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Growlers Season Recap

 

The Growlers' inaugural season is over, but the countless good memories will live on. Let's take a look at the best moments and characters of 2014, from the action on the field to the action in the stands. 

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Attendance: Blessed with a home city rich in baseball heritage and a ballpark both fan-friendly and expansive, the Growlers were able to draw strong crowds on a nightly basis. The franchise finished third in the Northwoods League in attendance and seventh in the nation in summer collegiate baseball, with 80,761 fans, only coming up short of league mainstays La Crosse and Madison.The Growlers' opening night attendance of 4,910 broke summer collegiate baseball record for most fans on a franchise's opening night, and the crowd of 6,064 on July 4 was the largest non-Madison crowd a league franchise saw this year.  

Promotions: A Growlers promotions made national headlines before the season even started: When Salute to Selfie Night was announced, it made headlines on Deadspin and in Sports Illustrated, among others. When the night, where players sported jerseys with designs made up of a collage of fan-submitted selfies, finally rolled around in late July, the MLB Fan Cave, ESPN's SportsNation and others hopped on the bandwagon. That was only one of the Growlers' many successful promotions. The team donned special jerseys on Purple Community Night, presented by Van Andel Institute; Pink Out The Park Night, presented by Susan G. Komen Southwest Michigan; and the Fourth of July. Those jerseys were auctioned off during the game, with proceeds going to various charities. Star Wars Night featured a popular mini lightsaber giveaway and a hysterical Little Slugger promotion, where Yoda appeared to be dead to rights as he approached home plate but called on Force Push to toss catcher Brett Sunde aside. On Ladies' Night, Michigan native Bob Guiney, formerly of ABC's The Bachelor, came out to the game and met with some lucky fans in WorkSquared's Best Seats In The House. The Growlers also collaborated with marketing and printing company Allegra to bring fans four sets of baseball cards, all featuring the fantastic work of team photographer Kimberly Moss. 

On the field: The Growlers' started out with a roar, winning five of their first six games with a combination of unstoppable hitting and strong performances from arms like Dillon Haviland (Duke), Shane Bryant (Purdue) and Ryan Colegate (Ohio Dominican). That success tapered off, though. Teams reached full strength, the Growlers' offense met inevitable regression, the pitching staff's youth and inexperience was exposed and a shocking rash of injuries and departures hit the team. Despite improvements in the second half, the Growlers finished with a 29-43 record, second-to-last in the South Division. 

But that's not to say Kalamazoo didn't have its fair share of talent. The Growlers sent four to the Northwoods League All-Star Game in Mequon, Wis.: outfielders Jared Kujawa (Western Michigan) and Troy Montgomery (Ohio State), catcher Ryan Lidge (Notre Dame) and pitcher Ryan Smoyer (Notre Dame). All had undeniably excellent seasons, and the latter three made the league's postseason All-Star team.

Kujawa, a rising senior from the hometown Broncos, gave the team a veteran presence and an astoundingly consistent presence in the lineup and the outfield. He packed good pop from the left side and ably patrolled right field, occasionally showing off a strong, accurate arm. Before his early departure due to turf toe, he played in nearly all of the Growlers' games. 

Montgomery's play ensured that fans quickly looked past his undersized 5-foot-8 frame. The rising sophomore had a smooth, rhythmic swing from the left side and could spray line drives with ease and occasionally boom one to the gap or over the fence. Montgomery left early due to a bone bruise, but his .357 average would put him third in the league, and his OPS was also in the top ten. With his good range and strong range in center field, as well as the ability to steal a base when needed, Montgomery has the potential to be a bona fide five-tool prospect.

Lidge's production at the plate was inconsistent — his average was as high as .361 in the first half but plummeted to .257 by season's end — but his play behind the dish was not. The rising sophomore was astoundingly proficient at controlling the opposing running game, throwing out 22 in total, and showed off a strong, accurate arm and a quick release to anyone who dared test him. While his receiving showed room for improvement, he proved adept at blocking pitches in the dirt and calling games.

Smoyer, a rising sophomore, started the year in the bullpen and proved perfectly capable in that role, but he really started to shine when moved to the rotation. Using his 6-foot-4 frame and straight over-the-top delivery, he almost without fault worked low in the zone and consistently filled up the strike zone. Smoyer's mix of fastball, changeup and curveball was tough enough for hitters, but when his slider was also in the mix, he was dominant: His four-hit shutout of Green Bay on August 1 and eight innings of two-hit ball against Madison on July 6 were proof of that.