Supporters of Smokies enjoy a fulfilling season

45 years without a SL pennant is over

By Steve Williams

Professional minor league baseball in the Knoxville area finally got that gorilla off its back.

Forty-five seasons after winning the Southern League championship as the Knoxville Sox in 1978, the Tennessee Smokies finally captured another SL pennant last week with a 10-3 victory at Pensacola, Fla., ending a title drought that was the second longest in the nation for a minor league franchise.

A Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, Tennessee had lost eight straight games at one point late in the regular season, but finished strong in the post-season playoffs, outscoring its opposition 18-3 over the first three innings in their four wins.

The Smokies’ pitching cut down a good Chattanooga Lookouts team 3-1 and 5-1 in the best-of-3 semifinals of the Northern Division before starting the best-of-3 SL championships series with an 8-4 win over the Southern Division’s Blue Wahoos, who were the league’s defending champions and considered by many its top club again this season.

The Smokies and Mobile BayBears were declared co-champs in 2004 when the SL title series was cancelled in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan on the Gulf Coast.

“Winning this title outright, for the first time in 45 years, I believe makes it that much more special,” said Chris Allen, President of the Tennessee Smokies.

“For our fans and sponsors I could not be happier. They have given us so much support over the years and that has not gone unnoticed. This championship is theirs and no one can take it away!”

Third baseman B.J. Murray’s opposite field three-run homer gave the Tennessee Smokies a 4-1 lead in the third inning. They added a four-spot in the top of the sixth for a 9-1 advantage. Pensacola started the bottom of the sixth with three straight hits but managed to score only one run as a 5-3 double play defused a big inning.

Cade Horton, the Chicago Cubs’ top pitching prospect, went five innings and allowed only one hit and one run in notching the mound win.

In addition to Murray, who totaled four RBI, centerfielder Kevin Alcantara continued his solid post-season play with three hits, including a pair of doubles, and two runs.

Second baseman Matt Shaw’s leaping catch of a line drive provided the game’s final out.

The Smokies had a young team this year with good speed and also led the league in home runs during the regular season.

The 1978 and 2023 title years have something in common. In each of those seasons, the SL champions ended up having two managers.

Tony La Russa got his first managerial job with the K-Sox in 1978, but stayed just half a season in Knoxville before Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck promoted him to his Major League coaching staff. Joe Jones took over the reins in Knoxville.

In Kodak this season, Michael Ryan started out as the Smokies’ manager but resigned in June and Kevin Graber moved up as Tennessee’s skipper.

La Russa, who managed three World Series teams and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014, will turn 79 Wednesday (Oct. 4). He stepped down as a MLB manager just last year.

Knoxville’s pro baseball team became affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1980 and was called the K-Jays until the historic Smokies moniker was reintroduced in 1993.

The team left Knoxville and moved into the new Smokies Stadium in Kodak in 2000. They are scheduled to play their 2024 season in Kodak before returning to Knoxville, where a new stadium is being built near the Old City and downtown area.

Meanwhile, the Syracuse Mets continue to have the dubious distinction of having the longest drought in the minors. They last won a Triple-A International League title in 1976.

The Smokies are glad to no longer be the next in line.