Chipper Jones. Roy Halladay. Joe Nathan. The names read like a major-league All-Star roster from 2005.
Defeating the Kansas Stars, a team comprised of former major leaguers, was going to be a near-impossible task for any of the participants in the National Baseball Congress World Series, let alone the unheralded Everett Merchants.
But no team came closer than the Merchants, who finished as runners-up at the NBC World Series, which wrapped up last Sunday in Wichita, Kansas. And though Everett had to settle for second, the Merchants will forever be able to say they shared the field with players who were the best of the best.
“It was definitely an amazing experience,” Merchants center fielder and Marysville Pilchuck High School product Ty Holm said. “You try to go into the game not thinking about (playing against former major leaguers), that it’s just another opponent. But at the end of the day those are professional players. It was an amazing experience that I’ll be able to tell my friends and family about the rest of my life.”
The NBC World Series is a tournament intended for amateur and semipro teams. Most of the participants, including Everett, have rosters consisting largely of college players. But not so the Stars, who for the second straight year fielded a team comprised completely of former major leaguers like Adam LaRoche, Roy Oswalt and Jake Peavy.
Everett faced the Stars twice in the tournament, falling 10-1 in pool play and then 7-1 in the championship contest. But those were the only games the Merchants lost in the tournament as they finished 4-2, including a 6-3 victory over the defending-champion Santa Barbara Foresters in the quarterfinals.
“We did exceptionally well against the other semipro and college teams,” Everett manager Harold Pyatte said. “Playing against the major-league All-Stars was a thrill for our guys, to be on the same field and compete with them. But they had too much firepower and pitching. Most amateur teams wouldn’t be able to handle that, but it was a great experience.”
In the first matchup between the teams, the Merchants had to contend with Halladay, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, on the mound for the Stars. In the championship game they faced Ben Sheets, a four-time All-Star. Jones, the 1999 National League MVP, batted third in the title tilt. One-time Seattle Mariner Ryan Langerhans reached base seven times between the two contests.
So it’s understandable if the Merchants found themselves awestruck.
“They didn’t want to admit it, but you could see it, especially from the pitchers,” Pyatte said. “I wouldn’t say they were intimidated, but they were really tight. They were afraid to throw a fastball in a fastball count. When the count is 2-0 and 3-1 those guys are paid to hit the ball, it’s why they’re major leaguers. We don’t have the pitchers who can throw off-speed pitches for strikes in fastball counts. Intimidated is not a good word for it, but they were in awe of being on the field with Hall of Fame guys and Cy Young winners.”
But the Merchants did their best to try and ignore the names on the backs of the opposing uniforms.
“It hit me afterwards,” Holm said. “After the championship game they came over and talked to us and that’s when I fully opened my eyes and saw what was going on. During the game we were focused on what we needed to do, but after the handshakes we were finally able to think about who we were playing against.”
After the game the Merchants got a chance to spend a little time with the Stars. Heath Bell gave Everett’s pitchers some pointers about mechanics, while LaRoche and Brandon Inge gave some of their bats to the Merchants.
“Ben Sheets came over, he started the game, and we talked about how when I was leading off the game he threw me a first-pitch curve, and he said it was because the last game when I faced him I hit a first-pitch fastball,” Holm said. “It was fun talking about the game all-around.”
Despite the loss, it was a satisfying conclusion for the Merchants, who were not expected to be a contender. First baseman Jake Levin batted .435 in the tournament, while right fielder Isaiah Aluko — picked up just prior to the tournament — batted .368. Third baseman Max Whitt (.296), left fielder Austin Atwell (.278) and Holm (.269) were also regular contributors on offense, while Whitt also ended up featured on ESPN for a diving play he made on a line drive. On the mound, 6-foot-8 lefty Pete Irvin was the workhorse, tossing 14 innings over three appearances in the span of nine days.
“They put is in a bracket so we wouldn’t succeed,” Pyatte said. “They figured these Merchants were just a few games over .500 in their league, they finished second to the (Seattle) Studs, just put them in a bracket and send them home early.
“Look at the Foresters and their roster, every single player is a D-I college player who was drafted and is a prospect,” Pyatte continued. “Their budget is almost $1 million and they have their own team bus. On paper we shouldn’t beat them, but we won 6-3. I think a lot of teams took us very lightly, but we peaked at the right time and believed in ourselves.”