Twenty years later, the Washington Wild Things are still winning – on the field and in the community.
It is not easy for a minor-league franchise to remain viable for 20 years.
But the Wild Things have endured.
What a splash they made 20 years ago in their initial season.
While the franchise, under the ownership of Stu and Francine Williams, has stood the test of time, that first season turned the Washington community on and fostered a partnership that continues today.
In that 2002 season, the Wild Things established the franchise and, on the field, set the tone for a legacy of good baseball.
The Wild Things have won division titles and advanced to the league championship series in those two decades. They have had several outstanding Frontier League players.
The only piece missing is a Frontier League championship. They have been so close, especially 20 years ago.
That first season wasn’t a starting point, it was a blast off into the Independent baseball world and the Frontier League.
“I really didn’t know a thing about Independent League baseball,” said former Pirates’ relief pitcher Kent Tekulve, brought into the Wild Things’ fold as director of baseball operations and a pitching coach at home games. “I liked the concept of giving these young guys one more chance to get to (affiliated) baseball and maybe reach the dream of playing in MLB. Their stories were my story.
“I had two goals, one was to help give these guys a chance to play at a higher level and to bring the community and the team together. Washington is a baseball town and (ownership) felt it was a place that would support a professional team and rally around it.”
Baseball in Washington
The Washington Wild Things were founded in December 2001 when a group of local businessmen and women decided to purchase a team to play at a new ballpark being constructed just off Interstate-70 in Washington County, specifically North Franklin Township.
The group began negotiations with the owners of the Canton Crocodiles in the early fall of 2001. They completed the deal in early December and opened for business at a store front at the Washington Crown Center while the ballpark was under construction.
The Wild Things were born.
They did not take any baby steps.
In April 2002, the Wild Things’ management team moved into Falconi Field, and the team inaugurated the field with a home-opener against the Canton Coyotes May 29, 2002.
Tekulve reached out to manager Jeff Isom and coach Joe Charboneau, who both had worked for Canton.
“They knew about Independent baseball and they understood Frontier League baseball,” Tekulve explained.
“It was probably the shortest interviews in baseball history. I liked and trusted their views and told them they were hired. We had a plan. We went over Canton’s roster and we felt four off the roster could help us that first year. Things worked out pretty well.”
Lance Robinson and Mark Mason were added to the coaching staff.
The Wild Things won the Eastern Division championship. They won 56 of 84 games, a .667 winning percentage, and drew 132,901 fans – an average of 3,241 people per game in 41 home dates.
“To realize 20 years later that more than two million people have walked through those gates to be entertained while they are watching baseball is satisfying, Tekulve said.
Washington advanced to the Frontier League Championship Series in 2002 by sweeping Kalamazoo.
Injuries got in the way and the Wild Things lost in the best-of-five Championship Round of the Playoff to the Richmond Roosters, three-games to one.
The defeat could not dim the excellent season.
Isom was awarded the Roger Hanners Manager of the Year Award and pitcher Jared Howton was honored with the Brian Tollberg Most Valuable Pitcher Award.
Four players were named to the 2002 All-Star Team including shortstop Brad Hensler, catcher Shaun Argento, starting pitcher Jared Howton and reliever Robert Garvin. Joe Cuervo hit a team-high 14 home runs.
The Wild Things were also named Organization of the Year by the Frontier League.
Building a Franchise
In late May 2000, officials from the state government, Washington & Jefferson College and PONY Baseball, Inc., announced that a sports complex that includes a minor league baseball stadium would be built in North Franklin Township behind the Washington Crown Center Mall. The private-public venture was expected to cost more than $10 million.
Almost a year later, Ballpark Scholarships, Inc., the oversight organization for the ballpark to be built in North Franklin Township, and led by Leo Trich, announced the minor league baseball franchise that will begin play in June 2002 will be known as the Washington Generals. The organization decided on the nickname by researching minor league baseball’s roots in the area. The original Washington Generals played here from 1934 through 1938.
Six months later, the Frontier League Board of Directors approves the sale of the Canton Crocodiles to a group of investors who were relocating the team to Washington, which would begin play during the 2002 season. That board approved the investment group headed by the former chief operating officer of Ladbroke at the Meadows, John Swiatek. A month later, owners said the team would be named the Wild Things and not the Generals.
Several key front offices members were brought on board, including Christine Blaine, who Swiatek recruited. Blaine previously had worked at The Meadows with him.
“I didn’t think (baseball in Washington) was a good idea,” said Blaine, who remains with the franchise today as a vice president and, by all accounts, the glue to the operation.
“I remember Teke trying to help me learn about baseball, how to keep score, how and why certain things were done a certain way. I will never forget him saying this to me: ‘Chris, this is three hours of entertainment with baseball in between. I never forgot that.”
Blaine and Steve Zavacky, currently the team’s executive director, have been there from the start.
Swiatek and Trich fought to bring baseball to Washington.
“We thought it was a winning proposition,” Trich said. “We had to move and move fast on the franchise and the team. If we didn’t do it all in a pretty short time frame, there would not be a Wild Things right now.”
Swiatek found the Williams’ as owners and a willing participant in a team and community partnership. He also was instrumental in bringing Blaine, Ross Vecchio – who served as general manager – and others into the Washington baseball family.
“I can’t say enough about Stu and Frannie,” Swiatek said. “They have been in for the long haul and they’ve brought it all together and viable 20 years later. You can’t say enough about their ownership and leadership.
“I knew Chris, her quality of work and her work ethic. She is beloved in the franchise and in this community and always has been. Ross deserves credit for working with the coaches and keeping the Wild Things near the top on the field. He helped bring this all together in those early years.
“That first season was so much fun and really established the relationship between the team and the community.”
Vecchio, now a scout for the Los Angeles Angels, said the main thrust and obligation of minor league teams is to be a “good community partner.”
“The Wild Things have always been that,” Vecchio said. “The nature of independent baseball means roster movement and turnover. You must be prepared for that and be ready to find players at any time.
“The Wild Things have done a good job of sustaining that over 20 years. The gist of minor-league baseball is about affordable, fun family entertainment. Giving people a nice night out and, hopefully, pretty good baseball. It’s an entertainment business.
“We started from scratch and put together some really good front-office staffs, people willing to do anything.”
Blaine, who “never expected” to be working in baseball for 20 years, said her joy comes from the relationships she’s built with the community and fans over the years.
“I love our fans,” she said. “I love the people who keep coming back. The atmosphere of them having fun. It started from Day 1 and has endured. I enjoy watching them be entertained and enjoying themselves.”
The Wild Things have had the same public address announcer – Washington resident – Bill DiFabio since their inception.
While DiFabio will miss this season because of health concerns, he plans to return next season.
He has served as PA announcer for the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, in the NBA, NHL, NCAA Basketball tournament and much more. He had his own radio network. He was the PA guy for Coppin State’s NCAA basketball 1997 upset over South Carolina at the old Civic Arena and he worked a game that featured the late Kobe Bryant. With all that he said, working Wild Things games is meaningful.
“It’s home. The ballpark is (a mile and a half) from my home,” DiFabio said. “It’s been special. I need to be healthy to do this. I look forward to going back. The Wild Things’ position almost completed the journey for me as a far as PA announcing. In 2002 when I was asked what I wanted to do and I said I’d like to do the PA. Certainly, I had credentials. It’s my own backyard. People knew my voice. It’s a cool thing.
“John (Swiatek) and Ross (Vecchio) are smart cookies. You add Chris Blaine and Steve into that and you have an excellent front office. And the Williams’ have been great with me.
“We had the best lineup in the league. Joe was hitting instructor and when he spoke, those kids listened. Tekulve, a World Series hero, was working with the pitchers and Isom was a very good manger. That first year, there were a lot of sellouts, firework, just a lot of fun and it’s still a lot of fun. The team has an identity with local fans, who are baseball fans. It’s like a “Field of Dreams” for the players.”
DiFabio brings his own style and brand to all his work and he understands the staples of being a top-notch PA announcer, but he’s walked on the wild side occasionally with the Wild Things.
“One time a ball was hit back to the opposing team’s pitcher, who reached his glove out and caught the ball, and while you don’t really comment on the opposing team, I blurt out, ‘Look what I found.’ Teke looked up to the booth for a few seconds.”
While that first season remains in the minds of those most intimately involved, and other near misses along the way, Blaine believes the Wild Things will achieve about the only thing they haven’t in 20 years.
“I think the franchise will win that championship real soon,” Blaine said. “I think the time is coming where the team will get on one those rolls, get it all together and win it all. That would be so meaningful and significant for everyone here and the fan that have been so loyal.”
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