The "Thunderbirds" logo.

Red Sox star Nomar Garciaparra probably ranks as the Thunder's greatest alumnus.

Sam Plumeri Sr.'s own field of dreams along the Delaware made for the most popular ballpark in Double-A baseball.

   Bob Gilson was incredulous. Well, maybe he was oblivious, or perhaps he was just over-acting when confronted with the truth.
  Whatever he was, he also was angry when queried about the likelihood the minor league baseball team for which he was general manager, the Class AA Eastern League's London (Ontario) Tigers, would be moving to Trenton, N.J., for the 1994 season.

    "This is something that was cooked up by your editor and a politician," Gilson told The Trentonian in March 1993. "I'm calling the National Association (of Professional Baseball Leagues) about you. You'll have to tell them your sources or you'll never get a team in Mercer County."

    The sources remained protected.

    The London Tigers, however, didn't stay put.

    Shortly after the 1993 season — for which London sold an Eastern League-worst 103,840 tickets — it was announced the franchise would move to a planned stadium along the Delaware River in South Trenton, and be renamed the Trenton Thunder.

    Gilson wasn't so feisty.

    "Right now, it's just myself and my office manager left here," Gilson said in November, 1993. "By the middle of November, if we don't have a (Class A) team, the office will close. Our accountants came in and took a final look at the books. I'm from here (London) and it's disappointing because we couldn't get the people here. But let's face it, it's your game. It's America's game. People here would rather watch hockey."

    By 1999, they would be watching professional hockey and a lot of other events in Trenton, too.

    And they would have baseball — Gilson's former franchise — to thank for it.

    By the end of 1999, the Thunder had sold 2,553,467 tickets over six summers of baseball games at Waterfront Park, making the franchise the fastest to top 2 million in ticket sales in Class AA history.

    Wayne Hodes, the Thunder's general manager, was named Eastern League Executive of the Year in 1995 and '98, and also The Sporting News' overall Minor League Executive of the Year for 1996. Baseball America gave the Thunder its Bob Freitas award for Class AA in 1998, a selection based on five-year periods of success.


    The plan to bring minor league baseball back to Trenton, where it last had been played in 1950 by a New York Giants farm team that featured Willie Mays, actually was cooked up by Sam Plumeri Sr., whose father had owned the Trenton Giants, and Mercer County Executive Bob Prunetti, a brash Republican and former Trenton High football linebacker.

    They enlisted the help of Camden County-based financier Joe Caruso to put together a prospective ownership group.

    Prunetti sought ways to fund construction of a 6,300-seat stadium, the price tag for which grew from $12.2 million to $18.3 million.

    Shrouding everything was the secretive process organized baseball required when dealing with a potential franchise relocation.

    "This business is brutal," Prunetti said. "It's much worse than politics."

    Prunetti's welcome to the business of baseball was only the beginning.

    Construction of the stadium began in late 1993, just as Trenton was about to be hit with one of its worst winters. By March 1, Thunder and county officials conceded the team was looking at alternate sites for an opening day, which was scheduled for April 16.

    The Thunder eventually played "home" games in Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, with April 27 targeted for the new home opener.

    "Now, it's up to the teams to say no. But if they do, I'd be surprised," Thunder general manager Wayne Hodes said on April 26, after everyone from then-Eastern League president John Levenda to safety inspectors gave the playing field and still unfinished stadium their OKs.

    But The Trentonian hit the streets on April 27 with a backpage headlined, "Field of Seams," and a picture of seams between the sod strips, the last of which had been installed in the preceding couple of days.

    Albany-Colonie Yankees manager Bill Evers, told the last bit of sod had been put in place the previous weekend but furious to be reading otherwise, left his team at its suburban Trenton hotel and rode the bus to the ballpark alone. He gave the field a look and said he would not place his team in jeopardy.

    Prunetti worked the phones and eventually told fans he had appealed to no less of an authority than New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to make the Albany-Colonie Yankees report to the stadium.

    "The Trenton Thunder is ready to play ball," Prunetti declared over the stadium's public address system.

    In fact, Thunder players wanted to do nothing of the sort.

    "What he just mentioned up there, that was a load of (garbage)," said Mike Guilfoyle, a Thunder reliever from New Jersey's politically charged Hudson County. "We know the field is not playable, everybody in the organization knows. And Albany knows. I don't know what they're trying to get at. This field is not playable at all."

    Thunder players mingled with the crowd, and the next day it was announced the Thunder would play "home" games in Reading, Pa., until the field would be ready on May 9.

    They finally played ball in Trenton on May 9, 1994, and the Binghamton Mets defeated the Thunder, 5-3.
   The Thunder losing would be a common sight. Although the Thunder is 448-400 over its six seasons, would finish 1994 a league-worst 55-85, the work-in-progress that was Waterfront Park would remain a sore point with the players.

    Fans, however, loved the ballpark, and 318,252 went through Waterfront Park's turnstiles for 51 dates in 1994.

    One night they saw the Thunder's first baseman, Tony Clark, hit a home run into the Delaware River, one of 21 home runs Clark would hit before his Aug. 8 promotion to Class AAA Toledo. A year later, he became Detroit's first baseman.

    On July 13, they watched the Albany-Colonie Yankees' shortstop, Derek Jeter, go 3-for-4, including a two-run homer, in the Yanks' 6-4 victory over the Thunder. "Not bad, huh?" Yankees assistant GM Gene Michael said.

    And on July 30, the Waterfront Park crowd saw the Bowie Baysox's Rick Forney throw a perfect game in the scheduled seven innings of a doubleheader's nightcap. "With two outs left, I said to myself, ‘I don't think I've walked anybody. Or given up any hits," Forney said.

    There weren't enough moments of on-field success — at least not by the Thunder — to suit the club's ownership, however, and at season's end a new major league affiliate was sought.

    County officials promised a rebuilt playing field and drainage system.

    Enter the Boston Red Sox, with promises of not only a rebuilt farm system that was prepared to send prospects to Trenton, but also a pledge to try to send their major league roster to Trenton for an exhibition.

    Prunetti made good on the pledge to rebuild the playing field, and showed it off to reporters with the question, "What do you (gentlemen) think of it now?"

    Boston first sent a young shortstop named Nomar Garciaparra, and the result was plenty of great plays in the field, a 73-69 record and an Eastern League playoff appearance in 1995.

    It was the start of a four-year run in which the Thunder would be the only team in professional baseball to average more tickets sold than the seating capacity (6,300) of its ballpark.

    In 1996, the Red Sox sent a combination of experienced power-hitters, veteran role players, and a staff of pitching prospects led by right-handers Carl Pavano and Brian Rose. The result was an Eastern League regular season-best record of 86-56.

    In the middle of that season, the Waterfront Park hosted the Double-A All-Star Game, showcasing not just future big leaguers, but also Trenton for a national television audience.

    The team missed the playoffs in 1997 and '98. But in '98, the Red Sox came to town for the promised exhibition game vs. the Thunder, and 8,602 fans who paid $24 apiece — three times the cost of the most expensive regular season Thunder ticket — watched Garciaparra's Thunder No. 5 jersey retired, honored as Clark's No. 33 had been the year before

    "Trenton had a lot to do with me making it to the big leagues," said Garciaparra, who back in 1995 had criticized Trenton's fans for being too sedate. "And one of the things you dream about is having your number retired in ballparks. Thank you for making my dream come true."

    As a bonus, they watched Garciaparra, the 1997 American League Rookie of the Year, use the night's exhibition as a test of his separated shoulder. Instead of the one at-bat and two innings in the field customary for big league starters in exhibition games, Garciaparra batted four times (nobody seemed to notice he was hitless) and made two great plays in the field.

    "It's good I played well defensively here because I did that season (1995)," Garciaparra said. "I don't know what it is about this place."

    The place had become so popular that the Thunder and a nearby nightclub that owed its existence to the team's popularity also became embroiled in what five years before was unfathomable: A dispute over the right to parking places.

    There were pauses in the story of baseball along the Delaware in Trenton, the most notable right after the 1998 season. Sam Plumeri Sr. passed away, oddly almost four years to the day another Thunder co-owner, Jim Maloney, had passed away within hours of the conclusion of the team's first Trenton season.

    Plumeri's legacy will be fun-filled evenings and sun-splashed afternoons with baseball in the background.

    "I used to watch the baseball playoffs on TV, and I knew it (Waterfront Park) could be good for business," 71-year-old Nick Holowczak said recently at his family's business, the Corner Inn restaurant/bar on Lalor Street. "But I never imagined what it became, and that I would meet some of the players."

    Holowczak, who came to the United States in 1949 as a Ukrainian refugee from post-World War II Europe, hasn't just met the players. He knows them.

    "Lou Merloni, Ken Macha, Brad Tweedlie, Chad Epperson," Holowczak said. "Andy Abad, too."

    Merloni, a second baseman and third baseman on the 1995-96-97 Thunder teams who defied the odds and not only made it to Boston as a player, but in his first Fenway Park at-bat hit a home run — a 45-minute ride from his hometown of Framingham, Mass.

    Macha, the former major league utility player who managed the Thunder in 1995-96, is among the candidates to become the next Anaheim Angels manager.

    Tweedlie was a relief pitcher and Epperson a catcher on the last couple of Thunder teams. Abad is the outfielder who, in 1995, found himself in headlines and eventually back in Class A ball after he and several other Thunder players got into a barroom brawl with locals in SoHo, a Chambersburg nightspot. "But he never caused any trouble here," Nick Holowczak said

    Merloni and Macha love the pirogis Nick Holowczak's wife makes, and Nick has returned the love by making sure they get an annual sampling of them even after they've left Trenton. That included Nick delivering pirogis to Macha from the stands in Wilkes-Barre Scranton, where Macha was managing the Class AAA Pawtucket Red Sox in a road game a couple of years ago.

    "I've made a lot of friends through this," Holowczak said. "I don't have a favorite major league team, I just watch all the local major league teams. But the Thunder is my team."

    So is any team that has a former Thunder player.

    "Any time the Red Sox are on, he's watching," Nick's daughter, Kathy, said. "My brother (Mike) noticed it first. He took a look back there (to the Corner Inn TV that's connected to a satellite dish) and said, ‘Since when's he following baseball?'"

    Baseball led to construction of Sovereign Bank Arena on Route 129, with room for as many 8,500 fans to watch the expansion Trenton Titans of the East Coast Hockey League.

    The arena already also has hosted pro wrestling and John Cougar Mellencamp and, on Nov. 20, is going to welcome Rutgers and Rider to town for a Division I college basketball game. Pro basketball, in the form of the start-up Trenton Stars of the new International Basketball League, is due to debut six days later.

    A lot of naysayers have found their way to Waterfront Park and already to Sovereign Bank Arena.

    Ballpark legend — supported by enough testimony to prop it up as factual — even has it that Gilson ventured to Trenton from London, Ontario, one day, and took in a Thunder game. By all accounts, he had a nice time.
1994: Baseball's comeback in Trenton
By LARRY O'ROURKE / The Trentonian
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