Sox Recall 2006 championship

by Brantford Expositor

Originally appeared in Brantford Expositor July 16, 2020 by Brian Smiley

Special. Satisfying. Fulfilling. Unbelievable. Relieved.

Five words used by five members of the 2006 Intercounty Baseball League champion Brantford Red Sox describing the feelings they had when the team won the title 15 years ago.

With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the IBL this summer – the first time the league has not had a season since its inception in 1919 – memories of past seasons are all anyone has to satisfy their hunger for the real thing.

The pause in play gives Sox supporters the opportunity to look back at the 2006 team, the first to win an IBL championship for Brantford since the 1981 team accomplished the feat.

* * *

The seed for the success of the 2006 Red Sox team was sown in 2002. After owning the team for several seasons, Mike Calbeck passed it to local businessman Paul Aucoin.

Aucoin, a former bat boy with the team, became the owner just as the 2002 season was getting underway.

After missing the playoffs in 2002, the Sox made it all the way to Game 7 of the 2003 IBL final before losing to the Guelph Royals.

“We had a good group of guys who really cared about what they were doing out there,” Aucoin said of that 2003 squad.

Brantford then took two steps back during the following seasons, losing in the semifinals in 2004 and the quarter-finals in 2005.

One of the holdovers from the Calbeck era, general manager Len Hannam, said Aucoin made a major decision in 2003 that paved the way for the team’s success.

“Probably, the turning point was when (Aucoin) decided he had to bring in some more knowledgeable baseball people,” Hannam said.

“That’s when he brought in Alf Payne and Rick Johnston.”

Payne, who has passed away, was a former player and a member of the team’s last championship squad in 1981. He had also previously managed the Red Sox.

Johnston, a former player in the league, owned The Baseball Zone in Mississauga and was heavily involved with Baseball Ontario. He immediately went to work, using his contacts to bring in players that would form the nucleus of the Red Sox run.

* * *

Red Sox outfielder Josh McCurdy watches shortstop Lee Delfino make a dazzling catch during the 2006 Intercounty Baseball League final against the London Majors. Postmedia

In 2006, Brantford got off to a 4-3 start before Aucoin decided to relieve Steve Charles of his managerial duties and insert Johnston, who had managed the team from 2003-05, into that role.

“Some of the (players) were pretty upset that I let Steve go,” Aucoin said. “Once we played five or six games, they started to come together.”

Former Red Sox Al Stephens, who was one of the players Johnston helped attract to the team, said Charles did not deserve his fate.

“To this day, I still kind of feel like Steve Charles, like most coaches do, bore the brunt of it.”

Stephens, a centrefielder, came to Brantford in 2006 after he and childhood friend Lee Delfino, the team’s shortstop, decided to reunite after each had gone their separate ways for a few years.

“We started looking at the league and who we wanted to play for,” Stephens recalled.

“We knew Rick Johnston really, really well. We gave him a call and he turned into a kid. He gave us the spiel about what it was like there with Paul and what he did with the players.

“Things just kind of snowballed from there.”

Players like Hyung Cho, Josh McCurdy, Steve Murray and John Ogiltree would sign up shortly after that because of their connections to Delfino, Stephens and Johnston. Those players joined others who were holdovers from the Calbeck era.

One of the longer serving players on the team, left-handed pitcher Brad Hogeterp, had been with the Sox since the late 1990s.

“It was a huge opportunity for me because we didn’t have a lot of guys who could soak up innings,” Hogeterp said of those early years.

“I was given a huge opportunity to gain some experience.”

When the 2006 roster began to take shape, Hogeterp knew it was different from previous teams he had played on at Cockshutt Park’s Arnold Anderson Stadium.

“We actually had a fair amount of young guys,” he said.

“We had Jason Gotwalt and Tyler Burnell and then we had the experienced ex-pros like Wayne (Forman) who came in a little before that.

“It was a really good mix of guys but a drastic change from the year prior.”

Adam Clarke, who had just retired from playing, joined the team as a coach. He saw first-hand how Johnston massaged the lineup, although the team was 10-10 at one point and not looking like a contender.

“That was a big year to have RJ there and hear his thoughts,” said Clarke, who would take over the managerial duties in 2007 and lead the Sox to a record-setting six straight IBL championships from 2008-13.

“It took a little bit for everyone to get going together but a lot of people knew each other from being around baseball for a long time.”

Sitting at .500 just prior to the midway point of the season, the Sox took off after that and went 14-2 down the stretch to finish at 24-12, winding up in third place.

* * *

Brantford beat Guelph 4-2 in an opening-round best-of-seven playoff series and then moved into the final following a 4-1 series win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Sox met the London Majors in the 2006 IBL final. After opening the best-of-seven series with a 14-0 win, Brantford seemed destined to cruise to the championship.

However, the Majors took Game 2 10-9 in extra innings, and that set up a pivotal Game 3 showdown. In that game, Hogeterp threw one of the best games of his Red Sox career, outduelling Josh Palmer to secure a 1-0 victory and a 2-1 lead for Brantford in the series.

And then came Game 4 in London, which will go down as one of the greatest in Red Sox history.

Trailing 4-3 in the ninth, Brantford tied the game and then went ahead 5-4. In the bottom half of the inning, London’s Kevin Virtue homered to tie the score.

Two batters later, the greatest play in Red Sox history over the past 20 years took place.

With Aaron Boag on the mound for Brantford and Chuck Roberts at the plate, the London designated hitter smashed what looked to be a sure home run towards the 402-foot centrefield sign in Labatt Park.

“I just put my head down and took off,” Stephens recalled.

“It was one of those things where instinct takes over. My timing was good. I remember my arm was over the fence and I felt the ball in my glove but I wasn’t sure.”

The Majors were positive the ball had eluded Stephens, who had climbed to the top of the outfield fence before stretching out his glove hand.

“They were running on the field because they thought they had walked off the game,” said Stephens, who made the catch and then crashed back down onto the field, flat on his back.

“I remember looking down into my glove with one eye open and going, ‘Holy s***, I caught the ball.’ It was a good feeling.”

Hannam said what he witnessed that night was special.

“The ninth and 10th innings, I’ve never seen pro or amateur, anything that would top those two innings,” he said.

“I remember the catch that Al made. London was on the field celebrating. To this day, I remember this lady yelling, ‘He had a ball in his back pocket!’”

In the top of the 10th inning, Raul Borjas drove home Adam Vella for a 6-5 lead, and after Stephens caught a fly ball and threw a London runner out at the plate for a game-ending double play in the bottom half of the frame, the Sox held a 3-1 lead in a series that was heading back to Arnold Anderson Stadium.

* * *

The Sox then won Game 5 at home, 7-3, earning the championship.

“One of the cool things I do remember about that final game, because it was at home, in the ninth inning there was a group in the outfield that was chanting all the players’ names,” said Clarke, who along with everyone associated with the team that season mentioned that the 2,000-plus fans in attendance were a big boost during the final.

“They did a roll call. They went through the entire roster and acknowledged everybody on the bench as well. It was a really cool feeling.”

Although Stephens made the pivotal play in Game 4, Hogeterp earned playoff most valuable player honours after an outstanding post-season performance.

“It was a good playoff run and there were a lot of worthy guys,” Hogeterp said.

“Al Stephens and Lee Delfino and even (catcher) Wayne Forman had good playoffs. There were a lot of worthy guys. I was honoured to be thrown in the mix for MVP.”

Stephens didn’t feel snubbed.

“The two of us had the funniest moment,” said Stephens of when Hogeterp was announced as the winner on the field after the deciding game.

“He was like, ‘I’m sorry man,’ and I was like ‘Don’t be sorry. It’s amazing that you won.’”

* * *

Stephens and Delfino planned to play one final season together and then call it a career. That was the plan for most of the players on the team that season.

“How do you hang it up after that?” Stephens asked.

The answer is:  you don’t. You play for several more seasons, eventually winning a record-setting six straight championships and then you all retire as arguably the greatest group of players to ever play at Arnold Anderson Stadium