“This is our chance to showcase northeast Pennsylvania, our community and our passion for baseball to the entire country.”
— RailRiders co-managing owner David Abrams
The date: Sept. 19, 2017
The place: PNC Field
The situation: As far as minor league baseball was concerned, this one was for all the marbles.
The Durham Bulls. The Memphis Redbirds. The International League and Pacific Coast League champions, respectively, duking it out in a one-game playoff to determine the national champion of Triple-A baseball. But the reason this game makes this list is not the matchup, but the venue.
A near-sellout crowd flooded PNC Field that late-summer night in 2017 not just to see who claimed the title, but to celebrate professional baseball in northeast Pennsylvania.
The lead-in: On Aug. 11, 2016, team, league and county officials gathered at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport in Avoca to make an announcement that was hardly a surprise: Since RailRiders co-managing owner David Abrams and his group purchased the club late in 2013, they had been pushing to land a major event at refurbished PNC Field, the type of game that would bring national attention to both the stadium and an area that had been developing around it for decades.
Only, the desired event seemed to be a Triple-A All-Star Game.
That game was spoke for years in advance, however. International League president Randy Mobley had a different idea for the RailRiders and PNC Field in the meantime. In 2015, Mobley said he approached the RailRiders about the possibility of hosting the national championship game, which would be broadcast nationally on NBC Sports Network and had a nationally known title sponsor, Gildan, under contract.
“They didn’t hesitate,” Mobley said. “From our office, it’s when you see the things that were happening over here — a new ballpark, the new ownership, the support you can feel.
“They were handpicked, I guess is what I’m saying, based on all those factors.”
From that point, plans went on to wow the baseball world until June 23, 2017, when Abrams announced in an emotional interview that he was battling cancer. From that point on, he said, the National Championship Game would be more than just a world-class baseball celebration, but a concerted effort to raise funds for cancer research. That day, he promised a partnership with “a very important organization in the cancer world” to promote the research aspect of what he hoped would be a game like none other ever held in Triple-A baseball.
“We’re going to do well by doing good,” Abrams said. “We want to take our philanthropy and really make a difference.
“There’s not a person we talk to now, that we don’t say, ‘Sept. 19, this is the event you’re going to remember the rest of your life.'”
The moment: Second baseman Kean Wong hit a grand slam in the fourth inning. Right-hander Brent Honeywell, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball got the win. And Durham won its second-ever Triple-A National Championship, 5-3.
The game itself, however, played second-fiddle to the atmosphere around it.
A star-studded affair led 9,383 fans to PNC Field that night not just to see a game between two teams few in attendance had an emotional tie to, but the key figures in sports history who were there to help celebrate.
Former Philadelphia 76ers guard and Hall of Fame basketball player Allen Iverson highlighted the pregame Fan Fest, drawing long lines to his table outside PNC Field’s entrance for autographs and photographs. Hockey great Ken Daneyko and soccer star Jack Harrison were also in attendance to greet fans, and Yankees legends Roy White, Bucky Dent and Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson were also major players in the festivities.
“It’s like Cooperstown in Green Ridge,” fan David Evans of Scranton said.
Fans could purchase baseball-related items from a marketplace set up near the fan festival, and there, they could participate in several fun activities, like zip-lining across the PNC Field parking lot.
Long after the Fan Fest ended, though, Abrams’ goal manifested itself. That “very important organization in the cancer world” the franchise partnered with was Stand Up 2 Cancer, and fans who tuned in across the nation watched as fans at the game honored loved ones who have battled the disease. During the day, Jackson visited cancer patients at Geisinger Community Medical Center, offering support and encouragement for those fighting the daily fight.
“If I can bring a little bit of joy, … I’m thrilled to be able to be a part of it, fortunate to be able to be a part of it,” he said.
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
The RailRiders almost made the kind of history the host team for the Triple-A National Championship Game only dreams about.
Themselves the defending Triple-A national champs in the 2017 season, the RailRiders lost to Durham, three games to one, in the Governors Cup finals that season, as a comeback attempt in Game 4 fell just short in a 6-4 loss at PNC Field four days earlier. No stadium that has hosted the Triple-A National Championship Game has ever seen the home team play in the game.
The 2017 championship game never promised to be the culmination of an effort for the RailRiders, though. They always hoped it would be just the beginning to even bigger goals. Like, that Triple-A All-Star Game, which is considered the crown jewel of national minor league baseball events.
Mobley, the longtime IL president, gushed about how innovative the planning was for the game, using stars from other sports to cross-promote to different types of sports fans, luring fans from outside the area in the process. The local event, he raved, had a distinctive national flavor other hosts only strove to achieve in the past.
When asked before the game whether the RailRiders could make a case for hosting a future All-Star Game at PNC Field by hosting such a strong event in the national championsip game, Mobley looked out a window at a filling stadium, toward long lines at the autograph tables and a fan base excited about baseball in a sparkling stadium.
“This will not hurt their chances,” Mobley chuckled, assuredly. “They have enhanced their chances.”
On Dec. 6, the RailRiders announced they were awarded the 2020 Triple-A All-Star Game at PNC Field, which will take place on July 15, 2020.
Donnie Collins has been a member of The Times-Tribune sports staff for nearly 20 years and has been the Penn State football beat writer for Times-Shamrock Newspapers since 2004. The Penn State Football Blog covers Nittany Lions, Big Ten and big-time college football news from Beaver Stadium to the practice field, the bowl game to National Letter of Intent Signing Day. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5368; @DonnieCollinsTT