BOOMER AND THE ZEE
(A Baseball Love Story)
It never occurred to Suzy Zulinski that she might not be selected to play in the Serguci League. From the time she was old enough to rival the project boys in pick up baseball games, Suzy knew that she had the right stuff to reach Blue County's ultimate baseball glory. Suzy's mother didn't have the heart to tell the twelve year old that it was a men's league and that only one woman had made it into the fraternity.
Growing up in the Hilltop Housing Projects in Hillsboro, Suzy was not one to sit around and watch the boys play. With glove in hand, she competed along side her male project mates all through her childhood.
"It made me a much better player than I would have been had I played exclusively with the girls," she says. "I wanted to show the projects that I could hit, field and throw just as well as the boys could."
Nearly 40 families lived in the five building complex built in the late 1940s for returning World War II veterans, but Suzy was the only girl who consistently took to the project diamond when the boys were throwing the horse hide.
By the time she was ten years old, Suzy had been accepted as "one of the guys" by the project baseball diamond gang. She loved playing shortstop, but settled for second base when the older boys bumped her out of the hole.
"I watched her play for years and could never quite believe what I saw," says Bev Allen, a long resident of the projects. "She was a better player than most of the boys out there – and my son was one of them!"
"She'd tell us all the time that she was going to play in the Serguci League," recalls Rocky Kadrow, who played hundreds of project pick up games with Zulinski. "None of us really took her seriously, though. I mean, she was a girl, right?"
THE SERGUCI LEAGUE
The one constant in Blue County, home of Hillsboro (and the projects), remains the ball yard that League Founder Benjamin T. Serguci unveiled in May 1948. Beano Field – the Home of Serguci League Amateur Baseball - has undergone off field renovations – most notably replacement stands, modernized looker rooms, a new scoreboard, and improved lighting - but the dimensions and boundaries of the playing field are exactly the same as they were when the very first pitch of Serguci League ball was thrown on Memorial Day, 1948.
Beano Field's first incarnation was as Blue Field, an Army Supply Depot Park built in 1918 on land leased to the Government by the Serguci Family.
Uncle Sam returned the land to the family at the end of World War II. Although most of the property was sold for development, Benjamin T. Serguci refused to part with (or demolish) Blue Park. Instead, he renamed the stadium Beano Field to honor his son Bernard ("Beano"), killed in action during World War II.
Beano's Field features a "mini-green monster" (18 feet high) in left field, a triangular mesh fence in center (complete with an on-field flag pole), and a nine-foot chain link fence in right. Both bullpens are beyond the third base stands and both dugouts – not dug out at all! – sit side by side off the first base line.
"It's nice to know that nothing has changed in all these years," reports League Statistician Spanky Raymond. Raymond is an original Mudhen (1948-1970) who took over as Statistician soon after retiring as a player.
"Spanky knows more about the green-painted Beano Field than just about any non-Serguci around," acknowledges League Director Beenie Serguci.
"We pride ourselves on being a traditional baseball league," says eighty-year old League Historian Homer Stanfield, who was one of the founding members of the league. "We haven't changed the basics of the game. There is no DH. There is no exploding scoreboard. There are no advertisements inside the park, except for the Bulls Eye Pizza Target on the right field fence. Any player who hits the bull's eye with a batted ball wins a free pizza! The fans who come to Beano Field today see the same game their grandfathers watched when we started this thing in 1948."
The horse-shoe-shaped park features a roofed grandstand behind home plate, covered bleachers along the first base line, and exposed bleachers that run along the third base line.
The former army supply warehouse in right field foul territory was converted into a sports café and bar several years ago by Greeting Card Company Owner Marty Kilpatrick, who serves as President of the League's Board of Directors. The old warehouse – now dubbed "The Bullpen" – offers an outdoor "cage" where customers can follow a game while they eat, as well as a Serguci League museum on the second floor.
"Beano Field belongs to the community," says Beenie Serguci, a third generation member of the family and current Executive Director of the League. "We are from the past, but our future is now."
Serguci League baseball is a Blue County tradition. Come each Memorial Day weekend, eight teams begin playing a 42 game schedule that ends on Labor Day evening in September.
The Hillsboro Beansters (soon thereafter known as the Beansboro Beansters) remains the team's flagship team. The other original squads of the 1948 inaugural season are the Greenville Giants, Riverside Royals, and Miller City Mudhens.
The Beansters are the "Italian" team spawned from the original Serguci Family of Hillsboro. The Giants feature Irish players from Blue County's biggest town, Greenville. The Royals and Mudhens both attract players from the factories along the Blue River, which runs through both towns.
In 1954, The South County White Sox and County Crusaders (from the West County) joined the federation, expanding the league to six teams. Both rosters included players from area farms and, for the longest time, the White Sox featured migrant workers who picked tobacco, potatoes, and pickles in the south county.
The Hilltop Browns, born from the "hilltop" neighborhood (including Suzy's projects) in Hillsboro, came along in 1957, and the Sun Rise Lake Lions (from the resort lake of the same name) were added 10 years later to complete the eight-team league.
"My father was an original Mudhen who played for three years," says Suzy Zulinski. "We have pictures of him in his baseball uniform in old family albums."
"Speed Zulinski was a sparky little guy," recalls historian Homer Stanfield, who is a walking encyclopedia on every player who ever suited up in the Serguci League. "He was an intense guy – a by-the-rules player who approached the game like it was a life and death proposition."
"He quit when he married my mother, but I always wondered what kind of career he might have had had he played longer," says Zulinski.
The Zulinski connection to the Serguci League didn't end when Speed left the game. His son Mickey umpired for several seasons and served as unofficial league photographer for many summers as well.
"I'd tag along with my brother when he was working at Beano Field and loved every minute of it," says Suzy. "I eventually got summer jobs there myself – cleaning the stands, getting the snack stand ready, serving as ball girl and bat girl for several of the teams. When I wasn't playing the game at the projects, I was hanging around Beano Field tasting baseball."
BEATING THE ODDS
Suzy Zee played school softball years before coed sports were allowed in public school athletics.
"She was the best softball player in the county," recalls Carol "Charlie" Roberts, who managed Zulinski in high school. "She was the best player I ever coached."
When Mary Ellen Brown became the second woman in the history of the league to suit up in 1968, fifth grader Suzy Zulinski was convinced that she too would play in the Serguci League.
"We didn't tell her that Mary Ellen, who played for the Browns, was a family member of the team's founders, and the younger sister of the best pitcher in the league," notes Suzy's brother Mickey.
Three weeks before graduating from Hillsboro High School in 1975, Suzy Zulinski faced her dream head on when she walked onto Beano Field to participate in open tryouts.
"There had only been two women players in the league before Suzy came along," notes Historian Homer Stanfield. "The league was traditionally men's only and you need something special to make it if you were female."
"I don't' remember being nervous because it never occurred to me that I might not get picked," recalls Zulinski. "I made the plays. I hit the ball. I was just as good as anybody else there that day."
The Beansters and Crusaders were vaguely interested in Zulinski, but Suzy was hopeful that her hometown Hilltop Browns would want her the most.
"It so happened that (Hilltop Browns Manager) Hap Daniels was also the Hillsboro High School baseball coach, so I spent my entire high school career making sure he knew who I was," says Zulinski. "I was always doing favors for the athletic department because he was the Director and I wanted him to remember me."
Suzy's perseverance paid off when Hap Daniels and the Hilltop Browns added Suzy Zulinski to the 1975 Roster.
"It was the happiest day of my life," Suzy says about her appointment as a Lady Brown. "I was proud to add my name to the select list of women who played ball in the league."
Considered a trailblazer when she debuted in 1975, fourteen more women would follow Suzy Zulinski into the league in the succeeding years.
A Girl Named Suzy
Suzy Zulinski grew up listening to stories about "the old country". Both sets of grandparents were immigrants of Poland who came to the United States in the early 1900s in search of a better life.
Suzy knew the story about her paternal grandmother Addie by heart – how she arrived at Ellis Island in 1907 at 17 with a paper bag with four apples in it. She boarded a train North from New York City with the knowledge that she had cousins living in New England. She disembarked in Greenville by error, confusing the town with Great Barrington where she was supposed to go. A local Polish Family learned of her plight and took her in. Addie ended up in Miller City working as a housekeeper and met her future husband Ivor, a factory worker, at a Sunday picnic.
Living in a tenement down the street from the factory, Ivor and Addie had eight children: Helga, Josie, Beulah, Annie, Sam, John, Frank and James.
"My Aunt Beulah said my grandmother had that many children so she'd always have help around the house and income coming in when the children were old enough to work," says Suzy.
Helga married young to escape her mother's plan. Josie drown in the Blue River when she was 17. Annie also married young to gain freedom from her mother's restrictive household.
"It was my Aunt Beulah who basically raised the four boys," Suzy explains. "She didn't leave home until she was thirty-three years old."
Unlike most of his older siblings, Suzy's father Speed (John) was able to finish high school and compete in various sports. He enlisted in the Navy in 1945 to honor his late brother Sam, killed in action during World War II. Speed served nearly three years, then took advantage of the GI Bill by living at home upon his discharge and attending Green College. Speed received his teaching degree in 1951, the same year he married Mary Anne Mzewski and moved into the Hilltop Projects. He gave up playing in the Serguci League that year and began a 35-year career as a math teacher at Greenville High School.
"I never understood why we lived in the Hilltop Projects all those years when my father taught in Greenville," Suzy confesses. "It wasn't until much later that I realized a lot of my father's money went to support his parents and other family members."
Although her dad was athletic enough to play in the Serguci League, Suzy Zulinski inherited her talent genes from her mother's side of the family.
"I had two muscular uncles born and raised on the family farm in South County," she explains. "They grew up busting their humps on the farm and both played in the Serguci League for the White Sox" (Moose Mzewski, first base 1954-1958; Duck Mzewski, second base, 1956-1961).
Suzy's maternal grandfather came to America in 1904 and, three years later, had a mortgage on a farm in the South County.
"I can't tell you how many times they almost lost the place over the years," says Suzy Zee. "My grandfather went off to fight in the First World War. Then the Great Depression happened. Then the Second World War. There was always a threat of foreclosure on the place."
Suzy's Aunt Joyce and newlywed husband Jeof took over the farm in the late 1940s, allowing the parents to stay on for the rest of their natural lives.
"I have great memories of spending Sunday afternoons down on the farm," Suzy recalls. "It was such a different place than the projects. So open. So many different smells. A barn bigger than the entire building I lived in. Lots of animals."
Speed Zulinski met Mary Anne Mzewski when his aged beat up Chevy broke down in front of the Mzewski farmhouse in 1950.
"I brought him some lemonade while he worked on the broken wheel," Mary Anne reports. "He asked me to a movie that Saturday night and we were engaged three months later."
"My father was a numbers guy," says Suzy Zee. "One and one equals two. One and 10. Black and White. There was never any middle ground with him. No shades of gray. No estimates. Everything was absolute and that's how he approached life."
Of her mother, Suzy Zulinski vows that "She is a Saint on Loan From God."
A Boy Nicknamed Boomer
Boomer Christopher was also at Beano Field trying out in May 1975 when Suzy Zulinski made the Hilltop Browns. Boomer's two brothers played for the Browns, but Boomer was the least skilled of the three and knew he was not an automatic lock to make the cut.
"I remember watching Suzy doing her thing that day and I almost left the park," Boomer reports. "She was that good. I had played against her in neighborhood pick up games lots of times growing up – the projects were always taking on the Hilltop neighborhood; we usually played at a neutral site like the little league or school fields. I knew I had to make the team if Suzy was going to be playing."
Like Suzy, Boomer always hoped to play in the Serguci League, following in the footsteps of his two older brothers who had made their mark as Browns.
"I never developed much confidence because I was always in the shadows of my brothers," Boomer admits.
Christopher's earliest memories of baseball, like most young American boys, are rooted in the memories of his father.
Ned Christopher was born in Boston in 1927 and grew up a Braves fan until the team deserted The Hub for Milwaukee. He then switched allegiances to the Red Sox, which he often referred to as "a stink team".
Ned came to Blue County at the suggestion of a Greenville native Army buddy who recommended Green College as a place Ned could use his GI Bill. Ned studied business, but in his heart he wanted to be a chef. Young Christopher worked for Mr. Timmins who ran the Hillsboro Café on Main Street and, in 1950, borrowed money from his future father in law to buy the diner, which he renamed "Cousin Durwood's".
Ned married the former Amy Weldon in 1951. The newlyweds bought a house in the Hilltop section of Hillsboro and raised six children.
"We lived about three blocks from the projects, but I think I stepped foot in the place maybe a half dozen times," recalls Boomer. "There was some sort of secret code about who could go to the projects."
Cousin Durwood's eventually expanded from a small diner to the biggest restaurant in town and the Christopher family became one of the most popular clans in town.
Chris was born in 1952, Larry in 1954, Anna Marie in 1956, Wallace ("Boomer") in 1957, Angela in 1960, and Charlie in 1966.
"I developed a loud voice to be heard above the other kids and that's how I got my nickname," Wallace explains. "I was a boomer!"
In the winter of 1969, a truck hit a patch of ice, crossed the centerline, and slammed into a car being driven by Amy Weldon, on her way home from grocery shopping with Angela and Charlie in the back seat. Mrs. Christopher was killed and both children suffered serious injuries.
Life in the Christopher Family was instantaneously and dramatically changed forever. Amy's mother spent much more time with the family. Eventually, a younger Aunt, followed by an older cousin, also lived with the family to help with the kids for free room and board while attending Green College.
"I think all my brothers immersed themselves even more with baseball so they didn't have to deal with what was going on at home," says Anna Marie. "Even my father tended to escape in Serguci League Baseball."
Ned Christopher never remarried, though he was known to have a "lady friend" over the years.
Cousin Durwood's originally sponsored the Beansboro Beansters, but switched to the Hilltop Browns when the team formed in 1957. Although the restaurant has featured Brown memorabilia for years, Boomer's brother Chris remembers the "Beansters" stickers that once adorned the front door of the establishment.
It was commonplace for the Christopher family to take in two or three games a week at Beano Field growing up, especially after the death of Amy.
The Christopher boys became Red Sox fans like their dad, but Ned also taught his sons to respect and enjoy the game in general. When they weren't playing the addictive APBA table top baseball board dice game or reading their library sized baseball book collections, the Christopher boys – like Suzy Zulinski and countless others in the area - spent their summer nights at Beano Field working as ball boys and bat boys. The boys also played little league ball, as well as morning recreational league, which was exciting because they got to play some of the games at Beano Field.
"Baseball was just a way of life in those days," says Boomer. "You didn't have game boy and the internet and all the other distractions that take kids away from the baseball diamond."
Chris became a day student at the Sun Rise Lake School for Boys and pitched for that team through high school. He was also a member of the Weldon Trucking Team in the Hillsboro Pony League.
Larry played little league for Cousin Durwood's (Ned coached for a few years), but got kicked off his Pony league team for behavioral problems. Chris was usually able to show up Larry whenever they faced either other in competition.
Boomer never got to play against his brothers – Chris was in pony league by the time Boomer made it to little league – and in the Serguci League by the time Boomer made it to Pony league.
Ned took his sons to at least one Red Sox game a year, but they could never get tickets when the Sox got to the World Series. Uncle Otis promised the Christopher boys that he would take them to a Mets game if they got all As on their report cards.
"We grew up before cable TV when there's a game on every night," says Boomer Christopher. "There was the Saturday NBC Game of the Week and that was about it. But I can remember falling asleep on many nights as a kid listening to the Red Sox or Yankees blaring out of Chris's bedroom radio down the hall."
Yet, it would always be Beano Field that would steal the heart of the Christopher boys.
THE LADY BROWN
Hap Daniels never questioned his decision to add Suzy Zulinski to the roster of his Hilltop Browns.
"She deserves the chance to prove herself," Daniels said in a newspaper article before the 1975 season began. "I'm willing to give her that chance."
Suzy was tickled pink to have her dream realized after her many years of hard work, anticipation and preparation. The fact that she had been picked to play for the Browns only made her payoff all the more sweet. Any kid born and raised in the hilltop section of Hillsboro was honored to play for the Hilltop team.
"You usually know the guys who are going to make the team long before they start in the league," explains Statistician Spanky Raymond. "They come with reputations from high school. You've heard all about them for several years. They were the best of the best wherever they played."
Raymond admits that Zulinski was a wild card because it was hard to know how she would perform in a tough adult men's league. "This wasn't softball," he points out. "I knew about her, but it was hard to know if she would succeed," concurs Homer Stanfield. "What evidence was there to lead anyone to believe Zulinski would be great in the Serguci League?"
Hap Daniels served as a Brown Coach in 1971 after retiring as a player and began managing the club in 197. He didn't need evidence to back his decision to add Zulinski to the team.
"You never know about any ball player until you give them a chance to play," he was quoted as saying in 1975.
"It was a thrill to play for someone who had played in the major leagues," says Suzy Zee about Daniels, who briefly made it to the bigs in 1964 as a shortstop with the Pittsburgh Pirates before a knee injury ended his career.
Daniels was considered a player's manager who set a certain tone, professed a specific philosophy, and held true to various expectations and beliefs, but generally let his players play.
Daniels was well known as the Patron Manager of Lost Causes because he was willing to give washed up and second rate players a chance with the Browns. Nicknamed "The Little General" because of his rather dominative size, Daniels had a sarcastic and sardonic sense of humor and could be brutally honest in his criticism of his players.
"The thing is, he rarely got on us for our performance or talent," recalls Boomer Christopher who would play 20 years under Daniel's tutelage. "He would ride us for mistakes we made in our personal lives or for our general attitudes more so than our baseball blunders. He was a great teacher and mentor because he taught us about life as much as he did about baseball."
"As long as you gave it your best shot on the field, you were okay in his book," agrees Suzy Zee. "Hap wanted you to perform well, but he was really interested in your success as a person. He was all about character, values, leadership and courage. It was a thrill to play for him."
Boomer Christopher also made the Browns team that year, joining his brothers on the roster.
"People say the only reason I made it was because I was one of Hap's lost causes and because I had two brothers on the club," Boomer says. "I don't deny it at all. I'm grateful Hap was willing to give me a chance."
Boomer often relates what Hap Daniels told him once he made the team: "Kid, the Serguci League is a great place to get girls."
"But I was only interested in one girl," says Boomer.
BOOMER AND SUZY
Boomer Christopher met Suzy Zulinski on the first day of kindergarten at Hilltop Elementary School in 1963. The young Boomer was one of the first to be left by his mother in the classroom that day. He was seated by himself feeling lonely and alone when little Suzy Zulinski – wearing a flower-printed dress and black paten leather shoes – strolled through the door, walked across the room, and took a seat next to Boomer.
"I fell in love with her that very moment," Christopher insists.
Later in the year, most of the class was taken to the nurses' office down the hall for physicals and shots. Boomer and Suzy were the only two children left behind (Suzy was anemic; Boomer had already been to his own Doctor). The two youngsters played in the sandbox and Suzy said to Boomer: "Let's be friends forever."
They advanced through the elementary grades, often sitting together at lunch or picking each other for class projects. In fifth grade, they were square dancing partners. In Sixth Grade, they were crossing guard partners.
"We lived in different neighborhoods, so we didn't hang out together that much outside of school, but we were good buddies when we were at school," says Boomer.
"I'd often ride my bike along Hilltop Drive, where all those big old Victorian houses were – including the Christophers'," says Suzy Zee. "I'd wonder who lived in what house, what kind of family life went on there, and if those people were any happier than the families who lived at the projects."
Boomer and The Zee saw a lot of each other during the summer as both became active with Beano Field and the Serguci League working various odd jobs together and serving as ball and bat boy and girl for the same teams.
"We had our first date in 4th grade," Suzy Zee recalls. We rode our bikes to the Hilltop Creamie together for the first time!"
"And we had our first kiss in 6th grade, even though it was for a school play!" Boomer adds.
In 8th grade, Boomer was working up the courage to ask Suzy to the Social but held his tongue when Suzy asked if he would be willing to see if his best friend Del was interested in taking her.
"I was crest fallen and heartbroken," Christopher reports. "And I never again made an attempt to tell her how I really felt. But I never lost interest in her. 'I'll be here' is the line I always gave whenever she said 'see you later'."
Boomer remained Suzy's buddy and pal throughout high school.
"He was always around when I needed him," Suzy Zee says. "I mean he never hassled me about who I was dating. He always said 'I'll be here' whenever I went off on some new relationship."
"How I wish she had said 'Let's be boyfriend and girlfriend forever' that day in Kindergarten!" Boomer laughs. "But in my heart, I knew good things happen to those who wait."
One of their friendship traditions included getting ice cream at the Hilltop Creamie. It began on that first 'date' in fourth grade and continued in earnest when they worked together at Beano Field.
"We were riding our bikes to the ice cream stand practically after every ball game!" Boomer says.
"Later, it was in his beat up old dodge," adds Suzy Zee.
Most assumed Christopher tried out for the Browns to play with his two brothers, but Boomer insists he was just as interested in playing with Suzy Zulinski.
"I joked to Hap Daniels that I'd only join the team if Suzy Zulinski made it too," Christopher recalls.
The Hilltop Browns, formed in 1957 by Steve Brown of the Hilltop Neighborhood, had won it all in 1964, 1966 1967 and 1970 and were runners up in both '68 and '69, so the 1975 club – which included Suzy Zulinski and Boomer Christopher as rookies - was capable of winning it all.
By 1975, Chris Christopher had graduated from Green College with a degree in chemistry, done a year of post-grad work, and was beginning his teaching career at his alma mater Sun Rise Lake School for Boys.
"I was in awe to be on the same team as my two older brothers," Boomer Christopher says. "I loved to watch Chris pitch and Larry kept me on my toes whenever I got to play."
"It was very strange being the only woman in the league," Suzy admits in recalling her rookie summer with the Browns. "But Boomer and I had been going to school together all our lives and I was glad he was there in the dugout with me."
1975 Hilltop Browns
2B- Jay Cox (.304) - Great lead off hitter, good fielder, nice guy
CF Dewy Zimmerman (.355) - Fastest in the league, funniest on the team
1B Earl Williams (.338) - "Earl the Pearl" – The Great Protector
3B Ryan O'Malley (.300) - Catches anything, hits most things, likes everybody
SS Alex Wilson (.297) - Vacuum Sweeper at Short; Respected teammate
LF L. Christopher (.333) - Consistent fielder, loves to cause trouble
C John Smith (.286) - Hockey Goalie behind plate, team leader
Wil Smith (.280) - Experienced Veteran who's seen it all
Buster McLeer (.280) - Terrible with Glove, strike out artist, egotistical bore
Bill Stanley - No nonsense rookie. Serious about the game
Gums Holland (.309) - Great Bench Jockey; teacher of the game
Boomer Christopher - Serviceable fill in; student of the game
Suzy Zulinski - Committed, Energetic, Dedicated, Hard working, sweet
Rick Brown 4.94 - Best Pitcher of His Era, adored by all
Brad Robinson 4.92 - Consistent #2 Starter, bulldog on and off field
Bob McDowell (4.87) - Flake on the field, comedian off it
Abbie Sadler (7.12) - Mop up Only; resentful and bitter
Donovan Wilson (.5.87) - Junk ball thrower, loves the game and the team
Don Williams (5.38) - Everybody's friend; journeyman pitcher
Chris Christopher (3.75) - Closer Coming Into His Own
Manager Hap Daniels and newcomer Boomer Christopher developed a quick relationship that would become a meaningful 21-year baseball partnership.
"We seemed to hit it off right from the start," Boomer proudly professes. "He took me under his wing right away and I saw him as a mentor and teacher. I was eager to learn from the master."
Boomer's sense of humor was similar to Daniels and that he quickly became accustomed to sparring with Hap in a humorous way.
"Hap was a huge Red Sox fan and I took to harassing him about it," Boomer says. "I remember telling him that summer (1975) that I had a better chance of watching a Notre Dame football game naked with Suzy Zee than he did watching the Sox win a World Series. That became our private running joke for years. Whenever he wanted to ask me about sex, he'd say 'How's Notre Dame doing!?'"
The Browns finished fourth in '75 (22-20) as the Riverside Royals won its second of three consecutive titles but, for Suzy Zulinski and Boomer Christopher, the year was memorable.
"Your first year in the league is always special," says Christopher. "You're part of history, part of a team, part of the experience."
"My parents came to every game that year, even though I only got into about 20 of them," says Suzy Zee. "Just to be able to sit in uniform in the dugout meant so much to me."
Zulinski says her first appearance was as a late inning defensive replacement in a blow out loss, but Boomer remembers Suzy's first meaningful contribution.
"She came on as a pinch runner in the ninth inning of a tied game against the Champion Royals," he explains. "She stole second, went to third on a fielder's choice, and scored the winning run on another ground out by beating the throw to the plate. It was a thrill to watch."
"What I remember most about Suzy Zee is how loud she was," says Larry Christopher. "She was a non-stop cheerleader, always screaming, always yelling, always into the game. She drove me crazy!"
"I had to learn to pace myself and tone myself down," admits Suzy Zee about her propensity to be the Energizer Bunny when it came to cheering on the team. "I'd lose my voice practically every game and Hap was afraid I wouldn't have any energy left if I actually got into a game!"
"We were competitive right from the start," says Boomer Christopher about his years playing with Suzy Zee. "We were both vying for Hap Daniels approval and we both wanted to be as good as the other when we got to play."
Suzy and Boomer began their freshman year at Green College that fall.
"We were both surprised to find ourselves in most of the same classes," says Boomer. "Turns out we both picked English as our major!"
The Red Sox lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series, so the Notre Dame "bet" was still alive!
In 1976, Hap Daniels made Chris Christopher the #1 Starter on the team.
"I think that's when we started calling him 'The Messiah'," says Larry Christopher. "He had been in the league for seven years, but '76 is when Chris really got people to take notice."
Even with the Messiah's break out year, the Browns (26-16) finished third in '76; two games behind the three-peat champ Royals and one game behind second place Miller City.
"I started a couple of games which was really a big deal for me," says Suzy Zulinski. "I felt like I was contributing to the team."
Suzy, in fact, played in more games than Boomer that year.
"I never expected to be anything more than a part time role player," Boomer says. "I wasn't very good. Certainly nowhere as good as Suzy, that's for sure. But the highlight for me during any game was to play first base when Suzy was playing second. I loved being next to her on the field."
Things got worse for the team in 1977 as Hilltop finished 5th at 19-23, nine games behind the champion Mudhens. It was Hilltop's worse campaign since its first two seasons in the league.
"It was the team's first losing season since 1958," say Boomer. "Nobody was proud to go into the crapper that year."
One of the few bright spots was the continued impressive play of Suzy Zee, who played a lot more during the dog days of August with the team far back in the standings.
"Suzy was becoming a fan favorite," says Boomer. "She had spunk and she played well. They liked rooting for her."
"I was comfortable being a part of the team," says Suzy. "Hap Daniels and the rest of the guys accepted me and that took all the pressure off."
"Suzy and I became part of Hap's inner circle," explains Boomer. "Hap liked to surround himself with players who supported his philosophy, especially the bench players who spent so much time with him. He respected Suzy and he trusted me as a good lieutenant so it was fun going to the park every game."
Boomer and Suzy continued their Hilltop Creamie tradition, often meeting at the ice cream stand after a Browns game to review the contest and enjoy a cone together.
The Browns got back to .500 in 1978, but still finished five games behind the repeat champion Mudhens.
"By '78, Suzy had established herself as a impact player," says Historian Homer Stanfield. "She was the best bunter in the league and one of the best base runners. She made a difference whenever she was in a game."
"Boomer is the guy who made me work on my bunting," Suzy reveals. "He said it would make me a dangerous weapon, so he and I spent hours together practicing bunting."
"I knew it would help her as a player, but it also gave me a chance to be with her more than I would otherwise," Boomer says.
The Yankees came back from 13 ½ games out in August to beat the Red Sox in a one game playoff ("Fucking Bucky Dent!" lamented a distraught Hap Daniels). As bummed as Hap was by the loss, he was still able to point out to Boomer that Christopher wasn't naked with Suzy Zee in front of a Notre Dame game on the television!
Hilltop didn't do much better in '79 as the Browns fell to 20-22, finishing five games behind the County Crusaders (25-17), a club that had finished last (17-25) in '78 under boot skipper Mark Griffin.
"The late '70's wasn't the most fun time to be a Hilltop Brown," admits Larry Christopher, who decided to call it quits at the end of the 1979 season after an eight year ride (career .317 batting average).
"I remember being in high school and watching my brother Chris win a championship his first year in the league (1970)," says Larry. "The team was still pretty good when I joined up in '72, but the last three seasons weren't much fun and I decided I had enough, even though I was only 25 years old."
Larry Christopher earned his Art Degree from Green College in 1975 and was employed as a graphic artist with the Greenville News and Dispatch. He also drew freelance over the years, including work for the Serguci League.
"It was a gas playing along side Chris and Boomer," he testifies. "I enjoyed my time in the league, but I had no regrets leaving when I did. I had gotten hitched a few years earlier and had a few young ones at home."
It was the departure of another player that year that was lot tougher for some to take.
SUZY TAKES A WALK
Suzy Zulinski, who had graduated with Boomer Christopher from Green College that May, announced that she was leaving the area "for personal reasons" following the end of the '79 campaign.
"Ron Marion was that personal reason," Boomer Christopher explains with a sigh. "He accomplished in about three months what I failed to do since kindergarten – steal Suzy's heart."
Marion, who had completed his postgraduate degree in Communications from Green College, was offered a job in Corpus Christi Texas and invited Zulinski to come with him.
The two had been dating for most of the collegiate year, though nobody on the team realized sweet Suzy Zee might desert them.
"She was everybody's kid sister," recalls teammate John Smith, who was a veteran Brown catcher during the late 1970s. "Everybody liked her, everybody cared about her, and everybody wanted to see her happy. We weren't convinced this guy was the one."
"I was surprised she gave up the game for some guy," admits Dewy Zimmerman, another Brown teammate from that era. "She worked hard to prove herself and did well fitting in. And she gave it all up for love."
"I knew I'd be leaving, but I didn't tell anybody before the season ended except for Hap," says Suzy. "I didn't want him giving me playing time if there was somebody else worth looking at for the next year."
"And here's the type of guy Hap Daniels was," inserts Homer Stanfield. "He started Suzy at second base almost every game the rest of the year!"
"I was hurt that she didn't confide in me," Boomer admits. "We had been together on the team from the start and I thought we had developed a pretty good relationship. It was disappointing to be left out of the loop."
"I didn't want anybody to know because I would have been a basket case," counters Suzy Zee. "It was a hard decision to make and I knew everybody would have been making a big deal about it, so I kept it to myself."
"Maybe I would have tried talking her out of it had I known," Boomer confesses. "Hap tried tipping me off, but I didn't get what he was trying to tell me. I mean, let's face it. I was her baseball buddy, but not much else."
"It would have been nice if Boomer had said that mushy stuff to me back then," Suzy points out. "I played with The Three Christophers. Chris had a strong and outspoken opinion on anything political. Larry was a loud mouth wise guy who always had something smart to say. But Boomer? He never said anything on an emotional level. He was quiet and introverted. How was I supposed to know he liked me in that way?"
Boomer says he was overwhelmed by Zulinski's social popularity. She dated his baseball team mate Albee Dunton as well as Class President D.J. Lansdow in high school.
"The next best thing I could do short of dating Suzy in high school was to date the sister of her boyfriend!" Boomer says. "Didn't anybody think it was more than coincidence that I dated both Amy Dunton and Linda Lansdow around the same time Suzy was with Albee and then D.J.!?"
Christopher says it was the only way he could be around Suzy Zee in the social circles of high school. Then, when Christopher thought maybe he'd move up the ladder at Green College and at Beano Field, Suzy dated an Engineer Major and a ROTC cadet.
"Those guys didn't have any kid sisters around!" Boomer notes. "What was I supposed to say or do when Ron Marion came on the scene?"
"He could have said 'don't go!'" Suzy claims. "Maybe I was just looking for someone to say that."
Zulinski admits she didn't give Boomer enough credit for what he had meant in her life. "I guess maybe I took him for granted because he was always there without ever coming on to me," she says. "Maybe I should have been more open with him, but he was a pretty closed down guy back then. Hugging him was like hugging a tree."
"My two older brothers had a different girl around every other week after our mother died, but Boomer went the other way and was pretty reserved," reveals Anna Marie Christopher. "He was never very aggressive when it came to dating."
"I was afraid the rest of the team might resent me if I had tried to pick up Suzy Zee once we became Hilltop Browns," Boomer says. "She was everybody's sister and I didn't want to break some sort of secret code if I asked her out on a date."
"Looking back on it now, I realize that Hap was the only one who knew how Boomer felt," says Suzy Zee. "He kept saying things to me during those last few weeks, almost like he was comparing Boomer with Ron and trying to tell me I had picked the wrong guy. I thought it was because Hap wanted me to stay with the team, but now I see that he was trying to help Boomer win me over."
"Let's be serious," offers Annabelle Westlake, Suzy's life-long best friend. "Boomer Christopher was a nice guy but if this was a movie he was always going to be the best friend. Ron Marion was drop dead gorgeous, talented, successful, and had an exciting future ahead of him. When Suzy talked about maybe not leaving with him, I told her she was crazy. She could blow her knee out or get hit in the face with a pitched ball, and then where would she be? Trust me, she made the right decision leaving when she did."
Concludes Suzy Zee: "Hap Daniels told me I was a hometown girl and that I would be back. Sooner or later, I'd come back."
Zulinski left Blue County 10 days after the 1979 season ended without fanfare. It wasn't until spring workouts the next May that her Brown teammates got a chance to mourn her absence.
"She and I met at the Hilltop Creamie the night before she left," says Boomer Christopher. "The last thing I ever said to her was 'I'll be Here'."
Her five-year career with the Browns: 175 games played; .265 batting average.
"I think Suzy would have been an everyday player if she had stayed another year or two," says Boomer. "We had two guys (Alex Wilson, Gums Holland) getting on in years and slowing down as players, and I think Hap Daniels would have made Suzy a starter in '80 or '81."
(SERGUCI) LIFE WITHOUT SUZY
Boomer Christopher says he almost quit the Browns in 1980, the first year without Suzy Zulinski as his teammate.
"It just wasn't the same without her," he admits. "I was in a funk and didn't play well when I did get in a game. I was generally a sad sack loser grieving the loss of the girl I loved."
The other Browns also missed Suzy Zee, but they hadn't been in love with her and moved on without her.
"You couldn't help but notice how quiet it was without Suzy around to scream and yell and cheer us all on," laughs Commander Jim Coty, the Browns first baseman during the Z era. "That's what I missed the most right away."
"The only thing Hap ever said to me about it was 'You should have fought for her'," says Boomer. "But he let me pine and sigh for most of that year until I was able to get over it in my own way."
Aside from the Zulinski absence, the 1980 season is remembered as the Beansboro Beanster's Cinderella Campaign. After winning five flags (1949-1953) in the league's first six seasons of existence, the Beansters remained competitive into the early 1960s, but after a 25-17 second place finish in 1962, Beansboro never had another winning season until Cinderella 1980, logging eleven last place finishes during that span.
"The Beansters were 18-24 in 1979, so nobody expected them to finish 29-13, seven games ahead of us in '80," says Boomer. "But then again, the great thing about this league is you never know!"
"What's truly remarkable about 1980 is that the Beansters were never heard from again," notes Homer Stanfield. "Talk about a one hit wonder!"
The Zulinski-less Browns finished 22-20 in 1980 (4th place), but most of it was as blur for Boomer who was lost without his girl Suzy around.
"I felt very alone," he confesses. "Suzy had been my baseball buddy for five years and I felt lost when she was gone."
The Summer of 1981 proved to be the weirdest season in the history of the league as six teams (Beansters, Browns, Crusaders, Giants, Royals and Sox) finished at 21-21. The Mudhens won the flag (mostly by default!) with a 23-20 record, beating the second place Lions (22-21) in a playoff show down.
"That was an exciting year because all eight teams were in the hunt right down to the last day of the season," recalls Messiah Christopher. "Trust me, that will never happen again!"
"You couldn't have scripted a summer like that!" says Boomer who, after earning his English Degree from Green College in 1979, began teaching creative writing at Blue County Community College. "It's the only time in the history of the league when 160 guys all thought on Labor Day weekend that they had a chance to win a championship."
It was the 1982 season when Messiah Christopher convinced even the most cynical of observers that he was the real thing, almost single handedly leading Hilltop to within one game of the Champion Crusaders. Christopher won the League MVP Award by going 11-1 with a 2.07 ERA as the 23-19 Browns finished second to the Crusaders.
"The guy was a toothpick with bad teeth, hair longer than our sisters, varying degrees and styles of facial hair, and a passive personality, but he had become the best pitcher in the league," marvels brother Boomer.
It took Hap Daniels twelve years at the helm to accomplish every manager's goal when the Hilltop Browns finally won a championship in 1983; its first captured flag since Messiah Christopher's 1970 rookie campaign.
Hilltop won the most ever games for Hap Daniels (27) and the most in a season since winning 29 and the championship in 1967. The Browns' 27-15 finish was two better than the Greenville Giants and The Messiah won his second consecutive MVP Award with a 11-3 record and 3.03 ERA.
"That championship was a long time coming, and I'm glad we finally were able to do it for both Hap and Chris," says Boomer. "The best pitcher in the league should be on the best team! I only wish Suzy had been around to enjoy it with us."
The Messiah won 22 games in two seasons (making his overall record 86-22 in 13 seasons).
"He was now considered to be among the top three or four pitchers to have thrown in the league," notes Statistician Spanky Raymond.
1984 was a bust for the Browns as the Miller City Mudhens proved to be the best single season team in the history of the league, losing just four times in 42 games to win the championship by 15 games over runner up Greenville (23-19).
"I think the Hens started out something like 14-0 so we really didn't have a chance to defend the title," says Boomer. "All we could do was tip our hats to those guys because that was the greatest performance this league will ever see."
The Christopher family dealt with tragedy during the '84-'85 off-season when 59 year old patriarch Ned Christopher dropped dead of a heart attack in late March.
"At least Dad got to see all four of his sons play in the Serguci League," says Number Three Son Boomer. "That was quite the thrill for him."
Ned Christopher always supported the Serguci League and was a sponsor of the Browns, but he became an avid booster once eldest son Chris broke in with the team in 1970.
'Cousin Durwood's' Restaurant displayed photographs and stills of players and of the team in action, including a large poster of Messiah half way through his wind-up, which hung in the Main Dining Room. Later, Ned hung several of son Larry's paintings of Serguci League personalities throughout the restaurant.
Ned also volunteered his time and service at Beano Field by manning the Food Shack between the third base bleachers and left field bullpen. In 1976, Brown Manager Hap Daniels enlisted Ned as a coach.
"It was a thrill for Dad to be involved on the field and with the team along side his three sons," says Boomer. "It was a great year for all of us. I remember fantasizing that maybe dad was also coaching his future daughter in law (Suzy Zee)."
"What surprised me was how much Dad really knew about the game," recalls Larry Christopher about his father the coach. "He taught me a thing or two that year, for sure."
Messiah Christopher admits that he had a hard time making the adjustment to life without father as the 1985 Serguci League season opened.
"My Dad made it to all my starts and I felt the hole left by his absence my first time out," says the pitcher. "I felt lost."
"Just like me when Suzy left," says Boomer. "I wasn't as affected by my father's death because I guess I saw it coming since his health had been declining in recent years. It sure did feel weird to be an orphan, though."
Christopher's 1985 opener proved to be the worse outing of his career. Messiah failed to get out of the second inning – allowing eight runs to the White Sox.
"Chris wasn't prepared to play emotionally or mentality," says Boomer. "He was grieving our father, out of focus, and unable to concentrate."
"Hap Daniels took me aside the next day and gave me a heart to heart," the Messiah reveals. "He told me the best way I could pay tribute to my father and honor the game he loved was to perform the best I could. I'm not real big on God and all that stuff, but I did figure out that I owed it to my father's memory to do good in his name."
Messiah finished 10-3 with a 3.64 ERA in 1985 and the team roared to a strong 25-17 record, but that was only good for third place as the Giants won the title with 28 wins and the Mudhens notched 27 victories (11 less than their 1984 performance!).
"We weren't a bad team in 1985," says Boomer. "The other two teams were just better"
Boomer Christopher says 1985 was also the first year he really felt like he had finally gotten beyond Suzy Zee.
"My dad's death helped me understand that I had to move on with my life," he says. "Suzy was gone and she wasn't coming back"
Boomer accepted the fact that Suzy married Ron Marion in 1981 and had a daughter the following year.
"I kept tabs on her, of course," Boomer admits with a grin. "Her parents were always at Brown games so I found out through them that Suzy spent most of the 1980s writing novels while husband Ron moved up the ladder in television news."
By the end of the year, Christopher was dating a waitress from his late father's restaurant.
"She liked Dad a lot and I guess we were both using each other to mask our grief," Boomer explains. "She was a nice girl."
1985 was also the year that Messiah Christopher passed the 100-win plateau for his career.
"It was a bittersweet achievement since I wasn't able to share it with my dad," says the pitcher.
The Browns were back in the thick of things for the 1986 campaign as five teams fought down to the wire for the flag, with the Mudhens grabbing the title with a 24-18 mark. Hilltop, County, Greenville and Riverside all finished one back at 23-19, and the White Sox finished 21-21.
"We really should have won it that year," complains Charlie, the youngest Christopher brother. "We lost three of four down the stretch while the Mudhens won four of five to jump over us."
The Messiah did his part (10-4, 3.88), though he lost a big game to the Crusaders in the final week that proved to be a swing contest for Hilltop.
1986 is also the year that the Sox blew the World Series to the New York Mets. Hap called Boomer in the 9th inning of Game 6 when the Bosox were on the verge of winning it all, poking fun at The Boomer for not being naked in front of the television with Suzy Zee. But then Buckner booted the ground ball and Boomer didn't hear from Daniels for nearly six weeks!
In 1987, Greenville won its first of eight straight titles with a 26-16 finish. The Mudhens were 25-17 and the Browns third at 24-18, with Messiah at 9-5 with a 3.97 ERA.
"Nobody knew in '87 that was the beginning of the Great Giant run, that's for sure," says Boomer.
The Messiah achieved another milestone during the 1987 summer, passing Ron Jablonski (123 wins with the White Sox) into third place on the all time win list (with 124). Jon Thomas was still ahead of Christopher at 139, with Rick Brown's 164 the all time high.
The 1988 season proved to be a bust for the Browns; a 19-23 disaster bad enough for 7th place, seven games behind the repeat champion Giants.
"That year was a real abnormality," Boomer recalls. "Every guy in the starting line up except one hit over .300 and our starting pitching was fine, but the bench and bullpen struggled and we lost a lot of 10-8 games. Baseball can be so unpredictable sometimes – stats really don't mean anything compared to the Win-Loss record."
1988 was also a bust year for Boomer Christopher who married the waitress from his father's restaurant and divorced during the same year!
"Hap joked that I waived my wife," says Boomer. "Truth be known, she left me after 10 months of bliss, but it's not something I like talking about."
Goldie Goldberg joined the Hilltop pitching staff for the 1989 season, the first female Brownie since Suzy Zulinski.
"1989 was another lost year for me," admits Boomer. "My personal life was a mess and when Goldie joined the team, I had all sorts of Suzy Zee flashbacks."
Problem was, there was a 13-year difference in ages between Christopher and Goldberg and Boomer quickly discovered that he was unable to reinvent the Suzy magic with Goldie.
"She was a good kid and we even went out for a while, but it was a generational thing that would end it for us," says Christopher.
Boomer says he spent his entire post-Suzy Zulinski career missing The Zee. "Every time something great happened, I'd think to myself, 'Man, I wish Suzy could have seen that!"
Christopher mentions the 1983 Brown Championship, Hap Daniel's 500th win as a manager, and Brother Messiah's all time win mark as moments when he missed Suzy the most.
He also thought about Suzy Zee during the biggest moment in his own Serguci League Career. In a late season game against the champion Giants, Daniels sent Boomer (the last position player left on the bench) to pinch hit in the pitcher's spot. The Browns were down a run with a runner on and two out in the bottom of the 9th. Christopher faced Giant Ace Ben O'Rielly who had only allowed eight homers in his 10 year career. Christopher had only hit five long balls himself, but the biggest one came that day when he unloaded a two run shot off O'Rielly to win the game.
"I remember thinking to myself 'I wish Suzy was here' as I ran around the bases," Boomer says.
The Browns improved by two games to finish 1989 at .500 with the Messiah at 8-3 and a 3.64 ERA, but the team was seven games behind the champion Giants.
Eight 1989 victories gave Messiah 140 career wins, one better than Jon Thomas who was 139-158 with the Crusaders from 1954-1977. Chris was now 25 wins short of tying Rick Brown's all time mark and, at age 37, had a legitimate chance of reaching the magic number.
Charlie Christopher, youngest of the Christopher Four, quit at the end of the 1989 campaign, leaving Messiah and Boomer to represent the family name on their own. Charlie was an average utility man in his six years of service (.263 in 243 at bats), but he drank too much to stay in shape even at 23 and also ran into trouble with Hap Daniels for various disciplinary infractions involving tardiness.
Hilltop got back over .500 in 1990 at 23-19, but finished four games behind the four-peat Champion Giants. The aging Messiah was in top form (9-2, 3.55).
"Christopher is one of those rare guys who got better with age," Historian Homer Stanfield notes. "He won almost twice as many games in his 30's as he did in his 20's."
In 1991, the Hilltoppers finished a respectable 25-17, two games behind the five-peat champion Giants, and 39-year-old Messiah Christopher wowed them with a 8-3 record and 3.72 ERA.
Forty-year-old Messiah Christopher entered the 1992 season with 157 career wins (seven short of tying Rick Brown's all time mark) and, in his last start of the season on Labor Day, having won seven contests to tie the mark, Christopher defeated the Miller City Mudhens 7-4 to set the all time record.
"There's something very humbling about doing something nobody else has done," says the league's top pitcher (who finished 8-4 with a 3.95 ERA in his record setting season).
The Browns finished the milestone season at 24-18, fourth place, seven games behind the 31-11 Greenville Giants, champs for the sixth consecutive season and the first 30+ winners since the '84 Mudhens (38-4). The other 30 Win Club Members were the '52 Beansters (30-12), '57 Mudhens (34-8), '59 White Sox (30-12) and '60 Giants (30-12).
The Browns quest for 1993 was to knock off the elite Giants, but that goal seemed to be lost during Messiah Christopher's second start when the Ace took a line shot off the ankle during the 7th inning of a 8-3 victory over the Mudhens.
"Messiah had been an Iron Man his entire career," says Boomer. "He had never missed a start since joining the rotation in 1976. That was a truly impressive streak. I remember in 1976 when he knocked out all his teeth in a gruesome bicycle accident, Chris still pitched the next night!"
The 41-year-old pitcher was out of action until August, returning in a relief role (1-2 in three appearances) to finish the season 3-2 with a 5.21 ERA (highest since 1971) in 29 innings pitched.
Without Christopher, Hilltop finished 1993 in 5th place at 20-22, nine games behind the 29-13 Giants, winners of their seventh consecutive championship. Some wondered if the 42-year-old Christopher would call it a career with 168 wins in 24 seasons, but Messiah decided he didn't want to go out on a stretcher and came back for one more dance in '94.
Unfortunately, Christopher came up with a sore arm early in the season. He didn't pitch for a month and was seriously considering retirement when fate intervened. Brown Pitcher Bing Crosby (4-2, 4.41) broke his foot during a game on the 4th of July weekend and was lost for the season. Always the trooper and team player, The Messiah shook off the cobwebs, sucked it up, and stepped into the starting rotation for Crosby, making nine starts and going 4-1 with a 3.83 ERA.
The Browns finished tied for second with the Crusaders at 27-15, but that still wasn't good enough as the 29-13 Giants won its eighth consecutive flag.
"No matter how great anybody did in a given season, the Giants always did better," notes Historian Homer Stanfield. "When you win 27 games and are still playing catch up like the Crusaders and Browns were doing in '94, you know Greenville had a remarkable team. In fact, I'm here to tell you that the '87 – '95 Giants were the best team of any era in the history of the league. It's too bad that Christopher's final eight seasons were up against that team."
Boomer Christopher spent most of the '94 season being razzed by his teammates who called him a crib rocker and baby dater. The thirty-seven year old teacher was dating a 20-year-old former community college student and that made him the object of the bench riding.
"She had graduated when we started seeing each other," explains Christopher. "I didn't think it was unethical even if she had been my student. She made me feel young and the sex was great!"
The big question at the end of the 1994 Serguci League season was would a 43 year old Messiah Christopher come back for a 26th season?
"Some people wanted me to keep starting and go for 200 wins," says the Messiah. "Others thought I'd be a great closer for the team. I wasn't sure if I could do either."
"I wanted him to hang around and win another championship or two," says kid brother Boomer. "The Giants couldn't win forever and we were a good team. Chris deserved more than two flags in 25 years of service."
The Messiah didn't want to suit up just to pad his numbers. He didn't want to overstay his welcome either, risking the chance of going out on a bad performance. Ultimately, he decided it was time to ride off into the sunset with his dignity in tact, leaving as the best pitcher to throw a baseball in the history of the amateur Serguci League.
"Keep in mind that the Serguci League is a hitter's league," says League Historian Homer Stanfield. "Any pitching accomplishment here is really impressive."
"My own career had been nothing exciting, but I was blessed with the opportunity to play with two really great people – Suzy Zee, and my brother The Messiah," concludes Boomer Christopher about his 20 years in the league. "And I got to play for one hell of a manager."
FAREWELL HAP DANIELS; WELCOME BACK SUZY ZEE
Although The Messiah's retirement left Boomer as the last Christopher standing, 1995 still promised to be a hopeful season for the Browns, a team that built a pretty solid roster in hopes of knocking off the perennial Champion Greenville Giants.
"I think we have a team ready, able and more than willing to take on the Giants and stop their run dead in its tracks," Hap Daniels said during the winter. "I believe we can win the title next year, even without Messiah Christopher."
All that changed, however, when Hap Daniels announced that he had a rare form of cancer and was appointing Boomer Christopher as interim manager of the Hilltop Browns while he fought the diagnosis.
"There was talk of remission and advanced medications and all that, but I knew from the moment I got the first call right after Christmas that Hap was a dead man," Boomer says with a sigh.
Daniel lost twenty-five pounds in less than a month and it became clear to one and all that Hap would not be making a return to Beano Field. The Brown manager was hospitalized for the final time in early March.
"I came to see him the day he died," says Boomer. "He told me it was the bottom of the 9th, two out, nobody on and we were down by ten. 'I guess this is my final at bat' were the last words he ever said to me. I told him he had won the game."
When Humphrey "Hap" Daniels died at 56 years of age on March 7, 1995, the Serguci League had lost one of its legends.
"I lost my mentor and my friend," Boomer says, remembering the Day Hap Daniels died. "He's the only reason I had the opportunity and privilege to be a part of the Serguci League all these years. I would have been nothing without him."
"I'll always be grateful for the faith and friendship he showed me," Suzy Zulinski says. "He gave me permission to believe in myself."
Ironically, on the day Hap Daniels died, Suzy Zee was in a car traveling across the country, moving home to Blue County fifteen years after she last played Serguci League ball.
Fourteen of those fifteen years had been successful. Husband Ron had progressed well in his career as television news correspondent and anchor. From their beginnings in Corpus Christi, Suzy followed Ron to Houston, Dallas, St. Louis and Cleveland.
Suzy found success independent of Ron's progress. Several of her articles and essays had been published in various national magazines and she had authored a handful of successful novels, including Four Squares in a Circle based on her childhood experiences growing up in the projects; and Shay's Quartet, with the lead character patterned after a life long friend who had been killed by a drunk driver.
Ron was the #1 Anchor in Cleveland and the natural path of progression was a move to Chicago and then on to New York. However, the call never came and when the Cleveland station elected to go with a younger team in early 1994, 40 year old Ron Marion was out of a job.
After several month stringing for CNN in Cleveland with no sign of a promotion coming, Ron and Suzy decided to return to Blue County. Ron landed a job as the #1 Morning Host on Greenville's All-Talk Radio station, as well as being named the prime anchor on the local cable access channel. Suzy returned to Green College to work on her doctorate, teach a creative writing class at Blue County Community College, and finish her latest novel, Good Morning, Grays about a three-generation family running a small business.
"We pulled into the driveway of my parents' house in Greenville and my mother announced "Hap Daniels is dead" before I even got out of the car," recalls Suzy Zee. "I couldn't help but remember his final words to me when I left, telling me that I would be back. He was right, but the problem was I had come back to late."
The returning Marions stayed with Suzy's folks while construction on their house being built in the Hilltop section of Hillsboro was completed.
"I designed it myself," Suzy proudly points out whenever discussing her home.
Ron never liked Hap Daniels (who was the one who bestowed the moniker "Wonder Boy" on Suzy's future husband), so Suzy Zee attended Hap's wake that evening on her own.
"I was nervous about showing up out of the blue after 15 years, but as soon as I walked into the funeral home I knew that's where I was supposed to be," says Suzy.
She was welcomed back with open arms by friends, teammates, fans and, most of all, Boomer Christopher.
"I had been distracted by Hap's death and missed the news about Ron Marion's return," says Boomer. "I was feeling pretty low and empty, so when I looked across the room and saw Suzy Zee standing in the reception line, I almost fell over. It was like seeing an Angel."
The ex- teammates reminisced about the old days among themselves and with other Browns. They shared funny and moving Hap Daniels stories. At one point, the funeral director had to come over and ask the group to pipe down with the laughter because it was, after all, a wake!
"I noticed right away a difference in Boomer those first few days," says Suzy. "He still didn't talk about emotional things all that much, but he was much more confident and sure about himself than he had been in college. He could still make me laugh and it was like stepping into a 15 year time capsule being around him again."
Suzy Zee went to Hap's funeral alone and was met by Boomer who was also solo because his young girlfriend "didn't do funerals". Suzy and Boomer sat together just like old times.
"I knew something was different between us when Boomer took my hand in his as we walked to the burial site at the cemetery," Suzy Zee reveals. "I sensed he needed me."
"I wanted to say 'Let's go elope!" Boomer confesses. "Of course, there was one small roadblock – she was married!"
The post-funeral gathering was held at Cousin Durwoods, which was still run by the Christopher Family (Anna Marie and Charlie, mostly). Anybody who had been anybody in the Serguci League showed up and the post-funeral lunch turned into an Irish Wake-type party lasting well into the evening.
"I was pleased that so many came out to pay their respects to Hap," notes Boomer. "He did a lot for the league and made a difference in so many lives. He deserved a meaningful send-off."
REPLACING HAP DANIELS
Boomer Christopher was suffering through a tough time and, ironically, the return of Suzy Zulinski only made it worse.
"Seeing Suzy again made me realize how stuck in neutral my life was. What had I really accomplished in the fifteen years she was gone? A failed marriage. No lasting relationship. A cruise control job. I was beginning to wonder if I had wasted my life."
The Serguci League had been the only true constant in Boomer's life. He had been proud of his loyalty to Hap Daniels and was honored that his mentor trusted his abilities enough to name Boomer Interim Manager.
Although there was some controversy regarding Boomer Christopher's coronation to the Hilltop managerial job, the sponsors eventually did name the long time player and Daniels assistant as the new leader.
"I can't think of a greater honor than to step into the shoes of my mentor and friend," Boomer said at the time. "In my heart of hearts I believe I'm the best candidate to manage the Browns."
The 38-year-old had been a less than average Brown bench player for 20 seasons (.242) but spent most of his Hilltop tenure sitting next to Hap Daniels.
"I figured out pretty quickly that I was never going to be anything more than a bit player in this league," the designated bench warmer acknowledges. "I couldn't hit for power or average, I couldn't run, and I wasn't the greatest glove man around. All I really had going for me was my brains!"
So he became Hap Daniels' right hand man and unofficial bench coach.
"I was a student of the game," reports Boomer. "I'd pick Hap's mind. I'd watch him manage, observe his moves, follow his philosophy, and ask him questions during key moments. I learned how to deal with people, developed my leadership skills, and came to understand what it takes to manage a team. That's why thought I was the best candidate and obvious choice to carry on for him. I had apprenticed for the position for twenty years."
"Boomer Christopher was a committed Hap Daniels disciple who stuck to his values and convictions no matter what other people thought," recalls former Brown Third baseman Ted Clancy. "He was focused on doing the right thing all the time."
"Messiah was laid back to the point of being in a coma, Larry was a rebel-rouser and Charlie was a partier," says former Brown pitcher and long time Christopher Family Friend Don Williams. "Boomer was the least talented of the four brothers athletically, but he was probably the most disciplined, focused and spiritual of the lot. He was the right choice to lead the team."
Wallace "Boomer" Christopher became the fourth person to manage the Hilltop Browns when he took the helm for the 1995 Season
"I was responsible for my own legacy and that I owed it to myself to honor the Brown tradition as best I could," says The Boomer. "Steve Brown was responsible for bringing the Browns into the league, Bill Coppinger won four championships, and Hap Daniels is a name people will remember for a long time to come."
The new manager echoed the words Daniels had spoken at the end of the 1994 season.
"Our goal, our mission, our task, is to take out the Greenville Giants," was the theme the new Browns manager drummed repeatedly from the moment his selection as Hilltop leader was announced.
Boomer, who officially retired as a player, announced that his brother Messiah Christopher agreed to serve as Pitching Coach and named Brown first baseman Jim Coty as a player coach for the 1995 season. But The Boomer saved his best appointment for last when he announced that beloved former player Suzy Zulinski would became the first woman to coach in the league, returning to the Hilltop Browns after a 15 year absence.
"Suzy's knowledge of the game, her lead ership skills, motivational abilities and confi dence makes her the ideal person to become the first woman coach," bragged the Browns' new manager in making the announcement.
"All of that was bull!" Suzy laughs. "He just wanted me around for old time sakes!"
Christopher doesn't deny such charges. "Of course that was the truth," he admits. "But I also thought she could help the team and that's why I asked her to join up. It wasn't all for self-serving reasons!"
The nationally known author Zulinski was introduced as the Community College English Department's new creative writing instructor, where Boomer had been serving as Director of Speech and Debate since the mid-1980's.
"I heard that a published writer with local roots was going to be joining the staff to teach a couple of creative writing courses," recalls Boomer. "I thought it was Suzanne Strempeck-Shea!"
When Boomer discovered that the new faculty member was none other than Suzy Zulisnki, he realized how much he had missed her and how much he wanted to be with her. He found himself acting like a puppy-loved schoolboy all over again when it came to Suzy Zee.
"She was married, of course, so it wasn't as if we were going to be dating," he points out. "But if she was a coach, I could spend the entire summer with her!"
At first, Zulinski declined Boomer's thoughtful invitation, citing her fourteen-year-old daughter Michelle at home. Boomer convinced Suzy to make it a family affair by having the girl serve be as ball girl.
"Why rob her of the wonderful experience we had growing up?" asks Boomer.
How could Suzy argue with that? Zulinski accepted the proposal three days later.
"I don't suppose my heart ever left the Serguci League," she admits. "When I stepped onto that field for the first time in 1995, it was as if I had never left. Hap Daniels was right – I was a home town girl."
One of the first actions Suzy Zee took as a New Brown Coach was to tell Boomer to dump his young girlfriend.
"'People won't take you seriously as a leader if you're dating a sixth grader' is how she put it!" Boomer recalls with a laugh. "She was right of course.!"
The new manager spent time with the late Hap Daniel's 30-year-old travel agent daughter as the spring progressed. "Nobody was going to question that choice," he reasoned.
SLAYING A GIANT
Boomer Christopher inherited a Hilltop Brown team that had been a perennial first division competitor for most of its 38-year existence. The Toppers had won 27 games in 1994 and was returning most of the core players for the 1995 campaign.
As hard as it was to go on without Hap Daniels, the team was feeling pretty good about itself during the pre-season preparations. The return of Suzy Zulinski created additional PR buzz for the league.
"I was surprised by how many people had even heard of me," Suzy Zee admits. "It was strange to be gone for 15 years and come back to find Boomer Messiah, Jim Coty, Geno Borcelli and Bing Crosby still with the team – just as they had been when I left!"
Zulinski says she enjoyed a goodwill welcome tour during the first few weeks of the season.
"Fans would give me cheers and other players would shake my hand. It was a very gratifying and humble return for me," she reports.
"And of course, she picked up cheerleading right where she left off too," notes Commander Jim Coty. "By the 9th inning of our first game that year, Suzy lost her voice!"
"I loved every minute of it," Suzy Zee laughs. "I was back where I belonged."
Although the Browns finished tied for second place in 1994, most pre-season prognosticators predicted a middle of the pack finish for Hilltop in 1995, behind the Giants, Crusaders and White Sox. Most believed Boomer Christopher would have a difficult time adjusting to the responsibilities and pressures of managing, that the team would miss Hap Daniels' field experience, and that the pitching corps would struggle without Messiah Christopher pitching.
"What I remember most about that 1995 season is that we had to believe in ourselves because nobody else did," recalls Suzy Zee. "Boomer did a great job convincing the guys that it was up to them to show everyone how wrong they were."
Zulinski had to make an adjustment of her own upon her return. "I was an 18 year old kid when I began playing," she points out. "As a Coach, I was a 38 year old career woman - a wife and mother – and my perspective was totally different from what it had been as a player. Half of the players were a good 10 to 15 years younger than me. It was like being a dorm mother."
The new coach became Reliever Pitcher Goldie Goldberg's "Big Sister".
"She was a good kid, but I didn't like the fact that she and Boomer had a fling," The Zee admits. "I guess I was a bit jealous of her because she was so young."
"I felt like I already knew Suzy because I had heard so much about her," recalls Goldberg. "It was great to have another woman around and Suzy did a great job making me feel like I belonged. But I learned early on not to get in the way between her and Boomer, that's for sure! Nobody had to tell me there was something unsaid going on between those two!"
Goldberg took Zulinski's 14-year-old daughter Michelle Marion under her wing, teaching the youngster the basics of the game and accepting her as part of the team.
Boomer Christopher's debut as Manager of the Hilltop Browns got off to a shaky start when the Giants beat Hilltop 5-1 on Opening Day.
"Here we go again!" complained one fan at game's end.
Suzy Zee was happy to be back. "Being back at Beano Field 20 years after my first game as a player was such a thrill," she says.
Hilltop was still in the race at mid-season, but the high-flying Giants were on a pace to win 34 games and the prognosis looked bleak for the Browns.
"I'll never forget what Mr. Christopher said after we were pronounced dead at the midseason point," recalls centerfielder Joe Bonds, a young player in his second season in 1995. "He very matter of factly told us 'Well, I guess we'll just have to win them all!' We knew he meant it and the rest of us figured 'Why not!?'"
Amazingly, Hilltop almost did win them all in the second half!
"The way the Giants were going, we had nothing to loose," says long time Brown Catcher Owl Hamlin. "We were like the '78 Yankees chasing the Red Sox!"
"Everybody on the team was contributing, everybody was part of the experience," says Boomer. "That's what I was most proud about. We were playing as one."
"I had forgotten how good the camaraderie of a team feels," says Coach Suzy Zee. "Being a writer can be a lonely life, but being part of a team makes you feel special as part of a group."
Suzy and Boomer reestablished their tradition of meeting for an ice cream after most Brown games, although now Zee's daughter Michelle was often with them.
"Those ice cream cones were the best part of the season," Boomer says.
During one stretch in the second half, Hilltop won 13 of 14, its best streak in twenty years.
"At one point, we won 15 out of 17 games and tied for first place," recalls Suzy Zee, who loved every minute of the season. "None of our summers had been that exciting when I played," she says. "To be in a champion race was really a terrific experience."
Hilltop beat Greenville for the fourth time in four match ups and most of the league realized that Boomer's Browns were for real.
"It felt good to be able to have the number on a team that had won 9 championships in the last 10 years," Boomer admitted after his team's fourth win of the year over the defending champs.
The win gave the Browns 28 wins on the season, tying the '64 and '70 clubs for second all time team best, one behind the 1967 Browns 29 win mark.
"Boomer Christopher accomplished in less than one season that which Hap Daniels' couldn't do in 23 seasons," Homer Stanfield points out. "Winning 28 games."
But the Giants were just as good as the Browns and won its 32nd game on the final day of the season, tying the Browns for Third Most all Time. The 32-9 Browns needed to beat the 23-18 Miller City Mudhens to become league champs.
"We're still in control of our own destiny," Boomer the Manager reminded one and all before the big game. "If we win, we're the champions, pure and simple."
The Browns lost 5-2 and were in a 32-10 deadlock with the Greenville Giants at season's end.
"I remember sitting in the dugout with my hand in a cast staring out at the field in stunned disbelief," recalls Brown Catcher Owl Hamilen who had broken his thumb the previous game. "Our fans were crestfallen. The most successful season in the history of the Browns was ready to fall apart – we would have to take on the Giants in an all or nothing sudden death playoff game. It was unbelievable and cruel."
"We got beat," Boomer Christopher says of the memorable game. "Give the Hens credit – they held us to five hits and that's enough for any team to win in this league."
Greenville and Hilltop would settle the championship in just the third playoff in league history (the 1963 Royals beat the Browns in the first showdown; and the 1981 Mudhens did in the Lions in the other playoff contest).
Nerves were high. Hilltop followers wondered if their team could beat the mighty Green five times in one season.
"The Browns are black and blue after suffering such a disappointing, disheartening and dissatisfying loss," Mickey Demrest wrote in his column. "It remains to be seen whether Hilltop can come back and beat the defending champs who have held the flag for eight consecutive years. The Giants are sky high, the Browns are hanging their heads. The Giants love big games, the Browns might not be able to handle one."
"I don't think Mickey got it right," recalls Suzy Zee. "Boomer had this soothing calmness about him. He told the team that they were capable of winning one more game."
Jim Silowski, the arrogant Greenville Manager, was his usual outspoken cocky self. "We will win," he bluntly predicted before the big contest. "We're the defending champions, the perennial champs, and no team is going to take it from us. The Browns choked big time and you can be sure there's no way in hell we're going to let them beat us again."
Boomer Christopher had little to say publicly before the big game. Still, Homer Stanfield remembers that the Browns appeared nervous and uptight during pre-game warm ups.
"There was very little chatter, spark or life being displayed by any of the players," he says. "I sensed discouragement. A Giant loomed."
The back from the dead Giants were loose, loud, and brash during their batting practice before the big showdown.
"To tell you the truth, I thought the Giants were going to cream them," Homer Stanfield admits. "The Browns looked cooked, almost as if they knew they were going to lose."
"The players were uptight," agrees Suzy Zee. "We tried to get them to relax, but they were facing eight years of a Giant dynasty and who could blame them for being nervous?"
"It was the biggest game I had ever played in," recalls Ron Kazmier, the Browns long time right fielder. "I remember (first baseman) Dog Ward puking behind the dugout before the game started. But what I remember most is Boomer Christopher, who gave this great speech, telling us that we were already champions and that the game against the Giants was pretty much an afterthought."
Brown's starting pitcher that day, Ruppert Girard, drilled lead off hitter and ultimate trash talker Stan Hall in the ribs with the first pitch of the game, which got the Giants fired up and ready to kick ass.
"I looked over at Boomer Christopher who just laughed," says Owl Hamilen. "That one move got all of us to lighten up. The tension and pressure was gone and we were all laughing."
"And Jim Silowski is screaming 'We'll see who's laughing after the game!'" adds Suzy Zee. "It was the greatest thing I've seen in all my years at Beano Field! Boomer had beaten them at their own game."
"I was at first base standing next to Hall who was rubbing his ribs and I couldn't stop laughing," says Dog Ward. "I couldn't help myself. I probably looked like a retard, but it was funny."
"That game was a heavy weight, knock down, all punches pulled match," said Homer Stanfield. "It was great for the league."
"I didn't' think we'd lose," says Suzy Zee. "It was almost as if Hap Daniels was in charge from above or something."
In the bottom of the 9th of a tied game with #3 Greenville Starter Jim Silowski Jr. on the mound in relief, little used bench player Jim Coty (in what would turn out to be his last at bat as a player) lofted a fly to left that caught the top lip of the mini-monster for a championship-producing home run.
"If I hadn't seen it myself, I wouldn't have believed it," said Boomer Christopher, and he could have been talking about the entire 1995 season.
"It was the greatest season I saw played at Beano Field," marveled Homer Stanfield. "Two teams won 65 games between them – it's never gonna get any better than that!"
"Winning a flag as a player felt great, but there's something satisfyingly special about winning one as a manager," says Boomer. "You have 20 other guys you feel happy for."
The Hilltop Browns were the Champions of the League – David had taken down Goliath after an eight-year reign. Rookie Manager Boomer Christopher was the new league cult hero, enjoying the best debut of any manager in league annals.
Giant apologists were quick to point out that, as great as the Browns were in 1995, they were really only one run better than Greenville.
"Here's a team that won championships in nine out of the last 10 seasons but had their best year in 1995 – when they didn't win!" says Spanky Raymond. "32 wins is the 4th all time best in league history, but it wasn't good enough in 1995."
Boomer Christopher says 1995 was the most emotional year of his life with more ups and downs than a roller coaster ride.
"It started off with the lowest of the lows when Hap died. I'm the new manager thanks to Hap's appointment. Suzy comes back and I'm on cloud nine, especially when she agrees to coach. But then I'm bummed because she's so close, yet so far. Then, as fate turns out, we have a record setting season, knock off the Giants, and become champions. It was a dream come true and worth every minute of the ride!"
Christopher says he wanted to win to honor Hap Daniels, the one man who had faith and belief in him, a second rate no name ball player.
"I think Boomer proved to everyone that he was the best choice to manage the Browns," says Suzy Zulinski. "He was the best manager I ever saw that year."
It was a great ride, but Christopher says he crashed and burned during the off-season, fueled by the breakup of his relationship with Hap Daniels daughter.
"We realized we really didn't have anything in common other than Hap," explains Boomer. "We essentially grieved together and once that period in our lives was over, we moved on. Besides with Suzy Zee back, it was hard to stay committed to someone else."
Yes, Suzy Z was back but that didn't mean the married woman was in Boomer's life on any meaningful level. The manager hated to see the season end because he knew he wouldn't be sitting next to Suzy Zulinski three or four nights a week when they returned to their "normal" non-baseball life. For Suzy, that meant her career, her writing, her husband and her daughter. For Boomer, it meant a long and lonely winter, especially when it sunk in that Hap was gone and Suzy was probably never going to be any closer than a baseball coach.
"I adapted my high school strategy," Boomer reveals. "I put myself in positions to be around her as much as I could. I involved myself in activities and circles where I knew she'd be at too. I 'accidentally on purpose' ran into her as much as I could on campus and around town. It was pathetic, for sure, but it was the only way I could spend time with her!"
DEFENDING A TITLE
How does a manager top one of the best seasons in league history? That was the challenge facing Boomer Christopher and the Hilltop Browns as the 1996 season approached. Could destiny strike twice? Could magic be captured in a bottle again? Or would Boomer Christopher and the team return to Earth in Year Two? Would the pressure placed on being the defending champion cause the players to choke and the team to fold?
"To tell you the truth, I didn't care if we finished last," Boomer says with a laugh. "I just wanted the season to start so I could be around Suzy again!"
Boomer and The Zee had seen each other occasionally during the off-season, usually on the community college campus or at league events, including the awards dinner when Boomer was named Manager of the Year.
Messiah Christopher's 21-year-old son Ethan Evans, who grew up with Christopher's ex-girl friend in Florida, relocated to Blue County after graduating from the University of Florida at Gainesville.
"Some think the only reason Chris coached was to give his kid a chance to play, but Ethan would have proven himself in his own right anyway," says Evans' uncle, Larry Christopher.
Long time Brown player Jim Coty, who had vied for the Hilltop Manager job in 1995, left the team to manage the Sun Rise Lake Lions in 1996 but Suzy Zee was back as coach and became much more confident in her sophomore year.
"I saw myself as Boomer's right hand just like Boomer served Hap," she says. "The Messiah was a passive and laid back pitching coach, so I knew Boomer was going to count on me as his primary advisor."
Zulinski says a successful coach must totally buy into and support the manager's philosophy. "You can't be seconding guessing the manager or openly criticize him in any way," says Suzy Zee. "The players need to see you as a collective team, together and consistent."
Suzy Zee would quickly prove herself to be the perfect bench partner for the manager and a valued asset to the team.
"Boomer and Suzy had the same sort of relationship and partnership that Hap and Boomer enjoyed," observes outfielder Mozart Mendozza, who played for both duos. "She really augmented Boomer's philosophy and she was admired by everybody on the team."
There were two schools of thought regarding the 1996 season. Some believed the revenge-minded Giants would go all out and succeed in reclaiming the flag with the Browns collapsing under pressure, while others felt the determined Hilltoppers would prove themselves worthy as the league's best team for the second year in a row.
"The '96 Browns were one of the best offensive teams to come down the pike in a long time," says Homer Stanfield. "They hit everything that year."
"It was a fun team to watch," Suzy Zee concurs. "It was a fun team to be around."
Hilltop reached the midpoint in 1996 at 15-6, one game better than its 1995 mark. The pitching struggled, but the offense was unstoppable with a team batting average of .370!
"I wouldn't have lasted twenty five years in this league if I had to pitch against a team like this one every time out," Messiah Christopher said at the time. "These guys are deadly."
The long season once again came down to one game. If Greenville could best the Browns, a one game playoff would be necessary. A Hilltop victory, however, would award the flag to the Browns outright. Greenville had beaten Hilltop four times in five tries, but Hilltop was determined to defend its title.
"We are the defending league champs," Boomer reminded one and all. "We should be favored to win the damn game."
Hilltop came to the plate for their final at bat down by five facing a pitcher throwing a four hitter.
"I was thinking playoff game," Homer Stanfield admits.
But Hilltop rallied for five runs to tie the game.
"We never lost confidence with ourselves, even when we were down by five," Suzy Zulinski reported after the game. "Our offense had been our bread and butter all season and we never doubted ourselves even once."
"It's one of the greatest comebacks in a big game I've ever seen," says Homer Stanfield.
Hilltop eventually won the title in the 15th inning in one of the most dramatic big games played on Beano's Field.
"After eight years of Giant domination, it was great to have back to back down to the wire finishes in '95 and '96," says Homer Stanfield. "Boomer Christopher got the job done twice in a row."
"It seemed that there was a new King of the Hill with Boomer Christopher in charge of the Browns," notes Spanky Raymond. "It looked like the Giants were shrinking."
"We won as a team," reports Suzy Zee. "We had an interesting collection of players from diverse backgrounds. We had different personalities and mentalities, but we played as a team and used our differences as our collective strengths. I remember my daughter using the team as the basis of a high school Sociology paper she wrote that year."
THREE A CHARM?
The 1997 season promised to be interesting with the Browns and Giants most likely to duke it out once again. Hilltop had won 62 of 85 games and two championships under Boomer Christopher, but the Giants (winners of 59 of 85) were still a great team.
Boomer Christopher was glad to get back to Beano Field after another long off-season with very little time spent with Suzy Zulinski. As Susan Marion, Suzy Zee spent most of her winter writing a teleplay of her book Shay's Quartet. She was in Hollywood for the mid-term break and busy with other projects the rest of the off-season, so chance meetings at the college were rare and few between for Boomer, although the two sat together at the Serguci League Awards Ceremony, where Boomer was named Manager of the Year for the second consecutive time.
Suzy was also glad to get back to The Serguci League in May. She enjoyed her various relationships with the players and working with Boomer as the Browns prepared to defend its title.
"I called it my baseball life, which was so completely different from my family life and my writing life," says Suzy Zee. "It also gave my daughter and me a chance to experience something different together."
Sixteen-year-old Michelle Marion had become the Team Mascot as she entered her third season as the team's batgirl. Goldie Goldberg and Messiah Christopher continued to work with the youngster on her pitching mechanics in hope that one day she could follow her mother into the Serguci League.
Hilltop was considered a favorite as the defending champions and Boomer had a chance to become only the second manager in league history to win three championships in his first three seasons (Mike Preston did it five times debuting with the 1949 Beansboro Beansters).
"I think '97 was the first year we really believed we were going to win it all," reports Suzy Zee. "We had been together under Boomer for two years and had won two championships without even thinking about it. We came together. We buried Hap Daniels and understood that this was Boomer's team. We overcame several obstacles and were enjoying our success and the experiences of playing together as a winner."
The news entering the 1997 season was that the Greenville Giants were a team under siege. After an eight year Teflon run, highlighted by egotistical and arrogant behaviors and uncontested races, the league's one true dynasty team had finished second two years running. Manager Jim Silowski's conceited style of management had always been highly suspect and controversial but an eight-year champion run protected him from scrutiny. Now his invincibility was in doubt and the Giant mystic under question.
Silowski entered the 1997 season 14 wins short of (Original Mudhen Manager) John Duggan's all time win mark and he was one title short of tying (Beanster and Later Giant Manager) Mike Preston's all time mark of 10 flags. But a sex scandal involving several athletes at Greenville High School where Silowski served as Athletic Director created a firestorm of controversy and the Giant Manager found himself under heavy attack in the community. Three Serguci League Giants had been kicked off the team because of the brewing scandal and people were asking "What did Silowski know and when did he know it?"
"I didn't think the guy would last the season," Homer Stanfield says. "The Giant magic had run out – Boomer Christopher was the new Hero."
Silowski tied Jim Duggan's all time win mark when the Browns dropped a 12-11 marathon in 11 innings to the Giants. The contest consisted of 23 runs, 40 hits, 9 pitching changes and two extra innings.
"What a great game to tie the record," said Jim Silowski. "How can I ever forget this one?"
Previously given up for dead at 9-11, the Giants won seven straight and were back in the race and a defiant Jim Silowski vowed they'd have to carry him out of Greenville in a body bag if they wanted to sack him as manager.
"The players who supported him were willing to die on the hill with him," recalls Homer Stanfield. "Those guys won eight flags together and weren't about to go down without a fight."
Silowski was forced to resign as Greenville High School Athletic Director, but vowed to remain with the Serguci Giants for the remainder of the season. The Green slipped to sixth place; the team's worse stretch run in 21 years,
When was the last time the Giants played a meaningless game?" asked Homer Stanfield about the team that had fallen from grace. "1986?"
Hilltop remained a front runner fighting it out with the surprising County Crusaders.
"It felt weird to be behind as the season came to a close," confesses Suzy Zee. "We were the top team the previous two seasons, but the Crusaders outplayed us down the stretch in '97 and we were looking up at them."
For the third season in a row, it came down to one game: the defending Champion Hilltop Browns (27-14) vs. the first place County Crusaders (28-13). Like Greenville in 1996, Hilltop needed to beat the Crusaders to force a playoff game. The Browns were 7-2 in its last nine games and 10-4 down the stretch, but the Crusaders reminded many of the 1991 Giants – riding a seven game win streak into the final game.
"Nobody mentioned County as a contender at the beginning of the season, including me," notes Homer Stanfield. "It was supposed to be a Brown and Giant rematch. Nobody gave the last place Crusaders a second thought. Isn't baseball wild!?"
County took a 5-4 into the 7th in the big Brown face off, then scored eight unanswered runs and galloped to the championship with a 13-4 blowout win to end the Browns two year fairy tale adventure.
"We came close (to winning) in '94, but the last two seasons had been hell," said Hank Jerome at the time, who won his first flag in 12 seasons as Crusader Skipper. "We played well all year and really turned it on down the stretch."
County's eight game win streak to close the season was most impressive. County became the first team other than the Giants or Browns to win a Title since the 1986 Mudhens. The Crusaders also became the first team since Mark Griffins' '79 Crusaders to go from last to first and the team won its first flag since 1982. The Crusaders never lost more than two games in a row.
"We gave it our best shot," Boomer Christopher said of his 1997 Hilltop Browns. "We came back late and tied them in the standings, but you're not going to win a championship when the other team wins its final eight games. Give Credit to the Crusaders – they played better down the stretch."
"You can't beat yourself up to much when the other team simply outplays you," reasons Suzy Zee. "Our '97 run was just as good as our '95 and '96 performances. The Crusaders were better, that's all."
"Boomer Christopher failed to become the first manager since Mike Preston to win three championships in his first three seasons, but the always optimistic Suzy Zee vowed that the Hilltop Browns would be back in '98.
Little did she know how much things would change before the Serguci League teams took the field on Opening Day 1998.
THE YEAR OF SUZY ZEE
Sponsors of the Greenville Giants wasted little time in lancing the boil that had oozed puss for most of the 1997 Season. Jim Silowski, who won more games than any manager in the history of the league during his 25 year tour with the Giants, couldn't survive the fallout from the scandal involving athletes under his tutelage as Athletic Director at Greenville High School. Sponsors dismissed him as Giant Manager three days after the disastrous '97 Green Campaign ended. Silowski's 548 Giant wins and nine Greenville championships couldn't withstand the anger, resentment, and moral outrage of a community made aware of a long history of inappropriate behavior and attitude by Greenville's schoolboy athletes. The rape of two 14 year old girls by a group of Greenville High School athletes the previous spring cost Silowski his job as Athletic Director and, ultimately, his managership with the Serguci Giants.
Greenville Team Sponsors took Hilltop Brown Manager Boomer Christopher to lunch a few days after Silowski was canned.
"They wanted to see if he thought Brown Coach Suzy Zulinski was ready to pilot the Green Team," says Historian Homer Stanfield. "They asked me first and I told them to ask Christopher – he'd know for sure."
"My first reaction was to say no, of course," Boomer sheepishly confesses. "I didn't want to give up Suzy as my coach and baseball soul mate. I didn't want to forfeit our special times together."
But Christopher realized that it would be selfish to deny Zulinski the chance to make league history.
"If you love someone, you should be willing to let them grow and move on," he says. "I gave my blessings and encouraged the Sponsors to grab Suzy Zee as soon as possible. I knew she could do the job, but it was the hardest advice I had ever given."
"I was flabbergasted that they would want me to follow in the footsteps of a legend," remarks Suzy Zee about her courtship by the Green Sponsors. "I couldn't believe a team known for its machismo would go in such a opposite direction."
Let history record that Suzy Zulinski initially turned down the offer to manage the Giants.
"I just didn't think it was something I was ready to try," she admits. "Being Boomer's right hand gal was one thing; being in charge of a new team was something all together different. Besides, I was born a Hilltop Brown. How could I possibly join the enemy Green?"
A campaign to woe Suzy Zee quickly ensued. Several league legends and Founder Benjamin T. Serguci's widow Maria ("The Mother of the Serguci League") called and encouraged Z to change her mind. Executive Director Beenie Serguci sent flowers, a fruit basket, and a golden whistle to Suzy's house and called every other day. Boomer Christopher told Suzy it was time for her to fly on her own in the Serguci League.
"I realized that this had as much as to do with healing the Greenville Community and re-establishing trust in the Serguci League as it did with me as a person," Suzy Zee says. "I understood that it was time for me to give back that which I had been given, no matter what my loyalty to Hilltop, Boomer and the Browns happened to be."
Most league followers were stunned when the Greenville Giants announced that Suzy Zulinski was the new manager. It was a historic move, of course, as Zee became the first woman to manage a Serguci League team.
"The Giants were long considered a chauvinistic and mean-spirited team under Jim Silowski," says Homer Stanfield. "It never had a woman player and team sponsors wanted to send a message to a suspicious community. I thought it was the right thing to do for the league."
Zulinski's appointment symbolized a new attitude and fresh approach for a squad tarnished by years of scandal. Gone were the egotistical rantings, jock status, and trash talking made popular under Jim Silowski's reign. Suzy Zulinski as Manager marked a new start for a team desperate to recover its popularity and reputation.
"But it also meant another rough and long off-season for me," says Boomer Christopher. "I wasn't sure if I really wanted to manage without Suzy by my side. I had turned her into a rival manager."
"And I was feeling like an orphan," says Suzy Zee. "I had been a Brown all my life. I had gotten to know the guys during my three years as Coach. And now I found myself with a whole new family, starting out all over again. Sleeping with the enemy!"
The two skippers got together every week during the winter to discuss issues. There was an unexpected amount of negative reaction to the Zulinski appointment as some felt she would make a mockery of the game.
"We'd talk about how to address some of the PR issues, but Suzy the book writer knew all about that stuff," says Boomer. "And she wasn't about to let me tell her how to manage either. I just wanted to get together over to be able to see her!"
In what could only be considered a move of hypocrisy, the South County White Sox dumped its long time Manager Denny O'Brien in December and announced his replacement in January: Jim Silowski, and a whole new controversy was born.
The off season leading up to the 1998 Golden Anniversary season was exciting to say the least, but most people were focused on celebrating a half century of Beano Field baseball. The 1998 season would be marked with a season-long agenda of events, tributes and memories saluting the league's 50 years of play.
Suzy Zulinski (as Susan Marion) wrote a History of the Serguci League published that year by the league and made available a week before the anniversary season began.
"The book was my Valentine to everybody who loves the league," Suzy Zee explains. "It gave me great pleasure to do the research and tell the story."
Zulinski's 200-page book included a history of the Serguci Family leading up to the formation of the federation in 1948. It also featured background on the former Army Supply Depot and Blue Field and how the Serguci family launched the league. Also included were chapters on war veterans who played in the league; the Unlucky at 40 Rule that, for more than twenty years, banned players from playing beyond the age of 40; Home Movies (a tradition that began in the 1950s when a local camera store gave several players cameras to film Serguci League games); player testimonials, tributes, memories and story telling; tragedies involving Serguci League Players, nicknames of Serguci League players, and a year by year retelling of each season from 1948-1997. Greenville News and Dispatch Sports Columnist Mickey Demrest penned the chapter on Women of the Serguci League also featured in the commemorative anniversary collection.
"I learned so much about this wonderful league writing about it," says Suzy Zee. "It was really moving and educational to sit down and talk to people who were there at the beginning and to hear so many wonderful stories about the people who made it what it is today. Every person involved had 50 great stories to tell and my biggest challenge was to pick the best to include in the collection."
The book integrated a listing of every player to suit up in the league, as well as team statistics, managerial records, standings, individual and team records, awards, the all time all stars for each team and the all time league all stars.
"A History of the Serguci League by Susan Marion" was well received in the community. More than 2500 copies were sold with the proceeds going to the Serguci League Trust Fund.
The History spurred added excitement as the historic 1998 Golden Season readied to unfold.
Lady Brown Goldie Goldberg resisted the urge to jump to the Giants and play for Suzy Zulinski and Michelle Marion, her spiritual sisters.
"My loyalty told me to stay with the Browns," she says today. "Hap Daniels, Messiah Christopher and Boomer all stuck with me through the rough times and I owed it to them and my teammates to honor their commitment to me. I loved having Suzy around for three years – she was a big sister to me, but I couldn't abandon Hilltop for my personal satisfaction."
Several Giants followed Jim Silowski to the White Sox or went elsewhere instead of playing for "a girl".
"Suzy Zee walked into a uncomfortable situation," says Pete McGee, former Giant Pitcher and long time coach who stayed with the team after the Silowski dismissal. "To be honest, I only planned to stick around for a year to help the transition. I really didn't think Zulinski would be able to withstand the pressure or get the team to play for her."
"I made the assumption that those who stayed did so because they wanted to be Giants and that they were willing to play for me," explains Zulinski. "If I went in there doubting their sincerity, I would have failed."
Former Brown player Butch McHenry, who coached for ex-Brown teammate Jim Coty in Sun Rise the previous season, joined the Giant staff to give Suzy Zee a familiar face on the staff. Brown Infielder Popeye Sylvester also joined the Giant squad to support his former coach.
"Coach Suzy Zee stuck with me when I was going through a personal crisis," explains Popeye. "She was supportive and understanding and made me a better person and player because of her insight and compassion. I'd go to war with her if she asked."
Sylvester is ashamed to admit that he said mean, terrible and unflattering things about – and to – Zulinski when he first joined the Browns.
"I reacted before I understood what she's really all about," says Popeye. "I went with her with the Giants to let those guys know what they were getting."
Also becoming a Giant player that season was 17-year-old rookie pitcher Michelle Marion, daughter of the manager and the first female Giant in club history.
"My three years as ball girl with the Browns was the greatest apprenticeship I could have hoped for," Michelle says. "I was ready to pitch in the league, even at 17, thanks to Goldie Goldberg and Messiah Christopher."
"I knew the first reaction would be 'nepotism' when I put Michelle on the team, but she had been working diligently hard for three years with Goldie and Messiah and I knew she could compete in the league," Suzy says. "The fact that she was my daughter really didn't have all that much to do with it, other than I wanted her with me instead of playing for Boomer!"
"The thing I admire most about Michelle Marion is how competitive she is," says Spanky Raymond. "She never gives up, she never gives in."
Suzy Zee also added 18-year-old softball superstar Sally Rollins to the Giant roster to give Greenville two female players for the 1998 Season. It was the first time in the history of the league that one team had two woman players at the same time.
"Sally Rollins had the potential to become the best woman player ever and Suzy was the perfect manager for that challenge," says Homer Stanfield.
The 1998 Greenville Giants, managed by Suzy Zulinski:
Cf Willie Watson, 26 Fast, spray hitter, stolen base threat. Competitive but quiet
LF Stan Hall, 23 Great Table Setter, but a jerk.
C Brad Culburn, 30 Slugging backstop; team leader, intense player
3b Frank Lee, 27 Slugging All Star, Team Anchor, Loves the Game
1B Paul Rodriquez, 24 Moody and Silent Loner, plays great when he wants too
RF Billy Aldrich, 28 Self-Centered, Egotistical and disliked, but a great hitter
2B Peanut Hayes, 25 Serviceable player, great teammate. Starting by default
SS Popeye Sylvester, 23 Groomed in Hilltop; Can He Be a Giant Success?
1b/Of Harry Quinlian, 36 Seasoned Veteran, once great, now on the fade
UTIL Glen Richardson, 34 Team player, Put off Retirement for year when everybody exited
Util Sally Rollins, 18 Speed may be her ticket
OF Tim Fitzgerald, 18 Rookie with a unbounded future; nice guy
C Elroy Sweeney, 20 Talkative player….but is he all talk no action?
P Bob Richards, 25 Uncontested Ace; humbled player, likeable teammate
P Andy Browlinski, 24 The Polish Bullet; will love to play for Zulinski
P Ike McWade, 18 Rookie Starter, gracious teammate, being asked to fill big hole as #3 Starter
P Frank Mahoney, 21 Yo-Yo Type pitcher. Will he be up this year?
P Reed Reynolds, 28 Never riled, always confident, Bullpen Rock
P Ham Wilson, 21 Still struggling after two rocky seasons. Where's the meat?
P Michelle Marion, 17 Competitive nature; great potential, will be fun to watch
The biggest challenge for Suzy Zulinski was to weather the storm as the league's first female manager replacing one of the most popular and successful managers in the history of the league. How much loyalty and commitment could she expect from those Giants who didn't follow Jim Silowski to So. County? Would the perceived chauvinistic Green accept new female players Michelle Marion and Sally Rollins, not to mention Manager Suzy Zee? Would the squad have any focus or grounding? How would the fans treat the former Greenville High School players who carried a stigma from the school scandal? Would utility Brown Player Popeye Sylvester make it in a full time role – and be accepted by his new teammates?
"I knew that winning games would not be my prime priority in 1998," Suzy Zee explains. "My job that first year was to break the culture that had permeated the team for years. I had to shatter their arrogance and cockiness and convert the players into a humble but positive club with a new philosophy, outlook and attitude. It wasn't going to be easy, but I was certain I could get a majority of them to accept my way and move in a new direction. After all, they hadn't won in three years."
Zulinski was ready to manage. "I learned a lot from Hap Daniels as a player and my three years as a coach for one of the most successful first time managers ever also gave me a doctorate in managerial preparation," she says.
However, three days before the 1998 Golden Anniversary Season opened, the forward thinking Suzy Zee was hit by a unseen pitch when her husband Ron Marion left her with no advanced notice for a new life in Providence, Rhode Island.
"Apparently, he had been having an affair with the radio station's traffic reporter for several months," Boomer reveals. "The news was a scandal for the station and for Suzy of course, and the gossip didn't make her Giant debut any easier."
"We had grown apart since we returned to Blue County," Suzy explains. "Ron never got over the fact that his career stalled and once we got back here, I was wrapped up in all the things I was doing- my graduate degree, working at the community college, writing, and getting involved with the Serguci League again. I guess we were just two different people."
"Ron never wanted to come back to Blue County," his former mother in law, Mary Anne (Mzewski) Zulinski reports. "I knew the only reason they came back to Hillsboro was because Suzy wanted to. I didn't think he'd last as long as he did if you want to know the whattamacallit…..truth."
"It was one of those 'A Star Is Born' scenarios," theorizes Michelle Marion. "Mom was really doing well and was happy with what she was doing, but Dad was feeling left out and forgotten."
"My first reaction was to go to her," Boomer says. "I mean, I was the best friend, right? But I knew this was something Suzy needed to work through and that she would need time. I told myself to give her the summer before doing anything more than saying hi once in a while."
"It was devastating, but I threw myself into the challenge of managing the Giants and spending healing time with Michelle, so I really didn't have to time to sit around and feel sorry for myself," says Zulinski.
Suzy Zee was inspired to prove to those who called her appointment a joke and a sham that they were wrong and she refused to talk about her personal problems in public.
"I'm here to manage a baseball team," is all she would say when the subject of Ron Marion came up.
Her husband's departure fueled negative criticism that the rookie manager had been hearing all winter, but supporters publicly defended her on the eve of the season's opener.
"I would have called the appointment shameful politics if I didn't know Suzy as a person," says Chris "Messiah" Christopher. "She was a student of the game when she was the Browns and one of the best bench players and coaches I've ever known."
"Suzy was a Hap Daniels disciple who made me a successful manager because of her expertise as a coach," Boomer Christopher told Mickey Demrest in a column on the eve of the season premiere. "I have no doubt she'd do well as a manager. I just wish we didn't have to be in opposite dugouts."
And so, after a bumpy and emotional off-season, the 1998 Golden Season finally got off the ground.
"It was humbling and interesting to be a part of history that year," recalls Boomer. "There was a lot of heritage, tradition and the past to be learned and appreciated all season long."
Each Monday game played in 1998 was "MVP Monday" saluting those players and managers who won the award over the years. An All star celebration took place on the 4th of July when the surviving all time-all team all stars were recognized with a commemorative medallion.
"It was like watching a scene out of 'Field of Dreams', says Homer Stanfield of the historic weekend. "Guys showed up in the uniforms they wore in the 1950s."
But the main focus remained the competition for the Championship Title
"We spent our entire Serguci League careers hating Jim Silowski and the Greenville Giants," Boomer points out. "It felt weird not to have that anymore when 1998 opened. How could I possibly hate a team led by Suzy Zee?"
"I sure as hell missed the intensity and emotions the despised Giants brought to their games," said Columnist Mickey Demrest. "The New Giants were led by everybody's kid sister. How could you root against them?"
Pre-season picks favored Boomer Christopher's Browns with some backing Jim Coty's Lions. The consensus seemed to indicate that the County Crusaders had overachieved in 1997 and would not repeat.
The traditional Memorial Day Opening Weekend was more exciting in Golden 1998 as many players from the original 1948 rosters were present, as well as countless other alumni players, managers, coaches and umpires. 98-year-old former Mudhen Manager John Duggan was given a pass from a local nursing home to attend the historic game. Mary Serguci, widow of League Founder Benjamin T. Serguci ("The Mother of the Serguci League"), threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Appropriately enough, the Golden 1998 Season turned out to be one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory. Five teams finished above .500 for the first time since 1993 (the Royals had a chance to make it six, but lost four of its last six contests to finish at 19-23). Three teams were still alive for the title on the last day of the season, and a playoff game decided the championship for only the fifth time in league history.
To nobody's surprise, Boomer Christopher's Hilltop Browns – still not quite believing the loss of its two year championship in 1997 – got off to a quick start – winning eight of the first 10 games on its way to a 14-7 first half season run.
Jim Coty's Sun Rise Lake Lions were 7-5 after 12 match ups, but then went 6-3 to reach the midseason point at 13-8, just one game behind the Hilltoppers.
Of course, most eyes were on the league's "soap opera" teams of Greenville and So County. Greenville started out fairly well (4-2) under rookie Manager Suzy Zulinski, but went into skids of 1-6 and 2-4 before winning two straight to reach the midseason point still (barely) alive at 9-12.
"The Giants were somewhat of a shadow of their former selves in 1998," says Homer Stanfield. "Core players went with Jim Silowski to So. County and the rest of the team were trying to adjust to the new Giant mentality."
The White Sox also won its first game of the season for its new manager Jim Silowski, with a 9-4 thrashing of the Crusaders, but lost three straight before ripping off four wins in a row. The team then won four of its next six games to tie the Lions for second place at 13-8 at the midseason point.
"Not bad for a team that was in last place last year," notes White Sox player George Forbes.
"I don't think Jim Silowski made one comment that was controversial," recalls Homer Stanfield. "He never came out of the dugout to argue with umpires. He was a tamed tiger with the Sox."
The defending champion County Crusaders couldn't seem to get untracked during the first half of the summer, going 10-11 with uninspired play.
All the hopes and joys in Beansboro as the season began (following a strong 1997 finish) quickly died. Hoping to celebrate the family's Golden Season Anniversary, confident with son Marty Serguci at the helm for the complete season, and buoyed by a 20-22 showing in '97, fans were hopeful for a turnaround season in 1998 – eighteen years after the Beansters' last first place finish – but the team crawled to the half way marker with a shockingly bad 5-16 record.
As the dog days of summer progressed, it looked like it was going to be Boomer Christopher's Browns in a run away. The Brownies won eight of twelve games coming out of the mid-season box for a 22-11 mark and most observers conceded the championship title to Hilltop.
But the Browns couldn't get the TKO, repeating the same late season stumble that kept them from tri-peating in 1997 by losing seven of ten games down the stretch to keep the rest of the competing pack in the race.
"We were choke artists," Manager Boomer Christopher admits. "I really missed Suzy during that August swoon. I think she could have made a difference with our attitude and performance."
Jim Silowski's White Sox were still looking good at 18-11, but lost four straight contests to severely hurt its chances. Still, the team won three consecutive games and looked like it could still be a factor, only to drop four make-it-or- break-it crunch time games to blow the season (ala 1991).
"The curse continues!" said Homer Stanfield after yet another failed season for the Pale Hose. "New Manager, new players, same old crap!"
The defending champion County Crusaders lost five of six games after the break and were given up for dead at 11-16. The proud Crusaders did not go down without a fight, however, and won five in a row, nine of ten, and eleven of thirteen to make an interesting stretch run (again).
Jim Coty's Sun Rise Lake Lions essentially had the same second half success as it did in the first part of the season, playing consistent ball and never losing two straight. The Lakers pieced together a 9-5 stretch run which proved to be the difference when the Browns stumbled. But it was the Miller City Mudhens that had the best second half campaign, enjoying a seven game win streak and a 9-2 run to set up a final win or die two week show down that made for one of the most exciting finishes in league history.
The Hilltop Browns were looking good coming down the stretch as the team prepared to host the Greenville Giants in a late season match up.. The Browns were 5-0 against the Green on the season and the Giants had only won 12 games.
"I didn't enjoy beating up on Suzy and the Giants," says Boomer Christopher. "And sweeping them would probably seem cruel, but we needed to win to keep pace."
Greenville built up a 3-0 lead after 5, then exploded for nine runs in the sixth inning to blast the Stunned Browns, 14-2 and suddenly many in Hilltop were getting nervous.
"That was a great game to win," Suzy Zee says. "That was our championship game after a tough season and it made me feel like we belonged when we beat Boomer and the Browns."
"For the first time in my life, I was annoyed – maybe even pissed – at Suzy Zee," Boomer admits. "She was unusually gleeful and almost condescending in her remarks to the press after her big win and it rubbed me the wrong way. I vowed to the team that she would never get the best of us in a big game again."
"It was my one brief moment in the sun and I basked in it," counters the Manager Zulinski. "Boomer was stressed out because they were blowing the championship."
"We didn't go for an ice cream cone after that game, I can tell you that much!" Boomer recalls.
Suzy Zulinski's suddenly reborn Greenville Giants were able to pull off its second consecutive upset – upending the Lions 7-6 in 10 innings to keep the Browns comfortably atop the pack.
"That should have calmed Boomer down," notes Suzy Zee. "Plus, I was able to knock off another mentor (Jim Coty) with a big win and I knew we were back in the saddle again as far as what people thought about us."
"I didn't think there was any way Commander's Lions could catch us," Boomer admits. 'We weren't playing great, but we had the lead and I thought that was enough."
To the delight of League Officials and the 50th Anniversary Committee, the Labor Day Finale was everything a fan could hope for. The Lions and Mudhens (tied at 24-17) would face off in a sudden death game – the winner earning the right to play the Hilltop Browns in a playoff game to determine the championship. It was the Lions who were victorious in a 15 inning 5-4 marathon win for the privilege of facing Hilltop in a championship playoff game.
"How interesting that my old friends Jim Coty and Boomer Christopher would be battling each other for the crown," says Suzy Zee. "Naturally, my heart was with the Browns, but I couldn't deny the great job Jim had done with the Lions."
The Lions outlasted Hilltop 10-9 to win its first championship since 1973, while the Browns blew their second consecutive championship opportunity. The Lions had won 10 of its final 15 games down the stretch while the choking Browns dropped seven of its final 10 to fumble the title.
"Boomer Christopher blew the championship as much as Jim Coty won it," Homer Stanfield says. "Hilltop was almost as bad as the '91 Sox down the stretch – and what made it worse was it was the second season in the row they died during the dog days."
"I was disappointed," understates Boomer Christopher about the '98 collapse.
"But I think Hap Daniels would be proud that three of his players were managing in the league and that two of them fought down to the final out to win a championship," says Suzy Zee. "Jim Coty was the best of the three of us that year."
"I'm glad my old teammate Jim Coty got to win a championship, but 1998 still sticks in my craw," Boomer complains. "We really should have won it that year."
Meanwhile, Rookie Manager Suzie Zulinski had the dubious distinction of leading the Greenville Giants to its worst record in history, finishing 7th for the first time ever. Greenville survived two early four game losing streaks and the loss of veteran back up firstbaseman Harry Quinlian for most of the season (hit in the face by a pitch) to remain alive at 10-22, thanks mostly to Suzy Zee's positive attitude and energetic mentorship.
"She was a very calming influence," reports veteran Giant player Brad Culburn. "She talked with us, she included us in the process, and she was always giving us feedback and support during every game."
"She was one of the most enthusiastic and energetic people I've ever been around in this league," adds Team Captain Frank Lee. "She was a constant cheerleader, always rooting us on, always keeping us in the game."
"Man, she was loud!" adds Outfielder Stan Hall. "She was always yelling out her encouragement!"
But the season fell apart when the Giants lost 10 straight games, prompting two of the team's veteran players to quit in disgusted protest with 10 games still left to play.
"It really hurt when they walked out on me," Zulinski confesses. "But I figured we really didn't need them on the team if that was their attitude. My creditability and future as manager was on the line. I wanted to burst into tears, but I knew all eyes were on me and that this was my defining moment."
"So Suzy watches the two of them exit Beano Field, calmly turns to the rest of us and asks 'Anyone else want to join them?'" recounts Popeye Sylvester. "Nobody said a word for a few moments and then – finally – Brad Culburn says 'We're here to play ball with you, Suzy.'"
Greenville managed to win six of its final 10 games on guts and determination.
"The Giants became Suzy's team at that point," says Boomer. "She took ownership."
"You really got the feeling that the team bonded and gelled," says Homer Stanfield. "Suzy Zee had fostered a new Giant philosophy and culture in just one season."
Michelle Marion (4-3, 6.20) proved that she could pitch in the league, no matter who was managing the team
FIRST HALF SECOND HALF
HILLTOP BROWNS 14 7 MILLER CITY MUDHENS 14 7
SUN RISE LAKE LIONS 13 8 SUN RISE LAKE LIONS 13 9
SO. COUNTY WHITE SOX 13 8 COUNTY CRUSADERS 12 9
COUNTY CRUSADERS 10 11 HILLTOP BROWNS 11 11
MILLER CITY MUDHENS 10 11 SO. COUNTY WHITE SOX 10 11
RIVERSIDE ROYALS 10 11 RIVERSIDE ROYALS 9 12
GREENVILLE GIANTS 9 12 BEANSBORO BEANSTERS 9 12
BEANSBORO BEANSTERS 5 16 GREENVILLE GIANTS 7 14
Suzy Zulinski walked into the off season feeling good about herself and her team, while counterpart Boomer Christopher faced the winter trying to figure out how to get his team back to the promised land after two sub-par summers, especially the '98 crash and burn at season's end.
But May 1999 was a long time off and Boomer's foist concern was how to approach Suzy Zee during the off-season now that Ron Marion was out of the picture.
"I had been waiting since 8th grade and I figured that was long enough!" says Boomer. "I wasn't going to be passive about Suzy this time around."
There wasn't any reason for Boomer to tread lightly when it came to spending time with his long lost secret love. He had his first golden opportunity to pursue his fantasy since the 8th grade Social rejection and Boomer wanted to make sure he did it right this time.
Susan Marion did not teach creative writing at Blue County Community College that fall, opting to focus full time on her writing. She went to work on her newest novel – Traffic Girl – which she called her Nora Ephron 'Heartburn' type revenge book to process her failed marriage. The project kept her busy, although Boomer escorted her to the Serguci Awards Dinner in October. They also went to a New England Patriots football game with a busload of Serguci players in November, and spent time with each other's family on Thanksgiving.
"It occurred to me that I had been taking it slow with Suzy Zulinski for about 35 years and maybe now was the time to start making my move," recalls Boomer. "I mean, it wasn't as if we didn't know each other."
Boomer suggested to Suzy that they pen a play together for the spring theatre project at the community college. Certainly, the publicity of a show written by the nationally known writer Susan Marion would generate some good PR for the college Suzy agreed and that was Boomer's in to be able to spend quality time with her again.
"It took me a while to catch on that he was romancing me," Suzy admits with a laugh. "I mean, Boomer had always been around and I didn't think much of it when we starting doing the play. Then I noticed that he was much more expressive and affectionate toward me and the light clicked on. Oh, we're finally there."
"My mother had reservations because of me," says Michelle Marion. "But I figured out the deal the first year we were back!"
Suzy decided to spend the holidays in Barbatos with Michelle and her friend "Danny" (Danielle). A third room was added and Boomer went along so he and Suzy could finish writing the play.
"The Day Fredrico Lewis Got His Head Squashed" by Susan Marion and Wallace Bird (Boomer's pen name) was a farcical romp about six college friends during one strange weekend.
"We thought about every weird and funny college story we could remember, remembered all the humorous people we had known back then, exaggerated all of it, and came up with the play," says Boomer. "It's a lark."
Naturally, the playwrights didn't spend the entire vacation writing.
"The island has wonderful beaches and we did a lot of our thinking and writing on them," says Boomer. "And how can you not feel romantic being in such a romantic place?"
"I was in no hurry to start anther relationship, but it was hard not to get amorous in paradise," admits Suzy Zee.
"I was the one who gave mom permission," reveals Michelle Marion. "I watched them play their silent and quiet dance for three years and I knew it was meant to be."
The 35-year Boomer and The Zee dance was finally and ultimately consummated during that holiday getaway.
"It was a long time coming! But, at 40, we were experienced enough to know what the real meaning of life was. Maybe it wouldn't have been the same if we got together when we were 18."
Boomer admits that he thought about the late great Hap Daniels, wishing he could call his friend and mentor and report to him that he was finally naked with Suzy Zee in front of the television watching Notre Dame football!
"With a few one night exceptions, I'd been celibate since ending it with Hap's daughter," he says. "I always knew it would be Suzy."
Their co-written play, directed by Boomer, was a success, and Traffic Girl went to the publisher that March. Boomer and Suzy spent time together upon their return from the Caribbean, though Boomer maintained his own house "for logistical purposes".
"Our new life was progressing smoothly and wonderfully until the beginning of the Serguci League season," says Boomer "Then we started feeling tentative and cautious."
"We both wanted to win so badly," laughs Suzy Zee. "We wondered if we could exist together as a couple and as adversaries on the baseball diamond."
Boomer confesses he seriously considered walking away from the Serguci League when he and Suzy Zee finally became "an item".
"I wasn't sure if I wanted to go up against my lover Suzy Zee as an opposing manager," he reveals. "I didn't like how I felt after she beat us in that big crunch time game before we were together and I didn't want resentment in our baseball life to come between us in our personal life."
But the Browns manager didn't want to quit on his team either and decided to give it another go around, hoping to find redemption after two disappointing seasons.
"I felt like I owed it to Hap Daniels to soldier on," he says.
Boomer and the Zee reached a compromise to stay away from one another during the competitive season.
"We agreed to spend the summer apart to protect our relationship," Boomer explains.
"We went to the Hilltop Creamie on the night before the season opener," reveals Suzy Zee. "And when the evening was over, we both said 'See You On Labor Day!' Boomer replied 'I'll be here!'"
"I didn't want to be questioned or second guessed on a managerial move that failed or was perceived to help the Giants" says Boomer. "I didn't want to be accused of playing favorites regarding anything that even remotely benefited Greenville. It was an integrity issue for me."
"I was worried about the sexual politics," adds Suzy Zee. "Here I was the poster girl for equal rights and strong women figures. But people would think I was just some 'Stand By Your Man' lightweight if they saw me with the Hilltop manager all the time."
SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES
Boomer Christopher's Hilltop Browns returned to Beano Field in 1999 hungry to reclaim glory.
"I guess '95 and '96 spoiled us," says Catcher Owl Hamilen. "Losing in'97 was a surprise, blowing it in '98 was an embarrassment. We approached '99 with a new hunger and determination and Boomer let us know that it was time to get serious."
Many were caught by surprise during the off-season when long-time Brown pitcher Bing Crosby quit the team. The pitcher had long been known for his temperamental and high-strung personality. He left the Browns once before in the mid-1980s when Hap Daniels wouldn't let him start, returning after one year in the purgatory of the Beansboro Beansters.
Crosby blew several key games down the stretch in '98 and had confrontations with his manager after displaying questionable attitudes in those losses. Convinced Christopher had shown him up, Crosby announced in February that he would not return to the Browns for the '99 Campaign.
"If Suzy Zee or Jim Coty wants me, I'll be glad to pitch for them," he said in a column written by Mickey Demrest.
Coty already had two young closers in his bullpen and didn't think he could properly utilize Crosby's talents, but the Giants didn't have a true fireman and Suzy Zee knew Crosby could help the team, even at 39 years of age.
"The Bing Crosby episode is when Boomer and I had our first big fight," says Suzy Zee. "That's the reason we decided to stay apart during the season. Boomer felt I was trying to trump him; I just wanted to help the Giants become the best team it could."
"Yeah, I was pissed," Boomer admits. "I was mad at Bing for abandoning us and I was annoyed that Suzy was willing to steal him from us."
"Think Annie Oakley and Frank Butler singing Irving Berlin's Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better!" notes Michelle Marion about the beginning of the 1999 season. "Mom wanted to win a championship for Greenville in the worse way, while Boomer was obsessed in getting another title for the Browns."
Even with the addition of Crosby, Suzy Zee still had issues of her own with The Green. She was forced to boot Coach Butch McHenry off her staff for repeatedly questioning her authority. McHenry had attempted several power plays during the '98 season and undermined the manager's credibility by offering his own philosophy to players and, on a few occasions, countermining some of Zee's orders.
"I guess he thought he had oversight on my managerial abilities," says Suzy Zee. "It made for a uncomfortable and intolerable situation."
Hoping to take psychological advantage of the White Sox, Zulinski appointed former Pale Hose Manager Denny O'Brien as a Giant coach.
"I thought he might want to take out some revenge," she says with a smile. "Plus I wanted some experience on the staff."
"I liked the look of the '99 Giants," says Homer Stanfield. "They added some veteran leadership and strength to go along with the youthful new blood. I thought Suzy Zee had a legitimate chance to contend that year."
Would the '99 Season be an anti-climatic bore compared to the excitement, celebration, pageantry, nostalgia, sentimentality, drama, and show down of the Golden 1998 Summer? How could the '99 Stretch run possible measure up to the down-to-the-wire finish of '98?
Many Serguci League followers were ready to write off 1999 as a lull year between the Golden Season and the approaching Millennium, with the only true excitement being the possibility of Jim Silowski turning the Sox into winners and Suzy Zulinski's attempt to return the Giants to glory.
Three off-season deaths left a pall over the '99 season. In November, just six months after throwing out the Ceremonial First Pitch for the Gold Opening Day, 95 year old Mary Serguci – window of League Founder Benjamin T. Serguci and known as "The Mother of the Serguci League" – passed away. Less than two months later, the community lost another icon when 98-year-old John Duggan – "The Dean of Serguci League Managers" – died in his sleep on Christmas Eve. Finally, and most unexpectedly, in February, 39-year-old Beanster Pitcher and Serguci Cousin Sonny Laso – grandson of the late Mary Serguci – was killed in a freak snowmobile accident.
"Three prominent deaths made for an usual start to the season," says Homer Stanfield. "It made everybody realize that the torch had been passed."
Although most pre-season forecasters believed the top teams for the previous season (Lions, Browns, Mudhens and White Sox) would be in the 1999 hunt, most made the Miller City club the sentimental favorites especially when the team dedicated their season to the memory of "The Dean", John Duggan.
But then the "new" Giants of the Suzy Zulinski era jumped out to a 6-0 start while the Mudhens stumbled out of the gates at 1-6 and followers were forced to take a second look at their pre-season picks.
"We got off to a 14-3 start that year but weren't being taken very seriously," complains Michelle Marion. "My mother was held to a higher standard because she was a woman."
"Everybody loved Suzy as a person, but I don't think there were many who believed she could bring Greenville a title," agrees Statistician Spanky Raymond. "Nobody would come out and say why, but the reason was pretty obvious to most."
"Yeah, I was a woman!" laughs Suzy Zee.
Greenville lost 3 of 4 leading to the midseason marker which allowed Boomer Christopher's Browns to catch the Green in the standings and the nay sayers were ready to bury the Giant team.
"I reminded the team of my pledge not to let Suzy Zee upstage us again," says Boomer. "We were on a mission that year – to beat the Giants and to win back the championship."
Most prophets abandoned the Mudhens (8-13) by the midseason and threw their allegiances to the Hilltop Browns, which recovered from a 7-5 start to catch the Giants at 15-6, thanks to an 8-1 run that included an 18-5 thumping of Greenville.
"I had been in Suzy's shadows my entire life," reveals Boomer. "She got more dates than me. She was a better player than me. She was a popular woman player; I was a second rate bench warmer. She was a better writer than me. She had a more successful career. She beat me at marriage, 17 years to 1! She was prettier than me. So it meant a lot to me to be able to be a better manager. Not because I didn't want a woman beating me; but because I didn't want Suzy beating me."
Jim Coty's defending champion Lions stayed in the hunt with a 12-9 first half performance, and County's 10-11 posting kept them alive (in theory) in the race.
The second half of the season became the Suzy and Boomer Show as the Giants and Browns were the Main Act, with the Lions and Crusaders the second feature.
The predicted Giant fold appeared to come true as the 2nd half began – Greenville lost three of its first four, while Hilltop sprinted to a 4-1 breakout.
"By midseason, everybody was focused on us in the race and the pressure began to mount," Suzy explains.
On July 15th, Greenville dropped out of first place for the first time on the season when the Browns beat the Mudhens 9-3, but the Giants bounced back by winning three straight (two in extra innings, including a 9-4 win over the Browns in 13 innings) while Hilltop was dropping three straight.
"I didn't want the team winning for me," explains Suzy. "I wanted them to win for themselves. This is a team that had been ridiculed and scandalized, but they impressed me as a team of character and depth, worthy of all good things that came their way."
Coming into the stretch, Greenville won five of six while Hilltop lost five of eight when the two front-runners met in a doubleheader show down on August 15th.
"Hilltop's credibility was on the line," says Homer Stanfield. "They would be known as the Choke Team of the late 1990s if they failed again in crunch time."
Greenville retained first place with a 13-6 win in Game 1 (Bob Richards struck out 14 Brownies), but Hilltop put a nine spot on the board in the first inning of Game 2 to skate to a 10-2 win and stay relevant at 22-12, a half game behind the 22-11 Giants.
'It was great that the Browns and Giants were sparring together again after a few years off and duking it out with Suzy," says Boomer. "Truth be known, I really wanted to beat her and the Giants, no matter how much I loved her!"
Greenville kept the pressure on Boomer and the Browns and looked like a Team of Destiny when it won its next three contests, including a 19-2 destruction of the Beansters.
Hilltop, meanwhile, dropped a costly 8-2 game to the Sox in 10 innings and a 2-1 heartbreaker to the Crusaders to fall to 24-14 while the Giants were still looking good at 25-11.
"I'm glad we agreed to spend the summer apart because I know I would have been resentful and bitter if we hung out together while we were trying to kill each other on the baseball diamond!" says Suzy Zee. "I was surprised at how much I wanted to win a championship that year. And I didn't care at whose expense!"
It was Christopher Vs. Coty once again when the Browns and Lions faced off in an extremely important twin bill. The Lions were still mathematically alive at 20-16 while the Browns needed big wins to stay with the Giants.
Lion Slugger Al Miller hit his League record-breaking 235th home run in the first inning of the first game to steal all the headlines.
"I was with the Browns when Messiah set the all time win record and it was a thrill to be with the Lions when Al set the HR record," says Jim Coty. "I was gratified to be present for two historic events."
But Miller making history couldn't prevent the Lions from getting swept by Hilltop (7-6, 10-9) to eliminate the Lake Team from contention.
"As meaningful as the Al Miller feat was, it sucked to be swept out of defending our title, made even worse to be knocked out by – whom else? – My old team," says the Commander. "My biggest fears at the beginning of the year had been realized – we were unable to repeat."
The Browns' double win allowed Hilltop to move ahead of Greenville in the win column (although the Giants had three less losses).
In the league's first ever "Midnight Madness" Game (played in the early morning hours of August 29th) the Beansboro Beansters helped the Browns by beating the Giants 8-7 in 10 innings.
"I went on record as saying we should never again sponsor a midnight madness game!" notes Suzy Zee of the early morning loss.
While the fight between Boomer Christopher's Hilltop Browns and Suzy Zulinski's Greenville Giants was making most of the front sports page news, Hank Jerome's County Crusaders – given up for dead at the mid-season mark – had quietly won seven of its first eight games in the second half and, with a double header sweep of the last place Royals on August 29th (by convincing scores of 10-0 and 15-5), were still alive at 24-15.
As fate would have it, two of the Crusaders last three games were against the Browns, setting up County in the position to either come out of nowhere to steal the championship outright or play crippling spoiler.
Greenville eased the nerves of those who were beginning to panic by beating the Mudhens 9-5 on August 30th to tie the Browns with 26 wins (Greenville had two less losses than Hilltop), but the Browns kept pace with a 9-3 victory over the Crusaders on September 1st, knocking tough County out of contention after a fantastic second half run.
"We lost to the Crusaders in '97, so it was just deserts to knock them out that time around," says Boomer.
The following night, new rivals Greenville and So. County (because of the Jim Silowski factor) hooked up in a wild one, with the Sox taking a 9-8 victory and suddenly the Giants first place lead was in serious jeopardy.
"What impressed me most about the crunch time run is that Suzy Zee never panicked, never lost her cool, never turned on the team," recalls Coach Pete McGee. "She was one of the most even keeled personalities I've been around and the team was much more relaxed because of that sort of leadership."
"One of the most important things I learned from Boomer was to never let them see you sweat," reports Suzy Zee. "You could be dying inside, but you had to appear relaxed and in control on the outside."
Greenville remained in control of its own destiny with remaining games against the 11-29 Royals, 19-22 Beansters and 13-23 White Sox, while the Browns had one game remaining with the Crusaders, a team dying to knock out the Hilltoppers.
Ironically, the Giants – a team with 26 victories – was in a must win situation against the Royals, a team Greenville had beaten four of five times that season. The Royals, 8-11 in the second half of the campaign and the worse team in the league, had lost its last five games by a combined score of 57-23, while Greenville was 6-3 in its last nine contests.
Riverside third baseman Matt Joseph- struggling through the worse season of his career – hit a three run homer in a four run Royal first and Riverside never looked back as it rock and rolled to a 14-6 crunching of the stunned Giants.
"That's why I love this game," Homer Stanfield remarked after the upset. "No matter what the record might say and no matter what's at stake, any given team can beat another team on any given day."
The blow out knocked Greenville (26-14) out of the top perch by a ½ game behind the 27-14 Brownies.
"You don't want to be the team falling out of first place on Labor Day Weekend in this league," observed a realistic Suzy Zulinski "There's 42 games on the schedule and each of them mean something."
The Royals defeat was a serious blow, but the Giants were still very much alive in the race for the Crown. Greenville played the Beansters (a team the Green had beaten four out of five times) while the Browns faced the always tough Crusaders – a team with something to prove.
The Beansters gave Greenville a scare, but the Giants pulled out a 6-5 victory to tie the Browns for the top spot at 27-14.
"We had done the best we could, but the season was no longer in our control," says Suzy Zee. "God would have to write the ending for us."
Boomer's Browns were determined not to repeat its late season chokes of recent seasons and simply undressed the County Crusaders with a four run third, four run fourth, and three run seventh to wipe out County, 14-6.
The convincing Brown victory placed all the pressure back on Greenville, which needed a win against "old friend" Jim Silowski's White Sox on Monday night to force a playoff game with the Browns.
"Could it possibly get any better than this?" gleamed Homer Stanfield. "A show down between former Giant Manager Silowski now with the Sox and the team that got rid of him? Fantastic!"
Greenville was nursing a 7-5 lead in the 8th, but Super Giant Reliever Frank Mahoney (9-0 with 1 save) served up a three run homer to Sox Catcher Ned Korch and the Sox took an 8-7 lead.
For many, 1991 must have flashed through the collective psyche of the So. County White Sox because three Sox pitchers couldn't stop ten Giants from coming to the plate in the bottom of the 8th. A lead off error seemed harmless when the next two Giant hitters made outs, but a single, double, two walks, and another single plated four unearned Giant runs and gave Greenville an 11-8 lead going to the 9th.
The Sox made it interesting by scoring two runs in the 9th, but Bing Crosby came on and nailed down his 12th save to send his Green Team to a playoff show down with the Browns.
"Thank God for Bing Crosby!" laughs Suzy Zee. "He got redemption in a big game and we got to face Boomer in a showdown at the OK Corral."
In 51 seasons of Serguci League baseball, only five campaigns finished in a tie (remarkably, the Hilltop Browns were involved in four of them!). In 1999, for the first time in league play, back-to-back seasons ended in a tie (Lions and Browns at 25-17 in '98).
In '99, it was the Browns and Giants facing off in a one-game winner take all show down. The match-up was repeat of 1995 (Hilltop Manager Boomer Christopher's debut season) when Greenville and Hilltop both finished at 32-10 and the Browns won the playoff showdown to end Jim Silowski's eight year championship run in Greenville.
"This was a different Giant team," Suzy Zee points out. "Those Giant teams won on arrogance, the '99 team won on guts."
Although the Giants had been in first place for most of the 1999 season, the team was considered the underdog going into the playoff match. Most onlookers believed Hilltop, denied titles by their own ineptness in 1997 and 1998 after winning it all in '95 and '96, were unlikely to blow it yet again. Also, Hilltop had finished the campaign on a 7-2 run while Greenville wilted under the pressure, losing three of four during crunch time.
'Didn't matter," says Boomer Christopher. "It still all came down to one winner takes all show down."
Hilltop appeared to settle the matter in the first inning by taking an early 4-0 lead.
"I reminded our guys that we were a good team and that we could beat them," says Suzy Zee of the early hole.
Greenville did not go belly up. Down 4-2, the Giants exploded for four runs in the fifth to take a 6-4 lead. A sac fly in the sixth moved Hilltop back within one at 6-5 and the Browns froze the Giants bats on one hit through three innings to keep Hilltop in the game.
The Giants pitcher of the year, Frank Mahoney (10-0 with 1 save) came on to pitch the 8th and gave up the game tying run. With the season on the line, Suzy Zulinski went to Bing Crosby (1-1 with 12 saves) who had saved Greenville's final two wins of the regular season.
With a runner on first and one out, Crosby gave up a double to score what proved to be the playoff game's winning run.
"How ironic that the only game Frank Mahoney would lose all year was the one game that really mattered," notes Homer Stanfield.
"You can only go to the well so many times," sighs Suzy Zee about Bing Crosby's failure. "We gave it our all and came oh so close."
The 7-6 clutch Hilltop win gave the Browns its 3rd banner in five years.
"Statistically, Hilltop had been the best team on paper for several years and, since 1993, had won more games than any other team (190 to the Giants' 180) but this was only the third title in those seven seasons," says Spanky Raymond.
"There's only one stat that means anything at the end of any baseball season," Manager Boomer Christopher said after winning his third championship in five tries. "Wins."
"We should have won all five since 1995," complains Brown Catcher Owl Hamilen. "The Lions and Crusaders didn't win those two years – we LOST – we blew it big time. That's why '99 felt so good."
For Suzy Zulinski and the upstart Giants, it was a tough way to end an otherwise successful dream season.
"I really thought we were going to win it all and it hurt to fall short," Zee admits. "Michelle was ready to kill somebody and Sally (Rollins) was a basket case after that playoff loss. I wanted to cry myself, but knew I had to suck it up for the team."
"I was going to tell Suzy Zee after the game that Greenville had surprised everybody but themselves with an outstanding season, that she should be proud of the effort, and that she finally earned acceptance as a Serguci League Manager," says Boomer. "But when I saw the look on her face, I decided to stay away and wait for her to give me a call!"
"No, there was no Hilltop Creamie ritual that night," notes Suzy Zee. "If Boomer had even hinted of a gloat, I would have killed him."
HILLTOP BROWNS 29 14
GREENVILLE GIANTS 28 15
COUNTY CRUSADERS 25 17
SUN RISE LAKE LIONS 23 19
BEANSBORO BEANSTERS 19 23
SO. COUNTY WHITE SOX 18 24
MILLER CITY MUDHENS 15 27
RIVERSIDE ROYALS 12 30
As painful as it was for the Giants, the exciting 1999 Serguci League season was a redemption year for Boomer Christopher and his Hilltop Browns.
"We shook the monkey off our backs after two years of disappointment," Boomer says. "We finally won the game we had to, even if it was at the cost of Suzy Zee. It was a mixed blessing for me, because I felt bad for Suzy and guilty that I had been the one to deny her the championship."
While Boomer Christopher once again basked in the Spotlight, Jim Coty had to accept the reality that his glory in the sun only lasted one brief season. In 50 years of Serguci League play, only seven teams at least repeated its championship performance:
1949-1953 Beansters Five-peat
1960-1962 Giants Three-peat
1966-1967 Browns Repeat
1974-1976 Royals Three-peat
1978-1979 Mudhens Repeat
1987-1994 Giants Eight-peat
1995-1996 Browns Repeat
Suzy Zulinski, meanwhile, could take some solace in the fact that her Cinderella Team stunned the Blue County World by almost winning it all in 1999.
Zulinski became an instant folk hero for bringing the Giants back from the grave in just two short seasons. After all, the Greenville Giants had won more games (1,277 at the end of the '99 campaign) and championships (15) than any other club in league history before the wheels fell off in Jim Silowski last few years.
"They're our version of the New York Yankees," says Executive Director Beenie Serguci.
The team's reputation had been significantly tarnished by the 1997 scandal and the once proud franchise was seen as a joke by some in 1998 when the first woman in league history rode the team far down into the second division.
"It was disillusioning at first," admits Pete McGee of the new Zulinski era in Greenville. "I had every intention of quitting after one year of Suzy Ball, but then something strange happened even while we were losing in '98: I found myself enjoying the Zulinski experience."
McGee saw that Suzy Zee had no ego and wasn't on a power trip. In charge but inclusive, demanding yet open-minded and accepting; understanding and interested, McGee found her a breath of fresh air and exciting to be around.
"She listens to the players, she asks for input from her coaches, and she bounces ideas off people instead of just pulling rank," says Coach Denny O'Brien. "She's process orientated and sees the big picture."
"I love playing for Suzy Zee," says Pitching Ace Bob Richards. "There's no negativity or swearing from the dugout. I'm not embarrassed by my teammate's antics. I don't have to apologize to the Ump for the attitudes and behaviors of my teammates. Zulinski brought sanity, dignity and respect to Greenville."
The Giants became the Cinderella Team of '99 thanks to a 14-3 start that put the Green into the Driver's Seat.
"A Cinderella Team is a squad that comes out of nowhere to surprise everybody else," explains Historian Homer Stanfield. "The 1980 Beansters won a title after 14 consecutive losing seasons. The '54 Crusaders won it all in their debut season. The '57 Mudhens went from worse (14-26 in '56) to first (34-8 in 57)."
"I was really upset that we lost the championship game," Suzy Zee admits. "But after I had a few days to think about it, I realized how much we had accomplished and how great we really were, even if we were the Rodney Dangerfield of the league."
Zulinski mentions the great breakout start and the fact that the team was in first place for most of the season. Yeah, they lost the playoff showdown, but Greenville's 28 wins were better than the '87, '88, '90 and '91 Giant Teams, as well as the '86 Mudhens and even the '98 Lions, all squads that won titles.
Michelle Marion (2-1, 1 save, 4.19 ERA) had her second consecutive impressive season as a relief pitcher.
Suzy Zee did give Boomer Christopher a call, three days after the end of the '99 show down.
"Three days was long enough to feel sorry for myself," she says "I said 'Meet me at the Hilltop Creamie' and hung up."
"We pretended the season never happened and went on with our lives, together," says Boomer.
Suzy had a book tour to make as Traffic Girl was published in early October. She was also conducting background research and interviews for her new book, Home Court Advantage: The Cardiac Kids Ride Again, a basketball novel paying homage to her brother Mickey and the project kids who played the game.
Boomer and the Zee attended the Serguci Awards dinner together. Usually, the championship manager is named Manager of the Year but, in a surprise vote, Suzy Zulinski of the Greenville Giants was named 1999 Serguci League Manager of The Year.
"It was a humbling honor, and a total shock," says Suzy Zee. "I didn't even hear them announce my name. Boomer had to force me up to the podium!"
Boomer, Zee and Green College Student Michelle spent the holidays in Los Angeles so Suzy could meet with television producers who wanted to make a series based on her short story entitled "Three Squared Double Trouble" written several years earlier in a collection called "Cows In The Outfield", but Susan Marion passed on the opportunity.
"The story was intended to be a seriously sarcastic satire on the condition of today's family, but they wanted to turn it into a idiotic sitcom that actually endorsed the attitudes captured in the story," says Suzy Zee who vowed to never sell out her personal integrity or values just to make some money or become famous.
The threesome spent Millennium New Year's Eve in San Francisco and enjoyed some time in Vancouver before returning East.
Once again, as the spring approached, both managers began focusing on the upcoming season. The new millennium brought new hope and dreams for the eight teams that made up the Serguci League federation.
The Giants were primed to re-capture the Championship Flag after a five-year drought. Suzy Zee's team improved itself during the off-season and had a real chance to better its 28-win season of '99.
"The Dynamic Duo" of infielders Pete McGee and D. C. O'Shea became instant starters when they joined the 2000 Team. The Duo had been playing along side each other since 1st grade T-Ball and was considered one of the greatest double play combinations to play in the league, even before they suited up for one game. The two boys started for the Greenville High School team as freshman (as a result of the scandal) and had refined their craft to an art.
"They were among the most ballyhooed rookies in the history of the league," says Historian Homer Stanfield. "They were considered the Second Coming of Christ and they were playing for Suzy Zulinski."
So great was the hype regarding the Dynamic Duo, Popeye Sylvester elected to return to the Hilltop Browns.
"I didn't mind Popeye going back," Suzy Zee says. "I was grateful that he came over with me to offer his support and backing as I got accustomed to the new team."
There is no reason why Greenville can't win it all in 2000," Homer Stanfield observed at the time.
The Hilltop Browns opened the 2000 Season against the Riverside Royals, a team desperate for any success following a dismal last place finish in 1999.
Boomer and The Zee had their farewell ice cream at the Hilltop Creamie the night before the opening game, wished each other the best of luck, and said they'd see each other on Labor Day night.
"I'll be here," Boomer reminded Suzy.
The season was already in peril for the Giants when the Green faced "old friends" Hilltop Browns for the first time since the 1999 Championship showdown. Suzy Zee's team got off to a stunningly bad 0-7 start and desperately needed a win to save an already doomed season.
"I was quickly humbled in 2000," says Suzy. "I forgot everything Hap taught me about the game because I was so excited by the prospect of beating Boomer and the Browns. Hap always preached staying humble, don't trip over your own ego, expect the unexpected, and how anything can happen in the game of baseball. I was reminded of that cold reality as the 2000 season unfolded."
Greenville lost its opener to the Mudhens (8-7 and 13-10 in a Saturday afternoon doubleheader); got croaked twice by the Royals (7-3 and 16-6 on Labor Day), got hammered by the Beansters 15-4 and again 9-6, then got blown out by the Sox, 16-6 for the horrible and disillusioning start.
"What I remember most about that rough start is that Suzy Zee never changed the way she managed," recalls Coach Pete McGee. "She never panicked, she never got negative, and she never lost confidence in her own abilities. She stayed the course and told the guys to hang in there and it would get better."
But it didn't get better right away. Hilltop won 9-7 to return to the top spot in the standings at the expense of Suzy and the Giants, now a mind boggling 0-8 in the standings.
"A few years ago, with Jim Silowski in charge of the Green, it would have been great seeing the Giants this down," Boomer admitted after handing Greenville its 8th loss to open the season. "But those days are gone and it's hard not to feel sorry for Suzy Zulinski."
"Excuse me, but I didn't want anybody feeling sorry for me," counters Suzy Zee.
It would have been easy for the winless Giants (0-8) not to show up for the second game of the double header and, for a while, it looked like that was the case as the Green fell behind 5-1, but Greenville came to life late (including a six run 8th) to rally for a 9-5 win to end the nightmare skid at 8.
"I don't need anybody feeling sorry for me or my team," a defiant Zulinski said after the game. "We've got 33 games left and we'll be in every one of them."
When the Browns lost its fourth straight game (9-8 to the Crusaders) to fall to 8-8 on the season, some began to wonder if the Great Brown Run was over.
Just when it looked like it was about to become the Year of the White Sox with the Browns on the verge of falling by the wayside, the Sox dropped a doubleheader to the Beansters and Hilltop came alive with a doubleheader sweep of the Miller City Mudhens to climb right back into the thick of things.
The Road to the 2000 Championship went through Hillsboro as the 1st place White Sox discovered after getting slam dunked by the suddenly revived Browns, 17-2.
"In just three games, Boomer Christopher has gone from on the ropes to in the driver's seat," noted Columnist Mickey Demrest at the time.
"There was a log jam with no team able to break out," notes Homer Stanfield. "Seven of the 8 teams had 10 losses at the half way point and no squad gave any indication that they were ready to run away from the pack and sprint down the stretch."
The Browns' 7-6 win over the Beansters created a five way tie for first place at 12-10 (Hilltop, Sox, Royals, Mudhens, and Crusaders), marking the first time since 1986 that five teams had been tied for the top spot that late in the season.
The Browns faced the rival Greenville Giants in a Saturday twin bill. Hilltop prevailed 10-7 in the first game, but Greenville held on to a 5-4 win over Hilltop in Game Two.
"We're not rolling over for anybody," vowed Suzy Zee after the game. "We're playing every game as if it's a championship game."
The Browns had been defending its championship title literally for several weeks by fending off several challengers – the Beansters, the Crusaders, the Royals, and The White Sox in face-to-face show downs. Hilltop (20-13) faced another "defense" when the (19-14) Mudhens came to play. The Browns went up 9-0 after two innings, but had to hold on for a 15-13 escape win, going 10-3 since the break.
That game turned out to be the last stand for the rest of the league as the Browns successfully defended its League Championship by running away down the stretch. A nine game win streak turned a closely contested four way race into a Brown breakaway and awarded Hilltop its 4th flag in six Boomer Christopher campaigns.
Although the Browns had secured the championship, the team hoped to extend its nine game win streak when it faced off against old nemesis Greenville.
Suzy Zulinski had worked miracles after the Giants began 0-8. Greenville entered the Labor Day Weekend at 18-21 with a chance to finish .500 after a horrible start.
"Suzy Zee was a better manager in 2000 than she had been in 1999," gushes Denny O'Brien. "I've never seen such grace under fire in my life."
An inspired Green Team blasted Hilltop 12-8 in Game 1 to end the Browns nine game roll. In Game 2, The Browns scored five runs in the top of the first and led 8-2 in the 6th, but lost the game 11-10 it what was the first back-to-back loss for the Browns since losing Games 20 and 21 on the schedule (Crusaders and Beansters).
"It's been a while since we've been able to play some meaningless games at the end of the season, so it wasn't as if we really needed to win today," Boomer said after the game.
Some couldn't help but think maybe Christopher threw the games so help ease Suzy Zee's lost season.
"Anybody who knows me knows that not to be true," vows Boomer. "I want to beat Suzy every time I face her, just like I want to beat any team I face."
"Geez, can't I get any credit for beating those guys without being accused of having a fix in?" complained Suzy Zee.
Zulinski stopped Christopher as he walked off the field after the games and suggested they meant at the Hilltop Creamie later.
"The season was over for all practical purposes, so there was no reason why we couldn't' resume our lives together a little early," Suzy explains with a smile.
"I told her we'd bring the ice cream cone home and have it in bed!" Boomer laughs.
Hilltop ended the season on a high note, crunching the Crusaders 15-3 to prevent County from finishing the season at .500.
"It was a gratifying and fun year for us," Boomer recalls. "A great run to end the season with no pressure was a nice change of pace."
Oh, if only Greenville hadn't started the season winless in eight tries. Suzy Zulinski's Giants played .617 ball after the horrific start and finished the season 21-21 by winning six of its final seven games, 9 of 12, and going 14-7 in the 2nd half, including an 11-5 thump job of the dead Lions to close the season.
"I'm very proud of the team for not quitting," Suzy Zee said at season's end. 'We got our lunch handed to us early, but we hung tough and made a difference as the season progressed."
Hilltop Browns 27 15
Riverside Royals 23 19
So. County White Sox 23 19
Miller City Mudhens 23 19
Greenville Giants 21 21
County Crusaders 20 22
Beansboro Beansters 17 25
Sun Rise Lake Lions 14 28
The Millennium Edition of the Serguci League was a season full of surprises and excitement, though in the end a repeat champion was once again crowned. There were 13 lead ties or changes during the first half of the season and the race will still wide open as the second lap began. The Lions and Beansters quickly faded, but the Sox, Royals, Mudhens, Crusaders and Browns all vied for the top rung. In fact, five teams were tied for first place at 12-10 on July 17th, but Hilltop opened up full throttle going down the stretch and never looked back for an easy championship run.
"Everybody sprinted well together for the first two thirds of the season, but the Browns turned it on and nobody kept pace," says Homer Stanfield "They did what it takes to win a marathon."
"We got hot at the right time," explained Manager of the Year (again) Boomer Christopher. "We won the games we had to during crunch time and that was the difference."
Many league followers were beginning to include Boomer Christopher's name on the short list of all time great Serguci League Managers. Since assuming the helm of the Browns in 1995 for legendary Hap Daniels, The Boomer racked up a stunning 180-85 record (never finishing worse than second) for a winning percentage of .679 at the end of the 2000 season, by far the best of any manager with more than two years of service.
Once considered a fluke riding Hap Daniels' coat tails, Christopher proved to even his most ardent critics that he was worthy of being mentioned as best of the best.
"I was impressed by Boomer's accomplishments and admired what he had done as manager," says Suzy Zee. "They won the championship in a run away and there wasn't much you could say about it except 'great job'!'"
"Everything I did I did in memory of Hap," Boomer insists. "But I wanted to impress Suzy Zee too."
People admired the guts of Suzy Zee who hung tough in a tough season that enabled the Giants to finish 21-21 after opening 0-8.
"The brutal start was never an issue for us as a team," reports Michelle Marion. "We grew closer by banded together to overcome the obstacles we faced."
"I was prouder of the 2000 Team than I was with the Great Run we had in '99," says Suzy Zee. "We got off to a nightmare start that would have defeated a lot of teams, but nobody quit. Everybody stood up come gut check time."
Dead at 7-14 at the midseason point (after that 0-8 start), Greenville went 14-7 in the second half – including winning nine of its final 12 – to finish at .500, although Suzy's daughter reliever Michelle Marion (1-1) hung an 8.52 ERA around her neck.
"I didn't get it done this year and I'm sorry for the pressure I put on the Manager for obvious reasons," said Marion at season's end. "I'll do better next year."
LET'S DO IT AGAIN
Suzy Zulinski began writing her "Cardiac Kids" novel in earnest once the Serguci League Season was over. She, Boomer and Michelle enjoyed a three week Caribbean Cruise during the holiday college break. Suzy also did a book tour for Traffic Girl, released in paperback in February.
With spring on the horizon, Suzy and The Boomer prepared for another Serguci League Season and faced the prospect of competing against one another as rival field generals.
"I was beginning to think this was no way to run a relationship," says Boomer, alluding to the summer-long separation of the couple.
"I, on the other hand, knew our relationship would be ruined if we didn't stay apart during the season," volunteers Suzy Zee. "We would have killed one another before the season was done!"
The pre-season consensus was that the two time defending champion Hilltop Browns were a pretty safe bet to become a three-peat champion with Boomer trying to win his fifth championship in seven tries as Brown Skipper. He entered the 2001 Campaign holding the all-time winning percentage for a manager (.679 in six seasons).
"The Brown teams of that era had a solid lineup, a great bench, strong front-line pitching, good defense and a full bullpen," says Homer Stanfield "There was an inner-confidence and winning belief that made them one of the best teams all time."
In fact, with another few successful seasons, the Browns of the late 1990s and early 2000s could be compared to Rival Jim Silowski's great Giant teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s as a legitimate dynasty.
Suzy Zulinski successfully overhauled the reputation of the Greenville Giants while proving that she could make it as a manager in the Serguci League. Her rookie year (16-26 in 1998) was a year of team rehabilitation, but the '99 Giants challenged the Browns and almost pulled off a Cinderella upset. Many thought the 2000 Green had a chance to upend Hilltop, but a 0-8 start doomed the team's chances, though Greenville finished 21-21 under Zulinski's positive influence.
"Zulinski's Giants had character and class," says Homer Stanfield. "It was a totally different mindset from the Silowski years."
Many looked for the Giants to be a factor in 2001 and Suzy Zee became the sweetheart of the league.
Suzy and Boomer once again shared their farewell creamie before biding each other adieu for the summer on the eve of the season opener.
The Hilltop Browns swept the Greenville Giants (7-4, 6-3) to take early command of the 2001 standings.
"That's why we couldn't live together during the season," Suzy Zee points out. "I would have hated his guts for three days after losing that doubleheader!"
The early buzz regarding the Giants once again revolved around the issue of women players in the Serguci League. Relief Pitcher Michelle Marion got run over trying to cover first base on a bunt and suffered serious injuries (broken ankle, separated (non-pitching) shoulder , concussion) that ended her season before it even started.
Proponents of Women Players used the Marion injury as further evidence that "girls" didn't belong in the league (ignoring the fact that the male players were injured just as frequently).
End of June Standings
Hilltop Browns 11 4
Greenville Giants 9 6
County Crusaders 8 5
Beansboro Beansters 7 8
Miller City Mudhens 7 8
So. County White Sox 7 9
Sun Rise Lake Lions 6 8
Riverside Royals 5 12
The second place Greenville Giants kept the pressure on the first place Hilltop Browns with a wild 11-10 win over the Hilltoppers. The Giants scored six times in the 2nd inning and led 6-2 in the 7th when the Browns exploded for eight runs to take a 10-6 lead. The Green scored two runs in the 8th then won the game in the 9th on a three run homer.
"I feel more credible every time we beat the Browns," Suzy Zee said after the game. "You always want to beat the best."
"It looks like '99 all over again," wrote Mickey Demrest after the Giant-Brown slugfest. "These two deams. may go 15 rounds again to decide the season."
The 2001 Serguci League season was dramatic and exciting with some slugfests, showdowns, redemptions and emotions keeping Beano Field lively every night.
"It was great baseball," says Homer Stanfield.
Hilltop arrived at the ½ mark with 15-6 record, but the Giants 14-7 showing prevented the Browns from running away with it.
"I told my guys that as long as we hung in, we had a chance," says Suzy Zee about the 2001 campaign.
End of July
HILLTOP BROWNS 18 8
GREENVILLE GIANTS 18 10
COUNTY CRUSADERS 17 11
BEANSBORO BEANSTERS 15 14
MILLER CITY MUDHENS 12 15
SO. COUNTY WHITE SOX 11 17
RIVERSIDE ROYALS 10 17
SUN RISE LAKE LIONS 9 18
The Giants rose to the occasion by blowing out the Browns 14-7 in Game One and stealing a 9-8 win in Game 2 to inherit first place from Hilltop.
"Anytime we beat the Browns was great, but it was especially wonderful when all the money was on the line," sys Suzy Zee. "I had to resist the urge to rub it in on Boomer after those big wins."
"Watch out, Greenville is for real!" warned Homer Stanfield after the big double win by The Green.
"Just when you thought Boomer was flying for the promised land once again, Suzy Zulinski reminded everybody that the season ends in September – not August," noted Statistician Spanky Raymond.
"Getting beat twice by the Giants was a big set back for us," Boomer admits "I knew Suzy was going to do everything she could to upend us."
The Giants stumbled down the stretch to all but hand Hilltop the 2001 Championship flag. Only a miracle could save Suzy Zulinski's Giants from another second place finish to the Brownies.
"I knew how glib Boomer was feeling and that only made me all the more angry!" Suzy Zee says with a laugh.
And then, a funny thing happened on the way to the Browns' championship. Just when Hilltop was getting ready to celebrate another title, the lowly Miller City Mudhens stunned the front running Brownies 8-6 and 7-6 in a late season double header sweep to give Greenville new life and hope.
"Everybody was congratulating the Browns left and right," recalls Butch Desbro, the veteran skipper of the Miller City Mudhens. "We decided to shut them all up. Playing spoiler is a great way to seek redemption for a bad season."
"We saw a couple of 'Champion Browns' and other signs around the park and didn't appreciate the slam," adds Hen infielder Mike Topler. "You still have to win the proper number of games to claim the flag."
"I had visions of the '98 choke staring me in the face after that double dip loss," Boomer confesses regarding the 2001 Crunch Time stumble.
Given a second life by the generosity of the Mudhens, The Giants faced a critical twin bill against the 23-16 Beansters. The Green were down 4-2 to Beansboro in Game 1, but scored five runs in the 7th and won 7-5 to remain alive.
The second game resembled a heavyweight championship duke out with a sloppy Greenville team surviving five errors, eight walks, and a late Beanster rally to pull out a 6-5 win and keep destiny alive, now just ½ game behind the Browns.
"I would have sold my soul to knock Boomer and the Browns out of the championship throne that year," Suzy Zee admits.
As in seasons past, the main story of the 2001 Season was the Hilltop-Greenville race as the season came down to a final showdown between the two rivals. It was a must win challenge for Suzy Zulinski's 26-15 Giants against the 26-14 Browns. A Giants loss would give the Browns its third consecutive title.
"It seems like old times once again," wrote Columnist Mickey Demrest. "The Giants and Browns fighting it out for the crown."
"People weren't aware how badly both of us wanted to beat each other," Boomer explains. "Not everybody knew we were even an item and while some understood we were rivals, only a few realized we would have willingly humiliated the other if it meant winning the Crown."
"People wonder how you can hate somebody and love him at the same time," adds Suzy Zee. "Try managing against him and you'll understand!"
The teams were tied 7-7 tie going to the 9th inning.
"Every pitch was do or die," recalls Suzy Zee. "It was worse than giving birth!" And then, just liked that, the Browns rallied for two runs in that fateful 9th to win the championship.
"Suzy and the Giants took us to the limit," says Boomer Christopher about the exciting 2001 season. "We're fortunate to have won it all."
"I would have rather finished last," confesses Suzy Zee. "It was a lot easier when we were out of it early in 2000 than it was to have to battle all the way to the end, only to have it all taken away from us by Boomer and the Browns."
"I knew better than to ask Suzy if she wanted to meet at the Creamie after that game!" Boomer says.
The 2001 season was a Serguci Odyssey of a summer, fueled by an unusually weak display of pitching, a surprisingly explosive home run derby race led by some unfamiliar power bats, and a new Home Run (single-season) King.
The race for the championship saw 27 lead changes or ties but, in the end, the defending champions won as expected, though the team saw Green in the second half. Boomer Christopher once again enjoyed the spotlight with his championship, but it was Suzy Zulinski's Greenville Giants that stole the show, fighting the Hilltop Browns to the brink before finally succumbing to fate and destiny.
"I didn't call (Boomer) for five days after he knocked us out," Suzy reveals. "It hurt to be so close, only to be beaten by him again. I needed time to forgive him for that!"
The elite Browns played well once again, especially down the stretch when the team won 10 of its last 14 contests to earn its third consecutive championship (and fifth in seven tries). Even though Hilltop once again captured the championship flag, 2001 was still a competitive and exciting season that featured some impressive runs by the Browns, Giants and Crusaders.
"You always like to see some excitement and meaningful games being played on Labor Day weekend," says League Executive Director Beenie Serguci. "My heart was with Suzy, but I felt good for Boomer too. There was pressure on him when he took over for Hap Daniels, but look what he accomplished."
Christopher continued to enjoy one of the best runs in Serguci league History. Boomer's edition of the Hilltop Browns had already surpassed the performance of the 1950s Beansters and Giants (the '49-'53 Beansters won five straight championships and the 60-62 Giants three-peated), but Hilltop still had a way to go before rivaling the great Giant teams of the 1980s/90s and its nine banners.
"I'm just along for the ride," Boomer was quick to say, even with his 198-99 record in seven campaigns, which gave him the best winning percentage of any manager in league history. Perhaps even more remarkable is that his teams had won at least 25 games each year under his leadership.
In Greenville, the Giants again gave it its all for Suzy Zulinski.
"We really wanted to win a championship for her," first baseman Brad Culburn says. "She stayed with us, believed in us, and made us a competitive team again. We owed all our success to her leadership philosophy and support. We knew how important it was to her to win a flag. My biggest disappointment is that we didn't get it done for her."
Three days after the 2001 All Star Saturday Serguci League Celebration took place at Beano Field, the United States of America was attacked by terrorists who successfully hijacked four jet liners and killed nearly 3,000 people in the resulting suicide crashes into New York City's Twin Towers and The Pentagon in Washington D.C.
"It was the most surreal day of my life," says Boomer of the worse event in American history since the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. "What really caused my stomach to drop was that Suzy was flying to Santa Fe that morning to participate in a Women Writer's Conference. I had no idea if she had been involved in any way."
As it turns out, Zulinski's plane was grounded in Albany Ohio and the writer didn't return home for four days.
"Spending nearly a week in rural Ohio wasn't on the top of my things to do list," she says. "But I was grateful to be spared of the trauma so many other people had to face."
For Boomer, the fallout of 9/11 left him questioning whether or not he wanted to manage in 2002. "Most of us went through the motions during the off season – the awards dinner was forced, the prospect of a new season was meaningless, and all that I had accomplished as a successful manager in the league seemed unimportant when you thought about all those people who died at Ground Zero," he says. "I wasn't sure if baseball meant anything to me anymore after watching 3,000 people get erased."
Boomer also began to question why he and Suzy Zee had to separate during the season.
"What does it say when the importance of baseball took priority over the importance of our relationship?" he needed to know.
"I was beginning to feel old after 9/11," Boomer confesses. "I went back and re-read Suzy's History of the Serguci League and realized how much had changed in 50 years. And I wondered if maybe life was passing me by too."
Boomer continued to grasp with the aftermath of 9/11 throughout the off season, suggesting to Suzy that they both quit as Serguci League Managers if one of them won the title in 2002.
"I didn't think he'd be able to do it," Suzy Zee confesses. "If he won, he'd want to stick around and see if he could be part of a dynasty. If he lost, he'd want to try again."
But Christopher took steps toward his idea of hanging it up. He privately met with Executive Director Beenie Serguci to discuss taking over as League Historian for Homer Stanfield after the 2002 season.
"Beenie was concerned about some of the older guys still involved in the league. What would happen if someone became incapacitated? Who would carry on?"
Christopher also began researching the possibility of publishing a monthly magazine dedicated to the Serguci League, which he could oversee once he was done managing.
"He kept talking about all this stuff all winter, but I figured once the season started he would get hooked all over again," says Suzy Zee. "As for me, I wasn't sure I wanted to walk away from it all without a crown."
Boomer began throwing out the "M" word as part of his post-9/11 plan.
"I had been divorced for nearly four years, so I guess enough time had passed to think about taking the plunge again," Suzy Zee admits. "But I wasn't sure if I wanted to quit managing. I was attached to the team and I didn't want to walk away without at least one championship to show for all our hard work."
"All the women in my life left me," says Boomer. "My Mother. Suzy, more than once. My first wife. Most of the women I dated. 9/11 told me it was time for the leaving to stop."
ONE MORE TIME FOR OLD TIMES SAKE?
Even with Boomer's off-season distractions, there was still baseball to be played in 2002. Whatever his plans once the season ended, Christopher and his defending champion Hilltop Browns were still primed for a four-peat run, while runner up Greenville was committed to overtaking the champs for the title.
"Baseball is all about timing," Boomer Christopher explains when discussing his success with the Hilltop Browns. "There's no doubt in my mind that Hap Daniels would have won with this team if he hadn't died. In fact, he might have won them all instead of losing in '97 and '98 like I did. The team happened to have some great core players that came together at the right time and played great ball for six or seven straight years. It doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it's great to be a part of the experience."
2002 Hilltop Browns
CF Joe Bonds Still the best lead off hitter in the league
RF Ron Kazmier Solid defensive player, and table setter
SS Scoop Harrington New Single Season HR Holder; but defense is still his game
1B Steve Mitchell All or nothing: Power or K. Defensive liability
LF Flynn Spencer Filling in for Haynes, young but committed. Should be interesting
C Boomer Hamilen The ageless wonder
3B Whitey Rockendale Terrific Hitter. Infield Leader
2B Popeye Sylvester Has yet to reach potential. Spurts of greatness; dives of incompetent ness
IB/OF Iz Izzoni Best bat on the team
UTil Jake Jarvis Rookie Surprise?
Util Jerry Sampson White Sox Cast off hanging around for another year (and maybe a ring!)
OF Orville Haynes See you in August?
C Norm Kaplan Given every chance to unseat Hamilen; can't get the job done.
SP Undertaker Parker May have passed his peek
SP Bruce Ballentine Hard-nosed, hard-assed; give him the damn ball
SP Ethan Evans Will his dad's messiah genes translate into a Jesus showing?
RP Torch Johnson Can pitch in any situation
RP Bingo Brown Does he have his family genes in his arms?
RP Max Kaplan Great Set Up Guy
RP Dan Bailey Mr. Nice Guy. Confident on Mound.
"The Browns will remain king of the hill until somebody knocks them off," said Statistician Spanky Raymond at the beginning of the season
For Suzy Zulinski, the 2002 Edition of the Greenville Giants was basically the same version that finished runners-up in 2001, with Michelle Marion returning to help the bullpen after a season lost to injury.
For Zulinski, the pressure was on to get The Green to the Promised Land after four years at the helm and two near misses.
"If Suzy doesn't win soon, people will begin to wonder if maybe a woman can't win it all," said Spanky Raymond. "It may be unfair, but it's human nature.
2002 Greenville Giants
Cf Willie Watson, 30 Still Fast, spray hitter, stolen base threat. Competitive but quiet
RF Tim Fitzgerald, 22 Great hitter, surprising power and speed
1B Brad Culburn, 34 Power Hitter; team leader, intense player
3b Frank Lee, 31 Slugging All Star, Team Anchor, Loves the Game
C Jim Quinn, 18 Potential to be among the league elite; disciplined; semi-arrogant
LF Candle Fisk, 32 Still has Pop in the Bat; semi-liability in the field
SS Phil McQuinn, 19 Could be great; needs to settle down in the field
2B D. C. O'Shea, 19 Rookie jitters in 2001; should be fine defensively; needs to improve hitting
Util Peanut Hayes, 29 Serviceable player, great teammate. Zee's Bench Leader
Util Sally Rollins, 22 Premiere Base Runner
Util Pete Berg, 17 Set record in '99 as youngest to play in league; still learning the ropes
OF Stan Hall, 27 Humble player; always ready to step in for starters
C Elroy Sweeney, 24 Adequate backup, never proved himself to be starter
P Bob Richards, 29 Uncontested Ace; humbled player, likeable teammate
P Andy Browlinski, 28 The Polish Bullet; Would take bullet for Zulinski
P Ike McWade, 22 Gracious teammate, Workhorse on Mound
P Frank Mahoney, 25 Inconsistently brilliant; but horrible when off
P Reed Reynolds, 32 Never riled, always confident, Bullpen Rock
P Michelle Marion, 21 Competitive nature; coming back from injury, great specialty pitcher
P Bing Crosby, 42 Ageless Wonder; Superb Closer, Great Mentor For Staff
"We had come together well and were committed to proving to all the skeptics that we could compete in the post-Silowski era," says Suzy Zee of the 2002 team. "I was also blessed to have my daughter by my side through it all."
In a pre-season compromise, Suzy Zee agreed to try staying with Boomer as the season began. But when the Browns slammed the Giants 10-2, the Green manager asked her partner to leave the premises for the duration of the season.
"I knew I was in trouble when she sent the bat boy over in the 9th inning with an ice cream cone in his hand!" recalls The Boomer.
Hilltop started the season 4-0.
"If Hilltop had started 0-4, maybe I would have let Boomer stay," says Suzy Zee. "But it was hard not to think that it was going to be another year of the Browns and I didn't want him around reminding me of that!"
Standings on the Morning of Messiah Christopher's July 1st 50th Birthday:
HILLTOP BROWNS 12 4
COUNTY CRUSADERS 10 7
GREENVILLE GIANTS 9 7
SO. COUNTY WHITE SOX 8 6
RIVERSIDE ROYALS 8 8
BEANSBORO BEANSTERS 5 7
MILLER CITY MUDHENS 5 10
SUN RISE LAKE LIONS 5 11
"It was a great birthday present to be in first place on July 1st," says the ageless Messiah who was still coaching with the Browns that year. "But there was still two plus months of baseball left and I knew my birthday present wouldn't truly be delivered until a four-peat came true on Labor Day."
"But what about me?" asks Suzy Zulinski. "My birthday is in November. What better present could I get than a Championship in September?"
On the 4th of July, Suzy Zee's Giants upended the Browns, 8-4.
"I thought about letting Boomer come home after that win, but it was still a long season," says Suzy Zee.
Te schedule reached the half way mark looking like this:
Hilltop Browns 14-7
County Crusaders 13-8
Greenville Giants 11-11
"It didn't look good for Suzy and the Giants at that point," says Homer Stanfield. "Hilltop and County were rolling along, but Greenville was in a 'win a couple, lose a couple' mode that beginning to make them look like a non-factor."
Hilltop, in fact, was on a pace to win 28 games and the prognosis looked bleak for the Giants, a team looking at a .500 finish given their present state of affairs.
"I remember that first year when Boomer was manager and I was coaching and we were pronounced dead at the midseason point," Suzy Zee recalls. "Boomer very bluntly said we'd just have to win them all! As it turned out, we almost did – and we ended up champions! I gave my team the same pep talk when everybody was writing us off at midseason. A lot of my players were on that '95 team that lost to the Browns and I wanted them to know how we did it. Hey, you never know!"
But the Giants continued playing .500 ball as the sands of the hourglass continued to fall.
"We were never able to develop that killer instinct," complains Suzy Zee. "Maybe we just didn't have the same level of confidence as Boomer and the Browns. We needed to get a winning streak going. If we clipped off about 10 wins, we'd be in the driver's seat."
The Giants suffered a tough loss when the Browns dumped the Green, 13-6 to open a five game lead in the win column.
"We weren't about to give up, but it was beginning to look like it was going to the Browns yet again," Suzy Zee admits. "At that point, I wasn't sure if I'd ever let Boomer back in the house!."
The Crusaders beat the Browns by the same 13-6 score to move back into second place and when the Giants dropped a 10-9 decision to the Beansters in 11 innings, Suzy Zee was ready to give Boomer Christopher a call to meet at the Creamie.
"I saw the season melting before my eyes," she says. "The Browns had all the karma. Man, I hated those guys!"
But hold the phone - Greenville swept a doubleheader from the Mudhens (7-4 and 7-3) to once again pass County in the standings and when the Crusaders beat the Browns 7-6, flickers of hope for a Brown derailment returned.
The Giants bested the Crusaders 6-4 in what appeared to a pivotal win, but the Browns trounced the Mudhens 13-6 to stay in control.
The Crusaders dumped the Mudhens 11-9 and the Sox dropped the Browns 12-3, while the Giants won 9-5 over the Royals to keep the season of hope alive.
Hilltop Browns 23 14
Greenville Giants 21 15
County Crusaders 20 16
County lost a tough game to the Mudhens (4-3) but Greenville could only manage a split with the Beansters (winning 5-4 (10 innings), losing 11-10). When Hilltop beat the Lions 6-3 that night, the pressure was once again on Greenville to keep pace while Jim Coty's Crusaders were on life-support.
"We were always a step or two behind Hilltop that season," sighs Suzy Zee. "We could never get enough wind to overtake them on the curve."
County split a twin bill with the Lions (16-11 win, 9-3 loss) to put one more nail in its coffin, while the Browns clubbed the Mudhens 12-5 for its 25th win of the season which all but eliminated County from contention.
Any slim hopes the Crusaders had of catching the Browns were dashed when the team split a double header with the Sox (winning big 14-1, but dropping a 7-6 heartbreaker in the night cap) to fall to 22-19 on the season. County could only hope for a miracle tie with Hilltop at season's end now.
Hilltop made a huge statement with an 18-0 thrashing of the hapless Lions to eliminate County, but the Giants stayed alive with an 11-7 win over the Crusaders which set up a big time Labor Day Double header with the Giants (24-16) taking on the Big Bad Browns (26-14).
"They really had to rub it in by croaking the Lions the way they did," complains Suzy Zee. "It was almost as if Boomer was trying to tell me it was all over."
Of course, all the odds were against the Giants. Greenville would need a sweep just to tie the Browns and force yet another playoff show down.
"All we could do was try," reasons Suzy Zee, who's team had won 13 of 19 contests in the second half to stay alive, even though the Browns had won 12 of 19 during the same stretch.
"We could have packed it in at the half, but we kept playing hard because we wanted it bad and it was up to us to get it done as the season came to a close," say Suzy Zee.
"All the pressure was on Suzy," Boomer admits. "Winning three in a row against us would be next to impossible."
"If Hilltop couldn't win one of three, they didn't deserve to be champions," concurs Homer Stanfield. "The Browns knew they were all but in when they destroyed the Lions a few days earlier."
But for Boomer Christopher, the end of the season run was almost anti-climatic.
"I made the decision weeks earlier to quit," he says. "I knew it was what I wanted to do, so I was as relaxed and care free as I had been on any other day in my managerial career."
"He told me after the big Lions win that he was my new League Historian," Beenie Serguci reveals. "I wasn't sure if I really believed him or not."
"He revealed to the team his plans to quit about five minutes before the start of the first Labor Day game," says Owl Hamilen. "He said he couldn't marry Suzy Zee if he was managing!"
"We knew Boomer had reached a higher plane," says The Messiah "He told us he was in love with The Zee – which came as no real big surprise to any of us who had been around them! Wouldn't one last championship be a great wedding present?"
The Browns answered Boomer's announcement by rolling over the Giants 9-6 to clinch its fourth consecutive flag – and the final title for Boomer in eight years of stewardship.
"I remember sitting in the dugout, once again outdone by Boomer and his damn Browns," explains Suzy Zee. "It was painful to watch the Browns celebrate their title in front of us, especially since we had to play another game."
"And then," continues Michelle Marion, "While all the celebration is going on in the middle of the infield, we hear a voice come over the PA System. He keeps repeating 'Ladies and Gentlemen, your attention please…..Ladies and Gentlemen, your attention please'."
"It's a familiar voice, but I can't believe he's up there in the stands behind the microphone," says Suzy Zee.
"Boomer Christopher had taken the mike from the announcer and was calling the place to attention," continues Beenie Serguci. "I'm about to walk out onto the field to give his team the championship trophy and he's up there trying to play Karaoke!"
"When the place became quiet, I announced to the world that I was managing my last game for the Hilltop Browns," says Boomer.
"I was beyond surprised," confesses Suzy Zee. "Not only that he actually did what he said he was going to do, but he was doing it like this – in front of 400 people."
"And then he says, 'I would also like to ask Suzy Zulinski a question'," says Michelle Marion.
"There's confused mumbling among the crowd and the players," laughs Messiah Christopher. "Everybody wants to know what in hell is going on – although everybody on the Browns already figured it out!"
"So Boomer asks for one and all to hear ''Will you marry me, Suzy Zee?'" says Michelle Marion
"Here I am ticked off at him for beating us again, trying to grieve another lost opportunity, another second place finish, and he's dumping that sort of emotional weight on me – before hundreds of people?" comments Suzy Zee. "I didn't know whether I should kiss him or kill him!"
"And of course everybody is staring into the Giant dugout waiting for Suzy Zee's reply," notes Beenie Serguci. "It was very dramatic, very exciting!"
"To tell you the truth, it never occurred to me that she'd say no," confesses Boomer Christopher. "I mean, I told her what my plans were. What was the big surprise!?"
"Serguci League Baseball had been a part of our lives for practically all of our lives," says Suzy Zee. "It helped us get through a lot, but it had also gotten in the way of a lot of things, least of which was a normal relationship."
"And now here I was turning the tables on all of it by putting our relationship before baseball – in front of baseball!" laughs Boomer.
"I was sitting next to my mom while all this was going on," says Michelle Marion. "She looked horrified. I don't think she truly grasped what was going on. I mean she had come to Beano Field that day to win a championship, not accept a proposal to get married!"
"I really didn't know what to do," confesses Suzy Zee. "My head was spinning. My stomach was churning. My heart was racing."
"I asked her "Mom, when did you realize you wanted to marry this guy?' says Michelle Marion. "And she answers 'First Day of Kindergarten'. So I told her maybe now was the time to tell him."
"I sort of floated out of the dugout and walked toward home plate," reports Suzy Zee. "All the Browns and Giants swarmed around me when we got there. I looked up at Boomer at the microphone table up in the stands and I shouted, 'Yes, I will marry you!'"
"Everybody cheered and applauded, of course," notes Homer Stanfield. "It was one of the loudest responses I've ever heard at Beano Field."
"And then I said 'Let's Play Ball!' over the public announcement system" laughs Boomer
Boomer had an ice cream cone from the Hilltop Creamie in his hand when he came out of the stands to greet his future spouse standing on the field.
"I'll be here," he said when he reached her.
The couple got a standing ovation when they embraced and kissed at home plate.
"I thought it was one of the most delightful, emotional and romantic moments to ever transpire at Beano Field," says Beenie Serguci. "It was a great night for everybody who was there."
There was still one more game to play, but the game was almost an afterthought.
"It really became an exhibition sort of game," recalls Homer Stanfield. "Both managers started the backup players, and Michelle Marion was the starting pitcher for Greenville.
The Giants won the game 9-6 and the traditional Labor Day fire works were shot off after the game, although this time they took on a whole new meaning with the presence of the engaged Suzy Zulinski and Boomer Christopher in the park.
"It was a great party," says Michelle Marion. "Everybody enjoyed sharing in the big event of Boomer and Mom's engagement."
The couple got a blood test on Tuesday and took out a marriage license on Wednesday. They married on All-Star Saturday, at home plate of Beano Field with Ordained Minister (and former Brown second baseman) Dutch Menski performing the ceremony. Michelle Marion was her mom's Maid of Honor; Messiah Christopher was his brother's best man.
"It was a storybook ending to a forty year love affair," concludes Anna Marie Christopher-Reynolds. "And what better place to celebrate it than on the sacred grounds of Beano Field?"
"But there was still one last piece of business to confront," interjects Suzy Zulinski. "The deal had been we both would quit if one of us won in 2002."
"I kept waiting for Suzy to resign as manager of the Giants," laughs Boomer. "I wanted to get on with the rest of our lives. There was a lot of work for me to do as Historian and getting the magazine off the ground."
"There was only one small little problem," notes Suzy Zee. "I didn't want to quit! I loved being a part of it all. I loved the history of the league. I loved what the Serguci League stood for. I loved being in the dugout of Beano Field. I loved leading a team. I wanted to continue being a part of the tradition."
Zulinski realized that her Giants had a legitimate shot at a championship in 2003.
"It seemed unfair that Boomer could leave with six flags in eight seasons, but I was expected to walk away 0-5," says Zulinski.
"It went against everything they both stood for," agrees Beenie Serguci. "Boomer had always been supportive of Suzy's cause when she came into the league…..as a player, as a coach, and especially as a manager. Why should he ask her to walk away from it all before she was ready to call it quits?"
"Of course they were right," Boomer admits. "I mean, I was being selfish when I suggested we both quit. So, for her birthday that year, I wrapped up her 2003 Giant Contract and gave it to her over Dinner at the Bullpen Restaurant overlooking Beano Field!"
The first official announcement from the league's new Historian was: Susan Margaret Marion Zulinski Christopher will manage the 2003 Edition of the Serguci League's Greenville Giants.
"It was the best birthday present of my life," says Suzy Zee.