The arrival of the 2014 baseball season means 20 years have passed since the old Albuquerque Dukes won the last of their eight Pacific Coast League championships. The franchise joined the Triple A PCL in 1972 with a dominant team managed by Tommy Lasorda and featuring future big leaguers like Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Burt Hooton, Charlie Hough, Larry Hisle, and more. The Dodgers’ minor league system was well-stocked during the years the O’Malley family owned the Dodgers, and Albuqerque, often the final stop for players on their way to the majors, reaped the benefits time and time again.
The 1994 club didn’t feature the big names that had come through in the preceding years. Standouts such as Pedro Martinez, Mike Piazza, John Wetteland, Pedro Astacio, Eric Karros, and Raul Mondesi spent notable time with the Dukes in the early 1990s, yet all had moved on to the majors by ’94. And longtime White Sox mainstay Paul Konerko, perhaps the last great Dukes star, wouldn’t arrive until 1997.
However, what the 1994 Dukes did have was a solid mix of veterans and youngsters, a couple of top Dodgers prospects who put together stellar seasons but never quite stuck in the big leagues afterward, and an aggressive manager in former big league catcher Rick Dempsey.
The Dukes offense was reminiscent of the “Bash Brothers,” as sluggers Billy Ashley (.345 batting average, 37 homers, 105 runs batted in) and Ron Coomer (.338, 22, 123) led the way with some monstrous numbers, supported by third base prospect Mike Busch (.263, 27, 83), longtime Duke Jerry Brooks (.321, 16, 79), journeyman catcher Tom Prince (.285, 20, 54), and several others. Don Barbara hit .351 with 12 homers in just 168 at bats. The Dukes hit .309 as a team that year, and it seemed like everyone on the roster got into the act offensively. Heralded prospect Todd Hollandsworth, who went on to become yet another National League Rookie of the Year out of the Dodgers system in 1996, posted relatively pedestrian numbers (.285, 19, 91) compared to the likes of Ashley and Coomer.
Coomer went on to a nice run with the Minnesota Twins, making the American League All-Star team in 1999, and Hollandsworth lasted 12 seasons in the majors, but musclebound sluggers Ashley and Busch never panned out. Ironically, 20 years later Coomer and Hollandsworth are both part of the Chicago Cubs’ broadcast crew, with Coomer on radio and Hollandsworth on television. In addition to being former Dukes teammates, both are former Cubs, though they weren’t with Chicago at the same time as players.
It was a few more years before the Dukes left town, sold in 2000 to a group that moved the team to Portland, Oregon, but that ’94 Dukes squad capped a pretty amazing era of Triple A baseball in Albuquerque. From the stunning collection of talent on the 1972 team, through one of the all-time dominant minor league squads in 1981, to the multitude of future stars who passed through in the early 1990s, the Dukes were a factory for the Dodgers (and other major league teams) during the O’Malley era. Triple A baseball returned to the Duke City in 2003 in the form of the Albuquerque Isotopes, but nothing will ever replace the old Albuquerque Dukes.
I was fortunate enough to work in the Dukes front office for four seasons (1991-94), and that ’94 season marked my last in professional baseball and in Albuquerque. I returned to my home state of California that year, moving from minor league baseball to intercollegiate athletics.