I was sitting in the scoreboard booth of the Holman Stadium press box, above and to the left of home plate, when James Lofton hit the most dramatic homerun my eyes have ever seen.
The game had not started off well for the hometown Nashua Pride, knotted with the Bridgeport Bluefish at one-win apiece in the best-of-three Atlantic League North Division playoffs. Heading into the bottom of the sixth inning, they trailed 6-2, with the prospect of facing the league’s best bullpen looming on the horizon. Bobby Chouinard (5-4, 2.17, 46 games) had a great season in the setup role; Mike Guilfoyle (7-3, 1.90, 40 saves), only the greatest closer in the history of the league, was at his absolute best.
My memory tells me that even though Chouinard was Bridgeport’s regular setup man, he came on in the sixth. Either I’m wrong or Jose Lind brought him in early to quiet a threat from the Pride. Whatever the case, whoever was on the mound, the end result was not optimal for the Bluefish: Nashua loaded the bases and second baseman Joe Kilburg, the team’s most intense player, jumped on a pitch and deposited it over the wall in right centerfield.
Steve Cox and I were in the press box. He was working the scoreboard, I was on message board duty. When the ball came off the bat, Steve, a one-time star player at Daniel Webster College, began yelling at the top of his lungs; when it went over the wall, we both destroyed the unwritten “no cheering in the press box rule”. It was warranted, though. In the blink of an eye, in no more time than it takes to bring the bat through the strike zone, we had a whole new ballgame. Six to six.
Bridgeport scored one run in the seventh. With Guilfoyle getting ready to warm in the visitors bullpen, it might as well have been five. Truth was, Guilfoyle didn’t really belong in the Atlantic League. He was just too good. But there were two factors that kept him on the Bluefish roster: one, his age (35) probably discouraged affiliated teams from taking a chance and two, he lived in the Bridgeport area, considered it his home, and didn’t want to leave.
It was a 7-6 game heading into the bottom of the ninth and sure enough, here came Guilfoyle. Steve had departed for parts unknown, leaving me in the scoreboard booth. I might have been alone – I hated doing both jobs at once, but this would have been one instance where I wouldn’t have much cared – or they might have thrown an intern in there to cover the scoreboard. Impossible to say. And ultimately irrelevant.
Two batters quickly became two outs. Guilfoyle was really dealing as Chris Petersen came to the plate.
Petersen was a tremendous defensive shortstop. I don’t have the fielding numbers from that season, but I can’t imagine that he made more than six or eight errors all season. He played the position exceptionally well. He was not, however, the type of guy you wanted to have at the plate in a “loser-go-home” situation. His batting average in 2003 was .267, his on-base percentage .325, his OPS .650. He had little power – only three homeruns all year. Petersen’s primary offensive contributions were sacrifice bunts and grounding into double plays.
Predictably, Guilfoyle quickly gained the upper hand, starting Petersen off 0 and 2. The Bluefish players lined the top step of the dugout, preparing to run on the field in celebration of a trip to the Atlantic League finals. They waited there as Guilfoyle delivered the ball to the plate (I think it was a curveball)…
And hit Petersen with the pitch.
Who knew a hit batter could be the most exciting play in baseball? It was like seeing Rocky cut Drago. Petersen scampered down to first as the ballpark, all two hundred people still in attendance, came alive. I worked the message board as hard as possible, throwing up stuff like “LET’S GO PRIDE!” and “CLAP YOUR HANDS!” My boss, Eric, had a different perspective: he was on top of the home dugout in the mascot suit, running back and forth and trying to get people fired up. It was working.
With two down, Petersen on first, and Guilfoyle suddenly proven mortal, here came James Lofton to the plate. Lofton already had a special place in Pride history, having played for the 2000 team that won the city its first baseball championship and later playing in the major leagues for the Boston Red Sox. I don’t think his number was one of the ones added to the Holman Stadium press box last season; if not, it should have been.
Still, like Petersen, he wasn’t the guy you wanted at the plate in that situation. The only hope was for survival, that he might do something that would keep the inning going until the lineup came back around to guys like Kilburg and Glenn Murray, the heavy hitters who could change the game with one swing of the bat.
Also like Petersen, Lofton fell behind 0 and 2 almost before we realized what had happened. He was clearly overmatched. Again, Bridgeport’s entire roster was on its feet, poised for a celebration. This time, Guilfoyle stayed with the fastball, trying to overpower Lofton, but he left it up in the zone and Lofton turned on it. It left his bat and flew on a line toward left-center field as I screamed at it to “KICK, KICK!”, hoping I could convince it to get an afterburner in its ass and at least catch the wall. No way Petersen doesn’t score on that. No way.
We didn’t have to worry. The ball landed safely on the other side of the wall and the ballpark went insane. It was the first homerun Guilfoyle had allowed all year. I was no longer just cheering in the press box – I was screaming in the press box, which I figured was okay because our assistant general manager came running into the scoreboard booth, more excited than I was, and hugged me. Somewhere in the middle of all this, the PA announcer, Ken Cail, showed what an unbelievable professional he is: he threw a wireless microphone at me and suggested I run down to the field in case the manager, Butch Hobson, wanted to say a few words to the crowd.
I flew down as fast as I could. Butch was already gone by the time I got there, outside the locker room door with a crowd of people around him. I saw Kilburg, who was pulling a Jim Valvano and hugging everyone he could get his hands on, and screamed into his ear, “THAT’S HOW YOU HIT THE BALL!” as I pounded him on the back. At that point, armed with my microphone and no one to talk to, I just stood on the field and basked in the moment. My future wife and mother-in-law later commented on the big goofy grin that was plastered all over my face.
It would be a nice ending to say that the Pride went on to the Atlantic League Championship Series and took care of business against the Somerset Patriots. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. They held a two games to one lead in the best-of-five series, with a chance to clinch the title at home, but all did not go according to plan. The long season finally caught up to them – Hobson had been juggling things mightily for some time due to injuries – and they dropped Games Four and Five. Just like that, there were no more games left.
Even with the less-than-storybook ending, Lofton’s Homerun remains the most dramatic I have ever seen. Others, like Carlton Fisk or David Ortiz, might have occurred on a grander stage and stimulated greater excitement, but the circumstances surrounding Lofton’s blast make it the best. Not only did he do it with two strikes, two outs, in the bottom of the ninth, in an elimination game, with his team down a run, he hit it off the best closer in the history of the league. All things being relative, I’ll take Mike Guilfoyle over Pat Darcy and Paul Quantrill. But maybe that’s just because I was there.