A Memorable Match Between Huntsville and Birmingham

For the first time in its history, the Stars had to close their box office. The fire marshal finally said, “That’s enough”. The crowd was overflow. People standing in the concourse three deep. In the aisles, from the steps to the top.

There was even talk of letting them down on the field, as long as they stayed on the edge from the bullpen to the corner track, but that didn’t happen. Huntsvile hadn’t seen anything like it.

Before or since. The attendance this July night broke the old record of 13,074, set on April 30, 1994, on the third night of Michael Jordan’s first visit to the Stadium. And all it was was a perfect summer night with just The Chicken and fireworks. The only thing missing was the script.

Well, the script arrived in time, and it was played out to a Hollywood conclusion.

Derek Manning was matched against Nelson Cruz. For seven innings, Cruz held the Stars scoreless, setting them up for Birmingham’s designated stopper that year, Stacy Jones (Jones finished the season with a club-leading 14 saves.) Manning pitched well until he severely injured his right knee going after a Mario Valdez bunt. He never came back the rest of the year.

Bob Bennett and Gary Haught, the Stars best middle reliever in June and July, picked it up from there and kept Birmingham from scoring, though they had a number of chances, and they kept the Stars in this game.

Jones, in relief of Cruz in the 8th, couldn’t hold the Barons’ one-run lead. Rod Correia, the first batter Jones faced, ripped a triple to right to score pinch-runner David Francisco, tying the game, 1-1. Then with 2 out and runners on first and second, Demond Smith smacked his 9th triple of the year off the right field wall, scoring Correia and Charles Poe, who had singled, giving the Stars a 3-1 lead.

But Birmingham came back, as they always seemed to do against us, in the top of the 9th off Mike Maurer. Jimmy Hurst, the Barons’ leading RBI man that year, slammed a bases-loaded double to right, putting the Barons back in the lead, 4-3.

The Chicken, usually signing autographs on the inside concourse by this time, did something he, er -it, had never done. He came back to the field, stood on top of the Stars dugout, and pantomimed the inspirational taped monologue that was run over the PA, of John Belushi’s famous speech from “Animal House.” You know the one. “When the going gets tough……..”

Perhaps The Chicken helped win it for us that day. His antics, meant to provide more than comic relief, did something for that cast-iron kettle the dugout was becoming.

Reliever Steve Worrell, who finished the season 5-1 with a 2.12 ERA, walked leadoff hitter Ben Grieve and Mark Bellhorn. Rob DeBoer, the Stars’ muscular barrel-chested back-up catcher, surprised more than a few people by laying down a perfect bunt single to load the bases.

It looked as if the Stars would give the crowd an early fireworks display, but Worrell struck out Willie Morales and Rod Correia. On a warm summer evening in a crowded ballpark came a little more sweat. No one was leaving this ballpark. The Chicken was busy working the cheering section and Charles Poe was busy waving his bat in the on-deck circle before coming to the plate.

Just one hit pleaded a noisy agitated crowd. The count to Poe went to 3-and-2, one strike away from a loss. Then Poe got all of a slider than hung over the plate and Poe was all over it. To dead centerfield it went.

Grand-slam home run in the bottom of the ninth.

“That was sweet, man,” said Poe. “I was trying to go the other way, believe it or not. I just got the head of the bat on it and there it went.”

Call it a present to the largest crowd in the history of Joe Davis Stadium.

Winning pitcher Chris Michalak is now active in the Milwaukee Brewers system. He’s got a new sidearm pitching motion that just wasn’t good enough for the 40-man roster.

He’ll probably wind up with Indianapolis this season. Birmingham’s lineup was peppered with future major leaguers –Mike Cameron, Magglio Ordonez, and Frank Menechino.

And Charles Poe, ironically a former Baron who was a Southern League All-Star the previous year, is now a coach in the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system.

He’ll be working with hitters for the Class A-Charleston Alley Cats of the South Atlantic League. He finished his playing career in Las Vegas, the San Diego Padres’ Class AAA farm club.

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