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A brief history of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers

As Alex Rodriguez once put it, “Here is where it’s at, the jokes, the fun.”

The saga of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers is an epic one. In 1993, after three seasons of filing their prospects with the High-A San Bernardino Spirit and Peninsula Pilots, the Mariners made a return to Single-A baseball with the Midwest League Appleton Foxes.

What they couldn’t have foreseen, however, was the long-term relationship that would develop, one that would span nearly two decades. The Mariners were two years away from closing the door on an 18-year partnership with the short-season Single-A Bellingham Mariners, but never had they entertained an affiliate at a higher level for more than nine seasons.

The Appleton Foxes had just ended a six-year agreement with the Kansas City Royals when the Mariners’ prospects moved to town. In that time, the Foxes produced two winning seasons, the last of which came in 1992 under the thumb of Kansas City skipper Tom Poquette, who marched the Foxes to the first round of the postseason. The Mariners, at least in their first three seasons, would be nowhere near as fortunate.

Of course, that wasn’t apparent from the outset. Seattle’s Foxes got off to a hot start in their return to the Midwest League, capping their first month of play with seven wins in eight games and first-round draft pick Alex Rodriguez, who batted .280 with seven stolen bases, six RBI, and a home run in his first 19 games. Southpaw Tim Davis, plucked from Florida State University in the 1992 draft, guided the Foxes through the first half with a league-best 10-2 record and 1.85 ERA.

Despite their best efforts, it wasn’t enough. The Foxes dropped from sixth place with the Royals to ninth with the Mariners, toting a 62-73 record to the bottom of the Northern Division. It was a trend that would continue through the next several seasons.

In 1994, the Foxes earned a brief respite, getting over .500 with a 75-win year through the beginning of the MLB strike. An 18-year-old Alex Rodriguez continued his training in the lower rungs of the Mariners’ system, leading the Foxes with 14 home runs and padding his resume with a .319 average, 55 RBI, and 16 stolen bases in 65 games.

Barely six weeks into the season, A-Rod broke his nose after colliding with a Burlington Bees’ infielder at second base. Not one to miss an at-bat, Rodriguez remained in the game and asked manager Carlos Lezcano to walk him to the team bus following the Foxes’ 9-8 win, concerned that fans would be upset with him for his inability to sign autographs on the way to the hospital.

Admiration ran high for the young infielder on more than one level. As Bees’ third baseman Matt Raleigh gushed to the Times’ Bob Sherwin, "His body is perfect for a baseball player. […] You don’t even have to know what position he plays. He’s like a league above everyone else."

The 1995 season began on a note of uncertainty. The major-league Mariners had not suited up in over 200 days, and their first steps on Kingdome turf would be shaky at best. Over in the Midwest League, the Foxes faced near-extinction in Appleton as even their recent success wasn’t enough to draw fans through the turnstiles.

In fact, according to club marketing director Tim Robertson, the team had one of two choices to make: "building a new stadium or getting out of minor-league baseball." The Foxes adopted a new moniker, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, and received a brand-new, $4.5 million ballpark to boot up the ’95 season.

The changes worked. By the end of the season, the Rattlers had entertained 209,159 viewers, well over the attendance mark of the previous two years combined. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for their on-field success. The Rattlers dropped to 12th in the league on 63 wins, despite allowing the second-fewest runs among Midwest teams and strong performances from right-handers Derek Bienasz, Ken Cloude, and Chris Beck.

Finally, the Mariners struck gold in the 1996 season, both in the stands and on the field. They acquired David Ortiz from the rookie-level Peoria Mariners, where the 19-year-old batted .332 and led all rookie Mariners with 61 hits, 18 doubles, and 37 RBI. Baseball America called Ortiz, then going by his mother’s surname, David Arias, the most exciting player in the Midwest League. His 18 home runs and 93 RBI helped propel the team to their league-best record, first All-Star game hosting opportunity, and most importantly, their first visit to the postseason.

Although the Timber Rattlers were long-overdue for a playoff run, the roster wasn’t quite up to par in time for the first round. Mike Goff and his band of Seattle prospects were plagued by several health setbacks, including Faruq Darcuiel’s injured knee, Chad Sheffer’s torn rotator cuff, and bone chips in Mike Hickey’s elbow. With the odds stacked against them, the Rattlers pulled off a 2-1 finish against the Cardinals’ Peoria Chiefs, then returned to batter the Astros’ Quad Cities River Bandits 2-1 in the semifinals. They were sent home in the final round against the A’s West Michigan Whitecaps, who took the best-of-five series 3-1 over the Rattlers.

While a title wouldn’t sit in the Rattlers’ trophy case anytime soon, 1996 marked the first of a long streak of postseason success. Each of the following four seasons saw the Rattlers return to the playoffs, beginning with their first-round defeat in the 1997 postseason.

Overall, it had been a monumental year for Wisconsin. Gary Varsho, a utility player who got his start in the Midwest League with the 1982 Quad Cities Cubs, made his managing debut for Seattle and took the Rattlers to a first-half championship and 76-63 record. Three Rattlers -- right-handed pitchers Dennis Stark and Joe Mays, and designated hitter Jason Regan -- were chosen to represent Seattle in the All-Star game. The club led all Midwest teams with 13 collective shutouts and 1,220 strikeouts. Attendance was still well over 200,000 at Fox Cities Stadium. And, in just two short games, the Marlins’ Kane County Cougars smashed the Rattlers’ postseason hopes with a first-round sweep.

The following spring, the Rattlers received their next shipment of superstars-in-training. Nineteen-year-old right-hander Gil Meche and 18-year-old lefty Ryan Anderson, first-round draft picks in ’96 and ’97, respectively, attracted attention with the highest strikeout marks on the Rattlers’ roster. Their efforts were aided by one 19-year-old Joel Piniero, who led the staff with an 8-4 record and carried the team’s only complete game of the year.

"I think the Mariners have something special in Piniero," Mariners minor-league pitching coordinator, Bryan Price, told the Seattle Times’ Rich Johnson. "I like his makeup. I like how he goes about his business. He just does everything well to help him win ballgames."

Headed by the trio of pitching phenoms, the Rattlers clinched the first-half title for a second consecutive season -- and, for a second consecutive season, flunked out of the postseason in the first round against the Cubs’ Rockford Cubbies. After two seasons on cruise control, however, they were ready to kick things up a notch.

1999 brought with it yet another managerial change, this time in the shape of former Cubs’ catcher and minor league skipper Steve Roadcap. Roadcap had steered the Cubs’ Peoria Chiefs and Rockford Cubbies for five years through the mid-90s, then left for a short, unsuccessful stint in the Florida State League with the High-A Daytona Cubs. Returning to the Midwest League meant a return to life over .500, albeit only for one season.

While very little materialized from the Mariners’ top draft picks -- neither southpaw Matt Thornton nor right-hander Jeff Heaverlo were standouts on the pitching staff -- the Rattlers coasted to another postseason with the fewest walks allowed (434) and most strikeouts (1,110) among Midwest League clubs. Here, their playoff success multiplied. They swept both the Reds’ Rockford Reds and the Cubs’ Lansing Lugnuts in the first four games of the postseason, thanks to several sharp performances, including a two-hitter by Heaverlo. As in 1996, they were foiled in the final round by the White Sox’ Burlington Bees, despite pushing the game to a nailbiting Game Five.

At the midpoint of their relationship with the Mariners, the Timber Rattlers enjoyed their most successful season yet. Gary Thurman, Seattle’s newest Single-A manager, ascended from the rookie-level Arizona League Mariners to direct the Rattlers to a 78-60 record, third place finish, and their fifth postseason appearance in a row.

Again, it was the Rattlers’ pitching that highlighted their prowess among the competition. Together, they held the second-lowest ERA (3.42), second-fewest earned runs allowed (457), and third-most strikeouts (1,019) in the Midwest League. Their offensive efforts were helped by 18-year-old Chris Snelling, who batted .305 and was rumored to hit the furthest home run among Wisconsin batters, at an estimated 450 feet. The young outfielder’s monstrous hit came against former major leaguer Mark Wohlers of the Reds’ Dayton Dragons, a face Snelling knew surprisingly well.

"My father has one video of the 1995 World Series with Wohlers in it," Snelling told the Seattle Times following his big hit, referring to Wohlers’ time spent as the closer for the Atlanta Braves. "So I’ve seen it a lot."

The 1998 season closed on as hopeful a note as ever, leading the Rattlers to another postseason appearance against the Marlins’ Kane County Cougars, which they won, 2-1. This time, their demise was orchestrated by the Brewers’ Beloit Snappers in the semifinals. Luckily for the Rattlers, something far better was in store: a four-year extension with the Mariners.

Wisconsin trivia

  • Notable Timber Rattlers: Craig Griffey, Raul Ibanez, Gil Meche, David Ortiz, Joel Piniero, J.J. Putz, Alex Rodriguez, and Rafael Soriano.
  • David Ortiz’s short-lived tenure with the Mariners’ organization came to a close after his one-year stint with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in 1996. Known then as David Arias, the 21-year-old batted .322/.390/.511 with 18 home runs and 93 RBI in 129 games. Ortiz would leave Seattle the following year as a PTBNL in a swap for Twins’ infielder Dave Hollins, but as Wisconsin manager Mike Goff put it to the Seattle Times, "The older he gets, the better he’s going to be."
  • For once, a doubleheader bore no signs of rain, injury, or other curiosities. There was only the double portion of dominant pitching, headed in the first half by 22-year-old southpaw Tim Davis and in the second by 20-year-old righty Jose Sanchez. Together, the Foxes served up consecutive shutouts, taking the first game 3-0 and its sequel 5-0 against the hapless South Bend White Sox on a cool evening in June 1993.
  • The same could not be said for a four-game set in 1997, to be played between the Timber Rattlers and the Quad Cities River Bandits. Quad Cities’ ballpark was overwhelmed with rainwater, so much so that, as Wisconsin skipper Gary Varsho explained to the Seattle Times, "You couldn’t get to the field.
  • Catcher Craig Kuzmic had it all. At least, he had it all for one night during the 1999 season. Kuzmic single-handedly clinched a 3-2 victory for the club when manager Steve Roadcap asked him to sub in at every position, including the final inning on the pitcher’s mound.