With all the bumps and hiccups Doug Welch endured with running the Milton Junction Pub Raptors this summer, one thing didn’t change.
“We finished going 5-4,” the manager said. “I’ve been with the Raptors for 27 seasons. We’ve never had a losing season.”
Running the Raptors is a thing of pride for Welch. He grew up in Milton, was the managing editor of The Milton Courier for 22 years and now is the curator of the Milton College Preservation Society. He would be a leading candidate to be Mr. Milton.
One of his earliest memories as a youngster was going to watch the Milton team play baseball at Milton East Park.
“Every Sunday,” he said. “It was just a really cool atmosphere. People from the community would show up and you never knew who you would be sitting next to. People would just strike up conversations about community things.”
“When I brought the Raptors here from the Senior League, that’s the kind of atmosphere I wanted to extend here. Give the people an opportunity to get together and watch baseball.”
Times have changed drastically from those days at Milton East Park. People spend their weekends on area lakes or traveling.
Watching baseball at the shadeless Schilberg Park diamond is not the No. 1 social event it was years ago.
But the Raptors did have a solid core of fans who enjoyed the concession stand while taking in Raptors games.
“We always have had a real solid following,” Welch said.
Until this season.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit and Rock County recommended restrictions were issued, Schilberg Park, which is managed by the school district, was closed.
That was the first of many potholes the team encountered in the year that will have its own chapter in future history books.
“I’ve been with the Raptors 27 years,” he said. “This is by far the most challenging that you can imagine.”
Some players who had committed to playing backed out. A few backed out after the season began and an out-of-town member of the team tested positive. Getting a full team together each week required a number of text messages and phone calls.
In past seasons, traveling to the small towns in Jefferson, Dane and other area counties were matched with home games. This year, all the team did was drive to Watertown and Johnson Creek and several other smaller burgs whose residents consider Watertown and Johnson Creek as big cities.
“That was really difficult,” Welch said of the schedule. “When you play home games, you get into a rhythm where you take batting practice, you set things up. Then after the games, you sit around, drink some beer and eat whatever food is left over.
“That’s probably the best time—before and after home games. We didn’t have that. We still met at Schilberg to get some quick hitting in, then we would get in our cars and go wherever we had to go. Then after the games, we’d get in our cars and go home.
“We really missed that bonding and the fun part of it.”
The start of the Rock River League season was delayed until the end of June. After two games, the Raptors were shelved for two weeks because of the positive test.
There were several highlights once the games began.
Pitcher Sean “Canner” McCann made a triumphant return to the mound after taking a couple of seasons off. He threw a complete game in a 5-2 win at Clyman on July 26.
“When we were really good and played in the Grand Championship in 2012 and 2013, he was our horse,” Welch said of McCann. “Our other pitcher was Joe Shere, which gave us two really good pitchers.”
McCann gave up baseball four years ago.
“Last year, he came back a little bit and really got the taste again,” Welch said. “This year, he was full-time.”
But work responsibilities limited his availability.
Sam McCann, Sean’s younger brother, provided another live arm. But Sam took a liner off his arm one weekend, and the two weeks ago got caught up in a tangle of bodies at first base after fielding a bunt and suffered a knee injury that ended his season.
Luke Malmanger, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound Janesville Craig product who was headed to play at Oakland University in Michigan, tore a pectoral muscle lifting weights and was gone for the last few games.
Dave Sagitis was another member of those 2012 and 2013 teams that gave up baseball to play mainly softball. He rejoined the Raptors after the season started and played every inning.
“He’s a better hitter now than he was four years ago,” Welch said of the 36-year-old Sagitis.
Trevor Foss, a 31-year-old Janesville native who was drafted in the 13th round of the 2013 Major League Baseball draft by the Angels as a pitcher, became the feel-good story of the Raptors’ summer.
Foss, who works and lives in Schaumburg, Illinois, would make the long drive each weekend to wherever the Raptors were playing. It was apparent that Foss had nowhere near the zip on his pitches as he had eight years ago, and he was ineffective in his few outings.
“He wouldn’t even want to take batting practice,” Welch said. “We would say, ‘don’t you want to get in the cage and take a few rips? He said, ‘No, nobody wants to see that. I haven’t taken any swings since 2008.’
“He was so self-deprecating,” Welch said. “But I knew he was a good athlete.”
Foss showed up every week. He was the only reserve on the bench when Sam McCann was hurt two weeks ago.
Center fielder Drew Freitag came in to replace McCann, and Foss went out to center.
Foss caught the only fly ball hit to him. And to the amazement of his teammates, Foss drew a walk and got the first Raptors’ hit of the game.
In what turned out to be the Raptors final game of the season Friday night at Johnson Creek, Foss again was there.
This was after he took the week off of work to be with his Janesville Craig High buddy, Lucas Burns, who is in a Madison hospital due to cancer.
“He played first and third, and made some really nice plays at third,” Welch said. “And he just hit the crap out of the ball.”
Foss went 3-for-5 with a double.
Unlike his batting practice announcement, his teammates loved seeing that.
With three other players back at college, Welch could not get enough guys together for Sunday’s regular-season finale at Watertown. Milton was forced to forfeit.
It was not the way any other season had ended for Welch and the Raptors. But this was not any other season.
“Wait ‘til next year” never has been more appropriate.