CLINTON — The Clinton LumberKings’ 2009 season is in the books, but don’t judge it by its cover.

Yes, the LumberKings missed the Midwest League playoffs for just the second time in the franchise’s past seven seasons. And yes, that ranks as a major disappointment for fans, players, coaches and the front office.

But no, that did not define Clinton’s season.

“It was a good year,” LumberKings general manager Ted Tornow said. “It wasn’t a great year. It wasn’t the worst year we’ve had. It wasn’t the best year we’ve had. It was right up near the top. It was a very good year.”

In its first season as the Seattle Mariners’ low Class A affiliate, Clinton boasted the league’s top pitching staff and individual ERA champ. The LumberKings overcame promotions and a major trade to contend for the postseason until each half’s final week. Clinton hosted the Midwest League All-Star game for a fourth time.

There’s more to the story than failed playoff races.

“Making the playoffs, it’s something we would have loved to do,” Mariners special assistant to the GM John Boles said. “It didn’t happen. But that doesn’t detract from what took place this summer.”

Hello, Seattle

The LumberKings served as the Texas Rangers’ low-A affiliate from 2003 to ’08.

The Rangers moved their low-A club to Hickory (N.C.) of the South Atlantic League, while the Mariners completed their contract with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and wanted to remain in the Midwest League.

An opening existed in Clinton. Thus, the Mariners and LumberKings agreed to a two-year deal.

After one season, both sides reported a positive working relationship.

“They’re great people, and they’re committed to winning,” Tornow said. “They say players develop by winning. You don’t develop into a winner by going 40-100 down here. You develop by having that winning attitude.”

Seattle’s front office gained an understanding of why professional baseball has lasted in Clinton.

“The support in the community is tremendous,” Boles said. “The people are great. They have the best clubhouse I’ve seen in minor-league baseball. I’m impressed with the Clinton operation for sure.”

For players and coaches, coming to Clinton offered a chance to build on the city’s rich baseball tradition.

The LumberKings represent the only remaining Midwest League charter member from the league’s origin in 1956. However, organized professional baseball in Clinton began in 1895, and official league play commenced when the Clinton Orphans roamed old Ringwood Park in 1906.

“Our goal was to continue on that history,” outfielder Jake Shaffer said. “When you realize you’re playing on the same field as some really good players, that’s a little treat that you can step back and think about.”

Manager Scott Steinmann added: “You get a feel for the history of the game playing here. Places like this may not be on the grand scale like Great Lakes or Fort Wayne, but you know what, there’s something different here that they can’t touch. There’s a neat, old-school feeling here, and I’m a bit of a traditionalist, so I like that.”

An all-star effort

Clinton hosted the Midwest League All-Star Game for the first time since 1998.

Not only did it bring potential future major-leaguers to the community, the event proved small markets can put on a big show.

“If I was grading how we did with the All-Star Game, I’d give us an A-plus-plus,” Tornow said. “For the people that were here, it was that wow factor. That’s what we set out to accomplish. Once the economy had a downturn, it was like, ‘We need something to cheer this place up. Let’s have a highlight. Let’s have a bright spot.’ The All-Star Game was our chance.”

Host Clinton had a league-high eight representatives on the Western Division team.

Outfielder Denny Almonte earned the only start. Teammates joining him included: designated hitter Kris Sanchez, shortstop Terry Serrano, utility men Nate Tenbrink and Scott Savastano, pitchers Aaron Pribanic, Ruben Flores and Cheyne Hann. Starter Brett Lorin made the team, but an injury shelved him on the disabled list.

“It was nice to participate in it and be one of the hometown guys,” Almonte said. “With the other guys on our team that were there, it was nice to bring the game back to the hometown.”

Midwest League co-MVP Dee Gordon of Great Lakes won the event’s Skills Competition, which included throwing and bunting contests.

Peoria’s Rebel Ridling swatted five longballs in the Home Run Derby finals to defeat Wisconsin’s Brett Lawrie, a highly regarded prospect in the Milwaukee organization.

That set the stage for the All-Star Game.

Fort Wayne’s Sawyer Carroll went 4-for-4 with two stolen bases and West Michigan’s Ron Bourquin launched a three-run homer to lead the East to a 6-3 win before 2,561 fans at Alliant Energy Field.

“We took the league’s marquee event,” Tornow said, “one of only 16 in all of minor-league baseball, and we put on a good show.”

More than meets the eye

The LumberKings finished the first half an impressive 40-30, and despite struggling in the second half, they produced the franchise’s third straight winning season.

And they did it against adversity.

Aside from suffering numerous injuries to key components, Clinton lost three prized starters from its rotation. The Mariners promoted Steven Hensley early in the season and traded Lorin and Pribanic at Major League Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline.

“You’re looking at three out of the five starters you were counting on at the beginning of the season not there anymore,” Mariners farm director Pedro Grifol said. “I think they hung in there, but that’s tough.”

The LumberKings remained in playoff contention in both halves but fell short each time.

In the first half’s final series, Clinton needed to win three of four against Cedar Rapids to earn the first-half wild card. The LumberKings won two, creating a wild-card tie. But the Kernels earned the spot, thanks to an edge in head-to-head meetings.

Entering the second half’s final week, the LumberKings trailed Burlington by three games in the wild-card hunt with seven games to play. They had the benefit of facing the Bees in a three-game set, but Clinton lost the series and a shot at the playoffs.

“We had our chances,” Tenbrink said. “We just didn’t cash in on them. It was just missed opportunities.”

One of the LumberKings’ biggest hurdles this season came after, as people within the franchise call it, “the trade.”

Seattle shipped Lorin and Pribanic — both of whom ranked among the Midwest League’s leaders in most pitching categories — plus other notable prospects to the Pittsburgh system in exchange for major-leaguers Jack Wilson and Ian Snell.

It offered a welcome-to-pro-ball moment for many Clinton players.

“That is a reality of the game,” starter Kenn Kasparek said. “As much as everyone in here wants to be Seattle Mariners, you could end up on another team or a couple teams.”

Clinton filled the holes with young arms from the 2009 amateur draft and finished with a league-best 3.35 ERA. Kasparek led the way, recording a 2.41 ERA to win Clinton’s eighth individual ERA title in franchise history.

“Our pitching held us in and gave us a great chance to win a lot of ballgames this year,” Steinmann said. “That’s probably what we’re most proud of and what I’ll remember the most about this season.”

A season that featured more than meets the eye.

The front cover of this year’s tale shows a LumberKings team that missed the postseason. But look deeper, flip past the cover, and you’ll find a seamless affiliation switch, an unforgettable gala event and playoff contention amid adversity.

Yes, the 2009 LumberKings penned a successful chapter to Clinton’s baseball lore.

“All in all,” Shaffer said, “other than not making the playoffs, it was a good season. I think it was a very memorable one for everybody.”

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