After a full year of holding the Mariners' major league history under a microscope, it's time to switch our focus to their minor league stories. From the Bellingham Mariners to the Bakersfield Blaze, the M's have courted well over 30 minor league clubs since their inception in 1977. This week, we're going to look back at the history of their current Triple-A affiliate, the Tacoma Rainiers.
"Our ballpark is not going to turn into a beer hall," Tacoma Rainiers' receptionist Jan Plein told the Seattle Times in response to backlash over the Tacoma Tigers' rebranding in 1994.
The Oakland A's had vacated Cheney Stadium after 14 years, paving the way for the Mariners to relocate their Triple-A club approximately 635 miles closer to home. With the change came some recognizable alterations -- namely, the logo and name of the Pacific Coast League's Seattle Rainiers, who represented baseball in the Pacific Northwest from 1938 to 1976.
Seattle residents were not thrilled over the reincarnation of the Rainiers, and were afraid that an overt connection to the Rainier Brewing Company would result in more beer sales and advertising at a family-friendly park. General manager Dave Bean was quick to squelch the negative sentiment, reassuring the Times' readership that the Rainiers' name belonged to pro baseball, not a brewery. Neither Rainier beer sales nor alcohol ads would overwhelm Cheney Stadium while the Mariners were linked to it.
The arrival of the Rainiers came just when Major League Baseball was hammering out the final negotiations that resulted from the 1994-95 strike. There was talk of using replacement players to get a jump start on the 1995 season, one that was met with even more vehemence from fans than the idea of shelling out big bucks for Rainier beer. While attendance plummeted around major league venues, the Rainiers were raking in cash from selling team caps months before their season was scheduled to begin. In 1995, they finished 68-77 in their first full season, settling just below the Twins' Salt Lake Buzz for second place in the North Division.
Around the time that the Mariners were bulldozing their way to a 116-win finish, the 2001 Rainiers found their first playoff berth with an 85-59 record, the winningest season since the Tacoma Cubs went 86-60 in 1969. In early September, they defeated the A's Sacramento River Cats 6-3 to advance to the championship round against the Astros' New Orleans Zephyrs.
Due to the attacks on September 11, however, the deciding series between the Rainiers and Zephyrs was cancelled, and both teams were awarded the title of co-champions. It was the first time in 23 years that two teams had shared the PCL title -- and, oddly enough, the second time it had happened in Tacoma's history. In 1978, the Tacoma Yankees tied the Albuquerque Dukes after a downpour cancelled the Yankees' semi-final series finale against the Portland Beavers.
The championship was a deserving end to a spectacular season, one in which the Rainiers saw the first nine-inning perfect game in the Pacific Coast League's 99-year history. Southpaw John Halama was on a rehab assignment in Tacoma, tasked with improving his sinker and refining his mechanics after undergoing elbow surgery. During his second start for the Rainiers on July 7, 2001, Halama worked nine strikeouts and nine perfect innings against the Mariners' former affiliate, the Calgary Cannons. As the game progressed, first baseman Todd Bletts worked hard to preserve his pitcher's shutout, making a couple of acrobatic catches to keep the ball in the infield.
Following the 6-0 gem, Halama's name was inked in the PCL record books, which hadn't seen a perfecto since Gary Ross tossed a five-inning perfect game for the Hawaii Islanders back in 1975 (a game in which Hawaii bested Salt Lake City, 19-0). "John Halama will hereafter be known as The Dalai Halama," Times' columnist Ron C. Judd quipped.
Nine years later, the Rainiers claimed their first solo PCL title over the Cardinals' Memphis Redbirds. Again, as in 2001, things didn't go exactly as planned. Manager Daren Brown was called up to the majors as an interim skipper for the Mariners, while Cheney Stadium was undergoing a much-needed facelift. The extensive renovations forced the Rainiers to play the entirety of the playoffs on the road.
Despite protests over the unfair advantage their opponents were receiving, they went 6-2 in the postseason, sweeping the Redbirds and clinching their second championship title with an 11-inning nail-biter. "We lived and died by the longball, and that's how we won," hitting coach Jose Castro told the press. "Great bullpen and we got it done."
- Notable Rainiers: Jay Buhner, Ken Griffey, Jr., Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, Jamie Moyer, Alex Rodriguez, Don Wakamatsu.
- Prior to the Rainiers' rebranding, the team was called the "Tacoma Tugs," an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. Their logo depicted a little blue tugboat with a red and blue baseball cap.
- The Rainiers have finished in last place as many times as they have finished in first (4).
- On July 18, 2012, first baseman Scott Savastano was called upon to pitch the top of an 18-inning game against the visiting Sacramento River Cats. He retired the side on 10 pitches, then re-entered the game in the bottom of the inning and hit a walk-off home run.
- On August 10, 2014, Jesus Montero stole the third base of his career when umpire Jordan Ferrell determined that Fresno's Chris Dominguez had missed the tag. The last time Montero stole a base was on August 30, 2008 for the Yankees' Single-A Charleston RiverDogs.