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A brief history of the Vermont Mariners

The storied, one-year rivalry between the Mariners, the Yankees, and an 18-year-old Ken Griffey, Jr.

Baseball was a fairly new establishment in Vermont when the Mariners came to town. While the state had supported several independent teams at the turn of the century, their first MLB-affiliated club arrived with the Vermont Reds, home to the Double-A prospects of Cincinnati's farm system. The city of Burlington had not seen a professional baseball club since the 1955 Burlington A's, who lasted just one season and claimed third place in the Quebec Provincial League.

When the Reds packed up for Tennessee, the Mariners found themselves treading familiar waters in Vermont. Prior to the Reds' four-year tenure, the club was stationed in Lynn, Massachusetts as the Lynn Sailors. From 1980 until 1982, they operated as the Mariners' first Double-A affiliate in franchise history. Now, six years later, the two clubs were reunited in Burlington as the Vermont Mariners.

The 1988 season began with a bang. Against New York’s Albany-Colonie Yankees, Vermont southpaw Bryan Price and right-hander Jeff Hull pitched a combined one-hitter, holding a perfect game steady through four innings, collecting 15 strikeouts, and blanking the Yankees 6-0. At the plate, shortstop Omar Vizquel and backstop Jim Wilson completed a double steal to steal home and put the Mariners on the board. By the end of the seventh inning, Wilson had picked up another two runs on a two-RBI double, supplemented by insurance runs from outfielders Dave Brundage and John Gibbons to pad Price’s first win of the year.

While Vermont’s lineup featured several notable prospects for Seattle, including the aforementioned Vizquel and 1986 first-round draft pick Pat Lennon, Seattle had big plans to debut an 18-year-old Ken Griffey, Jr. halfway through the year. Still in the throes of his first year with the Single-A San Bernadino Spirit, Griffey was batting .338 with 11 home runs and 32 stolen bases. Before his scheduled call-up in July, the young outfielder sustained a stress fracture on his vertebrae while gunning for a fly ball. When Griffey finally reached the Eastern League circuit in late August, however, he showed no signs of disrepair. In his first game with the Vermont Mariners, he put up a single and double against the Williamsport Bills.

Griffey’s name may have been the most recognizable one in Vermont, but his was far from the only success story on the team. Jim Wilson supplied the bulk of the team’s power with 17 home runs, tying Glens Falls Tigers’ catcher Chris Hoiles for the league lead. No other hitter on the Mariners’ roster crested 10 home runs and, at the end of the season, Vermont dropped to the bottom of the Eastern League with a league-worst 51 homers.

"He’s got the ability to hit the ball out," Albanie-Colonie Yankees’ manager Stump Merrill conceded following the catcher’s 15th home run and 17th game-winning RBI of the season. "He’s the only guy they have that can hurt you."

It was the third consecutive game-winning hit for Wilson, but as the 20-year-old Eastern League All-Star told the Schenectady Gazette, he did not feel any exceptional pressure in high-leverage situations. It was this mindset that fueled the Mariners’ success; apart from Wilson and utility infielder Roger Hansen, the club had no legitimate threats at the plate.

Despite the offensive drives from Wilson, Griffey, Vizquel, and Hansen, the Mariners’ primary source of strength was derived from their pitching staff. The club led the league with 22 shutouts, the most by an Eastern League staff since the Reds’ Trois-Rivieres Aigles amassed 27 shutouts in 1976. Leading the Mariners in shutouts was 22-year-old right-hander Ricky Rojas, who posted three during the season -- two in consecutive outings against the Albany-Colonie Yankees. Through the first 14 contests between the Eastern League rivals, the Mariners claimed five of six shutouts constructed by their respective rotations.

Equally dominant was RHP Clint Zavaras, who was in his fourth minor league season and turning out his first winning record after cutting down his walk rate and improving his command. Although Zavaras found it difficult to surpass the 180-strikeout total he reached with the Single-A Salinas Spurs in 1987, the transition to Double-A left him with 120 whiffs by year’s end, good for second-best in the league.

As the season waned and rumors of another franchise move cropped up, the Mariners positioned themselves for the playoffs. They had a legacy to uphold from the days of the Vermont Reds, who claimed the Eastern League title in 1984, 1985, and 1986 and advanced to the championship finals of the 1987 postseason. With the second-best regular season record in the league, the Mariners kicked off the semifinals against the third-place Pittsfield Cubs.

It was an easy victory for the Mariners, who came one game shy of sweeping the Cubs out of the postseason. Over in New York, a real threat was forming with the upset of the 80-57 league-leading Glens Falls Tigers, who fell 3-1 against the fourth-place Albany-Colonie Yankees. The Yankees-Mariners rivalry that had brewed all season came to a head in the championship round. Despite the dominant streak Vermont had sustained against Albany throughout the regular season, they succumbed to Yankees' southpaw Kevin Mmahat, who directed the team to a 4-0 shutout in the first game of the series.

The Mariners, who trailed the league in most offensive categories, were no match for the Yankees this time around. Vermont rebounded in Game 2 of the best-of-five contest, scoring eight runs to come back from a 5-0 deficit and tie the series. Unfazed, the Yankees responded with a four-hitter at the hands of 25-year-old lefty Matt Harrison in Game 3, and followed up with a 7-4 clinch in Game 4. It was the first title in Albany’s six-year history.

By the end of the 1988 season, the Vermont Mariners had outgrown Burlington. Club owner Mike Agganis had his sights set on Canton, Ohio, a city that housed twice the population of Burlington and offered a more spacious and accommodating ballpark. According to reports by The Lewiston Daily Sun, Agganis had been courting Canton since December 1987 and made the move official by the time the Mariners had been booted from the Eastern League playoffs. Vermont's affiliation with Seattle did not survive the move. When Opening Day of the 1989 season rolled around, it was the Cleveland Indians' Double-A squad who manned their stations as the Canton-Akron Indians.

Vermont trivia

  • Notable Mariners: Ken Griffey, Jr., Pat Lennon, and Omar Vizquel.
  • The Vermont Mariners were the first Double-A club to take the Mariners' name and, to this day, the last.
  • Bryan Price, he of the Mariners' first one-hitter, went on to become the manager of the Cincinnati Reds after Dusty Baker was fired during the 2013 postseason.
  • In 2014, the Indians' Akron Aeros -- an offshoot of the Vermont Mariners -- selected what is perhaps the least threatening name in minor league baseball. In order to pay homage to the thriving rubber industry in Ohio, they rebranded themselves as the Akron RubberDucks.