Monday, November 8, 2010

1978

For Visalia die-hards, "1978" still holds a certain mystique. It was the greatest team the city has seen, and the last to win the California League championship. It dominated the league in nearly every statistical category, and won the title on a thrillingly climactic final day of the season...when they had to win twice.


The '78 season had been a charmed ride for Visalia. Not only did the team crush its competition throughout the regular season, but the city and its ballclub was also featured in the June 5th, 1978 edition of Sports Illustrated:


 Click images for larger version

The City of Visalia had garnered national attention by buying and operating the club itself beginning in 1977, becoming the first city in the country to ever do so. The team more than justified the city's investment that next season, but only after fighting its way off the proverbial canvas at the end.

More on that final day later. First, however, it's time to turn the floor over to baseball historians Bill Weiss (who was the Cal League's official historian for many years) and Marshall Wright. They named the '78 Visalia Oaks one of the best Minor League teams of all time back in 2000. The following is an exerpt from their article, interspersed with a few pictures that were graciously donated to us by Jim Rumelhart, who was the team's 20-year-old trainer that year.
"The 1978 Visalia Oaks ran away with the first half Southern Division title, finishing 52-19 with a 9 ½ game bulge over Salinas. In the second half, the team cooled off somewhat (45-23) but still prevailed over Salinas by four games. In the playoffs, the Oaks bested Northern Division winner Lodi, three games to two, to win the laurels. The Oaks finished their season with a 97-42 record, leading the league in many offensive categories, including average (.301), home runs (130) and runs (1,007).

Visalia was managed by Roy McMillan, who by an odd coincidence also led the team in the first year of the Mets’ regime in 1968. McMillan was a 49-year-old veteran of 16 major league campaigns. From 1951 to 1966, McMillan plied his trade as a starting shortstop for the Reds, Braves and Mets. He finished his career with a .243 average and 1,639 hits. He led the National League in fielding four times and was named to two All-Star teams (1956-57) as part of Cincinnati’s “write in” campaign. In 1972 he managed Milwaukee for two games (1-1) between the firing of Dave Bristol and the hiring of Del Crandall. In 1975, he piloted the Mets for the last 53 games of the season (26-27) following the departure of Yogi Berra.
Roy McMillan before a game in Lodi in 1978. Photo by Jim Rumelhart.
Visalia’s most prominent player was “Super Joe” Charboneau, who led the league in batting (.350), finishing .0001 ahead of Reno 2B and current San Diego coach Tim Flannery. Charboneau was on loan from Philadelphia and in December, 1978, he was traded to Cleveland. In 1979, he led the Southern League in batting (.352) and in 1980 he burst upon the major league scene. Reams of copy were written about the off-the-field activities of this “free spirit.” Veteran Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Hal Lebovitz said “Ring Lardner in his most imaginative moment never dreamt up a baseball character who pulled his own tooth (with a pair of pliers), drinks beer through his nose, had a pet alligator or whose lifelong ambition is to open beer bottles with his eye socket.”

On the field, Super Joe put together a .289-23-87 season and was named 1980 American League Rookie of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association. From there it was all downhill. He injured his back in a headfirst slide during spring training in 1981, hit only .210-4-18 in the strike-shortened season and was in AAA by August. Between November, 1981 and November, 1982, he underwent two back surgeries and an operation on his wrist, and developed stomach ulcers. Cleveland released him in August, 1983, and he played his last pro game in 1984.

Outfielders Tack Wilson (.349-5-79) and Steve Douglas (.343-19-106) finished third and fourth in the league in batting. Douglas led the league in runs (142), hits (192), total bases (311) and triples (17). Wilson was second in stolen bases (63). He hit just five homers, but one was an inside-the-park grand-slam. Third baseman Scott Ullger (.320-20-108) led the league in doubles (36), while designated hitter Steve McManaman hit .293 and led the league in home runs (29) and RBI (120).
Joe Charboneau, Steve McManaman, and Scott Ullger. Photo by Jim Rumelhart.
From Douglas (who scored a league-high 142), to Gary Bozich and McManaman (who collected 104 each), no less than seven Visalia Oaks surpassed the century mark in runs. This achievement was made possible by the compact nature of the squad, which saw only 12 position players take the field during the season. All of the seven players participated in at least 125 games, more than enough time to cross the plate 100 times.

Visalia used only 23 players during all of that championship season and one of those was a pitcher who appeared in only one game. That was no accident. Throughout Visalia’s association with the Twins they regularly used fewer players than any other team. Minnesota farm director George Brophy planned it that way. He was an astute judge of talent and always tried to assemble at the start of the season a team that could compete in the California League. In addition, he tried to keep expenses down by not having to shuttle players back and forth across the country throughout the season.
On the mound, Gene Robinson (18-5) and Bob Veselic (18-8) tied for the league lead in wins. Veselic also led in innings pitched (215). Jeff Clark (13-1) had the best percentage (.929).
Douglas, Charboneau, McManaman and C Steve Herz all made the league All-Star Team. Douglas was named the league’s MVP and the Topps’ California League Player of the Year. Douglas and Charboneau were named to the National Association Class A All-Star Team...
The Visalia Oaks of 1978 were a hard-hitting club that was noteworthy for two accomplishments. First, they were among a scattered handful of professional clubs to have seven players score 100 each. And second, they were certainly alone in having 58% of their position players cross the plate 100 times - a feat unlikely to be duplicated for quite a while."

I should say so. And while Weiss and Marshall sum up the team's dominance beautifully, they gloss over its most dramatic achievement: winning the championship by sweeping a doubleheader.

Yes, the Oaks did beat the Lodi Dodgers in the Cal League finals, but they made things hard on themselves. They fell behind 2-1 in the best-of-5 series, and found themselves a loss away from having their legendary season become just another member of Visalia's unfortunately crowded pantheon of sad playoff stories.

Not only did the Oaks have their backs up against the wall, but so did the league. By Minor League rule, the season had to end on September 5th. But September 5th was only the date of Game 4 at Recreation Ballpark. So, the situation was simple: Visalia had to win a game, then win another that same night. And when Marv Garisson's 2-run single gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead early in Game 4, it began to look like Visalia might come up short again. But in the bottom of the 4th, Gil Ramirez turned the tide.

Gil Ramirez gets off the Visalia bus during a 1978 road trip. Photo by Jim Rumelhart.

Ramirez was just 21 years old, and was in his second season of pro ball. The light-hitting backup catcher had appeared in only 45 games during the regular season and had batted just .218. But with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 4th inning, Ramirez stepped up and lined the first pitch he saw over the left field fence for a grand slam.

Joe Charboneau was first to meet Gil Ramirez after his momentum-shifting grand slam (Visalia Times-Delta) 

The Oaks never looked back, as they raced to an 11-3 blowout win to even the series at 2-2. Then, they turned right around and played a decisive Game 5. It was Bob Vaselic's turn to pick up the hero baton, and he would seize it with both hands.

Vaselic, who pitched briefly in the Major Leagues with the Twins a couple years later, took the ball in the nightcap and never gave it up, throwing a complete game. The Oaks took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the 2nd when Tack Wilson's clutch 2-out single brought home Gary Bozick. Lodi tied it in the top of the 3rd, but Visalia went back ahead in the bottom of the same inning on an unearned run. John Daynor led off with a single, went to second on a ball in the dirt and then to third on the same play when Lodi's catcher threw the ball into center field. He then scored on an error by the Dodgers' shortstop. And after a season of crushed homers and overpowering offense, that little gift run turned out to be Visalia's last, and most important, of the year.

Vaselic did the rest, making the slender 2-1 advantage stand up. He pitched out of jams in the 5th and 7th innings and threw a perfect 8th. Then, in the top of the 9th, with Rec Park rocking, he retired the first two Lodi batters, but walked future Major Leaguer Mark Bradley to put the tying run on base.

That brought up George Kaage, who had hit over .300 that season. But he never had the chance to steal the title. Bradley tried to swipe second, and Steve Herz, who was behind the plate for the Oaks in this final game, threw a laser to the second base bag. Gary Bozick, the shortstop, caught the throw and tagged the sliding Bradley out. And Visalia had done it.

The Visalia Times-Delta captured the championship moment perfectly

For Veselic, it was his 2nd league championship in 3 seasons; he had also won it with the Reno Silver Sox (yes, Reno used to be in the California League) in '76. After his brief stay in the Majors in the early '80s, he bounced around in the minors and independent leagues until 1990. He died at only 40 years old of cancer in 1995.

Joe Charboneau, as mentioned by Weiss and Marshall, became an overnight sensation in the Majors a couple years later, and then fell from that pedestal almost as quickly. Scott Ullger is still the Minnesota Twins' third base coach today. Tack Wilson made it to the big leagues in 1983 and again in '87.

And what of grand slam hero Gil Ramirez? He never played pro ball again. But he went out on top, just like the rest of the team. It's a feat that Visalia clubs have yet to duplicate since. It's what makes the 1978 Visalia Oaks' magical season an unforgettable one in city history.

2 comments:

  1. Visalia baseball is historically competitive, the past championships only serve to prove that we need to focus more on our private lives and stop working so hard, leaving more time for leisure so Visalia can produce more pros!


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  2. I like to read the stories like this. It has something in common with the life of my dad, so I like it very much.

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