BELOIT—Twenty-five years ago on Sept. 11, 1995, reliever Brian Dalton fanned Michigan Battle Cat John Bowles with two outs in the ninth inning, igniting a wild celebration by the Beloit Snappers in Battle Creek, Mich.
In the franchise’s 14th season, Beloit had struck gold.
Dalton’s strikeout capped a 5-3 victory and a three-game sweep in the Midwest League Championships, the lone title in the history of the franchise.
That amazing season deserves some ink on its anniversary and with the COVID-19 pandemic squeezing the current sports scene, we’re certainly ready to provide it.
The highlights during that amazing 1995 season included:
Winning 45 games in the first half, 88 during the regular season and 95 overall.
Finishing 16-0 at home against the Eastern Division.
Double-digit winning streaks of 11 and 10 games.
A league-best 48-22 record at home, even after a 1-6 start at Pohman Field.
The league-best one-run record at 28-18 and best record in extra inning games at 9-2.
Four players on the 1995 Snappers roster landed on the Brewers’ Top 15 Prospects list: pitcher Jeff D’Amico (1), shortstop Danny Klassen (6), second baseman Ron Belliard (8) and hometown pitcher Chris Burt (14).
The Snappers began and finished the season with a tremendous pitching staff mentored by an all-time great Milwaukee Brewer pitcher in Mike Caldwell. They had four pitchers (D’Amico, Brian Tollberg, Juan Gonzalez and Gabby Mercado) win 11 games or more and a reliever in Burt who had 27 saves. All four were on the roster to start the season, along with Steve Woodard, Scott Huntsman, Brian Dalton, Greg Beck and Kelly Wunsch. When an injury occurred, the staff was deep enough to cushion the blow.
Even with all those quality starts, the 1995 Snappers sure didn’t look like world beaters out of the gate. Opening Night was postponed, the team dropped its delayed home opener the next day and the Snappers won just four of their first 13 games.
Pitching was never the problem. On April 23, 1995, Beloit’s hitters were officially worst in the MWL with an average of .178. Scott Krause was the lone Snapper immune to the funk, hitting .300. Eight Snappers were hitting under .100.
The Snappers were just 9-11 in April and changes were on the horizon. Only four players in the opening night lineup ended up on the team’s championship roster in September: first baseman Drew Williams (14 homers, 68 RBI, .267), third baseman Junior Betances (52 RBI, .293), outfield Krause (13 homers, 76 RBI, 24 steals, .247) and catcher/outfielder Josh Zwisler (.234).
The slow start caused Milwaukee Brewers Minor League Director Fred Stanley to jettison a number of players with either demotions or releases.
Stanley made a decision you rarely see today. He brought in not one, but two “Crash Davis” sort of players to help turn the tide in a hurry. The “Bull Durham” veterans were Derek Hacopian and Dave Milstien, both free agents trying to revive their careers. They turned out to be the perfect fit for the young team.
Hacopian, 25, was brought in to play left field. He went on to earn a spot on the MWL All-Star team, hitting .324 in 123 regular-season games, crashing 23 homers and driving in 92 runs. (Immediately after the season, the Brewers dealt Hacopian to the Detroit Tigers. He wrapped up his pro career one year after playing 43 games with the West Palm Beach Expos in the Florida League).
Milstien was already a nine-year minor league veteran when he became Beloit’s fourth shortstop of 1995. He spent six seasons with the Boston Red Sox organization, including three with Triple A Pawtucket, but was released following the 1993 season. The Chicago White Sox picked him up, but when he refused to be a replacement player during the 1995 spring strike, he was released again.
The Brewers picked him up and with no other roster spots open, he headed to Class A Beloit. All he did was solidify the defense and establish himself as the team’s quarterback on the diamond. He also chipped in a .327 batting average in 53 games. By the time he was promoted to Stockton, Calif., he’d left an imprint on the Beloit infield. (Milstien retired in 1995 after a brief stint with the Wei Chuan Dragos in Taiwan).
While many veterans may have resented starting over in Class A, Milstien and Hacopian were popular, respected and extremely valuable. They provided a confidence the Snappers desperately lacked.
“The older players we had actually would look out for the younger players,” Krause said. “They were almost like player-coaches.”
Infielder Josh Tyler said Milstien’s mentoring was terrific.
“Here’s a guy who’d been in Triple A a long time and he doesn’t have an attitude about him at all,” he said. “He taught me a lot about what it takes to be a utility guy, what approach I should take day in and day out.”
The swagger of Hacopian and Milstien proved to be contagious. The Snappers picked up steam in May. They finally climbed above the .500 mark on May 16. For the month, they were a season-best 22-9, winning 11 straight during one stretch.
On Sunday, June 18th, the Snappers and Rockford Cubbies combined for 17 hits and 23 runs with Beloit pulling out a 9-8 Father’s Day win before 1,101 fans at Pohlman Field.
Despite all that hitting, it was a defensive play that was the difference. With Beloit clinging to a 9-8 lead in the top of the eighth inning, the Cubbies had runners on first and third with two outs. Rockford’s Vee Hightower drilled a T.J. Schoenbeck pitch down the first base line that looked like it was heading for the right field corner and a game-tying double. First baseman Drew Williams, though, made a diving stop on the ball and recorded the third out to save the one-run lead.
It was the kind of play the Snappers would seem to make routinely over the next three months. That Father’s Day victory capped off the first half with a 45-25 record, tops in the MWL. They had earned the First Half Central Division championship and a berth in the playoffs.
Of course that’s another story....