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DURHAM, N.C. â€“ What images do the Pawtucket Red Sox conjure? For longtime fans, the question could elicit all kinds of responses.
You think of Ben Mondor, Pawtucketâ€™s late owner who would have been in his glory this week, enjoying every moment of the pomp and circumstance leading up to tonightâ€™s Triple-A National Championship.
You also think of beautiful McCoy Stadium, a befitting monument to Mondorâ€™s tireless efforts to build a first-class, fan-friendly ballpark out of the rundown facility he inherited.
You think of all the ballplayers who proved their talents in Pawtucket before going on to greater glory, with names like Rice, Boggs, Clemens, Pedroia and Lester.
You think of the historic games that put the PawSox franchise in the national spotlight: â€śThe Longest Game,â€ť of course, but also the classic pitchersâ€™ duel between Dave Righetti and Mark Fidrych, and the perfect games tossed at McCoy by Tomo Okha and Bronson Arroyo.
From the moment Mondor began resuscitating the floundering operation in 1977, the PawSox have had a knack for instilling memories, both of special moments and inspiring players. But one thing has been elusive â€“ a winning pedigree.
In minor league baseball, the goal of winning ultimately takes a backseat to the goal of developing players and sending them to the major leagues, and as such, itâ€™s no criticism of their management or players to note that the PawSox went 28 years between Governorsâ€™ Cup titles.
The minor league system cultivates young talent, and provides major-league-ready depth for the big-league club. At the Triple-A level, those priorities are even more acute, since thatâ€™s the first place the parent club turns to when a hole appears in its own roster.
As the PawSox skipper, Arnie Beyeler knows and understands that development supersedes everything else. If some up-and-comer goes 0-for-5 but the team ends up winning, then it could still be considered a bad day at the office. If the top pitching prospect is throwing a no-hitter, but his pitch count is near the predetermined guidelines, his night will end with handshakes in the dugout rather than hugs and high fives on the mound following a completed gem. Itâ€™s something the players, coaches and fans all accept as part of the minor league experience.
But thatâ€™s why Pawtucketâ€™s playoff march this year has been such a refreshing surprise. The white-hot Sox have won six out of seven playoff games, and the memories they are making this year include the distinction of being the International Leagueâ€™s best for 2012.
â€śWhatâ€™s nice is that when you get to the playoffs, wins and losses matter,â€ť said Pawtucket team president Mike Tamburro Monday afternoon, while watching his team take batting practice at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. â€śWe all understand what the role of development is, but I think we (meaning PawSox staffers) and the fans have done a great job in understanding and supporting that developing role.
â€śBut when playoff time comes, itâ€™s winning baseball thatâ€™s the key,â€ť Tamburro continued, â€śItâ€™s been wonderful to rally behind wins and losses and a team that wanted to separate itself from everyone else and a team that ultimately went on to win the Governorsâ€™ Cup.â€ť
Beyeler echoed Tamburroâ€™s sentiments: â€śThe situation weâ€™ve been in is that every game has meant something.â€ť
Nate Spears said he and his teammates have been on the same page since the march toward Durham kicked off nearly two weeks ago.
â€śWe came into the playoffs as a team saying that weâ€™re going to win,â€ť declared the infielder, now in his third year with the Red Sox organization. â€śWeâ€™d wake up and come to the field with a lot of confidence and we got it done.â€ť
Over all odds, the 2012 PawSox have succeeded in creating a winning aura that has been championship caliber every sense, and tonight represents a chance to make more history.
â€śWhat makes me so proud of this team is that theyâ€™ve surprised all of us and given us all so much more than we anticipated,â€ť remarked Tamburro. â€śThatâ€™s why this 2012 club stands out and why this will always be a special, special year.â€ť
Hereâ€™s hoping PawSox fans can add another memory to the annals.