There’s baseball joy in the Rose City once again thanks to the Norwich Sea Unicorns

Detroit Free Press

When Norwich Sea Unicorns manager Kevin Murphy lifted the Futures League championship trophy high above his head in triumph, the old baseball building on Stott Avenue shook again. You could feel it rumble like the days when an Andy Pettitte, a David Cone, and a Roger Clemens took the mound in front of huge crowds during rehab stints for the Norwich Navigators.

From rising from the dead to champions, the journey for the Norwich Sea Unicorns and their loyal fans has been a long and arduous one.

“This area has been through a lot,” Sea Unicorns general manager Lee Walter Jr. said. “I think this is great for the city. The city has wanted something like this.”

Baseball magic returned to the Rose City on Sunday night when the Sea Unicorns edged the Vermont Lake Monsters, 2-1, to win their first Futures League championship.

And 2,100 die-hards can say they were there at Dodd Stadium the night the Sea Unicorns became champions.

“How can you beat a crowd turning out like that?” Walter, Jr. said. “We didn’t even know until midnight last night what we could announce. We knew we were playing but we didn’t know the time or the opponent and for people to come out like this was just unbelievable.”

More: Norwich Sea Unicorns capture Futures League championship for first time

The winner-take-all championship game capped a historic season for the Sea Unicorns. Now in their third summer as a Futures League member, Norwich led the league in both batting and pitching. They finished in first place for the first time and defeated rival New Britain in their first-ever playoff series.

“The championship trophy is like the Stanley Cup. We get to keep it for a while and then have to return it at some point next year,” Walter Jr. said. “Maybe we’ll get a replica made that we’ll keep around here. I’m going to have fun driving that thing around to all of our businesses and partners and sponsors and showing it off everywhere I can for the next several months.”

The players were as gritty as their team logo: a tough as nails sea captain narwhal with a “Rose City” tattoo. They were players who were easy to root for, guys who got their uniforms dirty before the second inning and who simply loved playing the game of baseball.

“It’s an awesome group,” Murphy said. “They’re dirt dogs. They’re relentless. They are all leaders and there was crazy energy every day. It’s not easy to show up every day for a 60-game season. It’s a grind.”

It seemed fitting that the last game of this magical summer came against Vermont. Lake Monsters General Manager Dave Schermerhorn spent 13 seasons with the Connecticut Defenders, Connecticut Tigers, and Sea Unicorns before moving to Vermont.

A Norwich native, Schermerhorn played on Norwich Free Academy’s 2003 state championship baseball team. He also spearheaded the name change from Tigers to Sea Unicorns, proud to have returned “Norwich” to the team’s name.

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The Sea Unicorns never played a single game in the minor leagues. A worldwide pandemic canceled their first season in the New York-Penn League. The following year they lost their affiliation with the Detroit Tigers when Major League Baseball restructured its minor league system and the Sea Unicorns, along with the New York-Penn League, were no more.

Miles Prentice and his ownership group, who brought the Tigers to Norwich from Oneonta, found a home in the Futures League.

“You start with Double A baseball and some playoffs and championships and then they lose that team,” Walter Jr. said.  “Even though we were down in the dumps from losing our affiliation, Miles Prentice wanted to keep baseball in Norwich because he believes in it. We turned it into this Futures League team and here we are three years later winning a championship.”

Rose City baseball fans had flocked to Dodd Stadium for years rooting for future New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers. Who knew that cheering for college guys like Johnny Knox, Ray Leonzi, Matt Malcolm, DJ Perron, Jr., Dean Ferrara, Zach Donohue, Matt Bucciero, Brennan Hyde and DJ Caron would be just as fun.

And even more rewarding.

“The fans kept coming out as the season wore on and realized just how special this team was,” Knox said. “My first at bat when I walked up, I noticed that the crowd was a little louder than normal. I looked in the dugout with a little smile on my face because it was just an incredible feeling being from Jersey. It means a lot to have that much support from the home fans.”

.Jimmy Zanor is a sportswriter for the Norwich Bulletin and can be reached at jzanor@norwichbulletin.com. Follow him on Twitter@jzanorNB.

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