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A brief history of the Peninsula Pilots

And you thought a 17-game losing streak was bad.

The Mariners had an unusual problem. From 1982 to 1989, they had developed a surfeit of prospects at the Single-A level, leading them to affiliate with a combination of the California League San Bernardino Spirit, Salinas Spurs, and Bakersfield Mariners and the Midwest League Wausau Timbers. As Seattle looked to develop their farm system at the High-A level, they needed another combination of affiliates to absorb the 80-some advanced prospects in their system.

This phenomenon was not without precedent. For much of their history, the Braves juggled multiple rookie-level and Single-A affiliates, sometimes up to three at a time. From 1995 to 1996, the Orioles entertained the High-A High Desert Mavericks and Frederick Keys. The Red Sox spent the better part of two decades with the High-A Winter Haven Red Sox and a rotation of five other clubs. In the late ‘90s, the Giants pocketed the High-A Bakersfield Blaze and San Jose Giants -- both competing in the California League circuit.

So it goes throughout the rest of the major leagues. The Mariners are no exception, with overlapping affiliates at the High-A, Single-A, Rookie, and Foreign Rookie levels in every decade of their existence. In fact, of the 30 clubs in question, only the Rockies and Marlins -- among the newest to take root in MLB -- are without multiple teams at a single level.

By 1990, the Mariners had settled down with the California League San Bernardino Spirit, now a High-A franchise, and the Carolina League Peninsula Pilots of Hampton, Virginia. The Pilots were established back in 1976 as a Single-A outlet for the Philadelphia Phillies, but throughout the course of their 14-year minor league lifespan, had not carried a major league affiliation as a High-A club.

While the San Bernardino Spirit flourished in their third season under the Mariners’ tutelage, the Pilots found it difficult to exceed the 44-win bar set by their predecessors in 1989. In their first month, they went 5-16 with every player but one batting below .250.

Finally, on a cool weekend doubleheader in June, the team caught a break when Peninsula’s 23-year-old Rick Babalon served up a no-hitter against the Orioles’ Frederick Keys. The right-hander struck out seven over seven innings -- the regulation length for a minor league doubleheader -- and received a four-run padding from his teammates to secure his seventh win of the year.

"There’s a lot of luck involved," Babalon told the Seattle Times following the victory. "It’s not that hard to get a hit -- flares here or there, check swings. The situation was right."

Several weeks later, Babalon was promoted to the Double-A Williamsport Bills. Despite the loss of one of their best pitchers, the Pilots rallied for a strong second half, going 5-2 in their first week with a 10-6 defeat over the Kinston Indians and a 19-9 beatdown of the Salem Buccaneers. At the heart of their resurgence were two notable infielders: Jim Campanis and second baseman Bret Boone. Both Campanis and Boone put up identical numbers during the win streak: two doubles, a home run, and eight RBI.

Unfortunately, the Pilots had lost too much momentum in the first half to salvage a .500 finish by the end of the season. Their 57-83 record was the worst in the Southern Division, as was their attendance, averaging just 1,009 fans at War Memorial Stadium for each home game. Notwithstanding the contributions made by Campanis and Boone, the Pilots amassed the fewest hits (1,051), doubles (149), triples (22), and RBI (453) in the league.

Whatever misfortune the Pilots attracted in 1990 had doubled by the following year. For the second time, they began the season with a 5-16 record and sustained a six-game losing streak. Much like Babalon had done the year before, southpaw Kevin King helped the Pilots snap out of their downward spiral when he pitched a two-hitter against the Durham Bulls. King delivered four strikeouts and two walks for the team’s first of four shutouts.

Like the Pilots of 1990, this team would find their rallying efforts too late and too feeble to do much good. The club went 12-5 as they approached the second half, capping the first half with a sweep over the Frederick Keys. Their newfound success was bought by the addition of four prospects, outfielders Darren Bragg and Lavell Cudjo and infielders Craig Bryant and Raul Rodarte.

"We’re thinking we can win games, not hoping the other team will give us games," said the club’s new manager Steve Smith, selected after Jim Nettles vacated his post at the end of 1990.

It was a short-lived reprieve. In August, the Pilots found themselves on the wrong end of a 22-game losing streak, the worst seen in the Carolina League’s 46-year history. The 22 losses surpassed the record held by Philadelphia’s Fayetteville A’s, who dropped 19 in a row back in 1950. Things got so bad that fans took to covering their heads with paper bags.

"The beautiful thing about this is everybody contributed," skipper Steve Smith quipped after loss #20. Others, like infielder Shane Letterio, were concerned that such a streak would cause the Mariners to look unfavorably upon their stock of prospects in Hampton, especially with a plethora of candidates over in San Bernardino.

On the heels of this streak, Pilots’ owner and New York literary agent Jay Acton announced his intention to relocate the team to Wilmington, Delaware, which had not hosted a pro ball team since 1952. Without a professional stadium in place, however, Acton was forced to postpone the move for another year.

Back in Hampton, Steve Smith took a three-year break from managing before returning to head the 1994 Calgary Cannons roster, leaving a vacancy for Marc Hill. Hill last managed the White Sox’ Daytona Beach Admirals to a losing record of 69-70 in 1987. Fortunately, his sophomore experience would be markedly different.

The Pilots of 1992 appeared to face none of the setbacks that marked their first two seasons. They put up a 10-5 record to start the season, with a league-best team ERA of 2.78 and several promising offensive contributions from outfielder Darren Bragg and infielders Miah Bradbury, Lipso Nava, and Bubba Smith.

Over the course of the season, the Pilots’ offense flatlined while their pitching remained the best in the league. In May, right-hander Greg Bicknell tossed an 85-pitch four-hitter against the Pirates’ Salem Buccaneers, sporting six strikeouts and a two-run lead. Bicknell duplicated his performance during a crucial first-half tiebreaker against the Durham Bulls, claiming the first-half championship with a 2-0 shutout to improve the Pilots’ standing to 38-32. Of the team’s first 69 games, 41 were decided by one or two runs, and of those, the Pilots won 22 and lost 19.

Thanks to the strides they made on the field, the Pilots earned nine nominations in the Carolina League All-Star game, including skipper Marc Hill, pitchers Greg Bicknell, John Cummings, and Doug Fitzer, infielders Bubba Smith, Miah Bradbury, Ruben Santana, and Desi Relaford, and outfielder Darren Bragg. Even more notable was the club’s first Carolina League title, acquired from Boston’s Lynchburg Red Sox in the ’92 postseason. It was the first time in eight years that a Hampton team had held a championship -- and it would also be the last.

True to his word, owner Jay Acton sold the Pilots to Bud Harrelson, who in turn facilitated a move to Wilmington before the 1993 season commenced. New minor league ballpark guidelines, designed to go into effect by 1994, specified that stadiums had to meet a certain standard to host affiliated clubs, which often required hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair work. For the Pilots -- or any other team -- to remain in Hampton, it would have taken $750,000 to spruce up the 44-year-old War Memorial Stadium.

Ultimately, coupled with thinning crowds and receding profits, the more prudent move was to take the Pilots to Wilmington, a city equipped to finance and sustain a burgeoning minor league franchise. To this day, no other pro baseball club has set foot in Hampton, Virginia.

Peninsula trivia

  • Notable Pilots: Bret Boone, Darren Bragg, and Desi Relaford.
  • In 1992, the Pilots made history during their home and road openers. In the first game of the season, Greg Bicknell and Chuck Wiley hurled a combined no-hitter against the Salem Buccaneers. Several days later, during the first game of their first road trip, the Pilots fell 9-0 against the Durham Bulls, who used four pitchers in their combined no-hitter.
  • Although Hampton has not seen the return of affiliated baseball to its fields, it has hosted several interesting outfits in the last few decades: among them, the fast-pitch women’s softball Virginia Roadsters and the collegiate-level Peninsula Pilots.