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Helena -- The curse of Dwight Hamilton

Editorial in the Helena High Times
Howard Gristle, Editor

For the past 4 seasons the Honolulu entry in the AL West has finished in second place but was barred from the playoffs because of the mediocrity of its won-lost record. Beat writers in the Aloha state never faulted the punchless lineup because of the many pitcher-friendly features of the ballpark. However, despite good team defense and the obvious advantages of the stadium, the performances of the various iterations of the starting staff have hovered in the realm of the horrendous, and the press, and eventually the fans, were merciless in grilling these pitchers over the flames of mockery and contempt.

In a decision aimed as much to save the psyches of his pitchers as to garner tax advantages, franchise owner Saffron has moved his team to our fair city after the 7-year lease expired at Aloha Stadium. Helena fans are hoping there is some method to his madness as critics of the move have noted the logic that bad pitchers likely won't get better when moving from pitching-friendly confines to a ball park with neutral effects.

There are no newcomers to the starting five. Fonzie Clifton, one of the heroes of season one, will lead the staff. Rebounding from two grisly seasons he posted the only winning record (12-10) among the starters last year coupled with a decent 3.51 ERA . We can only hope that Derek Crawford and Hector Gomez will eventually actualize the bright promise they showed in the minors. They both come off a season registering losing records and 5 + ERA's. Derek in particular would be well-advised to begin performing as advertised if he wants to avoid being baited by the fans for the outrageous $6.7 million award he was given in arbitration. Phillip Bloomquist did no better, but he wasn't expected to, and will continue to eat innings as the number 5 starter. Antonio Martin will fill out the starting five. His performance fell off a bit from season six but his spot likely will remain safe. Former starter Mark Zhang has been demoted to AAA while he undergoes psychotherapy.

The one team strength is its bullpen. The team is blessed with 4 good to excellent relievers who are horses. With durability ratings ranging from 74 to 98 and stamina running from 37 to 50 one thought might be to limit the starters to 5 innings every game and let these guys carry a larger load. Rob Ojeda remains one of the league's elite closers (35 saves and 2.76 ERA last season) and Arthur Caufield continues to shine in the set-up role (147 IP, 9-5, 3.24 ERA). The usually dependable Raffy Guerrero expects to rebound from a tough season. He landed on the 60 day DL for the second time in his career with an elbow injury (despite his 100 health rating) and didn't regain control over his devastating sinker when he came back (5.91 ERA). The fourth member of this quartet, Chin-Feng Iwazaki (he of the Chinese first name and Japanese last name), is at yet unproven and, with a penchant for giving up the untimely long ball, must be looking over his shoulder at former number one draft pick Bobby White who is chomping at the bit in AAA to replace him as one of the four horses. Banjo Weaver and Teddy Richard will fill in set-up roles while Tommy Bonilla remains unfulfilled promise as the sole long man.

Now for the position players and offense, or at least what there is of it. We hold some hope that the bats will benefit from this move to Helena. The Howling Sukebe are built around their 5-tool CF, Hector Jacquez. Despite an off-year (.256, 16 HR, 19 SB) Saffron has just given Hector a 5 year, 37.5 million contract with hopes that at 27 he will be ready to lead the Sukebe to the promised land. RF Pat Cooper, formerly a core contributor to the offense was bewildering in his offensive ineptitude last year. His BA fell off the cliff to .218, down from .297 and .266 the prior two seasons, with only 25 HRs. The options on the contracts for both of last year's FA signings were picked up because without their contributions Honolulu might have set a record for offensive futility. Despite a .242 BA, LF Carlos Lopez paced the team with 30 HRs and 107 RBIs, while DH Andrea Wagner contributed a .289 BA with 24 HRs and was second on the team with 85 RBIs.

The infield, like the outfield, is excellent defensively, but with even more anemic offense. Rookie Dennys Shinjo was a bright light at SS last season with his great glove and even hit .284 but with no punch. Former SS Kevin Hernandez was moved to 3B to accomodate Shinjo and even hit 14 HRs in 380 ABs but must vastly improve on his .239 BA and .286 OBP to keep his job. Wes Stevens, brought up mid-season to replace the faltering Sam Giley at 2B...same story: good glove, mediocre bat. There may be some hope for the offense at 1B. His confidence boosted by a mention in one of "The Real Futures Team" articles, Bruce Piatt will finally be making his appearance on the major league stage replacing Esteban Rojas who was released after having the nerve to ask for more than the ML minimum in arbitration. Finally, the catching duties will be shared by the capable, if not intimidating duo of former Rule 5 pick-up Tito Robinson (.298 but only fair punch) and Chris Nelson (.322 with 13 HRs in AAA). Nelson, who is replacing FA Parker Cooke, has a weak arm but reputed to handle pitchers well. Let's hope. At any rate, they are merely keeping the position warm for highly touted Jeff Jones who's being given another year to hone his skills before being handed the job.

Not a pretty picture is it? One might be forgiven for wondering how this team finished as high as second for the last 4 seasons. I suppose, the bullpen and defense -- but that's not enough to give hope to the fans of any possibility of tightening the gap between the Sukebe and perrenial AL West bully Roadrunners. In my interview with team owner Saffron to prepare for this article, he explained the current team was built for its former stadium: defense, pitching and speed. He admitted the starting pitching pitching turned out to be a mirage and asked me to convey to the fans his request for patience while the team is retooled. He also stated he was loathe to trade off his younger players for mediocre veterans -- in his eyes, to mortgage the future for a short-term fix.

What do I foresee for the season. I do expect the offense to benefit across the board from the change in venue. But unless Gomez and Crawford turn it around, the team will be hard pressed to hold off the Silver Shockers and Longballers. The novelty of major league baseball in Helena undoubtedly will give the team a honeymoon period, but Saffron might be looking at U-Haul rates in three years if things don't improve.

Oh yes, I failed to explain the title to this piece. In doing research for this article I went back to look at the team's initial amateur draft to write something along the lines of "Where Are They Now?" I was shocked to find that none of the team's top five picks in that draft were still in organized baseball (though two are fruitlessly looking for work as free agents) despite Honolulu having the advantage of the number two pick that season. When I asked Saffron about it during our interview, he pointed out that it was before the days teams could pre-rank amateur prospects so clunkers were possible in high rounds but admitted the odds were miniscule that not one of them was still playing ball. He then told me about their first pick that year, a pitcher named Dwight Hamilton. He recalled thinking the team had a can't miss phenom, projected ratings of "90's across the board", a can't miss candidate for Cooperstown who would anchor the staff for a decade or two. And then he saw the dreaded words "May sign if the deal is right". Even then team management was confident. They came into the season armed with a $14mm prospect budget and had only spent $600m to date on a forgettable Int'l FA. They decided to sign only a handful of the lower picks because they wanted to keep their powder dry for the main event -- Dwight Hamilton -- in case his demands were exorbidant. Keeping a little over $12 mm in their pockets, they waited, and waited for what seemed like months. Keep in mind this was also the days before you could transfer budgets. Finally his agent came back with what he said was only a modest increase in bonus demands -- from $3.9 mm to $13.2 mm. $13.2 MILLION????? Management went into panic mode. They added the maximum ML contract allowable but that still but that still only got them to about $13.1 mm. Frantically they tried to trade salary for the rump of the season, but to no success. Calls to the agent, Hamilton and even his parents were met with complete inflexibility. And then, the season ended, and with it any chance to sign him. To this day, whenever anyone in the front office bemoans the state of the franchise, someone will invariably answer: "The curse of Dwight Hamilton".


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