For 74 games in 2003, the Auburn Doubledays were one of the best teams in New York-Penn League history.
Best record in the league. Most runs. Most hits. Most home runs. First in ERA. First in runs against.
Auburn's final record that season was 56-18, tied for the second-most regular season wins in short-season history. The only team that has won more were the 1986 Oneonta Yankees, who set the record with 59 wins.
The Doubledays also won the Pinckney Division by an astounding 18 games over the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. Only the '86 Yankees (22 1/2 games) and '85 Yankees (19 games) won their divisions by a larger margin.
Twenty years ago, there was no New York-Penn League champion.
"When you start putting wins and streaks together during the season, you feel untouchable," said Dennis Holmberg, who was Auburn's manager from 2002 to 2010. "Winning is contagious and losing is contagious. It was a good bunch of guys. They were all guys that went out and did what they were supposed to do ... play hard and win big.
"It was a monumental year and an unforgettable year."
But 2003 did not belong to Auburn. Despite all the hits, the wins and the dominance, the Doubledays' destiny did not include a season-ending trophy celebration.
The 2003 Doubledays featured a wealth of future major league talent. Shawn Marcum, a third-round pick that year, pitched for nine seasons in the big leagues and posted a 61-48 record with a 3.93 ERA. Ryan Roberts, selected in the 18th round, also lasted nine years in the majors with stops in Toronto, Texas, Arizona, Tampa Bay and Boston.
Then there was Aaron Hill, Toronto's first-round pick in 2003 that went on to win two Silver Slugger awards and make one MLB All-Star Game in 13 seasons.
In total, 11 players from that team eventually played in the major leagues.
"It was a fun clubhouse with guys you wanted to be around," said Vito Chiaravalloti, the Doubledays' first baseman and designated hitter. "Our first pick that year was Aaron Hill and he set the example. You never know how those guys will be accepted or feel being with a short-season team, but he was one of the guys. All of our top guys never acted any differently than the guys who made $800 a month. I think that speaks volumes."
When it comes to individual achievements, few can match Chiaravalloti's summer of 2003.
That year, Chiaravalloti was drafted in the 15th round by the Blue Jays out of the University of Richmond, where he was the program's career leader in home runs, RBIs, runs and total bases.
He continued his excellence in those categories in his first year of pro ball in Auburn, running away with the New York-Penn League's home run (12) and RBI (67) titles. As the regular season ticked down to its final day, the only area that eluded Chiaravalloti in his pursuit of the Triple Crown was the batting title.
"Any time a guy is competing for a batting title, or even trying to hit .300, there's little or no margin for error," Holmberg said. "Everyone wants to look at the bubblegum part of the stats on the back of the baseball card."
On Sept. 3, the final day of the regular season, the Doubledays, and the Blue Jays organization as a whole, had a decision to make.
Chiaravalloti's closest competitor was Williamsport's Nyjer Morgan, who entered the season finale hitting .343 while Chiaravalloti was in the driver's seat at .350. As the Crosscutters were set to play an afternoon game that day, the Doubledays caught wind that Morgan was going to sit out.
With Auburn's division title long sealed up and little to play for, Chiaravalloti had a choice to make. By starting, he would risk going hitless, dropping his batting average below Morgan's. By sitting out, he would seal the Triple Crown but perhaps invite a selfish perception from his teammates.
"I remember it very well. Dennis calls me in his office and says, 'We're going to sit you today because you've got the title locked up. If you sit it out, you've got it wrapped up,'" Chiaravalloti said. "That's not the way I wanted it to end up, and I didn't want my teammates to look at me as not playing in the game for an individual reason.
"I told Dennis, 'If you were going to put me in, let me play.'"
After discussing the situation with the Blue Jays' brass, Holmberg agreed. He told Chiaravalloti he'd receive two at-bats and then be removed.
"He was coming from a real caring point of view," Chiaravalloti said. "I said, 'OK, that's a deal.' I told him I'd get a hit in my first at-bat and we laughed."
Chiaravalloti's wisecrack turned into a reality. Facing Batavia Muckdogs starter Kyle Parcus in the first inning, Chiaravalloti worked an extended count before stroking a RBI double to right field.
That hit essentially delivered the batting title and the Triple Crown, the first in the New York-Penn League since 1973.
While the significance of certain baseball statistics have wavered in recent years — there is less focus on RBIs and more on on-base percentage and slugging — Chiaravalloti is still proud of capturing the Triple Crown along with the only batting title of his professional career.
"Once I got to the pros, I knew there would be a lot of great pure hitters, and I wanted to prove I wasn't going to just hit for power," Chiaravalloti said. "I wanted to be taken seriously as a professional hitter. Winning that was like the gold standard for me."
Now primed for the postseason, no one expected that Chiaravalloti's achievement would be the Doubledays' final cheerful moment.
In the New York-Penn League, the three division winners receive an automatic berth into the postseason, and a final wild card position goes to the non-division winner with the best record.
Auburn, with the best record in the league, owned home field and would face the wild card-winning Williamsport Crosscutters.
In theory, the wild card team should be the worst of the four playoff teams, but Williamsport was not a typical wild card. Playing in a tough McNamara Division that included four teams with a .500 record or better, the Crosscutters posted a 46-30 record (third-best in the league) while their run differential of +110 was second only to Auburn. Williamsport was also third in runs scored and third in runs against.
As mighty as the Doubledays seemed, it would be no picnic. Due to the New York-Penn League's playoff format, Auburn would play the ever important Game 1 on the road before hosting Games 2 and 3 (if necessary).
Perhaps Game 1 was a notice from the Baseball Gods that the Doubledays' season was due for a sudden halt. Auburn built an early 2-0 lead, but Williamsport battled back to tie the score in the sixth.
In the bottom of the ninth with a runner on second and two outs, Doubledays reliever Shawn Marcum only needed to retire .234 hitter Justin Harris to give Auburn's bats another crack at scoring the go-ahead run in extra innings.
Harris had other plans, stalling through six pitches before driving the seventh for the game-winning RBI single.
Williamsport, despite only four hits on offense and five errors on defense, had stolen Game 1.
Even in the loss, the Doubledays were confident that Game 2 would be theirs. Surely, with undefeated pitcher Tom Mastny (8-0, 2.26 ERA in the regular season) due to start, Auburn would force a winner-take-all Game 3.
"Nobody felt sorry for themselves, but there was no doubt we were going to win that next game at home," Chiaravalloti said. "Maybe it was a little bit of us not wanting to show our nerves, understanding that our season could be done in a game."
Often in sports, it's not the best team that wins the championship, but the one that enters the postseason playing their best.
Auburn, which had almost nothing to play for down the stretch, ran into a hot Williamsport team that was playing its best at the right time. The Doubledays had two bad days at the office, and that resulted in the end of their season.
"With all the wins we had, we thought we would steamroll through the playoffs and it didn't happen," Holmberg said. "Is it the pressure? Is it trying to do too much? Every year and every playoffs has a different story, and you can't explain the unexplainable."
Chiaravalloti described the feeling in the clubhouse following the Game 2 elimination as "shell-shocked," but added that there was a hopeful feeling that many of the players would rejoin someday to lead Toronto to a World Series title.
"We all felt this was the first of many opportunities to win championships with the Blue Jays," Chiaravalloti said. "This was more hopeful. After we got over the shock, we couldn't wait to get back and start working, couldn't wait to see where people end up and see who gets to the big leagues.
"There was a sense that this was just the beginning, and as we see now that didn't pan out."
Some players, like Aaron Hill, became impact players for the Blue Jays. But others, like Chiaravalloti, would never have that type of success again in their careers. The former Triple Crown winner had one last go-around in the minor leagues with Camden in the Atlantic League in the late 2000s before calling it quits.
Now 37 years old, Chiaravalloti is an athletic director and multi-time state champion coach in swimming at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, New Jersey. The former ballplayer, who took advantage of a degree in psychology to carve out a career in teaching after his playing days ended, called his journey after baseball "fate."
"It's funny looking back on how it ended up, thinking I'd play 10 or 15 years in the majors, only to struggle in the minors and battle injuries. I don't think it was by chance where I ended up," Chiaravalloti said. "I think it was a blessing to be a part of that '03 team, and I want my teams to have memories like that. I think those memories will continue to live on."