The Milwaukee Milkmen completed a magical one-season turnaround by capturing the American Association championship Thursday night with a 4-1 win over the Sioux Falls Canaries in South Dakota.
When closer Peyton Gray struck out Jabari Henry to end the game, his teammates yelled in celebration and stormed the mound, many tossing their gloves high into the air, as the Milkmen captured the best-of-seven series four games to one. Milkmen outfielder Zach Nehrir earned Most Value Player honors for the championship series.
The unprecedented championship under the direction of first-year manager Anthony Barone and owner Mike Zimmerman came one year after the Milkmen finished in last place in their division in their inaugural season with a 38-62 record. The Milkmen captured the American Association’s regular season title this year with a 34-26 record. Sioux Falls finished second at 31-27, setting up the title tilt.
“It’s just a tremendous accomplishment. I’m really happy for the guys, our organization, our staff,” Barone said Friday on the bus ride back to Milwaukee after a long night of celebrating in Sioux Falls. “It was just an amazing run. For a second-year organization, we turned it around from last year. It’s just an amazing feeling.”
CHAMPS 🍾 pic.twitter.com/W0cyMlGwAk
— Milwaukee Milkmen (@MKEMilkmen) September 18, 2020
Milwaukee dominated the championship series, winning the first two games at Franklin Field last weekend before capturing two of the three games played at Sioux Falls Stadium, commonly known as the Birdcage, against the Canaries, who were making their first postseason appearance in a decade and fielded a roster that featured Clint Coulter, a 2012 first-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers.
“Before the season started, I told our ownership group that I wanted to bring a professional baseball title to Milwaukee. It’s something that’s been on my mind,” Barone said. “I didn’t know it would happen so quick, but I’m always confident. For us to accomplish this, I think it’s something that the city of Milwaukee and the surrounding area can be really proud of. Hopefully, that momentum carries into 2021.”
On Thursday night, Milkmen starting pitcher David Holmberg, one of six former major leaguers on the Milkmen roster, stepped up big time, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Milwaukee grabbed the lead in the second inning on David Washington’s lead-off home run. Logan Trowbridge belted a two-run shot in the fifth and Washington plated another run with a sacrifice fly in the eighth.
Gray, the league’s Relief Pitcher of the Year, had to work out of a jam in the ninth but sealed the deal, setting off a wild on-field celebration that lasted well into the night as players sprayed champagne on each other and took turns hoisting the trophy.
The Milwaukee Milkmen are the 2020 American Association champions. They win the the game and the series over the Canaries 4-1. pic.twitter.com/lnLTAqAW9B
— Matt Zimmer (@argusmattz) September 18, 2020
Local fans celebrated at a watch party at Franklin Field hosted by the Milkmen.
The American Association, an independent professional league with no affiliation to Major League Baseball, drew considerable attention as the only professional baseball league this summer that allowed fans to attend games, in a limited capacity, as the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the sports world. All levels of affiliated minor league baseball were canceled this year and Major League Baseball opted to play a shortened season with no fans.
The Milkmen limited capacity to 1,600 fans at its sparkling 4,000-seat stadium in Franklin that opened last season in order to allow for social distancing. Despite the smaller seating arrangement, the Milkmen often played before boisterous crowds on many nights.
“There’s so much to love about Franklin Field,” Barone said. “It starts with the facility itself. It’s very fan friendly. Our players love playing there. We really got great support from the community this summer. It was really easy for our players to get up for games and we wanted to make sure we put on a good show for them.”
The American Association committed to having a season, but the highly unusual circumstances created a host of challenges. Only six of the league’s 12 teams chose to participate in an abbreviated 60-game season. The season appeared to be in jeopardy on its opening weekend when two Milkmen players tested positive for COVID-19 immediately before a scheduled game on July 5 against the Chicago Dogs. Crowds of confused fans arrived at Franklin Field, unaware of the last-minute postponement.
However, the Milkmen returned to action two days later against the Dogs in Chicago and the season continued with no further issues.
“It was a little bit nerve-wracking at the beginning of the season but once everything was set in place and we got a routine, we just followed protocol and made sure everyone was safe and healthy,” Barone said. “We just sort of forgot about it and just played baseball. The American Association and the Milwaukee Milkmen did a wonderful job protecting everybody, so we were able to do what we love to do.”
A roster of talented players fueled the success of the Milkmen.
“The talent was really high, not only with us but throughout the league. Until people see it, they don’t really realize how good these guys are,” Barone said. “They are professional baseball players at a very high level. They are really hungry. They’ve either had a shot at the big leagues or are still aspiring to get there. We had guys there that were hungry and an organization that wants to win.”
Many of those talented players earned post-season awards.
Outfielder Adam Brett Walker II, who grew up on Milwaukee’s North Side and attended Milwaukee Lutheran High School, earned regular-season MVP honors and made the league’s All-Star team. Gray captured the league’s Rookie of the Year and Relief Pitcher of the Year honors after not allowing an earned run over 32 innings during the regular season. Outfielder Brett Vertigan was named Co-Defensive Player of the year, sharing the honor with Chicago Dogs outfielder Michael Crouse.
The Milkmen roster also included pitcher Henderson Alvarez, who hurled a no-hitter for the then-Florida Marlins on the final day of the 2013 season, and Tim Dillard, who pitched for 15 years in the Brewers organization and has earned a major following on social media for his whacky antics. Dillard doused himself with milk during Thursday night’s on-field celebration.
— Tim Dillard (@DimTillard) September 18, 2020
A season that started with so much uncertainty and challenge in the face of the coronavirus pandemic ends with Milwaukee’s first professional baseball championship at any level since 1957.
“This was really important. The guys banded like brothers this summer,” Barone said. “We didn’t make a whole lot of transactions. A lot of these guys have been here since training camp started and they developed good chemistry together. They were playing for each other and playing to bring home that championship. It was a culmination of a lot of hard work and being together throughout a pandemic and everything that went into that. A lot of emotion. It was just great to see those guys celebrate, along with my staff. When you get that final out, it’s just a wonderful feeling.”