31 December 2008

Fargo's Obituary

The Fargo Woodchippers, aged ten seasons, were officially declared dead by the Powers That Be at 9:52 pm on the seventeenth of December, 2008. Their death was a slow, gradual decline from the peak of perfection into listlessness and later abandonment by their caregiver, known fondly as Brett. These things do happen, as intangibles such as “real life” and “wow, this takes up way too much time” have reclaimed the lives of several others whom we have all come to know and love. Symptoms of the Real Life disease first began in the ninth season when Fargo lasted almost a month without its helmsman. Although this franchise's demise has been such a tragedy, this obituary will focus the rest of its space on the accomplishments of a true Hardball Dynasty.

In Fargo's first nine seasons, the team won at least 101 games every year, finishing in first place in the National League's North Division and the entire National League each season as well. In most of those seasons, Fargo was the only NL team to win 100 games, demonstrating how much of a powerhouse it truly was in the regular season. As far as the entire league was concerned, Fargo's 9 seasons of 100 or more wins constituted 36% of the 100-win seasons that were logged in that span.

Much to the chagrin of Brett, the 'Chippers were not quite as successful in the postseason. Fargo received a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs every year. They turned this into three World Series championships and one other berth in the NL Championship Series. For any other club, this would be more than enough, but Fargo's clear dominance in the regular season seemed to hint at the idea that they would win more often in October. It made things more clear when Fargo won three of the first five World Series in Capra. This early success, though, probably made it more frustrating for Fargo fanatics to tune in to those postseason games in seasons 7 to 10 expecting the worst, thanks to the 100-win “kiss of death” phenomenon first made public in simleague baseball.

The Fargo Woodchippers were a true team, equipped with an embarrassment of riches but masterfully maintained and organized by Brett. They had more than their share of superstars, but they were also blessed with cogs that did their own roles very well and the upper brass kept the shelves stocked with the pieces needed to keep the Big Wood Machine fueled and in momentum.

It is quite impossible to discuss the Woodchippers without including the legends who graced Cash Field. Tracy. Ozuna. Weston. Alexander. Henderson. Frye. Prieto, Pascual, and Cruz. And more. Indeed, quite possibly the best starting pitcher, closer, center fielder/shortstop, and first baseman in Capra history were just mentioned. Let us reflect.

The best fake pitcher ever has won nearly every award he has been eligible to win. Somewhere in Ridgway, Colorado is a huge trophy case with nine Cy Young Awards in it, two Silver Slugger bats, a Rookie of the Year Award, and mementos from nine All-Star Games. Through season 10, Tracy also had 45 more wins than the highest non-Fargo pitcher and led the next-highest strikeout leader by 500 whiffs. To complete the career pitching Triple Crown, he also had more innings pitched than any non-Fargo player, although his teammate Ozuna had more. I could bore you with all the categories that Tracy led, but in the interest of time let's just say it's a lot.

The second-fiddle pitcher for Fargo has quite possibly also been the second-best hurler in Capra over these seasons. The Ageless Wonder is one of a handful of quality players who was able to sustain dominance and continue to gain ratings points after age 32. By the time most players have either become useless or retired altogether, Ozuna took another swig from the Fountain of Youth at age 36 and improved a point overall, which kept him with the same overall rating at 37 that he had at 35. From seasons 2 to 9, Ozuna threw at least 243 innings per campaign and won no fewer than 18 games in at least 38 starts. He also posted 6 seasons in that span with an ERA at or below 4.00. Through season 10, these two players amazingly threw about 34% of the Woodchippers' innings.

I do not have anything witty to say about Ringo Weston because all he did was everything. He also was blessed with a ratings gain at age 31, which is only slightly less rare than what Ozuna was doing the same season. His fielding is still rated better than when he was 30 years old, and that was 5 years ago. In 9 of his 10 seasons, Weston played in 155 games or more and never had fewer than 678 plate appearances. To go with that consistency was a career line of .307 batting average, .388 on-base percentage, and .481 slugging percentage. The Decatur, Georgia native starred at no less than 3 positions, only struck out 100 times once, and just for fun stole 16 bases in season 10. Before that he had only stolen 3. Weston was a 3-time All-Star and a good chemistry guy.

Doug Alexander was as much a reason as anybody for the success of Fargo's pitching. He caught the lion's share of the games for the greats each season while consistently getting on base, hitting for average, and throwing in some power. Alexander either won the Silver Slugger Award or was an All-Star or both in seasons 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8. His career line reads .338/.439/.501 despite some below-standard stats in season 10.

Tyler Henderson was that “greatest closer” mentioned a while ago. This is the guy with 416 career saves, or 89% of his chances, who nailed down 465 of his team's wins if you include the games that he won himself. This means that he had a hand in about 44% of his team's record-setting wins. Along the way, Henderson claimed 7 seasons of at least 40 saves, including each of the last 7 seasons and two 50-save campaigns. He was quite possibly at his best in season 9 at age 36, going 53-of-60 in saves and posting a 3.49 ERA in 100 innings. He made 6 All-Star teams and was Fireman of the Year twice.

Alexander Frye was the third of Fargo's “Big Three” starting pitchers, himself a four-time 20-game winner. His career .649 winning percentage was undoubtedly helped by going against lesser pitchers but he also has thrown more innings than any non-Fargo pitcher and seven times he submitted an ERA of 4.18 or less. Judging by All-Star selections, Frye was one of the best pitchers in the league 5 times and also has 2 of those shiny bats.

Trenidad Prieto was simply a great hitter, playing almost every day for 10 seasons and averaging 43 home runs a year. He never struck out more than 80 times and slugged over 1.000 on 4 different occasions. Prieto was a 4-time All-Star and won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger. His best year was in season 3 when he crushed 58 homers and batted in 168 runs in a 200-hit campaign that ended in a World Series championship.

Harry Pascual sometimes was lost in the shuffle of so many good players, but he was in possession of near-perfect fielding, contact, durability, and health ratings at one time and came from Cuba. He also put up a 200-hit season and had 7 seasons with over 100 walks. Sometimes he hit 40 home runs, sometimes he hit 30 triples, sometimes he almost cracked 50 doubles, but Pascual was always doing the right thing. He had 4 All-Star nods and just as many Silver Sluggers but at 2 different positions.

Vladimir Cruz was always a home run threat but again was not a strikeout machine. Season 2's World Series was made possible largely by Cruz's 63 dingers and 179 RBI in the regular season. The two-time All-Star also was decent in the field, winning 2 Gold Gloves in left.

The final puzzle piece was Brett who revolutionized HBD tactics as they were being born. He was Capra's originator of the 4 ½-man rotation, which eventually got down to about a 4-man rotation by season 4. In that year, Tracy, Ozuna, Frye, and Patrick Erickson each threw 39 starts and at least 220 innings. The next year, Brett even could move Frye to the bullpen some and that gave everybody else 40+ starts. Each of the other 3 also won 22 or 23 games. Even when Tracy missed 45 games (about 11 starts) in season 7, only 5 pitchers had more starts than relief appearances. Fargo's management did all these accomplishments, and held onto their core players, without ever spending $100 million on player salary and effectively saying "you're not important" with their budget to advanced scouting, international free agents, and the scouting portion of the draft.

Brett will be sadly missed in the new Capra landscape heading into the second ten years of Capra baseball. However, the league cannot say the same about his merry band of savvy sluggers and non-belly-itcher pitchers.

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