The San Bernardino Spirit of the California League had a long history of being first. They were the first professional baseball club to establish themselves in San Bernardino, California as the rebranded 1987 Ventura County Gulls. They were the first Single-A club to attract major league patronage based on their high attendance mark as an unaffiliated team. And, in the spring of 1990, when Class-A baseball splintered into High-A and Single-A factions, the Spirit became the first High-A club in the Seattle Mariners’ 14-year history.
Nine Spirit survived the transition from Single-A to High-A: catcher John Hoffman, first baseman Ruben Gonzalez, outfielder Mark Merchant, right-handers Mike Goff, Calvin Jones, and Jim Newlin, left-hander Nick Felix, and utility players Rich Morales and Tim Stargell. Five others were absorbed into the Mariners’ alternate High-A facility in Hampton, Virginia, and the remaining spots on the roster were filled in by prospects from Seattle’s lower levels or extras from the Pirates’, Brewers’, and Orioles’ farm systems, among others.
The success amassed by the San Bernardino franchise in their two years of operations was furthered by its new crop of prospects. Outfielder Ellerton "Tow" Maynard left tire marks on the basepaths, nabbing 23 bases in his first 29 attempts and four bases in a single game against the unaffiliated Reno Silver Sox. The 24-year-old finished the year with 80 steals in 112 chances, more than any other Cal League speedster.
At the plate, however, no Spirit held a candle to third baseman Frank Bolick. The 24-year-old came over to San Bernardino halfway through the season when the Mariners traded for Milwaukee outfielder Mickey Brantley. Bolick spent eight home runs and 36 RBI with the Brewers’ Stockton Ports in 50 appearances earlier that year, but came into his own under the thumb of Spirit skipper Keith Bodie. By season’s end, Bolick had worked his way to a league-leading 102 RBI, second-best 33 doubles, and third-best 91 walks. He was the only Spirit named to the All-Star roster, and later designated the league’s best defensive third baseman and the tenth-best prospect in the Mariners’ organization.
Alongside Bolick, minor league veterans and utility players Isaiah Clark and Pat Lennon fueled the team’s offense. The three infielders rotated at the hot corner during the beginning of the season, and while they bolstered the team with .300 averages and double-digit home runs, neither Clark nor Lennon found a comfortable fit on the field.
"I think his problem’s been that nobody has been able to pinpoint a position and say, ‘that’s where you belong,’" Mariners’ minor-league coordinator Fred Stanley said of Clark, later noting that if the 24-year-old had stuck at shortstop, he’d have made the jump to Double-A already.
Lennon, on the other hand, had suffered a brutal setback in 1989 with a broken hand and wrist surgery that forced him from third base to a quieter outpost in the outfield. Several months later, when Lennon received a call-up to the Double-A Williamsport Bills, he would find his season cut short a second time with another broken hand.
Back in San Bernardino, the Spirit had collected a franchise-high 77 wins, equaling the total put up by their parent club. Unlike the major league Mariners, though, the Spirit placed second in their division and third overall. They also finished first in attendance, drawing 190,890 fans through the turnstiles and nearly packing out the park for every home game.
The bar was set high for the 1991 season, but the naturally high turnover rate of Class-A level baseball would make sustaining that kind of success a challenge. Before the 1991 season kicked off, skipper Keith Bodie was promoted to a managerial position with the Triple-A Calgary Cannons, while Cannons’ manager Tommy Jones was demoted to San Bernardino.
The Spirit retained stolen bases leader Ellerton Maynard and gained first-round draft pick Marc Newfield, but a slew of injuries derailed the team’s playoff hopes from the get-go. Newfield led all Cal League batters with a .330 average before straining his hamstring. Right-hander Clint Zavaras, who was assigned to San Bernardino to rehab an injured shoulder, logged just two starts before a muscle strain derailed his recovery process. The biggest injury hit 19-year-old catcher Alex Sutherland, who was acquired from the Mariners’ spring training program to replace injured backstop Glen Raasch. Two weeks after his call-up, Sutherland strained a knee ligament running out a groundball.
The Spirit finally hit their stride in the second half of the season. Newfield rehabbed his strained hamstring and returned to claim an All-Star berth in July. The 18-year-old garnished his first year of professional baseball with 11 home runs, 68 RBI, and a .300 average. When the season concluded, the young first baseman/outfielder was named the Cal League’s best batting prospect. Behind Newfield, Ellerton Maynard was named the fastest baserunner, Bobby Magallanes picked up the mantle of best defensive third baseman, and newly-ordained skipper Tommy Jones was chosen as the best managerial prospect.
Despite the accolades piled on San Bernardino’s shoulders, it would be another season without a playoff berth, and their first under .500 since 1987. The Spirit sank to fifth in the South Division and dead last in the Cal League with a 54-82 record. In the stands, however, their presence remained just as strong as ever, averaging over 2,700 fans a night.
The Spirit’s last season with the Mariners began with another managerial change. Tommy Jones left Seattle for the rookie-level Arizona League Brewers, while Ivan de Jesus arrived from his first managing stint with the rookie Gulf Coast League Dodgers. Jesus led the Dodgers to third place and a 29-31 record in 1991, and was ready to change his luck on a bigger stage.
Unfortunately, the only kind of luck the Spirit had coming was of a poor variety. Barely a month into the 1992 season, Alex Sutherland incurred another knee injury running out another infield grounder. Third baseman Craig Clayton broke his ankle the following month, while shortstop David Henderson and left fielder Ron Pecconi collided so severely on a pop fly that Henderson punctured a lung, broke two ribs, and sustained a concussion following the game.
By the time Sutherland and his compadres recovered, the season was lost to the Spirit. Their 52-84 record was the second-worst in the league, trailed only by the unaffiliated, 36-99 Salinas Spurs. As a team, they ranked last in triples, with 19, and walks, with 464, and placed second-to-last with 540 RBI and a .333 on-base percentage. The Spirit’s pitching staff fared little better, giving up the most home runs (102) and pitching the second-fewest shutouts (3) and saves (24) in the league. Even manager Ivan de Jesus was ready to hang up his cleats by the end of the year, and wouldn’t manage another minor league team for nearly a decade.
In the fall, the Mariners pulled the plug on their California League franchise. The Spirit moved to Rancho Cucamonga, California, where they became the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes and picked up an eight-year affiliation with the San Diego Padres. Quakes’ owner Hank Stickney sold San Bernardino’s naming rights to the club who would later be known as the Inland Empire 66ers, and the Mariners struck a deal with the Reno Silver Sox, who moved to Riverside, California and established themselves as the Riverside Pilots.
San Bernardino Trivia
- Notable Spirit: Scott Bankhead, Dave Fleming, Pat Lennon, and Omar Vizquel.
- Among the Spirit inducted in 1990 was a 22-year-old right-handed pitcher named Scott… Pitcher.
- Games have been suspended for everything from mechanical difficulties to inclement weather, but this time, the fault lay only with the California League curfew. After three ninth-inning home runs by Spirit sluggers, 13 weary innings, and a 6-6 score that refused to budge, the game was suspended until the following evening, when the Modesto A’s wrapped it up with a two-inning, 7-6 victory.
- Southpaw Mike Hampton got his first taste of the limelight on May 31, 1991. After 23 2/3 innings without a win, the 18-year-old earned his first victory with three walks, five strikeouts, and nine innings of no-hit ball against the Visalia Oaks. It would be both his most memorable appearance and his only win with the Spirit in 1991.