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A brief history of the Lancaster JetHawks

A place so noted for launching prospects it was dubbed "Launch-caster."

It’s not often that the transfer and relocation of a minor league club brings along its major league affiliate. In 1996, however, that’s just what the Riverside Pilots did.

After three playoff attempts in Riverside, California, the Mariners’ High-A affiliate was forced to fold. While they met with success on the field, the baseball community in Riverside was sparse at best and nonexistent at worst. In their final season as the Pilots, the average home crowd numbered scarcely over 800 fans a game.

A new market had to be found for the organization -- and quickly. The Pilots fielded offers from both Palm Springs and Lancaster, California, both within the vicinity of the California League. The young Mariners were not wholly unfamiliar with the aged stands of Palm Springs Stadium after using the facility for 20 home games during the 1995 season. The last major league-affiliated team to spend an entire season in Palm Springs was the Palm Springs Angels, who played out their final year in 1993.

Lancaster, meanwhile, proved even less of a hotspot for professional sports. They entertained the Golden State League Antelope Valley Ravens for three games in 1995, but harbored no other pro ball teams in their history, let alone any hitched to a major league club. Without a solid sports history, Lancaster had no suitable venue for a new tenant, and the city council was loath to finance a $14.3 million stadium for the occasion.

"The allure of hearing the crack of a well-swung bat while munching on peanuts and Cracker Jack has not been enough to convince everyone that professional baseball will be good for Lancaster," Los Angeles Times’ columnist Sharon Moeser observed, just four months before the park was scheduled to open.

For the first 12 days of the 1996 season, the JetHawks were forced to play on the road while the finishing touches were put on Lancaster Municipal Stadium, later nicknamed the "Hangar." What might have seemed like a setback worked in the JetHawks’ favor -- they went 11-4 in their first two weeks, fueled by the Mariners’ top two draft picks from 1995, Jose Cruz Jr. and Shane Monahan. Cruz, a 22-year-old outfielder in his second year with the Pilots/JetHawks franchise, was named the Cal League Batter of the Week after the first few games of the season, then spent the next month sidelined with a groin strain and a twisted ankle.

By the end of June, however, Cruz had recovered well enough for a promotion to the Double-A Port City Roosters.

"He had an outstanding first half," Lancaster manager Dave Brundage told the Seattle Times’ Rich Johnson. "He’s adjusted well, driven the ball into the gaps for doubles and triples. …The ball jumps off his bat. The power potential is there."

That potential would land Cruz with the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers at the end of the season, and in Seattle by May 1997 -- just in time for another playoff run with the Mariners.

Back in Lancaster, the JetHawks broke one game over .500 to snag third place in the division. It was the first time they failed to reach the playoffs in four seasons. Unlike their days in Riverside, though, success was reaped in more ways than one. Attendance for the JetHawks’ inaugural season broke 300,000, boosting the average home crowd from 814 a night to 4.519.

While the Mariners marched toward their second playoff appearance in franchise history, the JetHawks rounded up another crop of prospects for midseason promotions, among them 22-year-old sinker-baller Robert Luce. Luce came over from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 1996, where he debuted with the short-season Everett AquaSox, and was promoted to High-A in 1997 to compensate for a lack of viable prospects at the Single-A level. Luce made his mark on Lancaster in just 14 starts, handing out 27 earned runs, eight home runs, 24 walks, and 57 strikeouts in 86 1/3 innings.

As was pointed out by Mariners’ minor-league pitching coordinator Ron Romanick, Luce’s performance impressed the club not only for the raw talent it highlighted, but because of the Hangar’s extreme hitting environment.

"A 320-plus-foot fly ball goes 400 feet there," Romanick was quoted by the Times’ Rich Johnson.

Along with Luce, infielders Chris Dean and Dusty Wathan and outfielder Miguel Correa left "Launch-caster" (a term coined by Romanick) for the Double-A Memphis Chicks. It had been a rough two months for the ‘Hawks, whose roster had been depleted once before by a string of injuries earlier in the year. Despite these steps back, Lancaster improved their standing and season record by the fall, finishing second in the Valley Division and clinching their first postseason appearance. Unfortunately, without many of their brightest prospects at their disposal, the JetHawks fell short of qualifying for the title, stepping over the Brewers’ Stockton Ports to lose to the Diamondbacks’ High Desert Mavericks.

Injuries would become a recurring theme for the JetHawks, who started off the 1998 season with four sidelined players, pitchers Dennis Stark and Jason Bond and outfielders Mike Burrows and Matt Sachse. Lancaster rectified the gaps in their lineup with two spare outfielders and southpaw Lindsay Gulin, who came over to the Mariners in a trade with the Mets. Gulin’s first outing only hampered the efforts of the JetHawks further, putting up three hits and six walks in 1 2/3 innings and culminating in a 12-9 loss to the Angels’ Lake Elsinore Storm.

Fortunately for Lancaster, the ship/jet/appropriate transportation vehicle was righted by midseason, when five of the Mariners’ High-A prospects were elected to the California League All-Star Game. Two infielders, first and second basemen Cirilo Cruz and Adonis Harrison, were named starters for the Valley Division roster, while infielder Brendan Kingman and right-handers Patrick Dunham and Brian Sweeney made the team as reserves. It was the first time that Lancaster also held the honor of hosting the annual exhibition.

It wasn’t the last decoration Lancaster would receive that year, either. Harrison finished 69 games in the California League with 27 extra bases, 24 stolen bases, and a .337 batting average before receiving a promotion to the Double-A Orlando Rays. At the end of the year, Baseball America crowned the 21-year-old the best defensive player and most exciting player in the Cal League. The team he left behind clinched a wild card berth for their second consecutive trip to the league playoffs, where they were surpassed, yet again, by the High Desert Mavericks and San Jose Giants.

After several immensely successful seasons in Lancaster, the JetHawks hit their first major roadblock in 1999. The breezy atmosphere of the Hangar proved a double-edged sword, aiding their offensive efforts in most statistical categories but gutting their pitching staff with a league-worst 5.74 ERA, 780 earned runs, 148 home runs, and just 972 strikeouts, good for second-fewest in the league. To add insult to injury, the sparkling attendance records the JetHawks enjoyed in 1996 had fallen by over 100,000 three years later. Not only did the team not make the playoffs, but they turned over 55 wins and dropped straight to the bottom of the Valley Division -- and the entire California League.

On the verge of another move, the Mariners compensated for a dismal performance with their best Cal League season since the JetHawks’ inception. They capped the first half of the season -- and the first-half championship -- with a .292 batting average, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Willie Bloomquist, All-Star MVP (and, later, Player of the Year) Juan Silvestre, and Termel Sledge.

The JetHawks didn’t stop there. They went on to make California League history in the second half of the year, clinching the second-half championship at the top of the division and earning their third and final playoff bid in five years with an 89-51 record. It was the first time in three decades that a California League team had gone from last place to first place in just one season.

As with their two previous attempts, the JetHawks took another loss in the semi-finals. In a peculiar twist, Lancaster vaulted over the Angels’ Lake Elsinore Storm in the first round, only to come face-to-face with the Mariners’ next High-A tenant: the San Bernardino Stampede.

Lancaster trivia

  • Notable JetHawks: Willie Bloomquist, Shawn Buhner, Ken Cloude, and Joel Piniero.
  • The city of Lancaster is steeped in the history of aerospace engineering, most markedly by its connection to Edwards Air Force Base and the now-defunct War Eagle Field and Mira Loma Flight Academy. In order to honor this history, the JetHawks erected a NASA F/A-18 Hornet jet at the entrance of the Hangar.
  • During a particularly strenuous outing for both the Bakersfield and Lancaster pitching staffs, the 1997 JetHawks beat the Blaze 20-17. Even more remarkable, the win was crafted out of a 12-run seventh inning, in which the JetHawks rebounded from a 17-7 deficit.
  • Ten Lancaster alumni have pitched three no-hitters for the club from 2010 to 2014, each under the umbrella of the Houston Astros. In 2010, five JetHawks combined for a 10-inning no-hitter against the Lake Elsinore Storm, featuring right-handers Robby Donovan, David Carpenter, and Jose Trinidad, and left-handers Edwin Walker and David Berner. In the eighth inning, Berner went a little wild, allowing the Storm to score and forcing the game to extras, where his teammates wrapped up the win and the no-hitter. Three seasons later, southpaws Luis Cruz and Kyle Hallock blanked the Stockton Ports in the team’s first nine-inning no-no, a feat that would be duplicated in the 2014 season by right-hander Daniel Minor and lefties J.D. Osborne and Josh Hader against the Bakersfield Blaze.