After three years and three losing seasons, the Mariners parted amicably with the Spokane Indians. "Both sides agreed it would be best to end the relationship this year," spokesman Randy Adamack told the Eugene Register-Guard at the culmination of the Indians’ season in 1981.
In the same week, the Mariners found a new Triple-A club to hitch their affiliation to: the Salt Lake City Gulls, who were just wriggling out of an 11-year contract with the California Angels. The Gulls played out of John C. Derks Field, a stadium named for the Salt Lake City Tribune's legendary sports editor and "dean of baseball." Years before the park was erected in his honor, Derks would hoist an electric scoreboard over the Tribune’s entrance every spring, faithfully deciphering the play-by-play telegraphs and manning the controls so that passersby could follow each pitch on "Old Ironsides."
The Gulls flourished with their stock of California prospects, qualifying for the postseason in their first two seasons and breaking 90 wins under the direction of manager Jimy Williams. They did not suffer a losing season until 1981, the same year that they caught the eye of the Mariners’ front office.
Fortunately for Gulls’ ownership, the switch in affiliation did little to hamper the team’s success. The Gulls coasted to a 73-70 finish in their first year under new management, led by a hot-hitting 22-year-old utility player named Rod Allen. Despite Allen’s impressive season – including 15 home runs, 15 stolen bases, and a batting line of .323/.390/.493 in 117 games – the young outfielder only lasted 12 games (10 of them losses) when he was called up to Seattle the following spring.
By 1984, the Gulls were entertaining recognizable prospects like Alvin Davis and Harold Reynolds. Davis lasted just one game in Salt Lake City, going 3-for-4 with a walk and two base hits in seven innings. Before the Gulls had a chance to close out the game, Davis was summoned to Seattle to replace an injured former teammate, first baseman Ken Phelps. The 1984 American League Rookie of the Year was up for the challenge. In his second at-bat in Seattle, the 23-year-old hit a three-run home run to put the M’s up 3-0 against the Red Sox’ Dennis Eckersley.
Back in Utah, the Gulls struggled to retain an audience for their second and final postseason push. They averaged 2,000 fans a game – sparse even by Derks Field’s 10,000-fan capacity – despite finishing first in the North Division after the second half of the season. Whispers of financial trouble skirted the team's every move; just one year earlier, the club had filed a suit against the Salt Lake City Corporation after they were saddled with rent deficits and repairs that they had not agreed to cover. As the Gulls teetered on the brink of playoff contention, tensions between Gulls' owner Roger Russell and his creditors peaked. According to the Deseret News, the team returned from the road to a ballpark with unplugged phones and no electricity.
After the Gulls flopped out of the 1984 playoffs against their future rivals, the Angels' Edmonton Trappers, Roger Russell turned the team over to Calgary Expos' owner Russ Parker. Parker had started negotiating the sale back in the 1983 offseason, and spoke to several other major league clubs before offering an extension to the Mariners. His hope was that the Mariners could tide the franchise over until the Montreal Expos freed up their contract with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. In the meantime, the club would abandon Utah for the chilly outpost of Calgary, Alberta.
"In all honesty, we did not want to leave Salt Lake," Seattle personnel director Jeff Scott told the Ottawa Citizen. "But when the team moved we thought Calgary was the best place to go to."
Salt Lake City Trivia
- Notable Gulls: Alvin Davis, Spike Owen, Ken Phelps, Harold Reynolds, Danny Tartabull, and Dave Valle.
- The Gulls were the first team not named after their big-league affiliate in nearly a decade. However, there were far quirkier names among the city’s previous franchises, including the 1903 Salt Lake City Elders and the 1905 Salt Lake City Fruit Pickers.
- From 1975 to 1979, the Gulls (then-Angels affiliates) faced off against the Padres’ Hawaii Islanders three times for the Pacific Coast League championship. They lost in their first two years, but rebounded a third time and swept the Islanders in ‘79, taking their first and only crown with a 3-2 squeaker.
- In the middle of their last season, the Gulls’ Bill Nahorodny lost a crucial game against the Albuquerque Dukes on a rundown. With one out and runners on first and second in the ninth inning, Tito Nanni chopped a routine 4-3 groundout to second base. At the same time, Nahorodny sprinted from second base to home plate, blowing past manager Bobby Floyd’s stop sign at third base. The veteran catcher assumed the Dukes would attempt a double play to catch Darnell Coles at second base, allowing Nanni to reach first and giving him a chance to score before the 4-3-2 out. "I wasn't about to stop," he later explained to the Deseret News. "I wanted to score badly."