Sadly, the end came this week for the Astros affiliation with the Round Rock Express. Now, Houston must find a new Triple-A affiliate with only two spots actually open. The most likely landing spot for the new highest rung on the minor league ladder looks like it'll be Oklahoma City, a franchise that was recently bought by Mandalay Baseball.
The Astros are still negotiating with both Oklahoma City and with Las Vegas, but the clear preference is to maintain close to Houston with the RedHawks. Assuming that happens, let's break down everything you might want to know about the Pacific Coast League franchise.
Name: Oklahoma City RedHawks. Notice the capital "H." I'd just like to point out that's how the team spells it on their official website.
Ballpark: AT&T Bricktown Ballpark - You won't find many nicer stadiums around the minor leagues. The ballpark was opened in 1998 and has been the home of the RedHawks ever since. As Brian McTaggart points out, it seats 13,066 and is also the home to the Phillips 66 Big 12 Baseball Championship each spring. That would be the same Big 12 Championship Texas A&M won last season...ahem.
Bricktown is 325 feet to both the left and right field foul poles and 400 feet to dead center. The ballpark plays almost neutral, with a slightly depressed park factor for runs scored, a slightly above-average factor for hits and a drastically depressed value for home runs. Compared to Round Rock, the only significant differences are the factor for doubles (Oklahoma City is at 1.00, Round Rock is at 0.95) and homers (OKC is at 0.91, RR is at 0.99). So, the biggest change the club will see is less homers hit in Triple-A, but more doubles. That should lead to an uptick in extra-base hits as the guys who will be in the upper minors in the next few years are more likely to hit doubles than homers, anyway.
History: The roads around the ballpark are named for Mickey Mantle, Joe Carter and Johnny Bench. Carter and Bench were both born in Oklahoma City, while Mantle was born near there. It's interesting that all three played for drastically different teams, yet are still honored as Oklahoma's favorite sons.
While OKC has been a Rangers affilliate since 1983, the Oklahoma City 86ers were an Astros/Colt .45's affiliate from 1962-72. That's when the Cleveland Indians took over for three seasons, leaving in 1976 when the Philadelphia Phillies took over. That affiliation lasted until 1983, when the Rangers took over.
Minor league baseball has been played in Oklahoma City since 1904 and this upcoming season will be the 100th in Oklahoma City history. From 1904 to 1912, OKC alternated between Class B, C and D and not officially being affiliated with a team until 1940. The OKC team skipped a year in 1913, but played continuously through 1942, when they stopped play until after World War II ended. They played from 1946 to 1957 before shutting things down again. It was revived again in 1962 and the team has played continuously since then.
The OKC franchise has had many nicknames. They started out as the Mets for five years, were the Indians for four, alternated between the Boosters and the Senators before settling back on the Indians in 1918 and on through '57. At that point, they changed to the Oklahoma City 89ers and kept the nickname through 1997.
At that point, the reincarnated American Association failed again and the eight teams (OKC, Nashville, Louisville, Omaha, Iowa, New Orleans, Buffalo and Indianapolis) were incorporated into the Pacific Coast League and the International League. OKC has been a Triple-A affiliate since 1962.
OKC has been in a number of minor leagues over the years, most notably the Texas League from '09 to '11 and '33 to '57, the PCL from '63 to '68 and '98 to the present day, the Western League from '18 to '32 and the Western Association at various times. They have played in six different stadiums over the years, playing at All Sports Stadium from '67 to '97 and Holland Park from '24 to '57.
Team records: I'm going to treat all the records for Oklahoma City teams as being for one franchise, rather than splitting them up between the various incarnations, including the Triple-A, Double-A years. Former Astros great Bob Watson posted the highest batting average for the team, hitting .408 in 1969 and was the only person to top .400 in franchise history. Cesar Cedeno also posted one of the highest averages in franchise history when he hit .373 with 14 doubles, nine triples and 14 home runs in 1970.
Jim Lemon hit 39 home runs in 1950 to set the franchise record. Three other guys hit 38 while Nelson Cruz hit 37 in 2008. Russell Burns has the most RBIs in franchise history with 124 in 1953 while Bob Dernier holds the stolen base record, nabbing 72 bags in 1981.
Harold Hillin set the record for most victories with 31 in 1937 while Jim Kern struck out 220 in 1974 to set the team record. Kern and J.R. Richard are the only two pitchers in franchise history to strike out more than 200, as Richard had 202 strikeouts in 1971. Jose Veras set the save record with 24 in 2005 while Joe Hoerner holds the ERA record with a 1.31 mark in 1964. Edinson Volquez came close to breaking it with a 1.41 ERA in 2007.
The 89ers also set a team record for most wins in a season when they were an Astros affiliate back in 1965. That team won 91 games and had a winning percentage of .628. That team won the Pacific Coast League Championship, defeating Portland in five games. It was the second PCL championship for the team in three seasons.
Their manager was Grady Hatton, who had just finished up 12 seasons in the majors five years before and went on to manage the Astros the next season to a 72-90 record. The only team to come close to that .628 winning percentage is the 1999 RedHawks, who won 83 games and had a .585 winning percentage. Oklahoma City has won four championships, the most recent coming in 1996, when the 89ers beat Indianapolis 3-1 in the American Association Championship. Since 1962, OKC has won 3,369 games and lost 3,632 for an all-time winning percentage of .481. They have had just two losing seasons in the past six years.
Chuck Smith holds the RedHawks single-game strikeout record with 14 on June 23, 1999 against Memphis. There have been nine no-hitters in franchise history. The first was in 1963 when Gerald Nelson no-hit Salt Lake and the most recent was on August 14, 2009, when Luis Mendoza no-hit Salt Lake. Jeff Pickler holds the record for most hits in a game, picking up six on June 22, 2004 at Albuquerque.
Media coverage: The RedHawks' website has its own beat writer, Bob Hersom. They also have a spot in The Oklahoman, with Ryan Aber providing coverage of the team both in print and on his blog. Some of their games are carried by KTOK 1000 here. They are also on Twitter here @okcredhawks and have a Facebook page here.
I'd talk a little more about team management, but I'm not sure what changes Mandalay Baseball will be making in their front office. Ticket prices seem pretty reasonable, but there is a good discount for buying tickets early. You can get club level seats for $15 in advance and $18 on game day. General admission seating on three outfield berms costs $7 in advance and $10 on game day. Oh, and flights on Southwest Airlines from Houston to OKC run about $112 one way.
That's pretty much all I've got. I could go on longer, but I don't want to seem silly if the Astros decide to go with Las Vegas instead. If I hear they are leaning that way, you can expect another one of these for that franchise as well.