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A brief history of the Jacksonville Suns

The only minor league team to host both Michael Jordan and the first female pitcher in MiLB since 1931.

The Williamsport Bills were in a bad place. In the five seasons since their inception with the Cleveland Indians, they had placed last in their division four times. Two years with Seattle drew crowds of approximately 600 per home game -- less than 15% of Bowman Park's 4,200-fan capacity.

By 1991, the Bills had been relinquished to the care of the New York Mets, who would see the franchise through their last year in Williamsport before relocating to New York as the Binghamton Mets. The Mariners, meanwhile, signed a working agreement with the infinitely more successful Jacksonville Suns, who had just rounded out a seven-year stint with the Montreal Expos and were sitting comfortably at second place in the Eastern Division of the Southern League.

Whatever the reason behind the Mariners' perennial failure in Pennsylvania, a new start in Florida seemed to be the remedy. Six weeks into the 1991 season, they were tied for first place in the division and padded their 20-9 record with a league-best team ERA of 2.53 and batting average of .273. Around the halfway point in the year, however, things took a slight shift downhill with the loss of right-hander Gary Eave to the Triple-A Calgary Cannons and the loss of center fielder Ted Williams, whose league-leading stolen base record was compromised when a pitched ball broke his leg. As the season came to a close, the Suns struggled to hold onto the division lead and found themselves 13 and a half games behind the Greenville Braves. Despite missing out on a playoff opportunity, they were the only Southern League team to finish with at least 100 home runs and 400 walks on the year.

While the Suns may have given the Braves a run for their money in 1991, any hope of making the 1992 postseason was nothing more than wishful thinking. Greenville proved a formidable opponent in the Double-A circuit for a second straight year, capping the 140-game season with a staggering 100-43 record. Jacksonville suffered two setbacks in the first month of the season, losing second baseman Brian Turang to a shoulder separation, stolen base leader Jesus Tavarez to a knee injury, and left fielder Marc Newfield to a foot injury that would later require surgery.

In May, the Mariners' parent club arrived in Jacksonville for a charity match against their Double-A affiliate. It was a brief stopover on the M's road trip from Detroit to Baltimore, and one that couldn't end quickly enough for the team. The Suns knocked in nine runs against Seattle starters Rich DeLucia and Dave Fleming, while Jacksonville's Jim Gutierrez, Eric Gunderson, Brent Knackert, and Marcos Garcia held their major league counterparts to just five hits in the 9-0 shutout. It would prove to be one of the sole highlights for the Suns, who placed third in the division -- over 30 games behind the Greenville Braves.

The momentum the Suns picked up in their first year with the Mariners cooled considerably over their last two seasons. Starters whose playing time was hampered by injuries in 1992 slowly worked back to full strength; in the case of outfielder Marc Newfield, his foot injury gave way to a recurring strained hamstring. Jacksonville also became a destination for rehabbing major leaguers, as Dave Fleming joined the pitching staff in 1993 while he struggled to overcome elbow issues. The worst of it came in August, when Jacksonville shortstop Lipso Nava and outfielder Ruben Santana collided on a fly ball, resulting in a fractured cheekbone and concussion for Nava and a dizzy spell and bump on the head for Santana. Neither player was cleared to return for the last two weeks of the '93 season, not that it would've helped: the Suns finished last in their division with a 59-81 record, the only time they failed to hit at least 60 wins with Seattle.

The Suns' last year with the Mariners' organization was characterized by the midseason arrival of one bright-eyed, hot-hitting Alex Rodriguez. The 18-year-old batted an even .288 in 17 games, gathering 17 hits, 10 walks, and a single home run by the end of the year. The 1994 season also marked the pro ball debut of Birmingham Baron Michael Jordan, who was a fairly regular competitor against the Suns. In one of the more memorable moments of the year, Craig Griffey nicked a hit-and-run single from under Jordan's nose.

"I thought they must have bobbled it, but they didn't," Griffey told The Spokesman-Review. "I couldn't believe it."

Not a month after the '94 season concluded, the Suns announced a new, two-year agreement with the Detroit Tigers, effectively replacing the one they had with the Mariners. In four seasons with Seattle, the club failed to take the division lead even once and was as far away from the league championship as ever. It didn't help that the Mariners themselves were in the throes of a lengthy players' strike and, though they were on the cusp of their first playoff appearance, had yet to produce consecutive winning seasons. While they tried to regain their footing in the American League West, the Double-A Mariners looked for a fresh start with the Port City Roosters in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Jacksonville trivia

  • Notable Suns: Bret Boone, Dave Fleming, Craig Griffey, Derek LoweRandy Johnson (Montreal), and Alex Rodriguez.
  • The current incarnation of the Suns is the oldest team in the Southern League, boasting a 44-year association with Jacksonville, Florida.
  • Jacksonville did not reach the championship round of the playoffs while under the Mariners' thumb; in fact, by 1991 they had not competed for the title in eight years, and would not be crowned Southern League champions until 1996 -- three seasons after the Mariners' departure.
  • Although Samuel W. Wolfson Baseball Park was a big step up from Williamsport's Bowman Park, it had one distinct oddity: the scoreboard was located several yards outside of the stadium.
  • Halfway through their first season in Jacksonville, Suns' backstop Jim Campanis was married at Wolfson Park prior to a contest against the Huntsville Stars. Right-hander Dave Latter was Campanis' best man and, later that evening, Huntsville's losing pitcher. The 23-year-old catcher celebrated his nuptials as only a baseball player could: by hitting his 12th home run of the year.
  • In 1996, two years after the Mariners left Jacksonville, the Suns made history when right-hander Pamela Davis won an exhibition game against the Australian Olympic team. The 21-year-old pitched a scoreless inning of relief and, at the time, was thought to be the only female competitor to play for a major league affiliate in baseball history (perhaps disregarding a certain Jackie Mitchell back in 1931). When she was pulled from the mound in the sixth inning, the crowd responded with vehement chants of, "We want Pam!", prompting Davis to re-emerge from the dugout for a well-deserved curtain call.