There was a time, not too long ago, when the Wild Things’ winning ways were the envy of the Frontier League. That was during the franchise’s early days, when it fielded six consecutive playoff teams and played home games before raucous sellout crowds. Though a championship was elusive, the Wild Things were named Organization of the Year three times.
These days, the Wild Things are trying to figure out what happened to the formula for success.
After capping a 41-55 season last week – the franchise’s second-lowest wins total, fifth consecutive losing season and sixth year in a row without playoff baseball – nobody in the Wild Things’ clubhouse was happy. Especially when you consider the talent level of the team was significantly greater than that of last year’s 44-win club.
“Below par,” manager Bart Zeller said firmly when asked how he rated his first season with the Wild Things. “I was expecting to be above .500.”
For a franchise that desperately needed a booster shot of credibility, the Wild Things’ start to the season was reason for optimism. After losing three consecutive one-run contests at Schaumburg, Washington won 10 of its next 11 games. The 10-4 start was the second-best in the franchise’s 12-year history. The Wild Things were cruising, hitting on all cylinders.
Then, somewhere along the line, the wheels fell off.
The Wild Things had a five-game losing streak in June and a 9-16 record in July. They lost 21 of 31 games at one stretch.
“It’s tough to say when the season fell off the rails,” said A.J. Nunziato, who was third in the league with 26 doubles and led all shortstops in fielding percentage.
“We started great. Then we caught a few bad breaks, and before you knew it we were in the hole and it was tough to get out.”
Washington did win five of six in early August to pull to within one game of .500 and had a chance to join the playoff race, then were swept in a three-game series at home by Windy City – the ThunderBolts scored in the winning run in the last inning of each game – and lost four more games at Lake Erie. Many point to that seven-game stretch as the season’s breaking point.
“We had moved to within a game of .500. We couldn’t have asked for a better situation,” Zeller said. “We had three games at home against Windy City and then four at Lake Erie, a team we were chasing. We lost all seven. That’s the point where we started to go backward.
“In all three games against Windy City and three of the four against Lake Erie, we were in the game right to the end. That stretch took the momentum out of us. We could have been above .500 after those seven games. Instead, it felt like we were running the 100-yard dash wearing snowshoes.”
The Wild Things slogged to the finish line, ending the year with seven consecutive losses and a sixth-place finish in the East Division. Only the Greys, the league’s travel team, prevented the Wild Things from finishing in the basement of a much-improved East.
So where do the Wild Things go from here? They’ve gone from six years of playoffs to the fourth-longest streak of non-playoff appearances in Frontier League history and an equally long streak of dwindling attendance. How do they stop the slide?
There are many who believe that winning will solve the attendance issue. It’s rediscovering that winning formula that has been Washington’s nagging problem.
There are several theories on how to build a winning team in the Frontier League, and neither can be considered a sure-fire blueprint for success.
Some managers say gut the roster every year and start from scratch with players recently released from minor-league spring training. Joliet won a championship in 2011 without a returning player. Lake Erie won the title in 2009, its first year in the league, with only one holdover from the relocated Chillicothe franchise. Only four players from the Crushers’ East Division championship team this year were with the team last season.
Other managers like to build a team around a group of players who stay with the franchise for multiple years. Traverse City, Southern Illinois and Gateway are examples of this type of franchise. Washington seems to be taking this approach.
Zeller believes that with the current roster the Wild Things are only a few players away from being a playoff team.
“We need a center fielder, two experienced starting pitchers and a solid designated hitter,” he said.
Zeller added that he is excited about the player Washington will be getting in a player-to-be-named trade for pitcher Shawn Sanford, and the Wild Things are owed two players from Evansville because of similar trades. Washington does owe a player to Southern Illinois in the trade for pitcher Dayne Quist (8-4, 3.16), who was Washington’s best starting pitcher over the second half of the year.
Zeller will have more time to put his team together than he did last offseason. He wasn’t named the Wild Things’ manager until after Chris Bando resigned in late March because of a health issue. With a full offseason in which to prepare, the 72-year-old Zeller believes the future is bright for the Wild Things.
“I couldn’t be happier with my coaching staff, the front office and the city. The fans were fantastic. They deserve better,” he said. “When I visited with season-ticket holders at the season-ending picnic, many of them made comments that they liked our team and liked how we never quit. But there are no moral victories in baseball. We have to win.”
Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at email@example.com.