Jeff Isom sat in the visiting manager’s office at Consol Energy Park and asked the same questions many people in Washington have in recent years.
“Do you think they’ll get it turned around? Will it ever be what it used to be here?” he said.
Isom, the first-year manager of the Frontier League’s Lake Erie Crushers, wasn’t asking about the Wild Things’ record. He was asking about their attendance, which has been on the decline for years.
Like many of the Wild Things’ diehard fans, Isom remembers the nightly string of sellouts. That was when Isom’s office was located, not in the clubhouse outside the left-field foul line where he’s set up shop this weekend, but the manager’s office located on the other side of the field, outside the right-field line.
Isom was the Wild Things’ original manager. And he says he was in the right place at the right time.
Isom spent two years (2002 and ’03) in Washington and guided the Wild Things to the Frontier League playoffs each season. The 2002 team set the league record for wins and advanced to the championship series.
And Isom knows what the secret to the Wild Things’ success was in those days.
“It was the fans. It was the people in the seats,” he said. “Other people in this league would say they couldn’t wait to play in front of a full house with an electric crowd. What they didn’t like was that they had to do it playing against the Wild Things.”
Washington sold out 13 home games in their inaugural season. The next year, the sellouts soared to 36. One night in 2003, a stadium-record 4,247 people crammed into the ballpark for an August game against the Florence Freedom.
“Honestly, for shear enjoyment and winning games, everything about those two years were the best of my career,” Isom admitted. “It’s unbelievable to come to the ballpark knowing that you’re going to win because you have a good team and it’s backed up by the best fans. This place was packed every night. We even had an Elvis impersonator who sat behind home plate.
“I remember one night that first season – it might have been the final homestand of the year – and Travis Copley, a first baseman who was retiring after the season, hit a home run. The ballpark was filled, and everyone was one their feet cheering. When Travis was going around third base, I told him ‘Look around and enjoy this for the rest of your life.’”
Isom said there were many reasons, in addition to the fans, for the wildly successful start to the Wild Things franchise. He credited the players and his assistant coaches, especially former hitting coach Joe Charboneau and Ross Vecchio, the team’s former general manager.
“With Charboneau, there was never a dull moment. He kept everyone loose, but he’s also the best hitting coach I’ve been around, and that includes affiliated ball,” Isom said.
“Word got out fairly quickly that Washington was the place to be if you were a player looking for a team. Players were calling us nonstop, and we had the pick of the crop. That was all because of the atmosphere at the ballpark and what Ross Vecchio did to get people excited about the team.”
Isom left Washington shortly after the 2003 season to become manager of the Joliet Jackhammers of the Northern League, an independent league that is now defunct.
“At the time, the two big independent leagues were the Northern and Atlantic leagues. The Northern League was like the Frontier League on steroids,” Isom said. “Looking back on it, I can see myself staying here.”
Isom was gone in Joliet after two years, and he returned to the Frontier League in 2006 for a one-year stint as manager of the Traverse City Beach Bums. His team made one trip to Washington that year. After Traverse City, Isom spent six years as a manager in the Milwaukee Brewers’ minor-league system.
Isom is back in the Frontier League this year with Lake Erie, where he replaced another former Wild Things manager, John Massarelli. And Isom has noticed some differences in the league since his days in Washington.
“It’s a lot better league than what I remember,” Isom said. “I was gone for six years, and the way it has changed because of roster rules has allowed for more talent to be put on the field. We’re seeing pitchers throwing 87 to 91 mph every night with nasty movement on their pitches. When I was managing in Washington, we had that kind of talent but not every team in the league did. Our teams in those days were the best in the league in pitching. Those staffs would be middle of the pack today. When we ended spring training last month, I thought our team would be just fine. But how much better the league has gotten caught me by surprise.”
After the Wild Things and Crushers play the finale of their three-game series today (5:05 p.m.), Lake Erie will make one more trip to Washington, in mid-July. Charboneau, who stars in a television show called “Catastrophe Inc.,” that debuts next month on HGTV, has promised Isom that he’ll also be in Washington for one of those games.
“This place and those two years are special to me. My son, Will, was born when I was managing here in 2003,” Isom said. “We were coming home from a series in Kalamazoo when my wife called and said she was in labor. I told her that I have to get back to Washington, then I’ll drive to the hospital (in Lafayette, Ind.). When I was somewhere around Richmond, Ind., I talked to her again. She said she thought she could hold out until I got there. When I was driving through Indianapolis, she called and said ‘Congratulations! You have a son.’
“Two days later, I was back in Washington getting ready for the playoffs.”
Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at email@example.com.