MODESTO - This is a little tardy, but I have to give credit to Visalia Rawhide radio voice Donny Baarns for coming up with the California League’s most creative marketing idea this season.
It seems the Rawhide is the only team in the league not to make the playoffs in the last five seasons, and extending the franchise’s woes deeper, no Visalia team has hoisted the league championship trophy since 1978.
The details get better, unless you happen to live in Visalia. Since taking over in the closet that passes as a press box in Visalia, Baarns has embraced the role of team historian, even coming out with a stellar and heavily illustrated team history book several years ago.
In researching the Visalia curse, Baarnes came up with these notable low spots:
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Since 1978 “They've reached the Cal League Finals seven times. They've lost all seven.
“They reached four consecutive finals from 1980-83. In 1983, they were led by future Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. They still lost.
“In 1990, they had the best record in the league, and were upset in the first round.
“In 2003, they had the best record in the league, and were upset in the semi-final series.
“In 2006, they were four outs away from a championship, leading Inland Empire 2 games to 1 in the final series and 2-1 with 2 outs in the 8th inning of Game 4. They lost.
“In 2010, they had a four-game lead over Modesto for the final playoff spot with 6 games to play. They blew two 6-0 leads over the final week, lost 5 of their last 6, watched Modesto win their last 6, and failed to make the postseason.
“In the last five California League seasons, the Rawhide are the only franchise that has failed to make the playoffs once … in a league where six of ten teams qualify for them each year. If you're scoring at home, the odds of missing the playoffs five straight times in such a system are literally 100 to 1.”
What’s to blame for Visalia’s diamond failures? Baarns points a stern accusatory finger at the star of the 1978 championship team - Joe Charboneau.
It seems Charboneau had a pet alligator that season, and here’s where Baarns can tell the story:
“After the team was crowned California League Champions, Charboneau went home to Illinois. Chopper, due to increasing size, logistics, and spousal reluctance, did not go with him. Heartbroken, Super Joe was forced to leave his beloved animal with a teammate.
“Not long after, Chopper decided he'd had enough of being restricted to an aquarium. He made a heroic leap out of the water, and towards the sweet ground of freedom.
“Instead of making his escape, the raging gator hit his head on the tank, and passed from this life. Visalia, it turned out, could not contain him.
“Is it a coincidence that things haven't been the same for Tulare County's only professional sports team since Chopper's tragic and untimely death? Is it possible that his angry spirit still haunts Rawhide Ballpark, causing misfortune to repeatedly befall the club?”
In June, the Rawhide had a promotion in which Chopper’s spirits were to be exorcised from the ballpark. Time will tell if it worked, although the Rawhide certainly is in position to claim a wild card playoff berth this season.
But I did my own research and I’ve discovered a possible reason Visalia has been title-free since 1978.
My theory is that the 1978 team sold its soul to win the championship and passed that curse along to future generations of players who would call Visalia home.
Yes, the 1978 Oaks won 97 regular-season games, tying the all-time 140-game league record, and they hit an amazing .301 as a team, but as we all know, the real measure of talent for any California League team is how many players it eventually sends to the major leagues.
And this is where that 1978 team falls woefully and suspiciously short.
Charbonneau, who hit .350 for Visalia, went on to be the American League rookie of the year in 1980 for Cleveland, then was out of the game two years later. He finished his career with 172 hits, 131 of which came as a rookie.
Only three other players off that Visalia team ever whiffed the majors. Outfielder Michael “Tack” Wilson had two hits in 12 games for the Twins and Angels, third baseman Scott Ullger had 15 hits in 35 games for the Twins, and pitcher Bob Veselic pitched in all of six major league games, going 1-1.
That’s it. One win and 189 hits was the entire major league output of one of the California League’s winningest teams.
So, talent-wise, the 1978 Visalia team stands alone as the weakest team ever to win 97 California League games, which clearly indicates they summoned and took advantage of otherworldly help that season.
And to think they’re placing blame on a dead alligator. Sheesh.