The 51-year-old baseball coach of a small Christian college in Minnesota drives around the Twin Cities, listening to a classic rock station. When he hears the opening riff of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” Brian Raabe turns up the volume.
That's his song, mysteriously assigned to him in the mid-1990s when he would walk from the on-deck circle to the batter's box as a Salt Lake Buzz player. The guitar sounds take him back to the newly constructed stadium then called Franklin Quest Field. That's where Raabe spent the three most rewarding years of his pro baseball career, even as a Minnesota native who was called up during parts of two seasons with the hometown Twins in the major leagues.
“I enjoyed every bit of what that place was about,” said Raabe, now the Bethel University coach.
He’s not among the big-league stars such as Mike Trout, Jered Weaver and David Ortiz, whose Triple-A tenures are celebrated with Walk of Fame banners around the outfield berm of Smith’s Ballpark. Yet Raabe was part of a rebirth in Salt Lake City’s Triple-A baseball history, being observed this summer with the Buzz/Stingers/Bees franchise’s 25-year anniversary of ties to the Twins and Los Angeles Angels organizations.
The franchise, sold to the late Larry H. Miller in 2005, covers the modern era of SLC baseball, extending the Pacific Coast League history that started in 1915. In another of the shrewd, emotion-driven decisions that framed his sports and business career, Miller restored the Bees nickname from his youth, with permission from the Class-A Burlington (Iowa) Bees. For 13th straight years, the Bees have ranked in Minor League Baseball’s top 25 in merchandising.
THE TRIB’S ALL-BUZZ/STINGERS/BEES TEAM
The Salt Lake Bees’ 11-game homestand continues through Thursday, when the franchise will celebrate the 25-year anniversary of the inaugural Buzz team during a game vs. Albuquerque. This is The Tribune’s All-Time Buzz/Stingers/Bees Team, based primarily on what those players went on to do in the major leagues (with parent club):
First base – Kendrys Morales (Angels).
Second base – Howie Kendrick (Angels).
Third base – Todd Walker (Twins).
Shortstop – Erick Aybar (Angels).
Outfield – Marty Cordova (Twins), Torii Hunter (Twins), Mike Trout (Angels).
Catcher – A.J. Pierzynski (Twins).
Designated hitter – David Ortiz (Twins).
Right-handed pitcher – Jered Weaver (Angels).
Left-handed pitcher – Joe Saunders (Angels).
Relief pitcher – Francisco Rodriguez (Angels).
Marc Amicone, the team’s president, loves the “traditional, classic” look that fans have embraced, amid MiLB’s modern, unconventional nicknames and logos.
The question for the next quarter-century is whether the Bees can recapture a bigger chunk of a sports market that responded overwhelmingly in 1994 to the novelty of Triple-A's return to 13th South and West Temple after 10 years. This is all you need to know about the Buzz's aura in those days: John Stockton visited the clubhouse, asking Raabe to sign a baseball for his son.
An eager fan base produced an unheard-of attendance average for a minor-league team in that inaugural 1994 season: 10,189. “Every day was so much fun to come to work, and the players absolutely loved it,” said Steve Klauke, now in his 26th season as the team's radio broadcaster.
The Bees (5,885) rank ninth in the 16-team PCL in attendance during a frustrating 2019 season with five postponements, several games played in adverse conditions and even a rain delay on July 4. Having received a radar picture from the team's groundskeeper that day, Amicone said, “I thought he was making a joke. … The Fourth of July was kind of an exclamation point, I guess.”
RECORDS BY AFFILIATION
Salt Lake’s records in the seven seasons of affiliation with the Minnesota Twins and the 19 years with the Los Angeles Angels:
Twins (1994-2000) — 545-457 (.544).
Angels (2001-19) — 1,323-1,354 (.494).
Amicone’s strategy in this era is to market both the on-field product and the ballpark atmosphere, explaining, “We have to make sure people continue to come and enjoy themselves — globally, not just watching the baseball game.”
Baseball alone was sufficient in the ’90s. Even among his teammates, Raabe said, the joke was that anyone who wanted to join a large crowd to watch Minnesota-affiliated players should go to Salt Lake City — not Minneapolis, where the team struggled, on the field and at the gate.
The Twins got better, thanks to prospects including Ortiz, Torii Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz and LaTroy Hawkins. They formed the core of a 2002 team that made the American League playoffs. That's not even counting Bernardo Brito, a fan favorite who 44 homers in 159 games over two seasons with the Buzz, but never found a permanent place with the Twins.
Minnesota lost to an Angels team that would win the ’02 World Series, with brilliant pitching performances in Game 7 from John Lackey, Brendan Donnelly and Francisco Rodriguez — after each spent part of the ’02 season with the Stingers.
“This is a long way from Salt Lake,” Lackey famously said that night, after beating Barry Bonds and the powerful San Francisco Giants.
In the Twins era, outfielder Marty Cordova became the American League Rookie of the Year in 1995, one year after playing 103 games for the Buzz. Trout, widely considered the game’s best player, initially skipped Triple-A on his way to the Angels, but he played the first 20 games of the 2012 season with the Bees at age 19.
Trout took one swing in batting practice, launched a ball over the center-field fence and declared, “I’m going to like hitting here.” He hit only one home run in a Salt Lake uniform — in Reno, Nev. But he batted .403 and produced five triples in 20 games, showing the speed that distinguishes him.
Trout is easily the biggest, if temporary, Salt Lake star of the Angels’ affiliation that began in 2001. Others who emerged in this era include Weaver, infielders Eric Aybar, Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick and infielder/outfielder Mark Trumbo. In addition to Hunter — “Before Trout came along, I always thought he was the best all-around player we’ve ever seen here,” Klauke said — the Twins system produced catchers A.J. Pierzynski and Damian Miller, infielder Todd Walker and pitcher Eddie Guardado.
And then there are the Salt Lake legends who never lasted long in the majors, such as Brito, who drove in 122 runs in 108 games in ’94, and first baseman Efren Navarro, who batted .316 for the Bees in 552 games over five seasons.
They’re all part of the lore of 25-plus seasons, providing Klauke with memorable material. He remembers manager Phil Roof riding a promotional motorcycle around the infield to celebrate a win, and crashing as he rounded third base. The players drew a chalkline the next day, surrounded by caution tape.
Brito once hit a would-be grand slam, except he passed a teammate between first and second base and was credited with a three-run single. New Orleans scored nine runs in the top of the first inning, then the Buzz posted eight in the bottom of the inning. The Bees were gifted a winning run because Tucson's catcher used his mask to scoop the ball, and the runner was awarded a base. A game in Calgary was delayed by a jackrabbit on the field. Colorado Springs' right fielder refused to take his position, due to a huge snake. Raabe was stung by a bee, while playing second base in Edmonton.
That's not among the stories Raabe told, though, during a half-hour conversation that consisted mostly of his saying repeatedly much he loved playing in Salt Lake City.
Even when he would be sent back down from Minnesota, Raabe said, “It was not a hard thing to swallow in my case, because I knew where I was going.”
He’s thriving in the coaching phase of his baseball career, while savoring his Buzz memories. When his walk-up song comes on the radio, he smiles. if he’s driving alone, he’ll even make the announcement: “Now batting, the second baseman, Brian Raabe.”
The Salt Lake Buzz/Stingers/Bees franchise has played four times in the Pacific Coast League’s championship series, without winning.
1995 – Colorado Springs 3, Salt Lake 2: The Buzz had a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth with one out and nobody on base in the deciding Game 5, but the Sky Sox rallied to win on Jim Tatum’s bloop single to left field.
2000 – Memphis 3, Salt Lake 1: The Stingers rallied with three runs in the ninth inning to tie Game 4, but Albert Pujols’ home run in the 13th inning gave the Redbirds the title.
2002 – Edmonton 3, Salt Lake 1: Former Salt Lake manager Phil Roof earned a championship over the Stingers, the Angels’ affiliate.
2013 – Omaha 3, SaltLake 1: The Storm Chasers won the title after posting only a 70-74 record in the regular season.