Following a near-miss in the 2000 playoffs, the 2001 Mariners were ready to win -- at every level.
The Dodgers had just been dropped from a 23-year affiliation with the Double-A San Antonio Missions following their third consecutive losing season. Budget cuts and a change in ownership led to significant staff turnover, but the strained relationship between the teams' front offices stemmed primarily from the Dodgers' on-field product. In a decade, the Missions had managed to scrape together a winning record just twice.
After the teams parted ways, San Antonio president Burl Yarbrough rekindled a friendship with Seattle GM Pat Gillick, who had known Yarbrough when he first broke into professional baseball. Thanks to this fortuitous connection, the Mariners emerged as the frontrunners for the Missions' newest MLB affiliation. It couldn't have come at a better time for the clubs.
Not two months into the Missions' first season with Seattle, the Mariners flew to San Antonio for a friendly exhibition game. It was an unprecedented move for San Antonio's parent club, but a welcome one. Although the game held no long-term significance for the teams, it was one of the more exciting contests of the year as the Missions buried Seattle under a 14-2 lead. San Antonio starter Scott Atchison held the M's to two hits, while first baseman Patrick "Peanut" Williams put up five RBI with a home run and a double. As if to appease the large pool of Japanese journalists who had flocked to the park for a rare Ichiro sighting, Seattle's rookie right fielder singled for one of the Mariners' eight hits of the night.
It was a promising beginning for the new incarnation of Missions ballplayers. For the second time in a decade, the club found themselves above .500 by the end of the season. They pushed the Astros' Round Rock Express to the fifth and final game of the divisional series, and when they failed to clinch the division title, returned in 2002 to try again.
The Express had a harder time quashing the Missions' momentum the second time around. While San Antonio sunk to the bottom of the West Division by the halfway point of the year (and would finish the season with a losing record), they buoyed their playoff hopes with a resilient bullpen and a couple of key hitters. Outfielder Greg Dobbs proved to be an important midseason acquisition, and led the team with a .365 average from July to September.
When the Missions met the Express in the divisional series for a postseason rematch, Dobbs hit a game-tying homer in the first game, opening the door for the Missions to take the series lead. For the second time, the teams reached a headlock by the fifth game, finally forced in the Missions' favor when Dobbs went 3-for-4 and San Antonio claimed a 4-2 win.
The Missions' next challenge came against the Rangers' Tulsa Drillers. The Drillers held San Antonio hitless through 9 2/3 innings, but allowed the Missions to tie the game by walking in two runs and giving up the go-ahead run on a last-minute single by outfielder Adrian Myers. Again, the Missions pushed the series to its breaking point, claiming the championship title after starter Rafael Soriano held the Drillers to two hits in seven innings. As the team erupted across Wolff Stadium, manager Dave Brundage only felt relief.
"You sure don't want to do it like that, worst to first," he told San Antonio Express-News columnist David King. "You'd rather win them all."
Brundage had the opportunity to test his theory the following season, when the Missions presented their best record in franchise history (88-51), finishing at the top of their division and advancing to the playoffs for a third consecutive season. They made quick work of the Frisco RoughRiders in the championship round, knocking them out 4-1 and taking their second consecutive league title. No other Missions' roster had managed back-to-back championships in Texas League history.
To accentuate their success, third baseman Justin Leone, southpaw Travis Blackley, and manager Dave Brundage received accolades as the Texas League Player, Pitcher, and Manager of the Year. It was the first time San Antonio had made off with every postseason award in one season.
While the Missions celebrated in San Antonio, the Mariners back home were not feeling as fortunate. Despite putting up 90+ win seasons in 2002 and 2003, they were muscled out of postseason contention by the Athletics, who accumulated 103 wins and 96 wins for back-to-back AL West titles. By 2004, the Mariners were struggling to keep their heads above .500, and their poor luck began trickling down through the farm system. In Texas, the Mariners' Missions slipped below .500 for three seasons following their championship run.
Although another league title was out of the question, the Missions played host to a variety of future big leaguers -- most notably, an 18-year-old Felix Hernandez. Hernandez split the 2004 season between the Advanced-A Inland Empire 66ers and the Missions, finishing with a combined 14-4 record and 2.95 ERA. In ten games with San Antonio, he tossed one complete game shutout, allowed three home runs and 21 walks, and struck out 58 batters in 57 1/3 innings. Following his season in the Texas League, Felix would see just 19 more starts at the minor league level before pitching in his major league debut in 2005.
By 2006, the Mariners were desperate for a fresh supply of prospects. The player turnover rate skyrocketed at the Double-A level; at the end of the year, the Missions had seen 52 players cycle through their ranks. On September 28, San Antonio took on a new MLB affiliate: the San Diego Padres. As the M's had done before them, the Padres returned the Missions to the playoffs by the end of their first year for the city's third championship in five years.
San Antonio Trivia
- Notable Missions: Willie Bloomquist, Gil Meche, J.J. Putz, Shin-Soo Choo, Felix Hernandez, and Michael Morse.
- The Missions' mascot is the "Ballapeño," an animated jalapeño outfitted in a Missions uniform.
- In 1998, during a contest between the Dodgers' San Antonio Missions and the Cardinals' Arkansas Travelers, Arkansas outfielder Tyrone Horne blasted a solo home run, two-run home run, three-run home run, and grand slam in four at-bats. According to sportswriter David King, it was a feat unmatched in baseball history at the time. As of 2014, the "home run cycle" has yet to be replicated on a major-league stage.
- During their bid for a second championship, the Missions laid down 18 consecutive wins, snapping the 95-year streak held by the 1908 San Antonio Bronchos and their 17 wins.