“We had a job to do. I was lucky in that we had a good group of people here.” — Red Barons interim manager Ramon Aviles
The date: May 4, 1996
The place: Comfort Inn, Pawtucket, RI
The situation: Butch Hobson was 25 games into the season he hoped would get him back to the big leagues, and many thought over the long term, he could be the difference for a talented Red Barons team looking to make its second-ever postseason appearance. The night before, Hobson’s Red Barons beat Richmond, 4-3, at Lackawanna County Stadium, giving them nine wins in 12 games. He couldn’t have known that it would be his final home game as manager, that by the following afternoon, he’d be the focus of perhaps the darkest moment the franchise would ever see.
The lead-in: Since Lee Elia left after the Red Barons’ memorable run to the Governors Cup finals in 1992, the Red Barons struggled for three seasons, largely under the guidance of untested leadership. They had their worst two seasons ever in 1993 and 1994, winning just 62 games with George Culver and Mike Quade on the bench, respectively. Culver lasted just one year, a young Quade two. Both came to the Red Barons with just one season of Triple-A managing under their belts.
In the offseason leading into the 1996 season, the Phillies sought a more experienced hand, a bigger name, a more dynamic choice at the time. They landed on Butch Hobson, a slugger on some Red Sox teams in the late 1970s that nearly missed championship runs who went on to manage the Sox in 1992, 1993 and 1994. He went 207-232 in Beantown before management replaced him with Kevin Kennedy following the ’94 players strike.
Still seen as a fan favorite and an in-tune managerial mind, Hobson went to the Texas-Louisiana League in 1995 as he awaited his next opportunity in affiliated ball. When the Phillies came calling, it seemed like a perfect fit.
The moment: Just a little bit after noon on a Saturday afternoon, agents from the Pawtucket Police Department’s Drug Enforcement division executed a search warrant on Hobson’s room inside the Comfort Inn in Pawtucket, where the Red Barons were staying for a two-game series.
They found two grams of cocaine in Hobson’s room and, at 1:30 p.m., police officials notified him he was under arrest.
Hobson was charged with possession of about three grams of cocaine, estimated to be worth between $200 and $300 at the time. He denied the cocaine belonged to him, telling police according to a press release that he received it in an overnight package sent to him from an acquaintance to whom he loaned money. He opened the package, Hobson told police, because he thought it might have contained repayment of that money.
Hobson was arraigned at police headquarters later that day before being released on his own recognizance and $2,000 bail. He actually returned to the team the next day and managed the Red Barons on May 5 against the Red Sox.
It would be his final game.
By the time the team returned to Lackawanna County Stadium on May 6, Hobson’s days with the organization essentially were over.
“Butch has told us that he is innocent of any wrongdoing,” then-Phillies general manager Lee Thomas said. “In light of the current situation, Butch will take a leave of absence until the situation clarifies.”
The Phillies named roving infield instructor Ramon Aviles as the Red Barons’ interim manager, and by July, it officially became permanent.
According to court documents, Hobson admitted in a written confession he requested and received the drug from an old high school friend in Birmingham, Ala. He ultimately was fired, with Aviles managing the team for the rest of the season.
“We were absolutely blindsided by this,” then-Red Barons general manager Bill Terlecky said.
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
The Hobson arrest kicked off a chain of events that ultimately changed the course of franchise history.
Despite the turmoil surrounding the arrest and subsequent firing of Hobson — not to mention a pitching staff that had to take instruction from three different pitching coaches throughout the season — the Red Barons went a respectable 57-58 under Aviles. But the Phillies made it clear Aviles would return to his prior role teaching the young infielders as soon as the season ended, sending them on another search for a seasoned manager to lead the young Red Barons prospects into a new era.
Ultimately, they offered the job to Marc Bombard, a three-time 80-game winner in four seasons as a Triple-A manager. It was a home run hire for the franchise, as Bombard would go on to become an International League Hall of Famer based largely on his work with the Red Barons. He led Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to the playoffs four times, every season from 1999-2002, going 574-502 in the regular season during his eight seasons with the teams. But in the playoff years, the Red Barons were a combined 81 games over .500 under his tutelage. The core members of the Phillies’ late 2000s National League championship and World Series runs — shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard — all cut their teeth in Triple-A under Bombard’s tutelage.
The 2002 Red Barons won 91 games — still tied for the most regular-season wins in team history with the 2016 RailRiders — and Bombard won the International League’s Manager of the Year honor for his work.
Somewhat ironically, the 1996 Hobson-Aviles tag-team didn’t produce the most managerial changes in franchise history. With popular third-base coach John Vukovich diagnosed with a brain tumor early in 2001, Bombard was called up to Philadelphia to help out with the Phillies from May 6 through July 13 of that season. So, to fill his shoes, the Phillies sent a series of minor-league coordinators and player development types to serve as a sort of manager of the day. In all, six different managers filled in for Bombard that season: Longtime Bombard assistant Jerry Martin (20-18), Don Long (9-11), Bill Dancy (1-2), Mick Billmeyer (1-0), Milt Thompson (1-0) and Ruben Amaro Sr. (1-0).
All that said, Hobson has remained somewhat of a survivor. Of the 18 men who have served as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s manager over the last 30 years, only two are currently managing in professional baseball. One, of course, is current RailRiders manager Jay Bell. The other is actually Butch Hobson, who will start his second season a skipper with the Chicago Dogs of the independent American Association next week.
Hobson got a chance to manage at Class A Sarasota, Boston’s entry in the Florida State League, in 1999, his first job since being fired as Red Barons manager. Sarasota went 67-72, and Hobson wasn’t asked back the following year. But, he did start a long, trendsetting career as an independent-ball manger, joining the Atlantic League’s Nashua Pride.
He stayed there for eight seasons before spending three with Southern Maryland before joining the Lancaster Barnstormers for the next six. He has won 1,578 games as an independent league manager, and he continued what was his trend during the simpler days with the Red Barons: Hearty discussions with umpires. When ejected, Hobson often will grab a base and hand it to a fan on his way back to the clubhouse.
PHOTO OF BUTCH HOBSON IN 1994, BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
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