First season: 2003
Years in league: 2003-present
Ballpark: Foundation Field (2003); Champion Window Field (2004-present)
Continuing the Frontier League trend of placing teams in major metropolitan areas, the Johnstown Johnnies were sold to a group of Cincinnati area investors prior to the 2003 season. Several municipalities in the area had been considered as the site for a ballpark, with Florence, KY being the winner. Securing funding proved to be tricky, and the team was forced to play the 2003 season in a temporary home in Hamilton, Ohio, at the home field of the Hamilton campus of Miami (Ohio) University. Even this was only accomplished when the owner of the Freedom agreed to waive the team's territorial rights in the event that Hamilton decided to pursue a Frontier League franchise of its own in the future.
This proved to be only the start of the team's problems. Former Reds star Chris Sabo was named manager but quit at the start of camp. He was replaced by former Reds and Royals pitcher Tom Browning. It didn't matter, as the Freedom quickly fell out of contention and finished in last place with a Frontier League record 61 losses. Things were equally dismal at the gate with an average attendance of less than 500 per game. The team was marketed as the Florence Freedom, but Florence is in the south suburbs of Cincinnati in Kentucky, over an hour away from the northwestern suburb of Hamilton.
Top hitters for the Freedom in 2003 were 2B Tom Creighton (.288), 3B Nick Macellano (.274), and outfielders Justin Rahschulte (.259) and Matt Singer (.258). Bobby Graves (7-10, 3.56) was the top starter, and he led the league with seven complete games. Joining him in the rotation were Chris Jakubauskas (4-9, 5.11) and Jesse Schrader (2-8, 6.19). Kevin Rival went 0-6, but led the team with six saves, and found time to make four starts.
The 2004 season should have been much better. The Freedom sold some 1,500 season tickets by early 2004, guaranteeing that attendance would at least triple over the 2003 figures. On June 18, 4,453 fans saw the Freedom play their first game in Champion Windows Field, a 10-6 loss to Washington. The Freedom proceeded to lose the rest of their opening home stand en route to a second consecutive last-place finish.
Things only went downhill the rest of the season. Only one hitter, 2B Tom Creighton, finished in double figures in homers, and only J.D. Foust batted over .300. Things were a little better on the bases as those two, along with outfielders Tee Thomas and Matt Singer, reached double figures.
Pitching was again a sore spot. The top starter was Joel Posey (6-2, 3.18), while the others who started the most games were Leonard Bays (4-8, 6.22), James Morrison (1-9, 5.90) and Bobby Graves. Graves had a solid season in 2003 but slipped to 0-6, 8.06 in 2004.
The brightest star on the team was returning closer Kevin Rival. He had nine saves and a microscopic 0.55 ERA when signed by the Milwaukee Brewers in late July. He was joined in affiliated ball by Foust, who signed with the Chicago White Sox around the same time.
The poor showing on the field led to the dismissal of manager Tom Browning on July 7. Browning was notified of his firing when he received a text message on his cell phone. He was replaced by Pete Rose, Jr., but Rose wanted to continue his playing career in the Northern League and managed the Freedom for only one game. Former big-league hitter Mike Easler finished the season as manager.
Unfortunately, any press the Freedom received in 2004 seemed to be centered on the antics of managing partner Chuck Hildebrandt. Numerous lawsuits and liens led to the league assuming day-to-day operations of the team near the end of the season. The team had to cancel its July 4 fireworks display, and a temporary occupancy permit expired in August, but the city allowed the team to finish the season at still unfinished Champion Window Field.
Hildebrandt pled guilty to several charges in late 2004. The court ordered the team sold, and local businessman Clint Brown purchased the team, assuring that the Freedom will remain in Florence. Creditors have received partial payment on debts incurred by previous ownership, salvaging the situation somewhat.
Brown immediately committed his own money to improving the team and began hiring quality personnel. In late 2004 it was announced that Jamie Keefe had resigned as manager of the Chillicothe Paints and would take the helm of the Freedom in 2005. In January 2005 the team hired Pat Daly as General Manager. Daly was previously GM at River City and then Mid-Missouri. He was Executive Of the Year with River City in 1999. Daly was fired in late June and his duties assumed by owner Clint Brown and others, while Daly remained with the team as a consultant.
The hiring of Keefe paid immediate dividends as the Freedom contended for the division title most of the season and ended up tied for second in the East Division. Fans responded as 94,000 visited Champion Window Field, a major increase over 2004.
The team was a Frontier League "Murderer's Row", setting a league record with 124 home runs. OF Mike Galloway looked at midseason as in he might win the Triple Crown, finishing .344-24-71. DH Kyle Geswein added 24 homers of his own. Veteran 1B Trevor Hall went .316-23-79 and OF Scott Martin went .300-13-51. Perennial all-star Darin Kinsolving returned from the Northern League to be reunited with Keefe and went .336-16-52. Shortstop Josh Sanchez took many for the team, being hit by a pitch 29 times.
The pitching staff was solid if not as spectacular as the offense. Jason Bowlin (10-4, 3.66) was the ace, Michael Dennison went 9-7, 3.94 and Joel Posey returned for a third season to go 8-2, 3.14. Ted Rowe, released by Gateway, was 9-4, 2.35 and tied for the league lead with 17 saves.
Prior to the 2006 season a party deck at Champion Window Field was converted into four enclosed, air-conditioned suites, making the Freedom one of the few FL teams to offer such a luxury.
Shortly before the start of the 2006 season Posey and Heath Castle were sold to the Oakland A's organization.
The offense did a complete "180" in 2006, finishing last in every major offensive category. Highlights were provided by speedy newcomers Greg Stone (.275, 13 steals) and Reggie Watson (.271, 27 steals). Galloway returned to hit .299 before a late season trade to Evansville. Geswein led the team in homers in his final season in the FL. OF Chris Brown hit .284 before heading to River City in a swap for fellow all-star Eddie Kim. OF Matt Cooksey hit .304 with 10 steals in a brief August run after coming over from Chillicothe for Curt Moenter.
The pitching was better. Moenter, pitching almost exclusively out of the bullpen, led the team in wins AND saves before the trade. The top of the rotation was Mitch Goins at 7-7, 3.95 and Jason Bowlin at 5-9, 3.28. B.J. Church was 4-5, 3.30 before suffering a season ending injury in July. Chris Webb was 1-6 but had a respectable 3.99 ERA as he learned a knuckleball.
After Moenter the rest of the bullpen was solid if unspectacular. Drew Jackson was 4-1, 2.66 with four saves before heading to Chillicothe in the Moenter trade. Cody Castle (2.34), Mike Demark (3.22) and Jon Troop (3.50) also contributed.
(above) Foundation Field in Hamilton, Ohio, the temporary home of the Florence Freedom.
(below) Champion Window Field in Florence, KY, the new home of the Florence Freedom, shortly after opening in 2004.
(bottom) Champion Window Field after completion is spring 2005.
|Year||Won||Lost||GB||Finish||Attendance||Manager||Playoffs First Round||Playoffs Second Round|
|2004||31||65||31.0||6E||68,250||Tom Browning (13-33)/Pete Rose, Jr. (1-0)/Mike Easler (17-32)|
Major Award Winners: none
Freedom Post-Season All-Stars: 2005 OF Mike Galloway
P Kevin Rival (2003-04) led the team in saves both years he played for the Freedom.
Freedom in the majors: none