It had been a long eight seasons since the Mariners stationed their prospects in San Bernardino, California. After a lengthy stint with the nearby Lancaster JetHawks, Seattle was ready to return to its original High-A affiliate for one of the most fruitful partnerships in its brief history.
A four-year agreement between the teams was struck on the eve of Seattle’s winningest season. As the major league Mariners churned out win after win in 2001, their minor league affiliates duplicated this success on their own, smaller stages. The San Bernardino Stampede finished second in the Southern Division of the California League, earning a playoff berth for the third time in as many years.
While the High-A Mariners had failed to clinch a Cal League title with the Riverside Pilots and Lancaster JetHawks, the opportunity to do so for San Bernardino had high stakes attached. In both 1999 and 2000, the Stampede had established themselves as the reigning champions of the league under the direction of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and were hoping to claim their third consecutive title.
It was not meant to be. The events of 9/11 interrupted the postseasons of 10 minor leagues, canceling the championship round of the Cal League before it had even begun. "We are done," league president Joe Gagliardi was quoted in Baseball America several days after the attacks. The Padres’ Lake Elsinore Storm and Giants’ San Jose Giants split the title after clinching their respective semifinal rounds.
In 2002, the Stampede got a second chance to prove their postseason prowess. They clinched the division with a 77-63 record, improving on their 2001 totals by just one game. Eighteen-year-old second baseman Jose Lopez led the league with 169 hits and 39 doubles in his first High-A season, while teammate and first baseman John Lindsey placed third with 93 RBI and 22 home runs (tying the record of Milwaukee’s Corey Hart). In the first round of the playoffs, the Mariners vaulted over their former affiliate, the Lancaster JetHawks (now under the Diamondbacks' umbrella), but were knocked out soon afterwards by the second-place Lake Elsinore Storm in the semifinals.
By the Mariners’ third season in San Bernardino, club owners decided it was time for another rebranding. When the M’s first started out with the team back in 1987, they were known as the San Bernardino Spirit. The Spirit gave way to the Stampede when the Dodgers moved to town in the 1990s and now, on the verge of the 2003 season, the team wanted a fresh, new look. After running a naming contest among their fanbase, season ticket holder Phil Westbrook came up with the winning moniker: the Inland Empire 66ers.
Along with the new nickname, the 66ers extended their agreement with Seattle through 2006. As if to reward the extension, it would end up being one of the most profitable seasons for the 66ers since their championship year in 2000. Leading the way was outfielder Greg Jacobs, who had recently decided to abandon a career as a pitcher and take to the field instead.
"I want to prove I can hit," Jacobs told Seattle Times’ reporter Bob Sherwin. "I’m glad the Mariners took a chance on me."
The 26-year-old thrived in his new role, and finished the year with a league-best .357 batting average, .433 on-base percentage, and second-best .576 slugging percentage. Halfway through the season, Jacobs’ hitting ability propelled him to the next-highest rung on the Mariners’ minor league ladder.
Thanks to the efforts of Jacobs, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, first baseman Hunter Brown, and southpaws Ryan Ketchner and Troy Cate, the 66ers dominated their Cal League competition in both offensive and defensive categories. Their pitching staff led the league with a 3.77 ERA, 583 runs allowed, and 1,180 strikeouts. Ketchner and Cate racked up the most strikeouts with 159 and 153, respectively, though it was Ryan Rowland-Smith who received the most accolades from Seattle pitching coordinator Pat Rice ("He just excites me," Rice told the Times). At the plate, they came third in home runs, with 88, and first with 50 triples and just 752 whiffs (the lowest among all California League teams).
Everything came to a head in the postseason. The 66ers clinched the division for the first time under the Mariners' direction and shut out the Padres’ Lake Elsinore Storm 2-0 in the quarterfinals. In the second round, they made quick work of the Angels’ Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, going 3-1 in a best-of-five series. Finally, with a clear shot at their first title, the team eliminated the Rangers’ Stockton Ports in three straight games for the club’s fourth championship since 1995.
The 66ers wouldn’t see another California League trophy for quite some time, but in 2004, one of the Mariners’ most prized prospects came to town. Felix Hernandez was just 18 years old when he donned a 66ers uniform, and had recently completed his first minor league season in Everett, Washington with the short-season Everett AquaSox. With a 97 m.p.h. fastball, an above-average curveball and change-up, and a working sinker, Hernandez was not destined for a long stay in San Bernardino.
"To be honest with you, he can do about anything he wants to do," Inland Empire manager Daren Brown told the Seattle Times just one month after the young right-hander joined the squad.
Felix wrapped up 92 innings in the California League with five home runs, 26 walks, 114 strikeouts, and a 2.74 ERA. By midsummer, he was gone.
With Felix Hernandez, right-hander Jon Huber, and lefties Bobby Livingston and the returning Ryan Rowland-Smith, the 66ers found it easy to replicate their success for a second straight season. They led the Cal League with the most shutouts (9), fewest walks (352), and most strikeouts (1,128), and came second with a 4.08 ERA and 665 runs allowed. Unfortunately, their on-field accomplishments failed to translate to the postseason, where they were knocked out in the semifinals by the D-backs’ Lancaster JetHawks.
From there, things only got worse. The 66ers dropped to last place in the division during the 2005 season with a 58-62 record, the fewest wins any San Bernardino affiliate had seen in seven years. It also marked the first time since 1998 that the club had failed to qualify for the postseason. With just one season remaining on the Mariners’ contract, a change in affiliates was beginning to look like a good idea for both teams.
Perhaps due to the dismal decrease in the 66ers’ 2005 performance, the 2006 season reached the lowest attendance mark since the Mariners first took control of the 66ers in 2001, with just under an average of 1,400 fans per home game. Fortunately, the attention the 66ers received had little bearing on their on-field product.
With former Mariner Gary Thurman at the helm, Seattle’s 66ers flourished in their final year with San Bernardino. They climbed back up to third place in the Southern Division with a 72-68 record, coming within two games of tying the division-leading Lake Elsinore Storm. On the mound, Inland Empire pitchers put together 10 shutouts, the most among Cal League teams, and sustained their third-place rank with a 4.04 ERA. The 66ers’ hitters, however, were a different story altogether. They clinched a postseason berth with the second-fewest runs (690) and RBI in the league (620), and came dead last with 244 doubles and 76 home runs.
Even so, Inland Empire benefitted from the performances of a few standout players, including second baseman Yung-Chi Chen’s .342 average (good for third-best in the league) and right-hander Cibney Bello’s 137 strikeouts (fourth-best in the league). The 66ers also launched many promising prospects midseason, including 2001 second-round draft pick and 23-year-old outfielder Mike Wilson, depleting the roster of their best chance to compete for the playoffs.
Despite these setbacks, the 66ers made one last attempt for the California League title. They went 10-16 to close out the regular season and were swept by the Lake Elsinore Storm in a four-game series before kicking off the first round of the postseason -- also against the Storm. Though the Storm held a 14-10 record against the 66ers in their previous meetings that year, they rolled over 3-1 in the semifinals, propelling the 66ers to the final round against the Rays’ second-place Visalia Oaks. Like the Storm, the Oaks also held a favorable record against the 66ers in regular season play; and, like the Storm, also found themselves bested by Inland Empire, who clinched the series and the title in Game 5.
By 2007, the 66ers had reverted to their affiliation with the Los Angeles Dodgers. After improving their win-loss record by a single game, they strung together seven losing seasons, punctuated by four playoff appearances and an unlikely championship run in 2013. The Mariners moved up the street to Adelanto, California, where a new set of challenges awaited them in High Desert.
Inland Empire trivia
- Notable 66ers: Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Felix Hernandez, Adam Jones, Brandon Morrow, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Rafael Soriano, and Matt Tuiasosopo.
- In the spring of 2002, the Mariners arranged an exhibition game against their High-A counterparts. Inserted in the Stampede's lineup was actor Kevin Costner, who hadn't stepped on the set of a ballfield since his 1999 film For Love of the Game. The 47-year-old slotted in at shortstop and went 0-for-3 at the plate, accentuating his performance with a single error. More memorably, Costner was chosen to close out the 12-4 loss for the Stampede, where he faced off against Mariners' manager and pinch-hitter Lou Piniella. Piniella was sent scrambling on Costner's first pitch, which knocked him back into the dirt, but recovered in time to draw a walk.
- During the late summer months of the 2003 season, the 66ers' on-field antics derailed the progress -- and career path -- of one infielder. In the 15th inning of a marathon game against the Diamondbacks' Lancaster JetHawks, Inland Empire second baseman Evel Bastida-Martinez let his temper get the best of him. Lancaster right-hander John Kranawetter plunked Bastida in the back, prompting the infielder to charge the mound, bat in hand, and strike Kranawetter in retaliation. Sixteen players and two coaches were ejected from the game. Bastida received a suspension for the remainder of the season and was eventually charged with a felony assault for the incident.