With the Springfield Rifles and Danville Dans set to start the best-of-three Central Illinois Collegiate League championship series tonight in Springfield, I thought I’d look back at the best team the Quincy Gems have fielded on the 10th anniversary of their run through the league:
For as good as the Springfield Sliders were to start this season in the Central Illinois Collegiate League, going 20-4 in the season’s first half, they pale in comparison to the best team the summer wood bat league has ever produced — the 1998 Quincy Gems.
In the Gem City, the summer of ’98 will be remembered for much more than the chemically enhanced Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race that year.
It was the year people packed QU-Stadium like they never have before — or have since — to watch a bunch of college kids play baseball. The ballpark on the corner of 18th and Sycamore was the place to see and be seen.
Those people were treated to the best baseball to hit town since the minor leaguers left in the early 1970s.
Quincy started the season by winning 23 of its first 24 games, including an 18-game winning streak. There were a few one-run wins in there, but the majority of those games were absolute beatdowns. The Gems scored 15 or more runs in five games that season, including two during that league-record winning streak. To put that in perspective, Quincy teams have only reached the 15-run mark three times since.
The Gems had power in Triple Crown winner Ryan Duncheon (shown at left), who hit .398 with 10 home runs and 53 runs batted in. The Illinois State product’s slugging percentage was an otherworldy .690.
Four players hit better than .300 and the team pounded out 38 home runs and scored a CICL-record 369 runs that season, an average of 7.38 per game. Two players from that lineup — outfielder Josh Rabe and infielder J.J. Furmaniak — eventually reached the major leagues.
The Gems had a cult hero in Butler (Kan.) Community College first baseman Les Graham. In his second year with the team, Graham used to bring fans to their feet when George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” blared over the loud speakers when he came to the plate. He scowled on the field thanks to his mustache and beard, but was a teddy bear off of it, signing autograph for every kid (and adult) who came his way.
The Gems had speed in Mississippi’s Chad Hill and Carson-Newman’s Shap Stiles. Hill swiped 33 bases, while Stiles added 22 more as the Gems easily led the league in stolen bases with 117.
The Gems had plenty of strong arms on the mound. A staff that included two eventual first-round draft picks in left-hander Jeff Urban and right-hander Blake Williams limited foes to a .230 batting average. The staff’s earned run average (3.19) was just over half that of the opposition’s (6.27). Several pitchers on that staff played minor leagues with Urban getting two calls up to the major leagues but never getting a chance to pitch for the San Francisco Giants. The staff struck out 407 batters, another one of the seven CICL records the 1998 team still owns.
Ironically, the best pitcher on that staff never pitched an inning in the minors. Ball State’s Chris Cabaj, a 6-foot-10 right-hander, went 9-1 with a 2.05 ERA to win CICL Pitcher of the Year honors. He gave up the game after finishing his eligibility at Ball State despite being drafted by the Kansas City Royals.
It was a special season, one that was capped with a 6-4 victory over Danville in the CICL title game. The Gems had a little bit of everything, making it a magical season that may never be duplicated.
There was a buzz around QU-Stadium that is missing now. There’s still a solid fan base, but it’s nothing like it was 10 years ago when the Gems ruled the town.