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Great Moments in Mets Minor League History: The 1998 Capital City Bombers

The 90-51 Capital City Bombers winning the South Atlantic League Championship was a great moment in Mets minors history.

New York Mets’ outfielder Alex Escobar warms up at a spring
Alex Escobar
Photo by Keith Torrie/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

From 1993 until 2004, the Mets’ Low-A affiliate were the Capital City Bombers. Playing in Columbia, South Carolina, the team was named after James Doolittle and the servicemen who participated in airstrikes in Tokyo, who trained for the raid at the Columbia Army Air Base in 1942. In their first few years of existence, the team did not perform particularly well. Under the guidance of Ron Washington, the Bombers went 64–77 in 1993 and 59–76 in 1994. Howie Freiling led the team in 1995 and 1996, and the team got progressively better, going 72–68 and 82–57, respectively.

Doug Mansolino was hired to lead the Bombers in 1997, and while the team did well in the standings, ending the season in first place in the division with a 77–63 and securing a playoff berth, things were a mess behind the scenes. On April 19, 23-year-old outfielder Tim Bishop was killed in a car accident and teammate Randy Vickers, a 21-year-old infielder, was injured. Subsequent investigations revealed that Bishop had alcohol in his system, and that alcohol had been consumed on the team bus during a trip back to Columbia from Hagerstown and was likely a contributing factor in his death. Roughly a month later, Ryan Jaroncyk, the Mets’ 1st round draft pick in the 1995 MLB Draft, abruptly quit baseball, citing how he hated the game and reportedly saying, “The minute I walk out of here, I’m going to throw my glove in the dumpster.” The chaos led to the team replacing Mansolino and his coaching staff with an interim team

In 1998, the Mets promoted Doug Davis to manage the Bombers. Davis had led the Pittsfield Mets to a New York-Penn League title the year before and according to numerous players and fellow coaches, he was the right man for the job. His strong, silent style of leadership benefitted the electric mix of players the 1998 Bombers would have rostered.

On paper, the 1997 Bombers looked like a better team than the 1998 team. In 1997, top pitching prospects Grant Roberts and Brett Herbison anchored the pitching staff and farmhands Garrick Haltiwanger and Dan Ramirez leading the way with the bats. In 1998, the Bombers only had two legitimate prospects, Geoff Goetz and Alex Escobar. The two were surrounded by a strong cast of complementary players; in Goetz’s case, rotation mates Kevin Dougherty, Todd Cutchins, Leo Estrella, and Dicky Gonzalez were all quality farmhands in their own right and in Escobar’s case, almost every other man out there on the diamond had potential with their bats.

According to Mark Bryant, the Bombers’ assistant general manager at the time, “’98 was the first time where you saw, like, the offense is that good. The defense is that good. The pitching is that good. The infield was stellar. They could steal bases and hit home runs.”

The Bombers had a solid start to the season but really hit their stride in May and June, going a combined 41-14 over the course of those two months. When the first half of the season ended, pitchers Shawn Barry and Geoff Goetz and infielders Mo Bruce and Jerson Perez were selected to the South Atlantic League All-Star Game.

The second half started off on a sour note as Goetz was sent to the Florida Marlins as the player to be named later in the Mike Piazza blockbuster. “I had just got done throwing a bullpen, we were in Greensboro, North Carolina, playing the Bats. So I’m through my bullpen and everyone else was already on the field stretching. And I remember Mo going, ‘what’s up Marlin?’ I didn’t even understand what he said. I go, ‘Dude, I don’t even know what you’re talking about, man.’ He goes, ‘look up at that TV up there.’ And he points up at the TV and sure enough, Geoff Goetz is the player to be named later for Mike Piazza. And I’m like, ‘what the heck?’ And I start getting real uncomfortable. I asked [Doug Melvin], hey I have to go check what’s going on here. I guess there was a leak to Peter Gammons. So I’m sitting around thinking I’m going to have to say goodbye to everyone after the game. The next day, I find out I’m not legally able to be traded for another month. [The Marlins] had already picked me, that’s why the leak happened. The problem was I wasn’t legally able to be traded [in June] because it was less than a year from when I signed my contract [with the Mets in July of 1997]. I had to then pitch for the next month knowing I was going to be traded.”

Despite the loss of their all-star pitcher, the Bombers continued dominating. When the regular season ended, the team finished with a 90-51 record, the best record in organized minor league baseball that year. In addition, their finish would be the best that the Bombers recorded to that point in organizational history, and as it would turn out, that they ever would.

In the first round of the 1998 South Atlantic League playoffs, the bombers met the Piedmont Boll Weevils in a best-of-three series. The Bombers dominated, sweeping Piedmont two games to none. In the semi-finals, they met the Hagerstown Suns in another best-of-three series. This round would be much more contested, with the Bombers taking game one, losing game two in a 11-9 slugfest, and then winning the third in a 9-1 slugfest of their own.

The Bombers met the Greensboro Grasshoppers in the finals. The two teams had opened the season facing off against each other and had played each other in a single-game series to determine playoff seeding and were intimately familiar with each other. The Bombers dropped game one, immediately putting them behind the eight ball in the best-of-three championship series. Reliever-turned-starter Tyler Walker pitched the do-or-die game two and was absolutely dominant, striking out sixteen over seven scoreless innings. The offense stepped up in the winner-take-all game three, dominating the Grasshoppers 10-2 for their first- and only- South Atlantic League championship.

Nineteen-year-old Alex Escobar would be named the 1998 South Atlantic League Most Outstanding Prospect of the Year and Mets Minor League Player of the Year. The five-tool Venezuelan centerfielder hit .310/.393/.584 with 27 home runs and 47 stolen bases.

Following a 89–47 2004 season that came close to matching that magical 1998 season, the Mets changed their minor league affiliation to the Hagerstown Suns, ending their 22-year-relationship with the city of Columbia. The Bombers became an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, and the team left the city for nearby Greenville. They would retain the Bombers name for the 2005 season before rebranding as the Greenville Drive.