Less than an hour before the Colorado Rockies traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals, Nolan Arenado was a guest speaker on a Zoom call for University of California-Irvine baseball alumni – a virtual event serving as the Anteaters’ annual alumni game.

Arenado scanned the roster of attendees and recognized someone that gave him fits almost a decade ago: Scott Gorgen.

A right-handed pitcher that led UCI to the 2007 College World Series and graduated as the program’s all-time strikeout leader – Gorgen was the Cardinals’ fourth-round pick in the 2008 MLB draft, and he pitched in the farm system for six years.

“Gorgen,” Arenado said on the call. “I could never get a hit off you in Springfield.”

High above the right field wall at Hammons Field there is a single red circle with the year “2012” inscribed in white numbers. It’s a marker commemorating the only Texas League championship team since the Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate relocated to Springfield in 2005.

When the final out was recorded – a groundball that shortstop Greg Garcia flipped to his college buddy from the University of Hawaii, Kolten Wong – the celebration that followed looked like the ones seen on national television every autumn.

The players that soaked their visiting gray uniforms with beer and champagne would soon be honored by Baseball America as the 2012 Minor League Team of the Year – a collective accomplishment achieved by a group of individuals who were really chasing their own dreams, so they barely paused to savor that moment.

After game 3 of the Texas League Championship Series against the Frisco RoughRiders at Dr. Pepper BallPark on September 15, 2012 in Frisco, TX. The Cardinals became the 2012 Texas League Champions after defeating the RoughRiders 2-1. (David Welker/ For the News-Leader)

Ten years later memories of that special season linger in the minds of those that were there.

Like Jeff Levering, the Milwaukee Brewers broadcaster for Bally’s Sports Wisconsin but the voice of the Springfield Cardinals at the time.

And Kary Booher, the beat writer for the Springfield News-Leader, a constant presence in the Cardinals’ clubhouse who chronicled it all.

And Nolan Arenado, the menacing third baseman for the Tulsa Drillers, who was denied an opportunity for a Texas League championship ring when the Cardinals beat the Drillers in a winner-take-all Game 5 of the North Division finals.

And Scott Gorgen, Springfield’s opening day starter who got promoted to Memphis for much of the summer, only to discover a bittersweet reward awaited him in the fall – a chance to win a championship in professional baseball, but back in Double-A.

Ten years later the most enduring legacy of Springfield’s 2012 championship season is not the banner above right field at Hammons Field, it’s the haunting absence in right field at Busch Stadium.

“It was like he never had a bad day”

Oscar Taveras is still the youngest player to make an opening day start in Springfield; he was just 19 years and 290 days old when Gorgen delivered the first pitch of the season on April 5, 2012.

In Spanish, he was called El Fenomeno (“The Phenomenon”) and for Cardinals’ fans stunned by the loss of El Hombre (Albert Pujols), who departed for Los Angeles in the offseason, Taveras would be the next legendary figure in the Cardinals’ lineage.

Everything the young outfielder from the Dominican Republic did that summer fueled the hype.

Taveras won the Texas League batting title, hitting for a .321 average and .953 OPS with 23 home runs and 94 RBIs. He was the 2012 Texas League Player of the Year and Cardinals’ organization Player of the Year.

“He was just so fun to watch,” Booher said. “Just a lot of natural ability. Last year in the Texas League, Bobby Witt Jr. came through – Royals’ prospect. Bobby Witt has one of the best swings I’ve seen in 20 years being around Double-A. I look back and Taveras, he was the same way. Some things were just effortless.”

Levering agrees what he watched Taveras do in 2012 put him in elite company.

“People will ask me, I’ve been (broadcasting) for 16 years now – people will always say who are some of the best players you saw come through the minor leagues? And there’s three names that come to my mind: one was Mike Trout in 2011, I knew he was going to be a superstar. Mookie Betts was another one in 2014 – and then I always say Oscar Taveras.”

After the All-Star break, Northwest Arkansas (Royals) called up a 21-year-old flamethrower from the Dominican, Yordano Ventura, who would help Kansas City win the World Series in 2015.

“They went up against each other those two guys, Ventura and Taveras, in that 2012 season and those were some electric at-bats,” Levering said.

Within five years, both young stars were dead – their careers cut tragically short by fatal car accidents in their home country.

Two weeks after he blasted a pinch-hit two-run home run over the right-field wall at Busch Stadium in Game 2 of the 2014 NLCS – the last hit of his career – Taveras and his girlfriend were killed when their car crashed into a tree.

Taveras was 22 years old. Ventura was 25 when met a similar fate in January 2017.

“(Their deaths) did change the fabric of baseball, I feel like, especially for the Latin American players, Levering said.

“Those were guys that those kids coming through would look up to and theirs would be this era of Juan Soto before Juan Soto. They could have really changed the game and unfortunately it was not meant to be.”

The heartbreak that occurred on October 26, 2014, robbed St. Louis of more than a potential Hall of Fame right fielder.

“Oscar was unbelievable – He was one of those guys that, when you ran into him, it was like he never had a bad day,” Levering said.

“He always had a smile on his face, he always made you feel better about yourself. He’d always walk up to me – my little cubicle, you couldn’t go to the clubhouse without passing it and he’d always poke his head up over it, say hello – just an infectious personality.”

“It took everybody.”

Mike Shildt was a 43-year-old manager that never played baseball professionally and, prior to the 2012 season, had never managed above the Rookie Leagues.

But Shildt’s methods resonated with players, including a post-game tradition that he feared might be too corny for Double-A.

“He would fill out the lineup card and after a game, if they won, he would give it to one of the players,” Booher said.

“He’d sign it, he’d date it and it created a competition within the clubhouse. Guys wanted to win that card. Talk about getting the most out of your talent, that’s what he did here.”

“Probably the biggest story was Carlos Martinez,” Booher continued.

“He came in mid-season; he hadn’t been throwing his fastball that much down in Palm Beach, and so, they assigned Travis Tartamella, the catcher, to be his Crash Davis – and what you saw was a guy transform himself into a big leaguer.”

Tartamella – who would get one major league hit in two plate appearances with St. Louis in 2015 – was arguably the most famous Springfield player that summer, thanks to an iconic photograph snapped by photojournalist David Welker.

In the second inning of Springfield’s win over Arkansas on July 25, Travelers’ righthander Johnny Hellweg sent the first pitch screaming right at Tartamella’s head.

“He was hit in the face, straight in the mouth,” Levering said.

Tartamella retreated to the Cardinals’ dugout and Welker captured a close-up of his swollen jaw and gritty expression.

“You could see the seams underneath his nose and just above the crease in his mouth – you could see the seams,” Levering said.

“That picture, with the sweat dripping down his face was a full two-page centerfold in ESPN The Magazine and I had him sign it for me. I still have it.”

Tartamella’s tutelage of Martinez was typical; most of the well-known names on the 2012 club benefitted from the mentorship of veteran minor leaguers – like Jermaine Curtis and Jamie Romak.

“(Curtis) was a big factor in developing a lot of those guys,” Booher said.

“He was a coach on the field, I thought – especially for Taveras. Jermaine played at UCLA, he was an American-born guy, but he could speak Spanish. He could really relate to almost everybody in that clubhouse.”

Curtis – now manager of the Greenville Flyboys in the Appalachian League – made five career MLB plate appearances with the Cardinals in 2013. But in 2012, he pushed Taveras to the brink, chasing him for the Texas League batting title into the final week of the season.

“Jamie Romak, who just beat the crap out of Springfield a couple of years prior with Northwest Arkansas, he comes in halfway through the season,” Levering said. “He was great, just a great presence.”

“Those two guys really made that club go,” Booher said.

“When they brought in (Curtis and Romak), the club was okay. There just weren’t some things that were going as well as they could be, and once they came in, they brought some veteran leadership into that clubhouse.”

Romak played 19 seasons of professional baseball, the last one in 2021 in the Korean Baseball Organization. He never reached the major leagues.

“It took everybody,” Levering said.

“In the minor leagues you could have a guy on your roster for one game and then he’s either up or down, or out. We had a good core of players – Kolten, Oscar, Xavier Scruggs, Greg Garcia, Adam Melker – those guys all played over 120 games that year for us, so that was a nice little core that just doesn’t happen in Double-A ball very often.”

“Baseball players have a crazy memory”

Scott Gorgen was born two-months premature, and he spent the first 18 months of his life hospitalized. As the Los Angeles Times reported in a profile of Gorgen in 2008, doctors told his parents he may never learn to walk or talk, much less play baseball.

But after a stellar collegiate career and selection by the Cardinals, Gorgen’s arm helped the Batavia Muckdogs win the 2008 New York-Penn League championship. In 2010, the 23-year-old prospect was on schedule – he posted a 5-1 record with 1.26 ERA in 12 appearances with Springfield, but his season ended when his UCL required Tommy John surgery.

Gorgen missed the next season and watched St. Louis win the 2011 World Series while rehabbing his elbow.

“Pop Warner, he was our Double-A and Triple-A manager most of the time I was there, he had kind of, told me that I was going to be in the big leagues had I not hurt my elbow,” Gorgen said.

“So, I was motivated in 2012, I was motivated to come back.”

After he opened the season in Springfield, the Cardinals promoted Gorgen to Memphis in June and he made eight starts for the Redbirds.

“I remember going up to Triple-A and I wasn’t throwing horrible – I was throwing pretty well,” Gorgen said.

“And I think it got to the point where they were going to pull some guys up (to St. Louis) for September or they were going to drop some guys down because Springfield was making a run.”

The defending World Champs would fall one win short of another National League pennant – there were no innings available for Gorgen, who may have received the late-season promotion he dreamed of from a team in a different competitive situation.

“I think I was just a little disappointed,” Gorgen said.

“(But) there’s something special about this group of guys (in Double-A). So, I just remember thinking – alright, yes, it’s not the big leagues this year but you know what? This is going to be awesome to win the first championship for Springfield.”

On September 15, with Springfield ahead two games to one in the best-of-five Texas League Championship Series, Gorgen toed the rubber in Frisco, Texas.

“I went back to my bread and butter – utilize my pitches and locate. I used my changeup a ton – my changeup was on,” Gorgen said.

Gorgen picked off Leury Garcia in the first inning and worked out of a jam in the third.

Greg Garcia singled home Jermaine Curtis to break a scoreless tie in the fifth inning and Gorgen found himself in trouble again in the bottom half of the frame.

Greg Garcia (7) and Kolten Wong (4) of the Springfield Cardinals leap in the air after game 3 of the Texas League Championship Series against the Frisco RoughRiders at Dr. Pepper BallPark on September 15, 2012 in Frisco, TX. The Cardinals became the 2012 Texas League Champions after defeating the RoughRiders 2-1. (David Welker/ For the News-Leader)

Frisco put two runners in scoring position with one out, but Gorgen retired the next two and pitched a scoreless sixth inning.

“I said if I can get us to the sixth inning with two or few runs (allowed) we had a shot, Gorgen said.

He tossed six shutout innings and departed with Springfield ahead 1-0.

“Like okay, we got Michael Wacha, Eric Fornataro and Keith Butler closing this thing out – that’s going to look like 100 mph to these guys (after a steady diet of change-ups).”

Wacha struck-out the side in the seventh and the Cardinals added an insurance run in the eighth – they would need it.

Fornataro surrendered a home run in the bottom of the eighth that cut the lead in half. Tommy Mendonca reached second base with two outs and when Jared Hoying singled to left field, it appeared Frisco would tie the game.

Levering, who was forced to broadcast the game on his cell phone because Frisco didn’t pay the phone bill for its press box line, remembers calling the game-saving play.

“Adam Melker throws this dart to home plate – a one hop feed – to keep Springfield leading by a run.”

Butler shut the door in the ninth and Springfield had its lone Texas League title.

Gorgen was released by the Cardinals only months later, in May 2013. He finished his career playing independent ball in the Atlantic League.

But his 2012 Texas League Championship ring and the experience it represents will last a lifetime.

“Baseball players in particular have a crazy memory,” Levering said. “You can talk about Scott Gorgen, who got up to Triple-A and never got to the big leagues – but Nolan Arenado, who is one of the game’s best, probably a future Hall of Famer, remembers not being able to get a hit against Scott Gorgen in Double-A.”

“When you play in the minor leagues, having games that matter is really fun.”

 

Andy Carroll
Andy Carroll

Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505