December 1, 1998, John Bocchicchio,
a 31-year-old financial analyst from Gillette, New Jersey, became the
19th member of the fledgling Big Daddy Baseball League. Bochicchio,
who dubbed his team the "Gillette Swamp Rats," selected the
pitcher-friendly Pro Player Stadium in Miami as his ballpark model, and
then drew the #5 pick in the inaugural draft.
With Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Greg
Maddux and Sammy Sosa off the board, Bochicchio could have selected any
pitcher in the game with the exception of Maddux. Instead, he went
with 28-year-old slugger Juan Gonzalez. At the time, Gonzalez had
strung together three straight years of 40+ homers in MLB, and was
coming off an MLB season in which he'd hit .318/.366/.630 with 50 doubles and
45 home runs. It was assumed that Gonzalez's numbers would suffer
moving from the cozy confines of Arlington to the open expanse of Miami,
but he finished his first season in Gillette hitting .295/.363/.585 with
51 doubles and 41 homers. At the end of the season, Gonzalez was
signed to a five-year, $50 million contract, and over the next three
years he averaged 35 home runs, 114 RBIs and 118.8 runs created.
By the time the draft snaked back
around, most of the top starting pitchers were gone, so Bochicchio
selected the man he felt was the best left on the board: 30-year-old
Andy Ashby. Ashby pitched a
whopping 260.2 innings for Gillette in 1999, and posted a respectable
4.11 ERA, going 17-15 on the season in 42 games (38 starts.) He
remained in Gillette for two more seasons, and tossed a total of 444.1
innings with an ERA of 4.44.
Bochicchio continued to add veterans to
his roster over the next several rounds, adding 30-year-old Vinny
Castilla and 33-year-old Mike Jackson in the next two rounds before
adding some youth in 25-year-old Jose Lima in Round 5. Then, it
was back to the veterans: Will Clark (34 years old), Joey Cora (33),
Walt Weiss (34), Darrin Fletcher (31) and Gregg Jefferies (29.) In
addition to being on the downsides of their careers, these veterans
sported below-average OPS's for their positions, with the exception of
Castilla, whose numbers were greatly inflated by Coors Field.
Playing in Gillette's cavernous ballpark, Castilla (.270/.314/.471)
morphed into a below-average hitter in the BDBL.
Bochicchio continued to load up on
aging veterans throughout the rest of the draft, including Lenny
Webster, Mark Leiter, Bill Spiers, Mark Portugal and Darryl Strawberry.
By the end of the draft, the only players on the entire Gillette 35-man
roster under the age of 27 were 26-year-old Jermaine Allensworth (who
was out of baseball by the age of 28), 26-year-old Shane Spencer (out of
baseball by age 33), 22-year-old Edgard Clemente (out of baseball by age
25), 26-year-old Bryan Ward (out of baseball by age 29), 22-year-old Wes
Helms (who enjoyed just one season of 275+ at-bats over the next eight
years), 24-year-old Steve Connelly (who never played major league
baseball again) and 25-year-old Pat Watkins (out of baseball by age 27.)
Not only did the future look dim for
the Swamp Rats franchise, but the present didn't look so good, either.
Competing in the Griffin Division against the Los Altos Undertakers,
Litchfield Lightning and New Milford Blazers, the Swamp Rats were not
expected to compete for a division title. After one chapter of
play, the Swamp Rats managed to keep pace in the division, going 12-12.
But they then fell to 12-18 in Chapter Two, and headed into the all-star
break with a 37-43 record -- 14 games behind the Undertakers.
With his team slipping in the
standings, Bochicchio settled in and simply watched it happen.
While his rivals loaded up on mid-season free agents, Bocchichio
added only three free agents the entire season: Mike Oquist, Kent
Mercker and Billy Ashley. Oquist pitched a total of 187.2 innings
in his BDBL career, with an ERA of 5.42. Mercker threw 160+
innings for the '99 Swamp Rats, with an ERA of 3.82, and was signed to a
two-year deal at the end of the season. But he then posted a 9.46
ERA in 2000, and was released before the end of that contract. And
Ashley totaled just 17 at-bats in 1999, and was then released.
While other non-contending teams were
trading away their best trade bait in exchange for young and inexpensive
building blocks for the future, Bochicchio stood pat. The Swamp Rats
simply rode out the string and finished with a record of 78-82 -- 21
games out of the division, and 16 games out of the wild card.
That winter, Bochicchio finally pulled
the trigger on his first-ever trade in the BDBL, acquiring Johnny Damon
in exchange for Jackson. Not only was Damon a true superstar, but
at 25 years old, he instantly became one of the youngest players on the
Swamp Rats roster. Acquiring a young building block like Damon in
exchange for an aging middle reliever was an enormous coup for
Bochicchio, and was exactly what the franchise so desperately needed at
Damon was immediately signed to a
five-year contract, which ended on his age-30 season. He played
all five of those seasons for the Swamp Rats, averaging .269/.342/.408
with 15 HRs, 71 RBIs, 106 runs scored and 43 stolen bases.
That was the only trade made by
Bochicchio that winter. He headed into the draft with roughly $18
million to spend, thanks to the retirement of Cora, and the ditching of
Weiss and Jefferies. The 14 holes in the Gillette roster were
plugged with more mediocre veterans, including Scott Karl, Jason
Grimsley, Mike MacFarlane, Luis Sojo, John Burkett and Mike Lansing.
Although the cast of wily veterans was
relatively the same, the Swamp Rats were predicted to finish in second
place in the Griffin Division, thanks to the presence of Lima and the acquisition of Damon
(.254/.331/.389, 96 RC.) But
Gillette got off to a horrendous start, going just 8-16. And it
soon became clear that this, too, would not be Gillette's year to
compete for a playoffs spot.
Once again, however, Bochicchio did nothing but
watch his team drown from the sidelines. While his competitors
loaded up on mid-season free agents, Bochicchio added only utility
infielders Andy Sheets, Geoff Blum, John Wehner and Craig Counsell, plus
Cuban defector Adrian Hernandez. None of them would prove to be of
much value to the Gillette franchise. And for the second year in a
row, Bochicchio failed to make one trade to improve his team, either
immediately or for the future.
For the second year in a row, the Swamp
Rats finished in third place in the Griffin Division, with a record of
68-92 -- 36 games behind the high-flying Undertakers.
Despite stellar MLB numbers, Lima went just 12-18 with a 4.73 ERA for
Gillette. Bochicchio's top pick in the
draft, Karl, went 7-16 with a 5.55 ERA. The team's ace from 1999,
Ashby, went 9-18 with a 4.59 ERA. As a team, the Swamp Rats
pitching staff posted a 4.91 ERA despite pitching half its games in an
extremely pitcher-friendly ballpark.
In the winter of 2001, Bochicchio made
just two trades. In one of those deals, Melvin Mora was traded for
aging veteran middle reliever Mike Trombley (a deal that cost Gillette
an extra $1 million.) In the other deal, Bochicchio traded down
five spots in the draft, surrendering his second round pick (the 6th
overall pick in that round) in order to add Angel Pena and Bobby Chouinard from the Stamford Zoots.
The second-round pick
Gillette received in that deal wasn't used, and neither Pena nor Chouinard would play a single inning after the 2001 BDBL season.
In fact, Pena was released just days after this trade was made, and
Chouinard and Trombley became free agents at the end of the season.
In the winter of 2000, Bochicchio had
signed several players to excessively lengthy and risky contracts.
He paid dearly for those decisions in the winter of 2001 by forking over
$13 million in penalties to release his team from those contracts. With 13 slots to fill and only $4
million to spend, Bochicchio loaded up on more aging veterans in the
draft, including 40-year-old Andres Galaragga, Rolando Arrojo, Rheal
Cormier, Aaron Fultz, Todd Pratt, Craig Paquette and Heathcliff Slocumb
Then, with the sixth overall pick in the farm
draft, Bochicchio made one of the most amusing draft picks in league
history. The 2001 draft has become legendary for the amount of
superstar talent available in that draft class, including Albert Pujols, Hank Blalock, Justin
Morneau, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Zambrano, Carl Crawford,
John Lackey and Jake Peavy, among many others. But Bochicchio
passed on all of those players and selected a young phenom by the name of
Toe Nash instead. The rest is history.
After his short burst of brilliance,
Lima crashed back to earth in a painful
way for Gillette. He tossed just 80+ innings in the 2001 season
(with an ERA of 4.60), and then pitched just 52+ innings in 2002 (with a
9.83 ERA) at a salary of $7 million. Ashby (4.92 ERA in 199+ MLB
innings) saw his MLB ERA rise by over a run
per game as well. And offensively, Gonzalez's performance
(.281/.326/.498, 25 HR) took a dive as well, fueled by injuries. The result was a
team that was so filled with aging, mediocre (or worse) veterans that
the Swamp Rats were picked to finish dead last in the Griffin Division
-- behind even the woeful Blazers of New Milford. The starting
rotation included four pitchers (Ashby, John Burkett, Arrojo and Lima)
with MLB ERAs over 4.80. And the meat of the batting order (Galaragga,
Fletcher and Gonzalez) was perhaps the weakest in the league. The
2001 pre-season preview not-so-nicely summarized Gillette's situation heading
into the season:
off a 92-loss season, and heading into a season faced with more than
$13 million in penalties and $22 million tied up among Gonzalez,
Ashby and Lima, it was assumed that this would be a rebuilding year
for the Swamp Rats. Instead, Gillette is behaving very much like a
contender. They rejected pre-season trade offers that would have
stocked this team's farm with top-shelf talent. They made
pre-season deals that netted Angel Pena (who was released),
Chouinard and Trombley (both free agents after this season.) They
spent their first $2 million in the free agent draft on a
40-year-old hitter and a "32 year old" pitcher (who is probably
closer to 40 than 30.) And they spent the remainder of their draft
budget on veterans like Paquette (32 years old), Pratt (34),
Carrasco (31), Cormier (34), Hal Morris (36), Jeff Reed (38) and
Heathcliff Slocumb (35). I hate to pick on John Bochicchio, because
he's a very nice guy (and a fellow Yankee fan), but I really have no
choice in the matter.
While pundits were debating whether or
not the Swamp Rats would break the BDBL record for losses in a season,
Bochicchio was confident his team could compete. Halfway through
Chapter One, it looked as though he was right, as Gillette sported a
10-4 record. Many assumed it was a temporary fluke, and yet the
Swamp Rats just kept winning. By the end of the first chapter,
Gillette owned a remarkable 20-8 record.
Incredibly, the Swamp Rats kept pace in Chapter Two, going
maintain their lead in the division over the Lightning. At the
Chapter Four trading deadline, Litchfield added Derek Jeter for the
stretch drive, and Gillette responded by adding lefty ace Chuck Finley,
who went 9-3 with a 4.46 ERA in 109 innings down the stretch. The
Lightning then strung together twelve straight wins at the end of
Chapter Three to finish the first half of the season one game ahead of
the Swamp Rats.
After two years of sleeping on the job,
Bochicchio began to pay a little more attention when it came time to
sign mid-season free agents. That diligence paid off when the Los
Altos Undertakers (who had dominated the division for two years and were
now in full rebuilding mode) traded their franchise player, Albert
Belle, to the Swamp Rats in exchange for Chapter Four free agent pick-up
David Dellucci and 30th-round draft pick Randy Choate. Belle, who had one year
remaining on his contract (at $10 million per year), would miss the
entire 2001 MLB season (and would eventually retire), and was thus
considered to be in his walk year. He hit .330/.382/.484 over the
final two chapters for Gillette, creating 33.8 runs in 53 games.
By the end of Chapter Four, the Swamp
Rats had recaptured first place in the Griffin Division, taking
advantage of a .500 chapter by the Lightning. Gillette held a two
game lead at that point, and held that lead throughout the following
chapter. On September 7th, the Swamp Rats and Lightning went
head-to-head for two games, with Litchfield winning both games, cutting
their deficit in the division to just one game.
With just 28 games remaining on the
schedule, the Swamp Rats, Lightning and Bear Country Jamboree found
themselves all within one game of the final two playoff spots in the
Ozzie League. By the 10th of October, Gillette's lead in the
division had grown to three games, while the Lightning and Jamboree
continued to battle it out for the wild card. Just ten days later,
however, that lead had shrunk to just one game.
Finally, in the final six days of the
season, the Swamp Rats officially accomplished the unimaginable by
Griffin Division pennant, finishing the season with a record of 97-63 --
one game ahead of the Lightning. Gillette's offense ranked ninth
out of twelve OL teams in runs scored, with 788. Amazingly enough,
it was their pitching -- which had looked so atrocious heading into the
season -- that carried the team. Paul Abbott, a 33rd-round pick in
the 1999 draft, led the team with 16 wins in 197 innings. Despite
his ugly MLB stats, Ashby went 13-5 with a 4.26 ERA in 209 innings.
Arrojo went 12-9 with a 4.08 ERA in 187 innings. And the
of Guillermo Mota, Jeff Tam, Miguel del Toro and Bobby Chouinard
combined for a 1.67 ERA in 86+ innings. And closer Jeff Nelson -- a 26th-round
pick in the inaugural draft -- set a then-BDBL record with 51 saves.
The Swamp Rats outscored their
opposition by just 19 runs, and outperformed their Pythagorean
projection by 15 wins -- a BDBL record. They won the close games
(47-26 in games decided by two or fewer runs) and lost all the blow-outs
(9-21 in games decided by 5+ runs.) It was, by far, the most
unexpected, most extraordinary team performance in league history.
Unfortunately for the Gillette
organization, winning the division would be the apex of their season, as
they drew the Salem Cowtippers in the first round of the playoffs.
The Cowtippers won 107 games during the regular season and boasted a
lineup that included seven hitters with 850+ OPS's. The Salem
offense pounded the Swamp Rats' pitching staff in Game One, winning by a
score of 13-4. Salem then took the next two games by scores of 5-2
and 11-4. In Game Four, the game was tied at 4-4 heading into the
ninth inning, when Nelson allowed a pinch hit RBI triple to Armando
Rios. Salem closer Keith Foulke then nailed down the bottom of the ninth to
complete the series sweep.
That winter, Bochicchio reverted back
to his stand-pat ways, as he was the only GM
in the entire BDBL who didn't make a single trade. With roughly $13
million to spend on free agents, he once again loaded up on aging
veteran players, including Brett Mayne, Jimmy Haynes, Chuck Knoblauch,
Mike Redmond, Luis Alicea and Tony Gwynn.
Once again, Gillette began Opening Day
with a collection of aging, mediocre players -- many of whom were making far too
much money. In particular, three underperforming players -- Damon
(.256/.332/.354), Finley (5-6, 3.85 ERA in
119+ IP) and Lima (0-10, 9.73 ERA) -- combined for $20 million in
payroll in '02.
Not surprisingly, the Swamp Rats got
off to a slow start, going just 21-33 through the first two chapters.
At that point, Bochicchio made his first trade of the year, sending
part-time ace Rolando Arrojo to the Cowtippers in exchange for rookie
Grant Roberts and a probable '03 penalty (Al Martin.) Roberts
pitched three years for the Swamp Rats, compiling an ERA of 3.00 through
70 innings, and then disappeared from baseball.
Bochicchio didn't make another move the
rest of the year until the final trading deadline of the season.
John Burkett had been a solid performer for the Swamp Rats in 2002,
going 7-8 with a 3.98 ERA in 156 innings, but he was also due to
become a free agent at the end of the season. So when Bear
Country Jamboree GM Matt Clemm offered the top player in Japan in
exchange for Burkett, Bochicchio gladly accepted. Roughly five and
a half months later, Hideki Matsui agreed to a three-year contract with
the New York Yankees and became an instant all-star.
Although Bochicchio did a fine job in
acquiring Matsui, he once again failed to acquire a single mid-season
free agent who would prove to be of any value to the franchise. Travis Driskill, Matt Blank, Dave
Walling, Brandon Larson and Joey Dawley were the only free agents signed
in 2002, and none of them would ever play even a minor role on any
future Swamp Rats team.
Gillette finished the 2002 season with
a 53-107 record -- the worst record in franchise history. Yet,
despite that horrendous showing, they hadn't made any advances toward
improving their 2003 team. In fact, Bochicchio made just two minor
trades prior to the 2003 draft, acquiring Eric Karros, Omar Daal and two
prospects (Tim Hummel and Adrian Gonzalez) in exchange for Mike Lansing,
Chuck Finley and Geoff Blum.
Still weighed down by bad contracts,
Bochicchio couldn't afford to take part in the first-ever BDBL free
agent auction, and won only one bid (reliever Brian Boehringer at $3
million.) Then, with the third pick in the draft, the Swamp Rats
continued to load up on overpriced, overaged, mediocre veterans like
Craig Biggio, Javy Lopez, Masato Yoshii and Bill Mueller.
Not surprisingly, the Swamp Rats were
picked to finish in 3rd place:
Thank god for the Lightning! If not for them, Gillette would likely
finish in last place in this division. Unfortunately, there appears
to be nothing keeping this team from finishing with 100 losses,
which would give them one of the lowest tie-breakers in the league
in next year's auction.
Despite that prediction, however, the
Swamp Rats finished Chapter One with the second-best record in the
Griffin Division at 13-15. They continued to hover in second
place, but only because the Blazers and Lightning were playing so
horribly. At the all-star break, the second-place Swamp Rats owned
a 36-44 record -- 13 games out of first place. They were 13-13
against their own division, but 23-31 against their other opponents.
Meanwhile, Bochicchio continued to
stand pat. Through the
first three chapters, his only move was to acquire Jason Anderson -- a
pitcher who threw just 16.2 innings in the BDBL (with an ERA of 11.86)
-- as a farm free agent. At the season's final trading deadline, Bochicchio
made his first trade, sending Omar Daal to the Nashville Funkadelic for Julio Mateo.
Mateo eventually became the team's closer
in 2004 (78+ IP, 26 SVs, 3.89 ERA.)
The Swamp Rats fell into last place by
the end of the season, and finished with a record of 62-98.
Despite suffering through another
horrific season, Bochicchio was again complacent in the winter of 2004,
and failed to make a single trade. And once again,
because so much money was still tied up in bad contracts, he had little
to spend on free agents. As a result, the only free agent signed
by the Swamp Rats in the 2004 auction was Brad Radke ($7 million), who
went 11-13 with a 4.22 ERA in 228+ innings for Gillette.
With the second pick in the draft,
Bochicchio selected Derek Lowe, who went 11-11 for the 'Rats, with an
ERA of 4.58 in 222 innings. Jeff D'Amico (6th round), Jim Brower
(11th), Vance Wilson (16th) and Geoff Blum (17th) were among the other
veteran free agent signings that winter.
That season, the Swamp Rats were moved to
the Benes Division as part of the league's new radical realignment.
In this new division, where they would be competing against
the Ravenswood Infidels, Marlboro Hammerheads and Manchester Irish
Rebels, Gillette was picked to finish in last place. They failed
to shake this prediction when they finished Chapter One with a 12-16 record. In Chapter Two, however, the Swamp
Rats posted the best record (17-11) of any team in the division.
It was during this time that Bochicchio
made the decision to trade his best pitching prospect, Joe Blanton, to
acquire starting pitcher David Wells. Wells went 12-6 with a 2.92
ERA in 154 innings for the Swamp Rats down the stretch, but was a
four-chapter rental, while Blanton soon became a low-cost inning-eater.
The Swamp Rats repeated their Chapter
Two feat with the best record (15-9) in Chapter Three as well, and
headed into the all-star break just one game behind the Infidels in the
newly-realigned Benes Division.
Chaper Four proved to be an enormous
wake-up call for the franchise, however, as they went 8-16 and fell
seven games behind in the division. The mid-summer swoon
continued, as Gillette went just 9-19 in Chapter Five. And by
then, at 17 games out of the division race, the season was all but over.
The Swamp Rats finished the season with a record of 79-81 -- the
second-best record in franchise history, but still 13 games out of first
In the winter of 2005, Bochicchio
decided to shake things up a bit -- not by making sweeping changes to
his roster, but by renaming the franchise the "Las Vegas Flamingos."
The "new-look" Flamingos greatly resembled the old Swamp Rats, however,
in that they were one of only four teams in the BDBL that didn't make a
single trade over the off-season. With Damon ($10MM), Gonzalez
($10MM) and Brad Fullmer ($7MM) all leaving via free agency, the
Flamingos had a ton of cash to spend in the off-season, and Bochicchio
was optimistic that he could fill the holes in his roster via free
In the free agent auction, Bochicchio's
first signing was Doug Davis, a 28-year-old pitcher who posted a 3.39
ERA in 207+ innings in MLB '04. For $7.5 million, Davis went 13-8
with a 3.50 ERA for the Flamingos in 2005, and was signed to a two-year
contract at the end of the season. Next, 37-year-old veteran Tino
Martinez was signed for $3.5 million to fill the hole at first base left
by the departed Fullmer. Martinez hit .268/.354/.455 with 85.4
runs created, and was signed through the 2006 season.
Next on the parade of veteran free
agent signings was 36-year-old Jeromy Burnitz, who signed for $6.5
million -- a total that made him a "Type H" free agent, locking in a
minimum of a one-year contract at the end of the year. Burnitz hit
just .243/.304/.429 for the Flamingos in 2005, then hit just
.257/.294/.353 in 136 at-bats in 2006 -- at the same $6.5 million
Another 36-year-old, Jon Lieber, was
then signed for $3.5 million. Lieber posted a 4.59 ERA in 204
innings for the Flamingos (with 256 hits allowed.) Finally, Johnny
Damon -- now a 31-year-old veteran -- was re-signed by Bochicchio on the
final day of the auction, for $7.5 million. In his sixth year with
the same organization, Damon enjoyed his best season since 2001, hitting
.304/.393/.474 with 124.5 runs created. After the season, he was
rewarded with a three-year contract, which took him through his age-34
After spending $28.5 million in the
auction, the Flamingos had just $2.9 million left to spend in the draft,
which Bochicchio used to purchase more aging veterans like Henry Blanco,
Todd Pratt, Juan Encarnacion and Kevin Grybowski.
With a veteran starting rotation of
Radke, Davis, Lieber and Lowe, and a lineup filled with veterans like
Damon, Rafael Furcal, Javy Lopez, Burnitz and Martinez, the Swamp Rats
were predicted to finish in third place. Perhaps the greatest
improvement to the Swamp Rats in 2005 was the performance of Matsui, who hit .295/.402/.522 with 35 home runs, 116
RBIs, 112 walks and 134.5 runs created. It was an extraordinary
performance for a player making minimum wage. However, although he
was a product of the Flamingos farm system, and playing in only his
second season in the BDBL, he was also 31 years old. Even Las
Vegas' "rookies" were on the wrong side of 30!
The Flamingos fell behind early, going
11-17 in Chapter One -- the worst record in the division. By the
end of Chapter Two, Vegas was still in last place (with a record of
25-31), yet because of the parity in their division, they were only
three games out of first.
Despite that, however, Bochicchio had
his eye on the future. When the Salem Cowtippers inquired about
Radke and closer B.J. Ryan, and dangled super prospect Delmon Young in
exchange, Bochicchio -- after much deliberation -- agreed to the deal.
At the time, Young was considered to be among the top prospects in
baseball. Earlier that year, he had been ranked #3 by Baseball
America, #2 by Baseball Prospectus, #4 by John Sickels and #2 by
RotoWorld. The following spring, however, he would be ranked #1 by
every one of those analysts.
Despite losing one of their starting
pitchers and top closer, the Flamingos went 14-10 in Chapter Three, but
dropped five games behind in the division due to the surging Infidels
and Hammerheads. By the time the final trading deadline of the
season came to pass, the Flamingos remained four games below .500 and
six games behind in the division. Yet, Bochicchio once again stood
pat and held onto all his best trade bait, passing up yet another
opportunity to build for the future.
Vegas went 30-26 over the final two
chapters of the season -- the best record in the Benes Division -- but
finished six games out of first place with an even 80-80 record.
While Bochicchio had spent the first
seven years of his franchise's existence loading up on aging veterans,
the Vegas farm system had been virtually ignored. Las Vegas ranked
#16, #22, #23, #13, #17 and #21 in the annual BDBL farm survey from
2000-2005. Despite owning the #1 prospect in baseball in Delmon
Young, the Vegas system ranked just #15 in 2006 (as Young was the only
Vegas prospect ranked among the top 65.) Aside from Young, the
Flamingos farm system was filled with minor league veterans who were
either never highly-regarded at any time, or were well past their
primes. "Prospects" such as Tim Hummel, Brandon Larson, Matt
Blank, Matt Smith, Eric Duncan and Billy Traber littered the system.
But in the third round of the 2003 farm
draft, Bochicchio made a decision that would give his franchise its
first-ever "foundation player." With the 51st overall pick of that
draft, Bochicchio took a flier on a 24-year-old Triple-A second baseman
named Chase Utley. In the 2006 season, the 27-year-old Utley would
become the team's best hitter, hitting .293/.388/.527 with 27 home runs
and 109.5 runs created -- all at just $100,000 in salary.
Following that season, Utley was signed to a franchise-record seven-year
That winter, Bochicchio once again
stood pat on the trade front. At the free agent auction, he
continued his career-long pattern by signing another wily old veteran --
39-year-old Tim Wakefield -- to a $5.5 million salary (guaranteeing at
least a one-year contract.) Wakefield was worth every penny to the
'06 ballclub, going 19-12 with a 3.24 ERA in 247+ innings. Shea
Hillenbrand -- a 30-year-old veteran -- was then signed to an identical
$5.5MM salary (kicking in a guaranteed one-year contract.) His
signing was much less successful, however, as he hit just .254/.305/.356
in 613 at-bats.
On day nine of the auction, two closers
-- Hector Carrasco and Scott Shields -- went on the block at the same
time. Wanting to secure one of them, Bochicchio submitted
million bids for each pitcher...and won both bids. Because of
those twin signings, there was little money left over to spend in the
draft. But there was enough left for Bochicchio to sign more aging
free agent veterans like Juan Uribe, Jason Phillips, Cal Eldred, Mark
DeRosa and Brian Moehler.
In addition to Utley, the Flamingos'
lineup also included Damon, Matsui and the powerful platoon of
Encarnacion and Burnitz. And with a starting rotation that
included five starters with CERAs under 4.00, the Flamingos were
predicted to finish in second place in the Benes Division.
However, yet again, the Flamingos got
off to a slow start in 2006, going 11-17 in Chapter One to fall six
games behind the red-hot Irish Rebels. In need of a boost,
Bochicchio agreed to a trade prior to Chapter Two in an effort to add
the ace starting pitcher his team was desperately missing. In exchange for
Erik Bedard, Lieber and Shields, the Flamingos received Randy Johnson,
Aki Otsuka and a farm player (Chase Headley) from the Salem Cowtippers.
Johnson -- who had been signed to an $11.5 million salary that winter --
went 15-9 with a 3.07 ERA in 202+ innings for the Flamingos.
Vegas turned it around in Chapter Two,
going 16-12, but the Hammerheads owned the best record in the league
that chapter at 22-6. By the all-star break, Vegas was sporting a
record of 45-35 -- seven games behind the Hammerheads, but first-place
in the OL wild card race.
While the Flamingos were making small
improvements to their ballclub, however, their wild card rivals, the New
Milford Blazers, were in the midst of an unprecedented franchise-killing
campaign designed to give their team one shot at the trophy at the
expense of several years of futility. At the final trading
deadline, Bochicchio added another quality starting pitcher from Salem
(Greg Maddux) and a slugger from Kansas (Pat Burrell), but it wasn't
enough. By the end of August, the Blazers had captured first place
in the wild card race.
With three weeks remaining in the
season, Vegas recaptured a share of first place after taking three of
four from the Infidels. The following week, the Blazers swept the
New Hope Badgers to take a two-game lead, and then lost three of four to
the Silicon Valley CyberSox to cut their lead to just one game with a
dozen games remaining on their schedule.
Finally, on October 24th, the Blazers
and Flamingos went head-to-head to decide their fate, with New Milford
needing just two wins to capture the wild card. The Blazers took
three of four in that series, ending Las Vegas' season.
After eight seasons of winter
hibernation, the winter of 2007 was relatively frenzied in comparison.
Bochicchio made four trades that winter, jettisoning the salaries of
Wakefield, Johnson and Burrell, while getting mostly low-cost veterans
in exchange. Yet despite freeing all that salary, the Flamingos
still had little to spend that winter, and were shut out of the free
agent auction. Bochicchio then spent $10 million on dubious
veterans Luis Gonzalez, Brett Tomko, Eliezer Alfonzo and Saul Rivera in
On the positive side, Utley
(.309/.376/.524, 32 HR, 127.4 RC) returned to have another strong year,
and Chien-Ming Wang -- a second-round pick in the 2005 farm draft --
enjoyed a stellar performance (16-8, 3.37 ERA in 235 IP) in his first
full BDBL season. But with a devastating injury to Matsui that
limited him to just 183 at-bats, the lineup was severely impacted.
And veterans like Gonzalez, Hillenbrand, Juan Encarnacion and Bill
Mueller were hard-pressed to pick up the slack.
The Flamingos opened the season with a
13-15 effort in Chapter One, and managed to maintain that pace
throughout the first half of the season. They headed into the
all-star break with a respectable 37-43 record, which was good for
second place, but eight games behind the division-leading Infidels.
Once again, the GM's office remained
quiet through the first half of the season, with the exception of
several farm free agents acquired at the June deadline. A
surprising 17-7 performance in Chapter Four gave the team a much-needed
boost. Halfway through that chapter, Bochicchio made another big
move, trading Jack Cust (one of his farm pick-ups the previous chapter)
and several others to the Blazers in exchange for Miguel Batista, Mark
Ellis, Gary Sheffield and Jeff Karstens. Batista (2-8, 6.62 ERA in
68 IP) and Sheffield (.224/.329/.269 in 67 AB) hurt the team more than
they helped, while Ellis hit a mediocre .272/.360/.348 in 92 at-bats
down the stretch. Cust, meanwhile, became the Ozzie League MVP a
By mid-August, the Flamingos had cut
Ravenswood's lead to just two games in the division. But the
Infidels caught fire down the stretch, going 19-9 in Chapter Five and
15-13 in Chapter Six, while the Flamingos flamed out at 11-17 in the
final chapter. Las Vegas had to settle for an 81-79 season and a
Matsui (.257/.356/.427, 82.4 RC)
returned to full-time play in 2008, and Utley (.309/.406/.549, 28 HR,
131.6 RC) enjoyed his best season to date, giving the Flamingos a solid
combo in the heart of their lineup. And on the mound, Wang (9-16,
4.23 ERA in 217+ IP) returned for another quality season. But the
team still had several holes to fill, and with Damon, Gonzalez, Matsui
and John Buck all due to become free agents at the end of the season,
2008 was looking like a rebuilding year.
Instead, Bochicchio put it all on the
line. After spending the entire winter watching the trade market
from the sidelines again, he chose to fill the holes in his lineup
through free agency instead. In the auction, he spent a combined
total of $24.5 million on veteran free agents Travis Hafner, Brad Penny
and Rafael Betancourt. All three players were signed for more than
$5.5 million, and under the new rules adopted in 2007, all three would
have to be signed to a minimum two-year contract at the end of the
season. Bochicchio, then, was obligated to spend $75.5 million
over three seasons with no escape clause (barring injury.)
Unfortunately for Bochicchio, Hafner
suffered through two horrendous MLB seasons in 2007 and 2008, Penny
suffered a major injury in MLB '08, and Betancourt followed his
brilliant 2007 MLB season by posting a 5.07 ERA in MLB '08. Those
three signings handcuffed the franchise not only in 2008, but in 2009
(and possibly 2010) as well.
Picked to finish in last place, the
Flamingos surprised no one by going 6-22 to start the season. They
bounced back, however, with back-to-back 13-11 records in each of the
next two chapters. Yet still, they remained 18 games behind in the
division at the midway point of the season.
With several valuable trading chits on
hand, Bocchichio finally unloaded one of them at the Chapter Three
deadline, trading Matsui to Salem in exchange for prospects Luke
Hochevar and Yonder Alonso. But with Damon, Gonzalez and Buck all
sitting on his roster, Bochicchio stood pat the rest of the way, making
just one trade at the final deadline (a swap of minor leaguers.)
Las Vegas finished the 2008 season with a 70-90 record.
It is difficult to imagine that the
first decade of play in the BDBL was much fun for John Bochicchio.
His teams consistently hovered around .500 or lower, with the exception
of one highly-improbable season. He hardly made any decisions
whatsoever as a GM, and likely holds the BDBL records for fewest trades
and fewest mid-season free agent signings. And he participated in
just one post-season series -- a series in which he was swept in four
Of course, most of this misery was
avoidable if only a little more action were taken at the right times.
Bochicchio has consistently made the same mistakes over and over again.
Namely, he has over-relied upon expensive veteran free agents to plug
the holes in his roster. This may work for a team like
Bochicchio's Yankees. But the difference is that the Yanks have a
seemingly unlimited payroll. You simply cannot compete in any
league with a salary cap if you are paying market value for almost every
player on your roster. It's impossible. A team that returns
$63.5 million in performance for $63.5 million in salary will finish
right around .500. And that's exactly what has happened in
Gillette in every year over the past decade.
Great teams are built around youth --
but especially great teams in a salary cap league. Young players
can perform at an all-star level while earning minimum wage (or close to
it.) And aside from Utley, Wang and Matsui (who was no youngster,
even when he was a farm player), this franchise simply hasn't had enough
of those types of players. In our annual BDBL Farm Report, the
Flamingos farm system ranked among the bottom ten in all but one year
from 2000-2006. Since then, however, they have risen to #14 in
2007 and #10 in 2008. So on that front, the franchise is on the
More than simply managing the farm,
however, Bochicchio needs to know when to fold and when to go all-in.
In the past, he's misjudged his team's chances of competing, and it has
cost him valuable franchise players such as Jack Cust, Joe Blanton and
Erik Bedard. But worse, this misjudgment has led to suffocating
contract decisions that have put this franchise in a deep financial hole
before the season even begins. More than anything, the persistent
decisions to throw so much guaranteed contract money at risky, aging
veterans has made it impossible for this franchise to formulate a
successful long-term plan.
Viewing this team's roster with a fresh
set of eyes, you would see a farm system that includes several
intriguing players, a franchise player in Utley, and several marketable
players with enough trade value to acquire some much-needed youth with
upside potential. But as long as this team continues to pay $24.5
million in salary to Penny, Betancourt and Hafner, building a
competitive team will be all but impossible.