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A brief history of the Memphis Chicks

In which Craig Griffey ended his pro ball career for good.

It was an unusual, if unintentional, trend: in back-to-back seasons, the Mariners signed on with two Double-A franchises in their final year of operation.

The Port City Roosters were the first to go. After two full seasons in Wilmington, North Carolina, dismal attendance numbers and a dilapidated college baseball stadium made it impossible for the club to profit off of their fanbase. In 1996, the Roosters averaged less than 500 fans a game -- a hard pill to swallow even for a ballpark that seated just 3,000 on a good day.

The following year, the Roosters left the trappings of North Carolina for Mobile, Alabama, where they took on a two-year agreement with the San Diego Padres and called themselves the Mobile BayBears. The Padres were coming off of an 81-win season in Memphis, Tennessee, leading the Memphis Chicks to the club's winningest season in 16 years. It would be a tough act to follow.

In autumn 1996, the Mariners signed a one-year deal with the Memphis Chicks -- the only vacant roster still available in the Southern League. While matching, let alone surpassing, their predecessor's success was out of the question, the Chicks found themselves sitting on 17 wins by the end of April 1997.

Leading the charge was right-hander Ryan Franklin, Seattle's 23-round pick in the 1992 draft. Franklin came out of the bullpen to replace injured southpaw Osvaldo Fernandez and pitched six no-hit innings in his first start against the visiting Chattanooga Lookouts.

Chicks' manager Dave Brundage watched the 24-year-old toss a few balls past his 65-pitch limit, but didn't dare remove him in the middle of an inning -- and what would culminate in a 4-0 combined no-hitter. "They would have booed me right off the field," he told Seattle Times' reporter Rich Johnson.

A week later, Franklin followed up his no-hit performance with a seven-inning complete game. An extra inning of relief work brought his ERA to a sparkling 1.33 and extended his streak to 14 consecutive innings without an earned run. In another month, he had a seven-inning two-hitter under his belt, earning accolades from the press and a ticket to the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers.

Accompanying Franklin was Memphis utility player Charles Gipson, a player so touted by the organization that his value was said to "transcend statistics." To hear Rainiers' manager Larry Myers talk, the 24-year-old was the most versatile player in the Mariners' system, as well as the most talented centerfielder and third baseman, to boot. (Never mind that he played exactly seven games at third during his two-week stay in Tacoma.) Although he kept up a .314 average in Tacoma, Gipson was returned to Memphis after 11 games for further development and more consistent playing time. Not one to disappoint, he muscled a game-winning grand slam in his first game back in Tennessee.

Despite the Mariners' newfound success with players like Gipson and Franklin, the furious cycle of promotions and demotions hampered their overall win-loss record. By the end of the season, the Chicks had slipped to last place in the West Division with a 67-72 record, a solid nine and a half games out of postseason contention. Their only title was awarded to top pitching prospect Ken Cloude, who led the Chicks' staff with an All-Star nomination and 124 strikeouts in 22 starts.

With the end of the Chicks' 1997 season came the end of the club's 78-year presence in Memphis. Prior to the 1998 season, the franchise rebooted as the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx of Jackson, Tennessee, taking on the Chicago Cubs as their new affiliate. As they had in 1996, the Mariners moved into the space left by the Cubs and accepted a one-year deal with the Orlando Rays as a placeholder for Tampa Bay. It would be a decade before the Jaxx reconnected with Seattle.

Memphis trivia

  • Notable Chicks: Ryan Franklin and Craig Griffey.
  • Drawing from Memphis' tribute to the ancient capital of Egypt, the city's sports teams included nicknames like the Pharaohs and Pyramids. In 1901, the Chicks established themselves as the Memphis Egyptians.
  • In 1977, former Memphis Chick Tim McCarver was memorialized in Tennessee when the club renamed Blues Stadium in his honor. At the time, McCarver was 36 years old, still three full seasons away from hanging up his major league career with the Philadelphia Phillies. The stadium was demolished in 2005, five years after their last baseball tenants, the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, migrated to AutoZone Park.
  • While the Mariners did little to jazz up the baseball scene in Memphis, fans were treated to a special moment in 1986 during Bo Jackson's first pro ball season. Jackson whacked a ball over the light tower in left field, measuring a cool 565 feet and then some. Even for the reputed hitters' park, it was a feat unmatched by any other slugger.
  • Craig Griffey, younger brother to Ken Griffey, Jr., brought his seven-year minor league career to a close halfway through the 1997 season. After a two-week respite in the middle of June, Craig requested an unconditional release from the club. "There was no definitive reason given," player development director Larry Beinfest told the Times. While the split was amicable, Junior feigned a more heated reaction. Following news of Craig's release, Griffey spent his next batting practice session moaning about how much he wanted to be traded away from Seattle. "The only thing I'm mad about is people comparing people," he later told the press after confirming that all trade threats had been made in jest. "Everyone has different styles. My brother is not a home-run hitter."