What was the first Thunder season like? You were around then? Right?
I certainly was.
The young fan got me thinking. He asked me what Tony Clark (pictured right) was like to deal with, and I answered that he was as cool off the field as on the field. That 1994 team was 55-85, played only 51 home games and couldn’t hit a lick or play defense.
But, even if you were part of the media you loved them. They were our guys.
This is not a “Where Are They Now’’ piece. I leave that to colleague Dave McDonough, who does a marvelous job that I couldn’t approach in that Thunder aspect. Rather it is, as I told the young fan, an “I Was Certainly There.’’ saga.
First, there is the tale of the two Opening Day Yearbook covers, complete with a green Thunder hat – that was the primary color in those days. Opening day was originally scheduled for April 16, 1994, but, with stadium finishing touches delayed, was set for April 27, a Wednesday night, vs. the Albany-Colonie Yankees, who later became the Norwich Navigators who became the Richmond Flying Squirrels.
I made sure I got my hands on the yearbook that included, on its cover, Opening Night – April 27 – Albany and the like, with the teams’ uniform tops and caps in the background. Yet, even while the sun brightly spread its warmth on the field, the diamond was ruled unplayable, too wet. That was an issue the entire season. A balky drainage system led to several “sun-outs.’’
So the Thunder, which played home games in Wilmington, Reading, even Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, finally played an actual home game in Trenton May 9, when the Binghamton Mets visits. The B-Mets’ Ricky Otero took the first pitch from Thunder lefty Trevor Miller, who wore No. 7 and had six complete games and a 7-16, 4.39 mark in 1994.
On sale was an inaugural yearbook with May 9 – Opening Night – Binghamton, with the picture set in a white background and a Mets top and cap substituted. I still have them both.
Speaking of Miller, still pitching with St. Louis, in his 13th big-league season, who went from starter to lefty specialist, he was the subject of my first-ever Thunder story. We talked on the short bus ride from the old Harrisburg Hilton to the park then known as RiverSide Stadium.
He was a kid of 19, from Louisville, not used to being questioned by a guy who carried a notebook.
“I don’t know what the media will do with what I say,’’ said Miller. “I just hope I’m good enough to someday play in the majors.’’
Some 18 years later, Miller has appeared in 664 big-league games, pitched 508.2 innings, has an 18-16, 4.18 mark, a strikeout/walk ratio of 424-230 and, while not a Hall-of-Famer by any means, is one of the best LOOGY (Lefty One Out Guy) to come along in this era.
He will always be the first pitcher to start a game in Waterfront Park.
Visiting fans and media often ask how long a poke it takes over Waterfront Park’s right-field wall into the Delaware River.
It is roughly a shot that must clear the trees and travel over 450 feet.
The 1994 had one hitting threat – first baseman Tony Clark, whom the Detroit Tigers, Trenton’s first-year affiliate, looked at as their next big power hitter. Clark, one of the nicest guys you would ever meet in baseball – and one who always smiled when his 1994 season was brought up during his time with the Yankees, hit a few that touched water, scattered geese and scared boaters.
Clark batted .279 (110-for-394) with 21 homers and 86 RBIs that year for manager Tom Runnels. He was the one batter in the Trenton lineup that put a bit of fear into an Albany pitcher named Andy Pettitte.
One day, after Clark gave the Thunder one of their rare wins with such as shot, reliever Mike Guilfoyle coined one of this writer’s favorite quotes in a postgame interview.
“Tony’s ball went to over to Pennsylvania without paying the toll,’’ quipped Guilfoyle, a wise-cracking reliever from Jersey City who was the Thunder’s closer. He went 7-8, 4.67 and had a team-high five saves,
Guilfoyle remains, to this day, one of my all-time favorite Thunder players.
Some of the promotions were U.S Air Vacation Night, Keystone Health Plan Beach Towels and Thunder Road Baseball Card Night. Bobbleheads? What were they?
A Thunder Dog was $2.50.
My favorite promotion, and I’ve lobbied for the team to bring it back, was “The Dirtiest Car In The Lot.’’
Brandon Hardison, the Thunder’s first public-address announcer, would welcome fans by, in his deep tones, “Thank you for joining us in beautiful Mercer County Waterfront Park.’’
He was best with the “dirtiest car.’’ The team would pick out a car, and Hardison, in the middle innings, would intone, “Is your license-plate number New Jersey 12345? If it is, you should be embarrassed with what you drove to the game in tonight. You, sir or madam, have the ‘dirrrrtiest’ car in the lot.
“We’re going to give you a free car wash.’’
When this was going on, in between innings, there was nothing but silence in what was almost always a capacity crowd.
Hardison is presently in business as a motivational speaker and facilitator in Atlanta.
A few other tidbits about the 1994 season:
- The original Thunder radio team was Tom McCarthy and Nick Simonetta.
- There were actual holiday doubleheaders scheduled.
- Pork roll quickly became a fan-favorite at the concession stands.
- A young shortstop named Derek Jeter, who was rocketing through the Yankees system, hit two long home runs in the first game of a twi-night doubleheader for Albany-Colonie.
- The Thunder flew to Portland for one series.
- Matt Stairs was a key player for the New Britain Red Sox, who would abandon Beehive Field for Waterfront Park in 1995, starting a winning tradition in Trenton.
- Brian Mahoney was the original Thunder assistant general manager. He went on to be GM at Norwich and presently works with the Philles as Director, Advertising Sales.
- Geoff Brown was the Assistant Director of Marketing and is the long-time highly successful GM at Lakewood.
- The Director of Ticket Sales was John Fierko, who after a stop with the Sixers, is back in Trenton in a similar position with the Trenton Devils.
- If the Thunder scored nine or more runs, or notched a shutout, Pizza Hut gave fans a free personal pizza with their ticket stub, When the score got to 8, Waterfront Park was filled with a “Pizza, Pizza, Pizza’’ cheer.
- I regret I never got to know Jim Maloney as well as the other original Thunder owners. He was enthusiastic and had a lot of innovative ideas before passing away unexpectedly as the 1994 season concluded.
And there is one other thing I really miss from back then, even with all the great times and experiences we’ve all shared.
From the start, Sam Plumeri would find me on my way to the press box, or my seats, stop, put his arm around me and say, “Jed, my friend, this or that happened. What do you think we need to do?.’’ I tried to offer as solid an opinion, with the fan in mind, as I could.
Just ask Eric Lipsman, the one remaining original Thunder staff member. That 1994 season wasn’t easy, and was a learning process for all. What has come out of that, in our compact stadium in South Trenton, is still new every day.
I still think of Sam, and I’ll sit down on the bench next to his likeness in front of the field now named in his honor. I’ll take a deep breath, and, I’ll say, “Sam, my friend, this is what we are facing now. What do we need to do in Trenton?’’
Then I’ll smile, and think of how far we’ve come as fans, media and our baseball team, now a proud Yankees affiliate, since the day Tony Clark’s hit went that “went over to Pennsylvania without paying the toll.’’
We have what we have because fans, the media, the area and the team persevered together and got through that 1994 season. I hope I’ve answered that 12-year-old fan’s questions.