The Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks made a stunning announcement Sunday afternoon, firing Doug Simunic, the only manager the team has had in its twenty two years of existence. For those that don’t follow the baseball club closely it was a shocking move to dismiss a man that won five league championships and was named manager of the year six times. If you were to take a closer look at the inner workings, it would appear that this may have been in the workings for a while.
The RedHawks were the Northern League, five times claiming the league championship including back to back titles in 2009 and 2010. They were the model of how to build teams in independent baseball. Led by Simunic and general manager Josh Buchholz, they were always able to find players from across America and be able to get them to Newman Outdoor Field. Once here, players always said they loved playing in Fargo and most of all, playing for Simunic. But the Northern League was on fumes in 2010, and the RedHawks and their ownership made the smart move of leaving the Northern League and joining the American Association, re-joining old rivals St. Paul and Sioux City.
The lessons were difficult in that initial year in 2011, as the Hawks stumbled to their first losing season in team history at 44-56, missing the postseason. Simunic and Buchholz adjusted that offseason, and the success followed as the RedHawks posted 65 and 62 win seasons. The playoffs though, were a disappointment, with first round exits in back to back seasons.
2014 and 2015 were disappointing seasons on the field for the RedHawks, finishing with losing records in back to back seasons. Simunic though, got a vote of confidence from ownership as he received a contract extension in 2014 that kept him with the team thru 2017. 2015 started poorly and by mid-July, the team was already out of the playoff race. Team owner Bruce Thom met with Simunic late in the 2015 season, saying he wanted to see better results. The team finished 21-8 and Thom said that Simunic would be back in 2016. The RedHawks returned to a winning season, but missed the postseason for the third straight year last season.
That leads us to this season. I met with Simunic before media day in May and asked him point blank on camera about his status. “I want to enjoy this season and manage this team and see what happens, I’ll worry about my status after the season” he said. You can watch the interview here, about the 1:28 mark. You could clearly tell that it was weighing on his mind and I could tell that he thought no matter what happened this season this was going to be it in Fargo-Moorhead.
The RedHawks have been streaky this season, starting the year 9-1, then a stretch of 16-27 baseball, followed by a 15-1 stretch, then losing eight of nine. Team president Brad Thom said the team’s poor record at home and not playing its best against teams fighting for them for the wild card (Kansas City and Gary) were the final straws.
To me, it makes no sense. Why fire Simunic now with 24 games to go? What spark would come of getting rid of the manager? Was there something internal we’re not aware of? Is the team trying to get a head start on hiring a manager for 2018?
These questions are all important but don’t seem right at this moment. As much as fans enjoy watching the team play and win, Simunic was the man behind all those wins. He was the one pulling the strings. Yes, he never swung a bat and threw a pitch, but how many fans came out to watch him and his mannerisms in the third base coaches box? Or to see him argue with an umpire? He was a drawing card yes, but a brilliant baseball mind too.
I always left impressed with his baseball mind, he would always open up a door I had never thought about the game. Simunic too always greeted me with a smile and a joke, each time I saw him for the first time that season in May. He would argue with me if he disagreed with what I asked him, but he never held anything against me. Simunic didn’t hesitate to congratulate me on my recent marriage. That notwithstanding, his emotion when Scotty Miller and Jake Laber passed away I will always remember.
I’m not naive enough to think that baseball isn’t a business and it’s about the bottom line. Trouble with that is, the RedHawks keep drawing. Just this week they had crowds of 4,357, 4,507 and 3,943. The people have kept coming and they always will. Wins and losses matter, but it seems despite the struggles over the past few seasons, people still pack Newman Outdoor Field.
The Thoms can do whatever they want, it’s their baseball team. They made a decision to go in a different direction. Public opinion right after the fact is always tough to judge, but there’s a definite sense of frustration over what happened.
22 years is a long time. Partnerships come to an end. But Doug Simunic earned the right to finish the season. He deserved better.