Bill Hass on the “Heart-stopping Hoppers”, the Cowbell and manager Andy Haines joins the Marlins:As the 2011 comes to close, just remember what Charlie Harville used to say, “We’ll see you at the ballpark”

from Bill Hass, with the Bill on Baseball Blog at

Players scatter but memories will remain

The “Heart-stopping Hoppers” are scattered across the county now.

Some of the 2011 South Atlantic League champion Greensboro Grasshoppers are back home. Several are at a Florida Marlins mini-camp in Jupiter, Fla. The bus ride from Savannah to Greensboro was their last time together as a team.

While they will be busy in the coming days and months doing other things, and preparing for Spring Training in 2012, the memory of what they accomplished this season will not fade anytime soon.

Outfielder Isaac Galloway took a cell phone call just a few minutes after the Hoppers beat the Savannah Sand Gnats 7-3 to win the title Saturday night.

“It was my grandmother,” he said.

Galloway’s season began with him back in Greensboro after missing most of the 2010 season because of a lacerated kidney suffered in an outfield collision last summer. The Florida Marlins wanted him to get regular playing time and sent him back to the Hoppers, where he played as a 19-year-old in 2009. This season had barely started when his grandfather, who played briefly in the minor leagues, died in California. The two were extremely close and Galloway dedicated the season to him.

“It meant a lot to me to win this,” Galloway said. “I felt like he was with me all year. I’ll never forget this.”

The Hoppers wrote an ending to a season that Hollywood might not buy. After just missing out on the first-half championship in the Northern Division, they were in the doldrums in the second half before catching fire. To even make the playoffs, they won 11 of their last 12 games.

They went 5-2 in the playoffs, meaning they won 16 of the final 19 games they played, many of them in ridiculously dramatic fashion (hence, “Heart-stopping Hoppers”). And they were within one last strike from losing the title with two outs in the top of the ninth in Game 4. Noah Perio delivered the clutch single that scored Ryan Fisher to tie the game, which the Hoppers ultimately won in 11 innings.

One key to the season was the way the team enjoyed playing baseball and being around each other.

“This is more than a team,” said outfielder Christian Yelich. “It’s a family.”

Shortstop Danny Black echoed that sentiment.

“This is a special group of 25 guys,” he said. “We stuck together off the field and that translated on the field.”

For outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who came up with numerous clutch hits and catches in the playoffs, the championship was particularly satisfying because he (and several other members of this team) missed an opportunity last season with Jamestown in the New York-Penn League.

“It feels awesome,” Ozuna said. “Last year we lost to Brooklyn. I knew if we made the playoffs this year, we would win. I am so happy.”

Overseeing a team that won a title was particularly special for manager Andy Haines. He has already reaped one reward, being told by the Marlins that he is to join the big club and be in the dugout for the final two weeks of the season, giving him a well-deserved taste of the major leagues.

For the coaches, the satisfaction was different from the elation felt by the players. Pitching coach Willie Glen was part of two championships in independent league baseball and another in half of a season in Double A.

“As a player, you have control over things, you’re in the mix,” he said. “Here, all you can do is prepare and hope that what you talk about during the season they put into practice in a two-week period. It’s still great, but you take a step back to enjoy it as a coach.”

Hitting coach Kevin Randel experienced a different side of Greensboro baseball. In 2003 he was a member of the Greensboro Bats, playing in old Memorial Stadium, and hitting .216 in 124 games. The next season he was injured and joined an awful Bats team late in a season in which they won just 50 games. He hit .299 in 34 games. This time he wrapped up his second season as a Hoppers coach with a championship.

“This is a little different because you’re not in the trenches,” Randel said, “but it’s gratifying to see the players go through it. Everybody got better and that’s what you like to see.”

Following the game, Hoppers president and general manager Donald Moore couldn’t contain an ear-to-ear grin. The last thing on his mind was the $100,000 charity pledge he made before the season if the Hoppers made the playoffs for the first time since 1999 ($50,000 was guaranteed anyway). But he will no doubt happily donate the extra $50,000.

“This is just unbelievable,” he said after the game. “I couldn’t be happier for this group of kids. They were a long shot just to get in the playoffs, much less win the championship. And they were one strike away from not winning. I’m so happy for the kids, the coaches, the fans and the city.”

For Greensboro baseball fans, it was the first title since 1982, which was the third straight won by the Greensboro Hornets. Since then there had been other playoff appearances and some tantalizing opportunities in a few championship series, but they all came up short.

Not this time. The Hoppers just wouldn’t let this one slip away.

WRAPUP NOTES: A contingent of about 20-25 Hoppers fans, front office staff, parents and family members made it to the final game. A “Go Hoppers” banner was unfurled before the game and a cow bell added to the atmosphere, all of which made the group more noisy than the rest of the stadium combined.

Speaking of which — Savannah has a population of about 136,500, roughly half the size of Greensboro. There’s a lot to do there, yet only 1,200 fans bothered to show up for the final game Saturday night. The other two nights there were crowds of 1,600 and 1,700. I’m just guessing, but I imagine crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 or more would have attended games of that significance in NewBridge Bank Park.

As if the Hoppers didn’t overcome enough odds to win the title, there was one other piece of history they had to contend with — the team with a 2-1 series lead had won 10 straight SAL championships. The players were probably unaware of that, but even if they had known, it wouldn’t have mattered.