ALLENTOWN — “You can’t kill what’s already dead.”
The curious quote was displayed in blue lettering across the t-shirts of everyone in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders clubhouse as the International League Wild Card winners prepared for Game 4 of the Governors’ Cup first round against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs Saturday in Allentown.
Scranton Wilkes-Barre looked to punch their ticket to a third-straight Governors’ Cup Finals on Saturday, and just a few hours later did — thanks to a 10th-inning Bruce Caldwell grand slam to secure the 7-2 victory and 3-1 series first-round series win over rival Lehigh Valley. The shirt represented a mantra the team adopted just weeks ago, prior to winning six of their final eight regular season games to clinch the franchise’s first wild card berth since 2001.
The meaning of the shirt is a mystery to many, even within the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre clubhouse itself.
“That’s something that we’ve been saying all year,” Nestor Cortes said of the slogan after Game 2 on Thursday. “Me, Mike Ford, (Mark) Payton, everybody as a group has pitched in with that comment.
“I don’t know (where it comes from). This team has said so much dumb stuff during the season that it just stuck. I guess that’s our slogan for the playoffs.”
Ford, the team’s home run leader, first started saying the phrase, but even he offers a cloudy explanation for what the cryptic quote represents.
The meaning, itself, is far less important than the unity it has created in the clubhouse, as players proudly sport a rallying cry they cannot explain.
“It’s just our saying right now,” RailRiders starting pitcher Erik Swanson said. “Basically we’re all dead, and you can’t kill us.”
This is a RailRiders team that has continued to succeed, despite enduring a flurry of roster changes throughout the entire season.
In fact, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre announced its 276th and 277th roster moves prior to Saturday’s Game 4: Swanson was placed on the 7-day disabled list with a groin injury while starting pitcher Domingo German was promoted from High-A Tampa.
Once the pinnacle of a sparkling New York Yankees Yankees farm system, the RailRiders have watched top prospects like Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres advance to the major leagues, while other main contributors like Brandon Drury, Billy McKinney and Tyler Austin were part of a busy trade deadline. Outfielder Shane Robinson was needed in the Bronx for a month after Aaron Judge suffered a fractured wrist, and Clint Frazier has been lost for most of the season as he recovers from a concussion.
Despite the constant shuffling of the deck, the RailRiders remain standing, grinding out wins regardless of who is listed on the roster.
“That’s the crazy part. The team’s been getting switched up but we just keep pushing,” Justus Sheffield, the organization’s top prospect, said. “People have moved around and been traded but we’ve stuck together. The team’s changed so many times, but we just keep winning. It gives us faith that we can go out there and win no matter what.”
The confidence that Sheffield and the RailRiders possess has been seamlessly passed around to the newcomers who take the place of the almost 20 former RailRiders who are no longer with the organization.
“This is definitely a good group of guys who want to win and have a lot of talent,” pitcher George Kontos said of the atmosphere he has inherited since on Aug. 17. “The last week and a half to 10 days, we’ve been playing some really good baseball trying to get into this thing, and now that we’re here we might as well win.”
Like his players, manager Bobby Mitchell doesn’t care where the t-shirts came from or what it means, as long as it continues to help produce wins.
“Anything that they unite and joke around over and believe is good,” Mitchell said. “There’s a lot of laughing and playing around with each other out there. They’re having a good time. If you can’t enjoy the playoffs then you might as well not play the game.”
Sometimes an explanation is unnecessary, especially if it works. Nobody on the RailRiders are asking questions, instead electing to embrace the unknown. But still, why would a team declare themselves dead?
“That’s a good question,” Swanson replies. “I didn’t come up with it, but I’m going to ride with it. If everyone else is, I’m riding with it.”
Swanson and the rest of the RailRiders are riding with their new slogan all the way into the Governors’ Cup Finals, which starts Tuesday in Moosic against the Durham Bulls.
They’ve declared themselves dead, but they’re very much alive.
Reach Times Leader sports at 570-829-7143 or on Twitter @TLsports