Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 7, 2018

So Much More Than Faces In The Crowd

Save for the fact that both involve the broad topic of sports, the two announcements appear utterly unrelated. The first, made even as the team was winning the Pacific Association’s championship for the third time in that independent baseball league’s six-year history, was that the San Rafael Pacifics franchise was being put up for sale. The second, made by his family just this weekend, was that John Gagliardi, the winningest coach in college football history, had passed away at the age of 91.

Formed in 2012, the Pacifics play their home games at Albert Park, a little 1,200 seat stadium in downtown San Rafael, about a mile west of San Francisco Bay. The team started in the North American League, winning the title in 2012 even as that independent league was folding. The team’s ownership group then worked with the management of three other North American League franchises to get the Pacific Association up and running. San Rafael went on to capture the PA championship in 2014, 2015, and again just weeks ago with a 6-0 victory over the Sonoma Stompers in the title game.

The press release announcing the ownership group’s decision to seek a buyer didn’t specify a reason, but money is sure to have played a role. The Pacifics are by many measures a successful franchise – in addition to the championships the team has led the league in both attendance and revenue every season – but independent league baseball is a precarious endeavor financially. The Pacific Association is just what the term “independent” implies, free of any ties to Major League Baseball. But with no affiliation to a major league franchise, the eight current independent leagues and the sixty-five teams operating this season are entirely dependent on the deep pockets of owners to supplement ticket sales and ad revenue in balancing the annual budget.

The absence of connection to MLB also means that no player under contract to any of the thirty major league franchises or their minor league affiliates can take the field for a team in an independent league. Instead, rosters are filled with players who have been released from such contracts and hopefuls who have gone undrafted out of either high school or college.

Of the eight current independent leagues, half have been in operation for less than ten years, and only the Frontier League, which plays in the Midwest, and the Atlantic League, with teams mostly in the Northeast, have been around for as much as twenty years. Meanwhile the history of the Great Game is littered with the sad stories of independent leagues that folded. There have been thirty in all, with the average time from formation to liquidation barely more than three seasons.

Teams come and go just as quickly. The short history of the Pacific Association is illustrative. The league began in 2013 with San Rafael, the Vallejo Admirals, East Bay Lumberjacks, and two franchises in Hawaii. The Lumberjacks and both Hawaiian teams lasted just that first season, replaced by teams in Sonoma and Pittsburg. Then this year two additional franchises joined, making the PA a six-team league. Now the Pacific Association could lose its most successful franchise, if a willing buyer does not materialize before next spring.

The same year that the Pacifics began play was also the final season of John Gagliardi’s sixty-four-year head coaching career. He began in 1949 at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, and four years later moved to St. John’s University, a small Catholic institution in Collegeville, Minnesota, seventy miles northwest of Minneapolis. Under Gagliardi’s guidance, the Carroll Fighting Saints topped the Montana Collegiate Conference in three of his four seasons. As first the years then the decades rolled by in central Minnesota, Gagliardi’s Johnnies were a model of sustained excellence. In his entire career his teams finished below .500 in just two seasons. St. John’s won the NAIA Championship in 1963 and 1965, before moving to NCAA Division III. There the Johnnie’s were frequent contenders in the Division III tournament, winning the national championship in 1976 and 2003. When he retired after the 2012 season Gagliardi’s career record stood at 489-138-11. That’s eighty more wins than Joe Paterno, who stands second on the career list, and well over twice Nick Saban’s current total of 224.

As a Division III school, St. John’s issues no football scholarships, and Gagliardi took a unique approach to coaching. He refused to cut any player, meaning his rosters swelled to as many as two hundred in some seasons. He limited practices to ninety minutes and did not allow tackling at them. He told his charges that the one team rule was the Golden Rule, to treat others as they would like to be treated. It was an approach that not only won football games but helped shape the lives and outlooks of generations of young men.

While Gagliardi’s passing and the potential demise of the San Rafael Pacifics may at first seem unconnected, the thread that ties them together is obvious. Both are sports stories far removed from the headlines. If either made the pages of Sports Illustrated, it would surely be in the “Faces in the Crowd” section, the one page in each issue with snippets describing the accomplishments of unknown athletes on the fringes of our games. Pro scouts are rarely in the stands for independent league baseball games or Division III football contests. The player who rises from either to one day wear a major league or NFL uniform is so rare as to be not merely unusual, but an anomaly, a deviation from the norm.

Yet both are also reminders that there is more to sports than the stories that make the headlines, there is so much that doesn’t take place in a stadium filled with forty, or fifty, or ninety thousand fans. The San Rafael Pacifics have brought the Great Game with its timeless rhythms to thousands of Bay Area fans, providing affordable entertainment and diversion, along with the thrill of winning championships, to young and old alike. John Gagliardi taught lessons far beyond the essentials of football to generations of Carroll College and St. John’s University students, while also establishing a winning tradition for fans of both schools.

Perhaps new owners will step forward in the coming months to preserve the San Rafael franchise and ensure the continuation of the only remaining independent league based on the West Coast. Perhaps Gary Fasching, who played under Gagliardi and served on his staff for seventeen years before becoming the St. John’s head coach when his mentor retired, will be as capable at teaching young men about both sports and life. We can only hope, for in both cases, an aspect of our games that is ultimately more important than a World Series title or a Super Bowl ring is at stake.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for the insightful look at our hometown team, Mike. You make a great point that properly coached, Sports teach us more about the importance of
    character and ethics than about winning at all costs. Achievement vs Ego.

    The word on the Mean Streets of Marin is that the Managing Partner of The Pacifics is going to work for the Orioles next year. Our loss, their gain. I wish them all well in the future.
    Ω

    • Good for him! Lord knows they need all the help they can get!

      Thanks Allan,
      M-


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