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A brief history of the Calgary Cannons

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Remember Danny Tartabull?

Before the Mariners were granted a local Triple-A affiliate, they brought their best, most promising hitters to the chilly confines of Alberta, Canada. Their previous club, the Salt Lake City Gulls, had been ousted from the Pacific Coast League after the 1984 season, only to be picked up by Calgary Expos' owner Russ Parker. Parker had been eying the ailing franchise for several years and struck a deal to acquire the team in 1985, with the proviso that the team would be relocated to Calgary.

After capping a winning season in Salt Lake City, the Gulls traded the fair climate of Derks Field for the cold, wet turf of Foothills Stadium. Along with the changes in ownership and venue, the Gulls were rechristened the Calgary Cannons and played under the logo of an anthropomorphic cannon spitting baseballs into the air.

While the Mariners slogged through a 15-year losing streak in Seattle, their Triple-A representatives found their first year in Canada highly profitable. In their very first contest against the Phoenix Giants, the Cannons delivered a 6-2 finale, including their first home run -- courtesy of one 22-year-old Danny Tartabull. It marked the first of 43 home runs Tartabull would hit in 1985, the highest mark in all of professional baseball at the time.

"It's a hitter's park," Tartabull remarked to the New York Times' Murray Chass, "but you still have to hit the ball to get it out. The guy behind me had, I think, 16 home runs. The park isn't a joke."

Foothills Stadium measured 345 feet in the corners and 400 feet in dead center, considerably roomier than the Kingdome's climate controlled 330 feet in left and right field and 405 feet in center. Before Tartabull had polished off his first Triple-A season, the Mariners yanked him up to the majors. The Cannons, who were pushing for their first league championship, collapsed in his wake, getting swept 3-0 by the Vancouver Canadians in the first round of the playoffs.

Not only did the Cannons crush the home run standings and make the playoffs in their first season, but they also hurled their first no-hitter. On May 31, right-hander Frank Wills took the mound against the Tacoma Tigers. The 26-year-old came armed with a 91 m.p.h. fastball and a Tom Seaver-esque delivery, which he had honed in honor of the Hall of Famer. "You've got a shotgun for an arm," one scout observed early in Wills' career, "but don't know which way to point it." That day, it was aimed squarely at the Tigers. Wills shut down Tacoma for seven innings and was recalled by the Mariners just five days later.

Predictably, the Cannons found it difficult to replicate the success they enjoyed in their first season. In 10 years with the Mariners, they finished above .500 three times and lost in four playoff appearances (until 1998, teams could qualify for the PCL playoffs by claiming a first-half or second-half pennant). One of the most disappointing postseason collapses came in 1991, when the M's chose to recall southpaw Dave Fleming right before his scheduled start in the division series -- a move that shattered any semblance of trust between owner Russ Parker and the Seattle higher-ups.

By the end of 1994, the partnership between the Cannons and Mariners dissolved when Seattle took on a Triple-A affiliate closer to home. As they played out one last, losing season, the Cannons debuted 18-year-old Alex Rodriguez, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1993 draft and had already blazed through the Single-A Appleton Foxes, Double-A Jacksonville Suns, and even a month in the bigs. Over 32 games in Calgary, A-Rod spent the bulk of the time batting at the bottom of the order, despite hitting six home runs and 17 extra bases. According to Calgary Herald sportswriter Gyle Konotopetz, Cannons manager Steve Smith was reluctant to put too much pressure on the young prospect.

The Calgary Cannons cycled through three more MLB affiliations before folding in 2002, when the financial stresses of maintaining the club and renovating a dilapidated Foothills Stadium became too much to bear. Russ Parker sold the team, which would be relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico before the 2003 season. A sellout crowd of more than 8,500 fans attended the Cannons' last game against the Edmonton Trappers. Utility middle infielder Matt Erickson sweet-talked manager Dean Treanor into letting him try his glove at a variety of positions, including first, second, short, third, and the entire outfield. Erickson scored the winning run on a throwing error, giving Calgary the 14-13 finish and a 21-gun salute to send them off.

"It was a great night for a ballgame," Parker told the Toronto Sun, "and when you looked out and saw the stands full, you wondered if you were doing the right thing. But, of course, it was far too late then."

Calgary Trivia

  • Notable Cannons: Mike Blowers, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez, Harold Reynolds, Alex Rodriguez, Dave Valle, and, of course, Danny Tartabull.
  • Before the Cannons were fully established in Calgary, the media panel tasked with naming them considered monikers like the Outlaws, Chinooks, Stallions, and Stetsons.
  • According to the e-book Calgary, the biggest baseball rivalry in Alberta existed between the Cannons and the Edmonton Trappers from the mid-1980s until both teams folded in the early 2000s. During the Cannons' 10-year affiliation with Seattle, they bested the Trappers six of 10 times in the North Division standings, though neither team was able to secure a championship title.
  • Danny Tartabull's breakout season came within four home runs of tying the all-time home run record by a pro shortstop, established by Ernie Banks back in 1958.
  • Three years after Frank Wills' no-hitter, 23-year-old Erik Hanson pitched the Cannons' second no-no in franchise history. Towering above the Padres' Las Vegas Stars at 6'6", Hanson hurled seven frames and walked only one batter for a 5-0 finish.
  • On May 16, 1991, the Cannons set a franchise record for runs scored with a 22-7 victory over the Tacoma Tigers. Twelve of the runs were scored via grand slams, making Calgary the first pro ball team to hit three slams in a nine-inning game.
  • Two days later, the Cannons trounced the Tigers again, breaking their record with a 24-5 win. Left fielder Alan Cockrell led the league with six hits in nine innings.