Former Duluth-Superior Dukes owner Jim Wadley remembers watching his team bumble its way to another loss, a 15-1 mishap, early in the 1997 season when then-Northern League commissioner Miles Wolff turned to him and said, "You got a lot of work to do."
The now-defunct Dukes started that year, Wadley's third as owner, 4-17. Attendance at Wade Stadium sagged. Apathy surged. The boys of summer had become the boys of bummer.
But 20-year retrospectives rarely are written about cellar dwellers. Those Dukes, under the steady leadership of manager George Mitterwald, pitching coach Mike Cuellar and positions coach Jackie Hernandez, eventually righted the ship. So much so that Wadley and Wolff reconnected that September, when the commissioner presented the Northern League's championship pennant to the owner at a raucous Wade, where the Dukes had defeated the Winnipeg Goldeyes 3-1 in a riveting and decisive Game 5.
Played in front of a standing-room-only crowd comprised of 4,269 fans, the clincher capped a dreadful-to-dreamy turnaround. And it followed a series win over the vaunted St. Paul Saints for the East Division title.
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"It was an unbelievable feeling to come from 4-17 to the championship against Winnipeg," Wadley, toting a bulky gym bag filled with memorabilia and wearing his flashy championship ring, said Tuesday.
In-season acquisitions of pitchers Ila Borders and Allen Halley, plus designated hitter/outfielder Mike Meggers (acquired in a trade with Winnipeg), keyed the resurgence.
Duluth-Superior won 13 of its final 20 first-half games to enter the break 17-24, then claimed the East's second-half crown with a 22-20 mark. Meggers arrived midway through after swatting 16 homers for Winnipeg, the same number he tallied for the Dukes. Meggers was a rah-rah guy, and his bat backed up the brash talk.
"I remember him coming into the clubhouse on the first day he got here - colorful person - and he basically said in words that can't be written or repeated, 'Get on my back. Here we go. The BS is stopping now. We're going to turn this thing around,' " said Bob Gustafson, who worked for the team from 1994-99, including a four-season stint as general manager. "And they did."
Halley, the most valuable player of the championship series, died in March 1998 of a seizure.
Wadley was back in town this week to visit Gustafson and enjoy Wednesday's mini-reunion of that '97 Duluth-Superior squad. He owned the Dukes from 1995-99, traveling back and forth between the Twin Ports and his home in San Diego, which is where Wadley resides today, this 80-year-old with a mind that retains information like Britannica. Names, scores, stats - all of it is readily accessible.
Ditto for Gustafson. A conversation with those two brings baseball box scores to life. Especially when the topic is 1997.
"It was truly a magical season," Gustafson said.
The good times didn't last. The Dukes dropped to 29-56 in 1998. Attendance, the club's Achilles heel throughout its 10 years in Duluth, continued to crumble as did a then-decrepit Wade Stadium. Attendance repeatedly ranked at or near the bottom of the league. Wadley never turned a profit. At one point during a nostalgia-laced interview, he said "we only lost $91,000" in 1996.
No matter how much Wadley loves the game, losses like that weren't sustainable. And it was obvious Tuesday that this San Diego Padres season-ticket holder, who in 1998 bought the Visalia (Ca.) Oaks, then an Oakland A's affiliate, loves baseball. His condo walls are lined with framed jerseys, including one belonging to Borders.
Baseball junkie or not, Wadley also is a businessman. The Dukes needed to average 2,200 fans per game just to break even. Expenses included player salaries, which averaged $800-2,000 a month, travel, Wade Stadium rent and a host of others.
"Every year we were here, we were faced with cash-flow problems," Wadley said. "It was a constant drain, but I had committed to a five-year plan when we first came, and I was going to stick it out for five years and see what we could do."
Said Gustafson, who has remained close with Wadley: "Nobody worked harder than him to try to make it work here."
Wadley last set foot in Duluth in February 2000, not long after he sold the Dukes. They spent three more seasons here - a league runner-up finish in 2000, which preceded two ugly ones - before owner John Ehlert, despite assurances to the contrary, moved them south in 2002. They became the Kansas City T-Bones.
The Northern League had outgrown Northeastern Minnesota.
Wadley, though, won't ever forget his time in the Northland. The summer of '97 plays a big part in that.
Incidentally, that was the only season during Wadley's ownership that beer was provided in the clubhouse.
"I think that must have had something to do with the looseness of that team," Wadley joked.