Several members of the 1976 Texas League Champion Amarillo Gold Sox stand at home plate at Potter County Memorial Stadium on Saturday during a reunion. [John Moore/ Press Pass Sports]
The Amarillo Gold Sox were back in town over the weekend, as the Amarillo Sod Poodles were wearing their jerseys Saturday night against the Frisco RoughRiders at Hodgetown.
But that wasn’t the only reminder of the city’s past when it came to Class AA baseball. At a different time and a different place, the Gold Sox were the toast of Amarillo, and those who wore those uniforms returned to where championship history was first made as a part of the San Diego Padres organization.
Before the Sod Poodles brought affiliated baseball back to town in 2019 and won the Texas League championship in what’s become known locally as a “dream season”, the Gold Sox returned to Amarillo after a one-year absence in 1976 and won the Texas League title. Those two worlds met this weekend when that 1976 team returned to town for a mini-reunion.
Eight players from that team gathered at their old home at Potter County Memorial Stadium 45 years after most of them last appeared there together. It had been a long time coming.
Donnie Alfano, a first baseman converted into pitcher on the 1976 team, made the trip from his home in Visalia, Calif. (ironically, now the Class A affiliate of the Sod Poodles parent organization Arizona Diamondbacks) to gather with former teammates. He’d planned a road trip with his girlfriend and making their first stop in Amarillo was a priority.
“I was so excited,” Alfano said. “In 2019 when they canceled I was so bummed. When 2020 came around they delayed it more and more and it just got more anxiety to go because I just love seeing my buddies. It was kind of an unbelievable year you’ll never forget.”
The Gold Sox team had a mini reunion in San Diego some years back for players who mostly lived in California, but nobody had gathered in Amarillo to commemorate the championship in the ensuing 45 years until last Saturday.
As happens so often in the minor leagues, players spread out over the years, with some reaching the big leagues and all of them getting on with their regular lives eventually. But they all remembered their bond from winning the last affiliated championship by an Amarillo team for 43 years.
“It was the first time I’d seen these guys in 45 years,” said pitcher Bob Shirley, who enjoyed an 11-year major league career and made the drive from Tulsa, Okla. to Amarillo. “We’re getting a little gray-headed but hopefully we have some in our head.”
They all seemed to be able to remember the details of that 1976 season that goes back to before many of them had children. Like the 2019 Sod Poodles, the 1976 Gold Sox didn’t necessarily have an auspicious start to the season, but turned things around quickly.
Centerfielder Jim Wilhelm said that when the Gold Sox started to have fun, they started to win more games.
“I think we were about 0-for-April and (second baseman) Gene Menees came in and it started to turn around,” Wilhelm said. “How they kept us loose was in the first game of the championship series, they introduced everybody at home for the first two games against Shreveport. We had everybody come out five yards apart.
“The last guy was Donnie Alfano and he ran all the way to the foul pole, ran into the fence and fell down. That was the way we started our championship series. All those guys like Rocky Craig and Cliff Butcher kept us loose. It was a special team and we didn’t know how special it was.”
As with any team, there were cliques among the positions. That was especially true of the pitchers.
Left-hander Roger Coe says the pitching staff got especially adept at entertaining itself.
“This was a great town and we had a great time here,” Coe said. “The pitchers were kind of like our own class. We’d come out here two hours before a game, do our running and we’re done. We had the night just to watch the game. Hopefully, the beer gets cold in the lockerroom.”
Things even got a little surrealistic as the year wound down at home.
“As we got bored late in the season we got an idea and went up to our manager (Bob Miller),” Coe said. “We said us pitchers want to take infield, is that OK? (Miller) went over to the other manager and he said that’s OK. We took infield but we never used the ball. It was a phantom infield.
“They’d fake hitting the ball to us, we’d fake throwing it doing double plays and we just had a fun time. Once we did it, it became pretty much a routine.”
Playing at Potter County Memorial wasn’t exactly routine. The stadium infield was (and still is) famous for the bad hops ground balls invariably took.
Then there was what lurked just over the outfield wall.
“I remember the stockyard in left field and a lot of flies,” Alfano said. “It seemed like to me that we had a lot of close games that were won in the last inning. It was a real exciting year. We were having so much fun winning that you don’t even comprehend that kind of stuff.”
Now left field for a minor league game in Amarillo involves a home run which could threaten drinks at Bar 352 or windows at City Hall. Shirley said that at Potter County Memorial if he could detect an aroma it would be a good night on the mound.
“If (the wind) was blowing out of the north it was from the stockyards,” Shirley said. “As a pitcher what do you want? I would rather put up with the smell.”
Either way, the Sod Poodles pitchers don’t have to put up with the smell but still have to worry about the south wind when a right-handed hitter comes to the plate.
It’s a different world now in more ways than one. So what kind of impression did Hodgetown leave on the Gold Sox?
“Gorgeous,” Alfano said. “It’s absolutely beautiful. No bad hops.”
The Gold Sox returned to town after a one-year absence, as the Padres Class AA affiliate had been in Alexandria, La. before moving to Amarillo before the 1976 season. There was some uncertainty surrounding the franchise before even taking the field that season.
For one thing, the stadium was in questionable condition.
“We didn’t know any different,” Shirley said. “The team had come from Louisiana the previous season to Amarillo. When we got here the field was in bad shape. Nobody had been playing at the field for a year.”
Shirley himself took awhile to ingratiate himself to his Gold Sox teammates, most of whom had come up from Class A ball. As the No. 1 pick of the Padres out of the University of Oklahoma, Shirley was called straight up to AA Amarillo, which didn’t exactly set well with some of his teammates.
After losing his first four decisions with the Gold Sox, Shirley won nine of his next 10 and got called up to Class AAA Hawaii. But he learned to be a pro in Amarillo.
“You get to face the other teams and you carry that on,” Shirley said. “I remember guys I pitched against in Amarillo when they got to the big leagues. I knew how to get them out and it helped.”
For the most part, this was the first time any of the 1976 Gold Sox had been back to Amarillo since they played here. Some remained in town on the 1977 team.
“It was a lot quieter,” Alfano said. “Downtown hasn’t really changed much, but back then we really didn’t spend a whole lot of time in town. It was straight to the ballpark, back to the apartment, come here, load the bus and take off.”
One player on that 1977 team did end up returning to Amarillo, and did so permanently. Mark Lee, who made it to the Padres big club, returned to Amarillo in 1982 and hasn’t left.
Lee was the general manager for Amarillo’s independent league teams, the Dillas and Sox, who played at Potter County Memorial. As much as things have changed since his playing days, Lee thinks they’ve stayed the same too.
“Amarillo’s a great place,” Lee said. “The Sod Poodles are doing well, the stadium is great, the fans are great. It just carried over perfectly from (Potter County to Hodgetown). Last year was a rough year but it’s come back this year it looks like.
“Baseball is baseball. You get a nice night, you go out to the ballpark and watch a game, there’s nothing better than that.”
Wilhelm feels the same way and wants to enjoy that feeling more often with his former Gold Sox teammates.
“We found out the Sod Poodles won and we didn’t know that the ‘76 team was the last time Amarillo had won the Texas League,” Wilhelm said. “It was a perfect idea to get everybody together. Unfortunately the covid hit, but here we are. It’s a good contingency, and if the damn pandemic would ever get out of here we’d have even more.
“It’s just like no time has passed.”
Amarillo Sod Poodles slugger Dominic Miroglio, right, celebrates with manager Shawn Roof after hitting a home run Saturday. [John Moore/ Press Pass Sports]
Sod Poodles win third straight series
Not even rain on Sunday night could spoil what turned out to be a great week for Amarillo professional baseball. The Sod Poodles matched their season high Saturday with their fourth straight win over the Double A Central South Division leading RoughRiders, winning 9-6 and clinching their third straight series win at Hodgetown.
Sunday’s rain out meant that the Sod Poodles (47-53) will instead play a doubleheader against Frisco on Sept. 15 at Hodgetown, with the first game starting at 5:05 p.m.