We Are The Champions

2011 Grand Prairie AirHogsIt seems like a long time since the 2011 season started, but actually it’s only been four months. Four months and 109 games later, the Grand Prairie AirHogs are the 2011 American Association Champions.

After being down 0-2 in the championship series, they won three straight at home to defeat the St Paul Saints and win the championship. They dominated with pitching, they dominated with hitting and then they just dominated.

I told the coaches last night that I never knew a five-game series was two warm-up games and a sweep.

I’ve spent many painful years watching Metroplex teams come close, just to have it slip away (or get thrown away) in the end. Some teams (I’m looking at you, Jerry Jones) can’t even come that close very often any more. I’ve always consoled myself with the thought that even if the team wins, it really doesn’t have an effect on my life – I’m not on the team, after all.

Now that I’ve seen a championship won the hard way, you know what? My life does seem a bit better this morning.

On the way home from QTP last night, I thought “Wow. I’ve been hugged by sweating, champagne-soaked guys trying to move like Berney“, but then I realized that “I’ve actually stood on the field where a championship was won” probably sounds better.

I’ve actually stood on the field where a championship was won. This is actually the second time this year I can say this, since the fans were invited onto the field when the AirHogs clinched their division.  One of the special joys of watching minor-league baseball is that you can actually interact with the players and staff. They’re approachable. This lets their dedicated fans become involved with the team in ways that are simply not possible with major leagues. I learned a lot of baseball this season, because if I had a question, all I had to do was go ask the manager. He was at the bar after the game was over.

I wish more people would realize this, because it makes following the team much more enjoyable. Sure, it’s even more heart-breaking when someone you know and like gets traded, but that is tempered by the happiness when one of your favorite players gets called up to affiliated ball. Once you’ve met the players, they’re never that far away – most of them are on Facebook, after all.

The AirHogs did everything they could on the field this year. Next year, I’m hoping that being a championship team may bring more fans into the fold. This team deserve to play in front of a full park.

For all the talk of teamwork that floats around sports, from my perspective, the 2011 AirHogs actually were a team. I think even more than a team,  they were a family. They talked to each other. They stuck up for each other. They moved like Berney together (turn speakers off first at the office!) There was even a barber on the team (who apparently only knows how to do Mohawks.)

There was a different hero every night, sometimes multiple. German Duran hit over .500 against St Paul, including a home run last night and he was hurt. David Espinosa hit two 3-run home runs in one game. Stephen Douglas had 3 RBIs last night. In the Wichita series, John Alonso drew a walk to win a game and then hit the single against St Paul that won the first home game – the start of the comeback. Cesar Nicolas hit a 2-run single that drove a stake in the Saints hearts to finish the final game. The starting pitching the last three games (Josh Rainwater, John Brownell with a complete game and Jason Jennings last night) shut down the Saints.

This was the team that finally made me realize an obvious truth – you can’t have RBIs without people in front of you getting on base. They even helped each other’s stats.

I’ve gone to a playoff game before thinking “This one is ours.” (I’m looking at you, Dallas Desperados.) I was trying not to think that last night, just in case. The 2011 AirHogs were the team that didn’t let me down.

I never thought the AirHogs were invincible, it was just that a championship seemed inevitable. It was an interesting feeling.

When they clinched their division two weeks before anyone else, I was actually concerned that they had peaked too early, since everyone else that got into the playoffs had extra time for building momentum.

When they won in four games in Wichita while St Paul needed five games (and extra innings in most) to knock off Winnipeg, I hoped that St Paul would be tired – and I was concerned about the AirHogs having to wait in Wichita to see how far North they would travel for the championship series, instead of coming home. When they dropped the first two in St Paul, it should have been panic time, but I had learned this year that it was one game at a time. One game at a time three times in a row means rings.

So, in a season where manager Ricky VanAsselberg had three weeks to build a team after being transferred over from Shreveport, he can step back and say he’s now won back-to-back championships with two different teams – a multi-city dynasty of sorts. His team just beat the team that beat the Manager of the Year’s team. The Manager of the Year is pretty much Miss Congeniality at this point.

Ricky said he’d rather have a ring that a title. After last night, he’s got another one. Congratulations!