Fisher Cats Are Champions

Saturday, September 18 2004 @ 08:45 AM EDT

Contributed by: Coach

Congratulations to the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, who swept the Eastern League finals over the Altoona Curve in three straight games. Owner Drew Weber moved the franchise to Manchester this year from New Haven, where a very good Blue Jays Double-A affiliate had played to tiny crowds in 2003. GM Shawn Smith and his staff did a tremendous job getting the community involved, and the Cats had numerous sellouts. Fan enthusiasm will be very high next year when the champs begin play in their new ball park.

The Jays organization should be very proud. It's the first championship at any level since Joe Carter hit that home run a while ago. Great work by GM J.P. Ricciardi and the whole front office, farm director Dick Scott, manager Mike Basso, coaches Rick Adair and Jim Bowie. Most of all, this title is a credit to the talented and dedicated players. Brandon League was the series MVP for stellar relief work to preserve the lead in all three games, but it was a team effort. Starters Gustavo Chacin, Chris Baker and Francisco Rosario were excellent, while Mikael Jova, Aaron Hill, Ty Godwin and John Hattig were among the hitting stars. Well done, everyone!

A special hello to Mike Murphy, voice of the Cats, who was so kind to us when we met in April and has graciously shared his radio booth with a couple of Bauxites. That led to us being asked to submit articles for the team program, and in celebration of today's victory, here's something that was written nearly five months ago but never posted in Da Box:

Basso’s Boys Of Summer

Mike Basso was surrounded by his players in the right-field bullpen at Jerry Uht Park in Erie, Pennsylvania. To begin the first road trip in Fisher Cats history, the team hadn’t played well the night before — each infielder had made an error. The manager was less than pleased then, and he wasn’t much happier today.

My colleagues and I had driven from Toronto; our website features a daily report on every minor-league club in the Jays organization, and we were roaming the ballpark on a chilly, overcast April afternoon looking for pictures and interviews. The obvious leader of the group eyed us warily.

“Can I help you?” he growled.

We told him we had media credentials. He wasn’t impressed.

“We’re having a meeting. You’ll have to wait.”

So we did. Ten minutes later, we saw the protective side of the New Hampshire manager. Still not sure just who we were, Basso steered us into the dugout, as far as possible from his team, until he was satisfied we meant no harm. Then he brightened considerably as we began to talk about his promising young team and their early-season ups and downs.

The Fisher Cats were off to a 7-4 start, in a season that hadn’t yet really developed a routine. “We’re adjusting to the Northeast, and a new ballpark at Gill Stadium,” Basso said. “Now we’re getting used to the road, but it’s been a good season so far.”

The consensus among prospect-watchers was that the early strength of this team was going to be pitching, and indeed, some of the hitters had started slowly. But Basso wasn’t concerned.

“We’ve been swinging the bat well, with good approaches,” he noted. “We’ve hit a lot of balls hard the last few games that have been caught. Our starting pitching has been doing well, and our relief pitching has done exceptionally well.”

As rabid Jays fans, Batter’s Box authors and readers are very excited about the top pitching prospect in the farm system; Basso nodded, in anticipation of the question and in admiration for his ace.

“Dustin McGowan has given us solid starts all the way through,” he said. “He even pitched well last time without his best stuff. He’s got a bright future, and the people in Toronto should be cheering him on and looking forward to him getting up there.”

But the skipper wasn’t going to predict when that might happen. “The timetable will depend on him,” he observed.

It was mildly disappointing when we learned that McGowan wasn’t going to pitch during our visit. In the Show, a Roy Halladay is kept on a strict five-day schedule, with the rest of the rotation juggled to accommodate him. That’s not the case in Double-A, Basso informed us.

“This is player development, so everybody needs to pitch,” the manager pointed out. “We kept Todd Ozias on his normal rotation, and that just backed everybody up a day.

“That’s the way things normally go in the minor leagues,” he added. “We’re here to win, but also to develop, so if we can give a Dustin McGowan an extra day off early in the season, maybe an extra session in the bullpen to refine his skill, he’ll be that much better when he does make his start.”

It was suggested that he might not have McGowan on the roster much longer. “I really don’t know,” he admitted. “Dustin will answer the bell when we give him the ball, and hopefully that will be a couple more times. If not, he’ll go help out Marty Pevey’s club in Syracuse.”

(Note: As we all know, McGowan didn't make it to Triple-A this year, going under the surgeon's knife instead. This interview was conducted a few days before what turned out to be his final start.)

The Fisher Cats have another premium prospect at shortstop. It’s no surprise that his manager likes what he’s seen of Aaron Hill, Toronto’s first-round draft pick last summer who’s struggled a little with the bat early in 2004. “We all probably need to be a little more patient with him, because he’s only played a half-season in pro ball. For him to be in Double-A already is a credit to his talent.”

Before becoming part of the Blue Jay organization, Basso, 42, was a San Diego Padres lifer. He spent 17 years with the organization — as a player for nine years (an infielder who converted to catching), a manager for six, and a major league advance scout for the final two.

“When they decided not to have an advance scout, I was let go,” the Virginia native explained. “When Dickie Scott saw that I was available, he asked me to come and work for Toronto. It’s been one of the best moves I’ve ever made.”

For a minor-league manager, responsibilities extend beyond baseball. Mike is concerned with the continued development, on and off the field, of 24 young men. To add to the challenge, the Fisher Cats also have one of the most gruelling road schedules, with the 13-hour, 700-mile bus ride home from Akron the longest journey in the Eastern League.

The bench boss also has more responsibilities than a big-league manager on game day. In Double-A, the skipper is the infield and catching instructor, pitches batting practice and is his own third-base coach. Basso excels at the job. Named 2003 Manager of the Year in the Florida State League, he deflects credit for his success.

“You’re only as good as your players, and we had a good group in Dunedin last year that took instruction well and did a very nice job,” he said. “We had the best record in the league; we promoted a lot of guys to AA, so it was also a great year for development — all through our organization. Marty Pevey did an outstanding job at the Double-A level, and I think I can speak for him, too — we’re happy to have such talented players and to he able to help move them along.”

Was it just a coincidence that he and Pevey were promoted a level this season, or was it by design, to keep them connected to some of their players from last year?

“I just go where they tell me,” says Basso with a broad grin. “I’m happy to have a job. I guess it helps a little bit with familiarity, and Dickie Scott trusts Marty and me with these guys, which is a big honour.”

Basso doesn’t have a lot of direct communication with Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi. “We do nightly game reports, but I’m not in a position to call J.P.; he doesn’t need to be hearing from a Double-A manager unless he wants to call me,” he pointed out.

“My direct boss is Dick Scott, who has a lot of things on his plate, with all of our minor league teams. We file a report on the computer every night that goes into Toronto, so J.P. is aware of what everybody does.”

Mike Basso is among the most talented and impressive of the “teaching” coaches and managers that the Blue Jays have installed at every level, even in the majors. And there’s no question that he’s dedicated to safeguarding his players as well as training them in the ways of the game. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats are in good hands.