulder to the Ridgebacks
in the winter
of 2004. In exchange, he received 29-year-old slugger Geoff
Jenkins (.229/.324/.401 for Akron in '04) and a young shortstop in the
Cleveland Indians organization named Jhonny Peralta.
That same winter, Shepard dealt another
Indians prospect, Travis Hafner, getting Chone Figgins and Manny Parra
in exchange. Hafner eventually turned into a low-cost MVP
candidate, while Figgins and Parra eventually became useful role
The one constant through all the
years was Martinez, and 2004 was perhaps his greatest season in the BDBL.
In 204.1 innings, Martinez allowed just 127 hits -- an average of 5.6
per nine. He established new BDBL single-season records for ERA
(1.81), opponents' batting average (.174), OBP (.234) and slugging
(.259.) In the process, he easily won the EL Cy Young award for
the third time in his career.
Aside from Martinez, however, the Akron
rotation included only Scott Shields (14-4, 3.63 ERA in 161 IP) and a
collection of spare parts that included Jason "Who?" Davis, Paul Wilson,
Oliver Perez and Eric DuBose. With that, Akron was picked to
finish in third place in their division.
Despite the dire predictions, however,
Akron surprised the league by going 20-8 in the first chapter, while the
Black Sox were an equally-shocking 8-20. Incredibly, the Akron
offense led the league that chapter with 171 runs scored. But that
changed quickly, as they scored just 124 runs
in their next 28 games. Their pitching, however, carried them to a 15-13 record
in Chapter Two.
Meanwhile, the Black Sox awoke from their slumber and posted a
league-best 22-6 record that same chapter.
On June 13th, the Black Sox achieved
the seemingly impossible, coming from 12 games behind to capture sole
possession of first place in only a few short weeks. And by the
all-star break, Chicago had built a three game lead in the division.
Meanwhile, Shepard once again elected
to stand pat with the team he had. He made just one trade after
Opening Day, sending Jenkins and two others to the Marlboro Hammerheads
for Scott Spiezio, Matt Mantei and Aquilino Lopez. By the end of
Chapter Four, Chicago's lead had grown to six games, and Shepard's
attention had turned to the EL wild card race, where he was tied with
the Cleveland Rocks.
In the first week of September, Akron
swept a series from the Law Dogs, taking a one game lead in the race.
By the end of the chapter, that lead had grown to a comfortable four
games. Cleveland faded down the stretch, going 11-17 in the final
chapter, while the Ryche ended on a high note, going 19-9.
Despite all preseason predictions, the
Ryche finished with a record of 96-64, and won the wild card by a dozen
games. For the fourth year in a row, Akron headed to the BDBL
playoffs. Their Division Series opponents would be the team they
had been chasing in the Hrbek Division all year: the Chicago Black Sox.
Chicago had easily won the division by six games, thanks to a
league-leading 1,041 runs scored. And all of that offense would
spill over into the post-season.
With Martinez on the hill in a 4-4 game
in Game One, Chicago slugger Manny Ramirez led off the eighth inning
with a double on Martinez's 90th pitch of the game. Shepard lifted
Martinez in favor of reliever Matt Mantei, and Aubrey Huff greeted him
with a two-run home run. That was the end of that game for Akron.
In Game Two, Akron scored a run in the
top of the 12th inning, but Akron reliever Tim Spooneybarger was unable to hold the
lead in the bottom of the inning, as Chicago scored a run on a base hit,
a walk, a wild pitch and a ground ball. They then scored the
winning run of the game on a suicide squeeze back to the pitcher.
Chicago took a 3-0 series lead in
Game Three, but Martinez then shut down the Chicago offense in Game
Four, pitching on just three days rest. And a one-run victory by
Akron in Game Five forced a sixth game. But that would be the end
of the road for Akron, as Chicago scored 10 runs on 13 hits off of
Shields and the Akron bullpen in Game Six to end the series.
The Ryche headed into the winter of
2005 with a solid team, but in a strong division that included another
Chicago powerhouse and a revitalized Atlanta Fire Ants, Akron faced some
serious obstacles in the path of reaching the playoffs for the fourth
season in a row. That winter, Shepard acquired Carlos Delgado from
the defending-champion Ravenswood Infidels, but then traded him back to
Ravenswood just days later in exchange for Brian Giles. Giles was
signed to a two-year deal at $11.5 million per season, and hit
.285/.397/.477 for the Ryche in '05, with 98.9 RC.
In the auction, Shepard paid $8 million
to sign center fielder Mark Kotsay to a guaranteed minimum two-year
deal. Kotsay hit .312/.357/.458 with 105.2 RC in 2005, and
.275/.339/.407 with 67 RC in 2006. Next, he signed catcher Jason
Varitek, again at a $16 million/two-year minimum contract. Varitek
hit .276/.359/.449 with 80.9 RC in 2005, and .276/.361/.486 with 78.4 RC
For the seventh year in a row, Martinez
(19-8 with a 3.48 ERA in 238 IP for Akron) was the leader of yet another
strong Akron starting rotation. Oliver Perez, who had been
acquired the previous winter in exchange for reserve outfielder Jose
Cruz, went 15-10 for the Ryche in '05, with a 4.32 CERA in 212+ innings.
Bronson Arroyo, a 27th-round draft pick in 2004, went 9-14 with a 4.27
ERA in 192 innings. And Weaver enjoyed a nice comeback season by
going 16-8 with a 4.19 ERA in 234+ innings, just a year after going 4-12
with a 5.35 ERA.
With Rolen (.304/.395/.518, 119 RC)
returning to the heart of the lineup, now surrounded by the likes of
Giles, Varitek and Kotsay, Akron owned a solid lineup from one to eight,
a solid rotation, and a strong bullpen. Yet due to the strength of
their division rivals, they were picked to finish in third place in the
Akron got off to a hot start, going
16-12 in Chapter One, but Chicago was even hotter at 18-10. By the
end of two chapters, Chicago's lead over Akron had grown to four, but a
new contender also joined the race in the Atlanta Fire Ants, who sported
the same 30-26 record as Akron.
Akron went 16-8 (the best record in the
division) in Chapter Three, and headed into the all-star break just two
games behind Chicago and three games ahead of Atlanta. The race
continued throughout the summer, and while Chicago GM John Gill added
more talent through trading, both Shepard and Atlanta GM Gene Patterson
chose to stand pat. The Black Sox pulled away from the pack, while
Akron and Atlanta battled neck-and-neck, with Atlanta carrying a
one-game lead over Akron in the EL wild card race heading into the final
chapter of the season.
Akron and Atlanta then faced each other
head-to-head in the final series of the season, with Atlanta needing
just one win in four games to clinch their first playoffs appearance
after five straight last-place seasons. In the first game of that
series, Aaron Rowand put the Fire Ants ahead by a score of 6-5 with a
two-run single in the eighth inning. Latroy Hawkins then closed
out the playoffs-clinching victory by retiring the heart of the Akron
Akron finished the 2005 season with a
record of 88-72 -- three games behind the Fire Ants in the EL wild card
After a quiet summer, Shepard had a quiet winter,
making just two trades prior to the 2006 draft. In one of those deals, he traded Giles to the
Marlboro Hammerheads in exchange for first baseman Todd Helton.
With a salary
$1.5 million less than Giles, Helton enjoyed a solid season for the Ryche in 2006, hitting .319/.433/.535 with 21 home runs and 118.7 runs
With very little money to spend,
Shepard sat out of the free agent auction, and instead used his #2 draft
pick to select Javier Vazquez (14-9, 4.44 ERA for Akron in '06) in Round
2, Craig Wilson (.243/.358/.339 in 189 ABs) in Round 6, and Jay Witasick
(6-6, 3.71 ERA in 58+ IP) in Round 11.
With a strong lineup and a starting
rotation fronted for the eighth (and final) season by Martinez (20-4,
2.60 ERA), the Ryche were picked to finish in second place behind the
Black Sox in 2006. Aside from Martinez, perhaps the greatest asset
on that team was the presence of shortstop Peralta, who had been
acquired in the Mulder deal two years before. At the time of the
trade, Peralta appeared
to be a lackluster Double-A shortstop prospect known more for his glove
than his bat. But in 2006, he blossomed into an MVP candidate,
hitting .315/.389/.593 for Akron, with 50 doubles, 30 home runs, 106
RBIs and 120.1 runs created.
The Ryche opened the season with a
record of just 14-14 in Chapter One, but it was good enough to lead the
Hrbek Division, as the Black Sox stumbled out to a shockingly awful
start of 8-20. Because Chicago had pulled the same "rope-a-dope"
act in 2004, many assumed they would bounce back into contention in
2006 as well. But this time, their bounce wasn't nearly as high.
They played .500 ball over the next two chapters, and by the all-star
break, Akron's lead in the division had grown to an insurmountable 13
From that point on, it was only a
matter of playing out the string for Shepard. Once again, he spent
the majority of the summer content to stand pat with the roster he had
at hand. Through the first three chapters, he didn't make a single
transaction -- not even a free agent pick-up -- and he didn't make a
single trade throughout the entire season.
On October 2nd, Shepard easily clinched
his fourth division title, becoming the first to do so. He then
waited patiently for the season to end, finishing with a 97-63 record,
and drew the South Carolina Sea Cats as his Division Series opponent.
The Sea Cats boasted a powerful lineup
led by Andruw Jones, who hit 61 home runs and drove in 166 runs during
the regular season. But in Game One of the Division Series,
Akron's pitching proved to be more powerful than South Carolina's
hitting, as the Sea Cats were held scoreless through the first seven
innings. But with a 2-0 lead in the eighth, Martinez allowed an
RBI triple to Nick Johnson on his 110th pitch of the game.
Witasick then came on in relief and surrendered the game-tying run on a
sac fly. The game was eventually won in extra innings by South
Carolina on an RBI single by Omar Vizquel.
With a win against Akron's dominant Cy
Young ace, the emboldened Sea Cats then made it two in a row in Akron's
home field when Kevin Millwood and the South Carolina bullpen held the
Ryche offense to just two runs on six hits. The Sea Cats then
carried a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning of Game Three, but Akron's
fortunes finally turned when they scored four runs in the top of the
ninth off of South Carolina closer Juan Rincon to win their first game
of the series.
In Game Four, South Carolina overcame a
10-5 deficit by scoring four runs in the eighth inning, and another in
the ninth, forcing extra innings for the second time in the series.
The game was pushed to the 15th inning when Akron scored a run in the
top half of the inning. But the Sea Cats then put two runners on
with one out against Randy Flores in the bottom of the 15th, and Luis
Castillo then cleared the bases with a walk-off triple.
Martinez was once again called upon to
be the team's stopper in Game Five, and he did just that, holding South
Carolina to just two runs over six-plus innings in a 5-3 Akron win.
Then, in Game Six, Akron faced a 4-2 deficit in the bottom of the ninth
inning, with one out. Jason Varitek stepped to the plate against
Rincon, and launched a two-run blast to send the game into extra innings
for the third time in the series.
South Carolina then scored twice in the
top of the tenth, and Sea Cats reliever Solomon Torres then closed out
the top of the Akron lineup in the bottom of the tenth to send Shepard
home once again.
Shepard found himself in an unusual
position heading into the 2007 season, as he was without his old
reliable ace, Martinez, for the first time in franchise history.
Despite his absence, Shepard had managed to build yet another strong
starting rotation. Bronson Arroyo -- a 27th-round draft pick back
in 2004 -- had blossomed into the staff's ace three years later, going
17-14 with a 3.86 ERA in 252 innings. Vazquez, Shepard's 2nd round
pick in '06, went 12-14 in 2007 with a 4.45 ERA in 214+ innings.
And 24-year-old Justin Verlander, who was acquired in a 2003 trade with
Salem when he was still a junior in college, had developed into one of the league's brightest
young pitchers, and went 17-7 with a 4.22 ERA in his rookie season for
Shepard was unusually active in the
winter of 2007, making five trades of various degrees of importance.
Among his acquisitions that winter were starters Milton Bradley
(.276/.378/.480), Emil Brown (.278/.340/.473), Brandon Inge
(.245/.313/.526) and Johnny Estrada (.269/.287/.371.) But a major
blow to the Akron lineup was Peralta's rapid descent from his career
year of 2006. He followed his MVP season by hitting just
.212/.288/.347 for the Ryche in 2007.
In a free agent auction that is best
remembered for its out-of-control spending, Shepard placed several
high-dollar bids on several starting pitchers in an effort to replace
Martinez. Instead, he ended up with three players, all signed at
reasonable salaries: Greg Norton at $3.5M, Pedro Feliciano at $3M and
Helton at $6M.
Akron was expected to be in a
hard-fought race against the Cleveland Rocks all season. Shepard
discovered just how formidable an opponent the Rocks would be when he
found himself with a six-game deficit at the end of one chapter of play.
The Ryche turned it around in Chapter Two, however, going 17-11.
And after a late-May interleague series in which the Rocks dropped three
of four to the Salem Cowtippers, Akron found themselves tied atop the Hrbek
After eight seasons, the Rocks were one
of only two franchises remaining in the BDBL at the time that had yet to
make the playoffs, and Cleveland GM Mike Stein was bound and determined
to reach that goal by any means necessary. In mid-June, he added
former Great Lakes ace Curt Schilling to his starting rotation, filling
a deep void. At the all-star break, the two teams were still tied,
with the Black Sox nipping at their heels just one game behind.
At the final trading deadline,
Cleveland added two more stars to its lineup in Raul Ibanez and Tim
Salmon, sacrificing young starter James Shields in the process. But
once again, Shepard was content to stick with the status quo. For
the second year in a row, he made no trades during the regular season,
and chose to sink or swim with the roster he had at hand.
On August 20th, the Ryche took a two
game lead over the Rocks after Cleveland lost six of eight games against
Eck League bottom-feeders Great Lakes and Atlanta. But the Rocks
then regained their lead by sweeping the Ryche in an exciting "I-77
Series." Cleveland won the four games by scores of 4-2, 3-2, 3-2
and 4-1, as their newly-reconstructed pitching staff held Akron hitters
to a .225/.280/.304 average.
Akron recaptured the lead later that
month, but Cleveland then grabbed it back with a four game sweep of the
South Carolina Sea Cats. Heading into the final chapter of the
season, Cleveland held a five game advantage over Akron, with the Black
Sox lurking eight games out of first. Finally, on October 25th,
Stein finally reached his goal by clinching the Hrbek Division.
Akron finished the season with an 86-74 record -- three games out of
first, and four games out of the wild card.
The Ryche looked to be strong
contenders heading into the winter of 2008, thanks once again to a very
strong pitching staff. The Akron bullpen was filled by no fewer
than ten quality relievers, and the rotation was filled with returning
stars Vazquez (15-11, 4.15 ERA in 232 IP, 257 K), Verlander (10-11, 3.54
ERA in 221 IP, 193 K) and Arroyo (11-13, 4.64 ERA in 221+ IP.)
Offensively, Helton (.286/.372/.465,
108.8 RC) was the only returning star from the 2008 team. After
spending another quiet winter in which he made just two minor trades,
Shepard worked to fortify his lineup through free agency, signing Aramis
Ramirez (.276/.333/.515, 30 HR, 95.8 RC) to a $9 million salary, and
Milton Bradley (.281/.369/.452, 37.1 RC in 217 AB) for $5 million.
Thanks to their deep pitching staff,
Akron was picked to win the Griffin Division, both in league polling and
the annual Season Preview. Chapter One resulted in a 14-14 record
in which the Ryche were the only team in the division to outscore their
opponents (by just three runs.) Akron fell to 13-15 in Chapter
Two, while the Black Sox (17-11) leapt ahead of them in the standings.
While his team struggled to keep pace,
Shepard once again opted to stand pat. In the thick of a heated
pennant race, he made not a single trade until the final deadline of the
season, when he made just two minor deals of no significance to his 2008
By the third week of May, the Rocks,
too, had leap-frogged over Akron into a virtual tie for first. And
by the all-star break, Akron had managed to creep back into a tie for
second place -- just one game behind the Black Sox.
After four chapters of play, Akron had
fallen six games behind in the division, with both Cleveland and Chicago
tied for first. As expected, Akron's pitching was brilliant,
leading the division in fewest runs allowed by a wide margin. But
also as expected, Akron's offense had failed to deliver often enough to
keep pace, as the team averaged just 4.4 runs per game.
Shepard and the Ryche wrapped up the
season in typically quiet fashion, finishing with a 79-81 record -- 10
games behind Chicago.
As you can see from the graph above,
the Ryche have spent far more time above the red line than below it.
In fact, if the team had won just one more game in 2008, the Ryche would
be tied with the Salem Cowtippers for the record number of .500+
seasons. With eight .500+ seasons, five playoff appearances and
four division titles, D.J. Shepard owns an impressive BDBL résumé.
But one can't help but wonder if he wouldn't own three more division
titles if he hadn't been so complacent with his 2005, 2007 and 2008
The Akron franchise is best known for
its pitching, thanks to the four Cy Young awards won by Martinez, and a
pitching factory that seems to produce another Cy Young candidate every
year, whether it be Mark Mulder, Jeff Weaver, Rich Harden, Cliff Lee,
Justin Verlander, Mark Prior, Oliver Perez or Bronson Arroyo. But
the offense has also been quietly impressive, as only four teams rank
ahead of the Ryche on the all-time runs scored list.
The word "quiet" seems to describe much
of the Akron franchise, from its owner/GM, to its efficient farm system,
to its surprisingly impressive offense. Despite the franchise's
reputation as having a pitching-first philosophy, the Akron offense has
been equally impressive. Only four franchises in the BDBL have
scored more runs than the Ryche -- this, despite the fact that only
three players in Akron history have ever topped 30 home runs. The
Akron offense has thrived on the quiet (there's that word again)
efficiency of players like Rolen, Ordonez, Chone Figgins, Helton and
Peralta, who do all the little things to help score runs, but never seem
to appear on the EL Babe Ruth award ballot.
No stats have been kept on this
particular aspect of the BDBL, but it's quite possible that Shepard
holds the BDBL record for fewest trades. He simply drafts his
team, signs his free agents, plays his games, and somehow emerges with a
contending team year after year after year. His ability to uncover
hidden gems such as Peralta, Arroyo, Verlander and Erstad simply
precludes the necessity of making dozens of trades. And year after
year, Shepard resists the temptation to trade away key players for his
future in order to earn a spot in the playoffs.
On the plus side, this strategy has
allowed the Ryche to remain consistent contenders. On the negative
side, it has also resulted in zero Eck League titles for a franchise
that ranks #4 on the all-time wins list. Every owner in the BDBL
has his own ultimate goal. For some, it is winning a BDBL trophy
no matter what the cost. For others, it is simply making the
playoffs as often as possible and hoping the random dice rolls fall our
way. For Shepard, that ultimate goal appears to be to build a team
that looks like a winner on Opening Day, and then let the Baseball Gods
take over from there.