As all baseball fans and players know, the thrill of the game comes not only with a single game experience, but true excitement can be found when your team is in the run for the league pennant. This year, the members of the Springfield Cardinals were the ones to accomplish their goals of bringing home a championship title to Springfield, Missouri. As the playoffs neared, the Cardinals were nearly 8 games ahead of the closest team to claim the 2nd half title in the North Division of the Texas League. They were heading to the North Division Series to take on the Tulsa Drillers, who won the first half of the season. The North Division games were extremely competitive and extremely close. Tulsa and Springfield would split the first four games and a fifth game would decided who was heading to the championship series.
In the fifth game, the Springfield Cardinals would lose one of their greatest assets from the season. Outfielder Chris Swauger would break his collarbone in four places and would be taken out of the game. That did not set back the Cardinals however. They won game 5 of the series 3-1 over the Drillers. Springfield was headed to its second championship series in history.
The Springfield Cardinals were going to be facing off against the Frisco RoughRiders in the Championship series. Frisco had just swept the Corpus Christi Hooks in the South Division series. It seemed like it was going to be an uphill climb for the Cardinals especially considering that the RoughRiders had taken 7 out of 11 games during the regular season. The first two games of the championship series were held in Springfield on September 11th and 12th. On the 11th, the Springfield Cardinals took some time prior to the game to recognize members of the emergency services in Springfield. Police officers, fire fighters, EMS, National Guard servicemen and many more were in attendance to represent all the people putting their lives on the line for the safety of the public. There was a moment of silence held prior to the National Anthem to remember those lost on September11, 2001.
In game 1 of the series, Springfield would score five runs on three home runs and held Frisco scoreless. Other than those three home runs, the story of the game were the defensive plays by both teams to keep the scoring low.
Game 2 of the championship series, however, was almost the exact opposite from game 1. The Frisco RoughRiders scored quickly and it seemed like they were going to claim game 2 quickly. After Mike Napoli of the Texas Rangers, who was rehabbing during the series, hit a deep bomb over the left field wall, all hope seemed to be lost and the RoughRiders were up 4-0 on the Cardinals. With 2 outs in the 8th, the Springfield Cardinals refused to go down. They plated 6 runs and then Keith Butler came in and threw three straight strikeouts to help the Springfield Cardinals win the last game in front of a home crowd for the 2012 season. After the game, all the players threw their hats into the crowd and showed their appreciation to the fans that make up “Cardinals Nation”.
The team headed to Frisco, Texas to try their best to claim their first Texas League Championship for the organization. Because Springfield is my “home team” and the team that I cover the most, sometimes it is almost like some of these guys become good friends over the period of the season. I get to know some of them, and they like to see the images that come from the cameras in my hand. In this case, some of the guys were really excited because they might win the first title in Springfield’s eight years as a ballclub in the Texas League. During my time in Frisco, I tried to spend as much time with the team and at the ballpark that I could. I wanted to capture both the peaks of action, but also the down time that Springfield was facing during the series. My main objective would be to provide a look into the players lives that most people do not get to see.
Game three in the series seemed like it was going to be a tough one. The RoughRiders are known for being the largest drawing team in the league and I was excited to see how many people they were going to have at the ballpark for the series. Unfortunately, we would not know the actual power of a capacity crowd in Frisco, because the fans did not show up in the amount that was expected. This was going to be an interesting rest of the series. Frisco came into game three with an all business attitude and were set on not going down without a fight. Pitching was going to be the key component for both teams in these final games and each team put one of their best aces on the mound. Frisco would hold Springfield to one run in game three while the Cardinals allowed five runs to cross the plate on Friday night. It was a frustrating night offensively for Springfield.
I arrived to Dr. Pepper Ballpark around 3 p.m. prior to game 4 of the series. After putting my gear in the media room, and seeing how the other Springfield news crew was, I went down to see how some of the players were while the reporter I was with did some interviews. The only observation of that time prior to the game was how relaxed the entire team was. You could tell that they were ready to end the series and they had their sights set on that. Almost every player that spoke to me outside the clubhouse, during warm-ups, and during batting practice all had similar statements. Each had a simple way of saying, “I can’t wait to be home tomorrow”. You could tell that they were ready.
By game time, I had a feeling that I was going to have a long night ahead of me. The game itself had some good opportunities for action images, but we all knew that the most important images were going to be made immediately after the game.
The score of game 4 should explain the quality of the game that had unfolded in front of my lens. Springfield would score first on a base hit by Greg Garcia allowing Jermaine Curtis to cross the plate. The Cardinals would add to their 1-0 lead on a base hit by Kolten Wong in the top of the 8th inning. With the score now 2-0, it looked like Frisco was on the ropes and all Springfield needed was a knockout punch. Or so it seemed. Frisco’s Chris McGuiness would hit a home run in the bottom of the 8th that would keep the RoughRiders in contention. After a scoreless top of the 9th, this would be Frisco’s chance at tying the series at two games a piece. The first two batters would ground out to the infielders and would be called out. Guilder Rodriguez hit a base hit which put the winning run at bat. Then Springfield’s Keith Butler threw only three pitches when Engel Beltre hit a ground ball to Kolten Wong, and Rodriguez was called out on the force play at second base. The Springfield Cardinals were now Texas League Champions, and claimed the first title in the organization’s history. It was time to celebrate.
There are a few things I will always remember from this championship series. The first will be seeing Springfield’s Manager Mike Shildt celebrating with his team and then walk into the stands to give his mother a hug, looked her in the eye and said “I love you”. After the hug was over, his mother looked over to me and said, “That’s my son!” with a huge smile on her face. It was a priceless moment between a mom and her son.
The second thing about this championship series that I will not forget is running full sprint from the clubhouse to the media room on the second level of Dr. Pepper Ballpark in order to make deadline for the Springfield paper. The game had gone longer than expected and I had to get images from the clubhouse celebration into the desk in Springfield. The sprint from the clubhouse to my computer with gear around my arms was one of those times where I was hoping I didn’t instantly become clumsy. I had so much adrenaline pumping through my body that I had a rough time sleeping that night. Lastly, I will always remember the look on the faces of the players as they were raising the Texas League Championship trophy in front of the Springfield fans that had made their way to Frisco. It was a really cool moment to be apart of.
I want to give a huge shout out to some people who made this season awesome for me and I want to express how great some of you are. Thanks to Mike and Brian from Four Seam Images for representing my images to outlets such as ESPN and MiLB. Without you guys, I would not have gotten my first double truck in ESPN the Magazine earlier in the season. Jeff from the Springfield Cardinals for giving me a ton of flexibility to make images this season. Dean and Kary from the Springfield News-Leader for giving me the chance at covering the championship series in Frisco for them. A huge shout out to the fans who I have met throughout the season who send me encouragement throughout the season, and lastly, my wife and family for their continual support and allowing me to do what I love, and allowing me to spend time away from them to do my job.
The covering any minor league baseball season can be long, draining, and challenging any photographer, but all I can say is that the 2012 season has been one of the most fulfilling sports season for me in a long time. I look forward to seeing what next season has in store and hopefully I can witness more history in 2013.
To see all of my favorite images from the championship series, click HERE.