“It was remarkable. That was something special to watch, to be honest with you.” — RailRiders manager Dave Miley
The date: April 9, 2015
The place: PNC Field
The situation: Sometimes, it’s not the feat itself that gets remembered. It’s when it happens that makes it ultra-special. The RailRiders opened the 2015 season with high hopes, as the first wave of talent from a bolstered Yankees farm system began to hit the Triple-A level. Facing Syracuse on a cold early spring evening at PNC Field, a few of those young players got their first chance to show what the future held.
One had a night that will never be forgotten.
The lead-in: These RailRiders were certainly more loaded with prospects than any team since the franchise rebranded after the 2012 season. The Yankees were excited about the potential of pitchers Bryan Mitchell, Jacob Lindgren and Jose Ramirez, and it was the season when promising second base prospect Rob Refsnyder would get his first full year of Triple-A in the books. But the Yankees had been waiting especially for a chance to see this outfield play together, a step away from the big leagues.
Big slugger Tyler Austin, toolsy leadoff man Slade Heathcott and smooth lefty Ramon Flores came up together through the lower minors; Heathcott and Flores playing as members of the same team largely since the summer of 2009, with Austin joining them at Double-A Trenton by 2012.
In the 2015 opener against the Chiefs at PNC Field, Heathcott led off, Flores hit second and Austin fifth. All would have a big showing, though all would be talking later about Flores.
The moment: Flores’ first swing of the night would have been good enough to qualify as a hot start in itself. Facing right-hander A.J. Cole in the first inning, Flores ripped a 3-2 pitch high and deep down the right field seats. When it arched into the seats, it meant the RailRiders’ first hit of 2015 counted as a game-tying homer.
In the second inning, he tied the game again. With two on and two out, Flores hit a chopper to short that veteran Emmanuel Burriss fielded, but he had to rush his throw, and it sailed wildly past first baseman Kila Ka’aihue, allowing a run to score.
In the fifth, when he slaughtered Cole’s third pitch of the inning to center field, over Tony Gwynn Jr’s head, and sailed into third for a triple, it put fans on high alert for potential history.
“I was locked in from the first pitch,” Flores said. “I understand, this is only one day, but I just want to take it pitch-by-pitch, at-bat by at-bat.”
But a double short of the cycle, Flores’ biggest plate appearance of the game might have been one in which he didn’t get a hit at all.
Down 3-2 and facing a reliever who’d become one of the nastiest left-handers in all of baseball just a few years later — current Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez — Flores worked a walk that moved Heathcott into scoring position ahead of Refsnyder’s groundball single to center that tied the game. That was the start of a three-run rally for the RailRiders, who’d go on to win, 8-3.
But Flores had the fans sitting under blankets, shivering, waiting for one last swing at the opening day cycle, and he got it in the eighth. On yet another 3-2 pitch, Flores hit a sharp grounder inside the first base bag and past Ka’aihue down the right field line. He steamrolled into second with another RBI hit and what is believed by league historians to be the only opening cycle in the 135-year history of the International League.
“Speaking off the top of my head, I know for a fact I’ve never seen it or even heard of it on opening day,” RailRiders manager Dave Miley said. “Are you kidding? And this wasn’t in the best conditions.”
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
Officials in the International League office made it clear that history books didn’t go back to the early 1880s, but they were fairly convinced an opening day cycle had never before occurred in the history of the league. In fact, it has only ever happened once in the history of the major leagues. Gee Walker, a popular outfielder with the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s, homered, tripled, doubled and then singled against the Indians on opening day in 1937.
There were, however, two previous cycles in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s history, and Flores’ wasn’t the last.
At Columbus on May 1, 1997, Jon Zuber became the first player ever to hit for the cycle for the Red Barons. On July 14, 2006, third baseman Brennan King did it at Lackawanna County Stadium for the first time.
Since Flores did it, Dustin Fowler sealed a cycle on April 30, 2017 with a walk-off home run in the 11th inning to beat Indianapolis, 7-6, at PNC Field.
Young outfielders worked out well for the Yankees in 2015, but while Austin is looking to revive his career in San Francisco this season, Flores and Heathcott both had what amounted to cups of coffee in the big leagues with the Yankees. Heathcott is now out of the game, pursuing a career as a commercial pilot, while Flores has been in the independent Atlantic League since the start of the 2018 season.
Arguably, the best outfielder on the team in 2015 was the only one who didn’t start on opening day. Gritty Ben Gamel hit .300 with 28 doubles, 14 triples, 10 homers and 64 RBIs. In 2016, he’d win the International League’s Most Valuable Player honor, becoming one of just three Scranton/Wilkes-Barre players ever to do so.
On June 22 that year, the Yankees promoted a prolific slugger from Double-A, 23-year-old Aaron Judge. Unbeknownst to most fans at the time, that wound up officially signalling the start of the Yankees youth movement reaching Triple-A.
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