Monday, June 1, 2009

Remember the Aigles

Remember the Trois Rivieres Aigles? Me neither. They were a Cincinnati Reds farm club from 1971-1977. I came across them while I was answering a question I asked myself. The question was, "Who had the best minor league season the year I was born (1971)"?

There are a lot of good candidates.

Richie Scheinblum, Denver. Scheinblum spent several weeks on the Washington Senators roster and thus, barely qualified for the American Association batting title. He played in just 106 of Denver's 140 games. Despite missing so many games, he led the league in doubles (31), triples (10), batting average (.388), and total bases (271). His 25 homers were second in the league.

Wayne Garland, Dallas-Fort Worth. 19-5 with a 1.71 ERA, 20 complete games in 25 starts, six shutouts.

James Fuller, Miami. .326 batting average, third in the Florida State League. Led the league in runs (105), hits (159), doubles (28), and RBI (110). Most notably, he led the league in home runs with 33. This exceeded the team total of two of the teams in the league. The guy who was second in the league in homers hit fifteen.

Jorge Orta, San Luis Potosi. Qualifying for the Mexican Center League batting title by just five plate appearances, Orta hit .423 on the season.

There were others, too, but as I was looking and reading, I kept marveling at the players on the Trois Rivieres Aigles. On the batting side, you had future major leaguer Gene Locklear. Locklear led the league in batting with a .323 batting average (the only player in the Eastern League to top .300). He stole 22 bases and was only caught three times.

In a league where only one player hit .300, you have to figure there were some good pitching performances. The Aigles had a lot of them.

John Jackson, the Aigles' #2 starter, was 10-5 with a 2.89 ERA. Sounds impressive but the team ERA was 2.72. Jackson did throw the second of the Aigles' no-hitters that season.

Yes, multiple no-hitters. Mickey Pless, whose control problems plagued him all season long (85 walks in 110 innings), threw the first no-hitter of the season for Trois Rivieres. Like Jackson's it was a seven inning game.

Two isn't the number of no-hitters Trois Rivieres threw, though. Four is.

The other two came primarily from the arm of 19-year old Mike Ruddell. Ruddell threw an 11-inning no-hitter against Pawtucket on June 18th, four days after Jackson had no-hit Quebec City. At the end of July, he combined with reliever Steve Blateric on a seven inning no-hitter against Elmira. Four no-hitters against four different teams. Not too shabby.

Ruddell's season was not too shabby either. Interestingly, his only shutout came in his no-hitter against Pawtucket. He went 12-6 on the season with a 2.52 ERA and led the league with 186 strikeouts in 168 innings.

Well that's interesting. Turns out Ruddell's first no-hitter wasn't really a no-hitter. He had a perfect game through eight, a batter reached base on an error in the ninth, but then he surrendered a double to Cecil Cooper in the tenth. Always good to fact check your facts.

The amazing thing about the Aigles, though, is that their bullpen was better than their rotation. The save rule was created in 1969. You can see from my mention of Wayne Garland's 20 complete games that relief specialists weren't really in existence yet.

Trois Rivieres was cutting edge. Blateric combined on Ruddell's no-hitter, but he also started two games, completing both. Amazingly, he led the league in both wins (14) and saves (15). The 27 year-old veteran dominated all season long. In 111 innings he allowed just 68 hits and 40 walks. He struck out 121 and had a 1.46 ERA.

Mike Johnson was also tough out of the pen. He won ten games and saved 12 with a 1.83 ERA.

Even the part-timers got in the action. Thor Skogan, who hammered Carolina League batters in the first part of the season as a reliever (65 K in 58 innings), joined the Aigles and was made a starter. He won 8 of his eleven starts and led the team with three shutouts.

The Aigles, in their first season, led the Eastern League in attendance and victories as they cruised their way to the lead of the National Division. They were handled by the Elmira Royals in the playoffs, though, losing the best of five series three games to one, a tendency that would plague the Aigles throughout their short lifespan.

Locklear, as mentioned, went on to have a modest major league career, mostly with the San Diego Padres. many of his teammates also had some major league exposure.

Blateric got a call up to the Reds but only appeared in two games. He pitched in three more major league games with the Yankees and Angels.

Bill Harrelson, who started a few games for Trois Rivieres, had reached the majors at age 22 with the Angels. 1971 would be his last season in professional baseball.

Mike Johnson was traded with Locklear to the Padres and spent a season in relief for the Padres.

Shortstop Jack Lind, who hit .172 with no home runs for Trois Rivieres and had a career .210 batting average and six homers through his first seven minor league seasons, would parlay a .293 batting average with 18 homers in 1974 into a couple of visits to the majors with the Brewers.

Tom Robson, the best hitter on the team in 1971 behind Locklear, (.274(7th in the league)/16/72) would have a couple cups of coffee with the Texas Rangers.

Outfielder Tom Spencer played a season with the Chicago White Sox.

The two Aigles players who had the most major league success barely impacted Trois Rivieres. After hitting .342 in the Florida State League, Ken Griffey got promoted to Trois Rivieres. In nine games with the Aigles, he had 13 hits in 32 at bats (For a Ted Williamsian .406 average). Two years later he would begin a 19 year major league career and would become Ken Griffey, Sr. after giving birth to his even more successful son, Jr.

Rawly Eastwick threw 37 innings for the Aigles with an ugly 5.35 ERA. There was little to suggest that he would be the closer three years later for the Big Red Machine.

We'll see. I think the Aigles are sort of interesting. May explore more about them in upcoming days/weeks.

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