Sports Editor

Since 1986, Chris Dugan has been covering local sports for the Observer-Reporter, and named sports editor in 2006. Before joining the O-R, he was sports editor at the Democrat-Messenger, and a former member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Wait until next year.

It’s a story we’ve all heard, we’ve all used.

It’s repeated all too often by sports fans who believe brighter and better days are ahead for their team. Around here, it’s repeated every September, when the leaves start to turn color, the evenings begin to turn cooler and the lights at Wild Things Park turn dark.

There’s always next year.

Until there isn’t a next year.

Schaumburg manager Jamie Bennett reminded us of that Sunday night after his team defeated the Wild Things 10-4 to win the Frontier League championship.

Sometimes there isn’t a next year.

“It never gets old, especially after a year with no baseball,” Bennett said of the Boomers’ fourth league title.

Because the Frontier League did not play in 2020, a result of the pandemic, this Wild Things season seemed different than the previous 18. Maybe it was because the schedule called for regional play and only six of the other 13 teams visited Wild Things Park in the regular season, or maybe fans enjoyed having professional baseball back that the end result didn’t seem as gut-wrenching to those on the outside of the dugout. They were just happy to have baseball back, a place to spend summer nights, something to watch, some place to go, something to do.

Or maybe it was because back on July 5, when the Wild Things were nine games behind first-place Sussex County in the Northeast Division, nobody was expecting playoff baseball.

“I’m going to remember the guys in that clubhouse, my first club,” said Washington’s first-year manager Tom Vaeth. “I’ll remember a lot of the individual accomplishments we had. We came from a place no one thought we could come back from and won the division. You remember the ride. It was pretty good.”

Just because the Wild Things fell a hit or a hop shy of the title Saturday night and then turned in a dud Sunday doesn’t take any shine off what they did this season. It was, in a word, amazing. Something that should, for the next eight months, make their followers want more and eagerly await next year.

Four times the Wild Things have made it to the finals. Four times they have fallen short. In three of those, one more win would have given Washington its first professional baseball championship since the Redbirds, a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate, in 1939.

It was a bitter ending for at least five Wild Things who have said they will retire rather than play another year in the lower rungs of pro ball. For others, there is always next year.

In the Frontier League, you never really know what next year will bring. Rosters turn over faster than omelets. You never know what next year is going to look like until it’s here. And next year it will, at least from a numbers standpoint, be more difficult to bring a championship to Washington than ever before because the Frontier League will expand to 16 teams.

The Wild Things team we saw this month won’t be what we see next May. But for a team to go from last place in its division to a few hits away from a championship, that means something was going right. A few more right moves by Vaeth and general manager Tony Buccilli might finally push this franchise to the top.

You had to like how Vaeth was able to impact the roster and find rookies like Scotty DuBrule and Tristan Peterson, from Mississippi State and Washington State, respectively – two places where the Wild Things usually don’t attract players – and former major league pitcher Rob Whalen and sell them on spending a last half of the summer in WashPa.

Shortly after signing Whalen, Vaeth said, “I don’t know how it will turn out, but we had to try to sign him. I don’t want to get to the end of the season and miss the playoff by one game knowing that we didn’t try.”

Those kind of moves give hope for next year.

“I’m disappointed with the fact we lost,” Vaeth said. “You always are when it’s your last game, but I’m proud of those guys. I’m proud of everything they gave me. They fought off two elimination games in Quebec in the first round. We didn’t win a championship, but there were more good things here that outweigh one bad night.”

Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at dugan@observer-reporter.com.

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