After a grueling road schedule, a frat-house style of living, a change in management and a merry-go-round of player personnel, the Blizzard stepped on the Taos Tundra for its last home game of the season Sunday (July 20).
The opportunity to play in the Pecos League had meant a lot of different things to a lot of different players. For some, the league was merely a stepping stone. It was the perfect place for them to learn a new position, nail down their fundamentals, improve their arm strength and try to impress coaches in other leagues so they could get promoted.
Chris Constantino, for example, used to pitch in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. When it didn’t seem like he would make the big leagues as a pitcher, he switched positions and became an infielder. The transition for Constantino was smoother than it is for most. In 44 games with the Blizzard he hit nine home runs and knocked in 46 runs. After the Blizzard’s management step-ped down, Constantino was traded to Roswell and he helped the Invaders win 10 consecutive games, hitting two more home runs and driving in nine more runs.
Now Constantino is a member of Frontier League’s Washington (Penn.) Wild Things, who still have a month and half left in their season, where he’ll try to keep climbing the professional baseball ladder. Calvin Culver also got promoted from the Blizzard to the Wild Things. Blair Springfield went from Taos to the Can Am League’s Quebec Capitals. They had also been drafted and played affiliated ball. The Pecos League for them was a second, or third or fourth chance that they were able to make good on.
On Sunday, as the sky darkened and threatened to rain, the majority of the Blizzard players were still trying to make their mark.
They came from California and New York, Washington and Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia, New Mexico and Australia, Nevada and Michigan, Georgia and Connecticut, the Netherlands and Illinois, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Texas. For some of them, this is as far as they’ll ever get. The dream of moving up, however, was still alive on Sunday.
“There was something bigger in play than wins and losses,” the Blizzard’s manager Jamie Hopkins said after the game. “The more opportunities (the players) have to get looked at, the more opportunities they have to get out of the Pecos League.”
Only a few drops of rain fell on Sunday. The baseball gods let the boys in powder blue play again on the Tundra. The Blizzard players knew they were running out of opportunities to show what they could do. The team had been eliminated from playoff contention since July 5. The Santa Fe Fuego, meanwhile, were fighting to get the fourth and final spot in the postseason.
Taos took the lead in the first inning. After Bobby McLaughlin, Andrew Azzopardi and Taylor Oldham reached base, Brandon Cruz drew a walk to score McLaughlin.
Santa Fe tied the game in the second, but Taos also had a big second inning. After James Wong stole second base, McLaughlin singled him home. Azzopardi then walked and Chris Ciatti hit a single down the right-field line to score two, putting Taos up 4-1.
Santa Fe plated two runs in the fourth, but Taos was again able to extend its lead. Oldhamdoubled in McLaughlin in the fourth. In the fifth inning McLaughlin smashed a 3-run home run to put Taos up 8-3.
Almost every Blizzard player on the team’s roster got the opportunity to play in the game. Taos, however, still ran out of pitchers.
“We did it with our bats, but we were short on arms,” Azzopardi said. Being short on pitchers, however, gave Azzopardi the opportunity to make his professional pitching debut. It also gave Hopkins the opportunity to switch roles from manager and make his debut as a professional baseball player.
“Anytime you can fulfill a life-long dream to play professional baseball, it’s a good day,” Hopkins said. “It’s an experience that I’ll never forget.”
Santa Fe took the lead, 9-8 in the eighth. Oldham, however, tied the game with double that scored McLaughlin. Tied at nine, the Fuego scored three in the ninth inning and held on to win the game, 12-9, keeping their playoff hopes alive.
“We just want to play ball,” Azzopardi said. “It was about having fun and making friends.” Azzopardi said he was planning to return to Australia after the season. The 29-year-old described himself as an “old man” and said this would be his last time playing professional baseball. “I’m glad I got to (pitch),” he said.
Craig Richmond, however, said his goal was to get into another league or play winter ball after the season ends.
“We’re living our dreams,” Richmond said. The camaraderie he shared with his teammates, the atmosphere at the games, the towns and whole experience stuck out in his mind Sunday. “I want to thank the whole state and Taos for supporting us,” he said.
“For people to come out to the games means a lot to the players,” Hopkins said. “My only hope is that we left a good enough taste in the fans’ mouths to have them come back next year.”
The Blizzard finished their inaugural season 24-42. Santa Fe's win kept their playoff hopes alive, but Trinidad snagged the fourth spot, joining Las Vegas, Alpine and Roswell in the postseason.
Pecos League commissioner Andrew Dunn said next year he’d like to expand the league to nine teams, split into three divisions of three.
The plan is to have each team play its divisional rivals 34 times and play 36 games against the rest of the league. Taos will play “at least 30 home games,” Dunn said. The team will also need to find host families to support its players. While making it to mid-day, mid-week games was a problem for many Taos fans, sales of Blizzard hats were among the most popular in the league.