Baseball: ThunderBolts trio form bond on, off diamond
By Steve Millar For Sun-Times Media July 16, 2013 8:56PM
The ThunderBolts' Michael Torres slides to stop a ground ball from going into the outfield. | Vincent D. Johnson~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 18, 2013 6:20AM
Entering his fifth season with the Windy City ThunderBolts in 2013, Zach Aakhus knew he was close to several franchise records.
He broke the games played and RBI marks early in the season, but it was his misguided pursuit of the team’s hits record that turned into an inside joke between his best friends on the team: fellow veterans Mike Torres and Chad Cregar.
“This offseason, I had a couple of hours to kill one night and I looked up some of the records,” Aakhus said. “I knew I was close to the hits record. When I got up here, I started counting it down. I’d tell Mikey every day how many I needed.
“Then it hit me. I got to the cages one night and Mike’s like, ‘What’s with that look on your face? I said, ‘Well, you’ve been here four years hitting leadoff or in the two-hole. I haven’t been healthy my five years. You’re beating me to that hits record.’ ”
Indeed, Torres broke the record with his 369th hit for the T-Bolts on July 10. Torres knew all along that it would happen, but let Aakhus continue to bask in false glory.
“It was really funny,” Cregar said.
“ ‘Aak’ kept counting down and Mikey told me earlier that he was ahead of him. We just didn’t tell Zach. We let him keep talking.”
The situation brought plenty of laughs, but that’s nothing new for the trio, who have become close friends.
“All three of us have been around the game for quite a while now,” Cregar said. “We’re the first people to get to the yard and for the most part the last people to leave the yard. We’re always together. We’re hitting together. We all have that same veteran thing going. We all love to talk about the game. Even when we get away from the game, we’re still together and talking about other things.”
Torres came to the T-Bolts in 2010 and has been road roommates with Aakhus ever since. Cregar came along the next year and “fit right in,” Torres said.
All three seem to care as much about one another’s success as their own. Take last year, for example, when Aakhus battled a shoulder injury and had the worst year of his career at the plate.
“Last year was tough,” Torres said. “My whole career here, I had seen ‘Aak’ hit and hit some more. Last year, he was giving us the best chance to win because of his defense, but he knew he’d have to take a back seat offensively. So to see him come back this year and swing the bat the way he’s capable of has been great.”
Aakhus and Torres will represent the T-Bolts in Wednesday’s Frontier League All-Star Game. It’s become an annual thing for the pair, each earning his fourth invite to the game.
Cregar, who in 2012 set franchise season records for home runs (31) and RBI (93), hasn’t played since June 14 because of a groin injury, but is expected to be activated when the season resumes Friday in Traverse City, Mich.
The group is ready to lead the team to a second-half push. After all, this likely will be their final year playing together.
Even if all three choose to play another season, Frontier League rules allow just one player over age 27 per team via the veteran exception. Aakhus, 29, and Cregar, 27, will both be in that category in 2014.
“We’ve already talked about how these (44) games, that’s it for us,” Aakhus said. “You never know about next year. We’re focused on right now and we’re going to go hard for sure.”
Regardless of what happens in the second half, all three have made their marks on the franchise.
“Ten or 15 years from now, we’re all going to be able to look back at these records and say, ‘Remember when the three of us played there? We did some pretty cool things together,’ ” Torres said. “Maybe it’s not the big leagues or Triple A, but we’ll have some stories to tell.”