Though the TinCaps' summer ended at 7:39 p.m. Sunday on a called third strike, the players and management still accomplished something wonderful this season. After a 31-39 first-half, they rebounded to go 38-32 in the second half and make the playoffs for the fourth straight year. Then they beat two teams with better records in the playoffs and reached the championship series.
The TinCaps might have lost the Midwest League title last night in four games to Wisconsin, but they've done something none of the other 16 teams in the league can come close to. They've made us expect postseason baseball almost every year.
Because of the constant roster turnover, it's harder to establish a winning tradition in baseball than in any other minor league sport. At most, five players return each season, and they aren't back because they want to be here, but because they usually aren't good enough to go anywhere else.
Establishing that kind of success is remarkable because every season there are new players and usually new coaches and managers. This year's manager, Jose Valentin, had never coached or managed a pro team before, and this might be the youngest roster Fort Wayne has had in 20 years of minor league baseball. TV announcer Kent Hormann likes to call them the ``TeenCaps.''
``I said one time when we were talking about clinching, I could go get champagne, but none of these guys can drink,'' team president Mike Nutter said. ``Some of these guys have huge bonuses, but don't ask them to drink or rent a car because they are not old enough to do either.''
But they sure learned how to fight and battle back this season. Even during Sunday's season-ending loss, it felt like if the TinCaps could just get one batter on early in an inning they might be able to flip the pressure back onto the Timber Rattlers and start a rally. Wisconsin's pitching was just too strong, retiring 20 of the final 21 Fort Wayne batters.
Minor league baseball is usually about the promotions, the fireworks and the gimmicks to entice fans to come out and enjoy the warm weather and the ballpark, but the TinCaps can also sell a winning product on the field. Their parent club, the San Diego Padres, has developed a solid run here, and the players know before they arrive that winning is every bit as important as development. Fort Wayne fans have a 70-year history of rarely opening their wallets for anything but winning teams.
It's a lot more fun to come out when the team is winning no matter what the promotions calendar says for that day. That showed Saturday night when the TinCaps drew 4,989 fans, the highest attendance of any minor league playoff game that night, and maybe for the entire postseason. There were 2,390 fans at Parkview Field on Sunday for a 5 p.m. first pitch, helping the team establish a franchise attendance record of 408,044 for the season's 73 games.
The tradition of winning builds expectations for the fans who then build it for the new players with their attendance. The fans expect to see good ball along with the entertainment, and putting a good product on the field helps the Padres look good, too. How is the Major League club ever expected to learn to win if the franchise's minor league teams continually produce losing seasons?
Winning also means a chance for the players to perform in bigger situations during the playoffs, something that can't be learned from regular-season games. Until you've experienced the real pressure of win-or-go-home, it's only a guess how you'll perform then.
It's a total cliché that winning is contagious, but the thing about sports clichés is they are usually true. What winning really does is sure make the games a lot more fun for everyone in the stands and everyone on the field.
The 2013 TinCaps' summer starts April 4 at Great Lakes. They better win.