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A brief history of the Port City Roosters

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Can you name the Mariners' starter for Game 1 of the 1995 ALCS?

For the first time in four years, the Mariners were left without a Double-A affiliate. Their previous three seasons with the Jacksonville Suns had returned three losing records, and almost as soon as the Suns capped the last game of the 1994 season, the Detroit Tigers picked up their affiliation with a two-year agreement.

Two hundred miles away in Wilmington, North Carolina, the Port City Roosters were taking shape -- one of the only teams that would begin and end its time in the minor leagues with the Mariners. Their legacy in Wilmington was just the latest in a string of temporary solutions while the league settled on a more permanent home for the franchise. In 1992, under the nickname "Denver Zephyrs," the Roosters were booted from their home in Mile High Stadium when the Colorado Rockies were added to the National League. They split Nashville, Tennessee with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds during the 1993 and 1994 seasons, but sharing a field and a city with another pro ball team was a tenuous arrangement from the start. After two seasons, another move was in order.

Upon arrival in Wilmington, the Mariners moved into Brooks Field, home to the UNC Wilmington Seahawks baseball team. Even at six years old, the ballpark barely met the standards required for a professional ballclub, let alone those expected by minor league fans. A lone concessions stand served thousands, while limited parking, poor accessibility, and a strict no-alcohol policy hampered attendance even further. As one columnist noted the following year, the Roosters were the only minor league club in the country not selling beer to their patrons.

In 1995, the beginning of what would be a breakout year for Seattle on the major league level, the Port City Roosters debuted Jason Varitek, the Mariners’ first-round pick in the 1994 draft. After a 10-month hiatus from baseball, save for a single at-bat in spring training, the 23-year-old backstop struggled to adjust to a heavier workload in the Double-A circuit. By the end of the Roosters’ first month in the Southern League, Varitek had wrested just six hits away from opposing pitchers and struck out nearly as often. Port City manager Dave Myers still liked what he saw, however.

"There’s other people that have the physical ability that [Varitek] has," Myers told the Seattle Times’ Rich Johnson, "but his attitude’s going to take him to the big leagues."

Although far less hyped than his fellow infielder, 23-year-old catcher Jim Bonnici quickly became the Roosters’ hottest commodity. After four full seasons as a backstop in the Mariners’ farm system, Bonnici transitioned to first base to accommodate Varitek's arrival. Throughout the ’95 season, he routinely topped the leaderboards in RBI and home runs, and was often at the forefront of Port City victories. By September, he was named among the Roosters’ Southern League All-Stars and ranked third in walks (76), home runs (20), and RBI (91).

While the playoffs were a distant hope for the 62-80 Roosters, one player caught a lucky break at the end of the year. Right-hander Bob Wolcott had ascended quickly through the Mariners’ system, reaching Triple-A after 12 starts, two complete games, and one shutout in Wilmington. In 13 appearances for the Rainiers, the 21-year-old had no trouble replicating his success, down to the two complete games and shutout. He was called up to Seattle to fill a rotation gap in mid-August, striking out 19 batters and allowing 14 walks and six home runs in seven starts.

It would have been an otherwise nondescript start to Wolcott’s major league career, save for one thing: Greg Hibbard was injured, and Lou Piniella needed a starter for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. Though Hibbard had been laid up on the disabled list since June, he was still eligible for the postseason roster. It was a bold move for the skipper to make on the cusp of the Mariners’ biggest playoff push in club history -- and one that ultimately paid off.

Piniella was on the mound by Wolcott’s sixth pitch -- and sixth straight ball -- of the game. He did his best to soothe the rookie, who was too nervous to command a strike against the potent Cleveland Indians lineup. Seven pitches and two walks later, Bob Wells began warming up in the ‘pen. With 57,065 fans holding their breath, Wolcott served up a strikeout to Albert Belle, then induced a foulout and grounder from the next two batters. With a scoreless first inning under his belt, he rounded out a seven-inning performance with eight hits, five walks, two strikeouts, and most importantly, his first win of the playoffs.

Notwithstanding Wolcott’s isolated success, the Roosters he left behind still had a lot to prove to Wilmington. On average, minor league baseball was drawing crowds of 1,666 to every home game in Brooks Field, far under the stadium's capacity of 3,500 and the lowest totals in the league. Between the ’95 and ’96 seasons, the team was transferred to entrepreneur Eric Margenau, who was already making plans to relocate the club to Mobile, Alabama. Margenau was well-versed in the troubles that plagued pro ball teams in Wilmington, and knew that without higher attendance numbers and a new venue, sustaining the Roosters would be impossible.

For the time being, however, club operator Steve Bryant was still pushing to double attendance in the Roosters’ second year. He hoped that if Seattle brought bigger talent to the field, fans would turn out in droves -- even without the promise of beer.

As it turned out, Margenau had the right idea. In the team’s first 32 games, they put out seven wins. Craig Griffey began the year 1-for-26. By the end of April, their pitching staff had given up the fewest hits in the league while courting the highest ERA. They fumbled their way through a seven-game losing streak. The Roosters plummeted to last place in their division. To add insult to injury, just 68,463 fans turned out -- an average of 978 per home game.

That’s not to say there weren’t a few highlights. Griffey completed 108 consecutive games without a single error. Varitek made key adjustments to his batting approach, finding ways to harness his power and exhibit more patience at the plate. Jose Cruz, Jr., the Mariners’ first-round pick in the 1995 draft, was promoted to Port City halfway through the year and boosted the Roosters’ offensive output enough to earn a recommendation to Triple-A by August.

Yet, by the end of ’96, the Roosters were dragging a 56-84 record and management was packing their bags for Alabama. The Mariners, meanwhile, swapped affiliates with the San Diego Padres, relinquishing the Mobile BayBears for the Memphis Chicks.

Port City Trivia

  • Notable Roosters: Craig Griffey, Raul Ibanez, Derek Lowe, Jason Varitek, and Don Wakamatsu.
  • Halfway through the Roosters’ second month of competition, they earned a two-game suspension for a bench-clearing brawl with their old team, the Jacksonville Suns. According to the Times’ account of the dispute, three of the 24 players escaped punishment: "Two of the three […] were in the stands charting pitches and manning the radar gun, another was in the clubhouse getting his arm iced." In order for the 21 players to successfully serve their suspension, two position players and one pitcher had to take turns sitting out each night.
  • The Roosters played their longest game in franchise history against the Chicago Cubs’ Orlando Cubs in June 1995, a 16-inning affair that ended with a game-ending double play by Port City’s star hitter James Bonnici. They shattered their previous record by four innings, but like their 12-inning loss to the Pirates’ Carolina Mudcats on Opening Day, again failed to get a win.
  • Following his year as the Southern League strikeout leader, 26-year-old left-hander Osvaldo Fernandez broke his leg in spring training prior to the 1996 season. By the time he recovered, he was only able to make one start for the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers before landing on the disabled list again, this time with a strained elbow. He was returned to the Mariners’ Double-A affiliate in 1997 for one final game with the club.