The two years preceding the San Bernardino Spirit's jump to High-A ball involved one of Seattle's most marketable stars: an 18-year-old Ken Griffey, Jr.
The star athlete was in his second year of professional baseball when he arrived to the California League. The year before, he spent 54 games with the short-season Single-A Bellingham Mariners, batting .313 and leading the team with 14 home runs. His acquisition could not have been more fortunate for the newly-formed Spirit, who had assumed a new identity under the Mariners' umbrella after breaking single-season attendance records as an unaffiliated club in the 1987 Cal League.
Perhaps predictably, Griffey's Single-A experience had a quick expiration date. In 1988, the speedy outfielder blazed through his 58 games in San Bernardino, rocking the league with a third-best .338 average and second-best .575 slugging percentage, augmented by 11 home runs and 32 stolen bases. According to Spirit manager Ralph Dick, the numbers only hinted at Junior's potential.
"Griffey could do way more things," Dick told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Griffey was a plus guy in every phase of the game."
That "plus guy" was promoted to Double-A halfway through the season. From there, it was a straight shot to the majors. Stripped of their best prospect, the Spirit sunk to third in the Southern Division, a cool 11 games behind division lead and clear out of the playoffs. The team amassed the fewest doubles and triples among Cal League teams, despite accounting for a league-best 85 home runs and close to 250 stolen bases.
While the Spirit may have ended their year on a sour note, the fans didn't seem to mind. San Bernardino sustained their place atop the Cal League competition with another league-best attendance record, raking in over 150,000 fans to round out the season.
Mark Harmon, actor and part-owner of the Spirit, even admitted to taking in a few games from the stands with his friend and fellow investor Barry Axelrod.
"Barry and I are more apt to buy a hot dog, sit in the general admission seat and take in a game," Harmon confessed to the Los Angeles Times' Brock Mullins. "This is something you do for the love and support of baseball."
The faith Axelrod and Harmon put in the Spirit paid off in their second and final year. Griffey had graduated, but the club inherited a dynamic slugger in 22-year-old first baseman Ruben Gonzalez. The Mariners plucked Gonzalez from Pepperdine University in the 1987 draft, then shipped him off to Bellingham, where he spent his first 40 games with Griffey. In his second year of pro ball, Gonzalez was promoted to the Single-A Wausau Timbers, batting .314 with nine home runs and 59 RBI in 115 games.
A move to Double-A seemed the next logical step in the young hitter's career path, but, as it turned out, the Mariners' organization held a monopoly on talented first basemen. Gonzalez was left with the short end of the stick, and spent another year and a half in Single-A ball before getting a much-deserved call-up to the Double-A Williamsport Bills partway through the 1990 season.
It would be a year to remember. Between late mornings at the ballpark and soap opera marathons, Gonzalez crafted a career season with 27 home runs, 101 RBI, and a .308 average. His league-best numbers landed him the first California League Triple Crown since Jose Vidal topped the charts with the Reno Silver Sox in 1963.
The Spirit kept pace with their talented first baseman, sweeping into first place with 83 wins and a cushy seven-game lead over the second-place Visalia Oaks. Their success yielded the club's first postseason finish, albeit a disappointing one. The Spirit were bested 3-1 in the first round by the Dodgers' Bakersfield Dodgers, who went on to clinch the league title over the Brewers' Stockton Ports. Unfortunately for Harmon and his investment, it would be the last postseason run the young Mariners would produce during their time with San Bernardino.
The following season, with both Griffey and Gonzalez out of the house, the Spirit made the jump from Low-A to High-A ball along with the rest of the California League. They would see another three seasons under the Mariners' sponsorship before moving on to a partnership with the Dodgers in 1995. Seattle, meanwhile, took a three-year hiatus before adopting a Low-A affiliate in their stead: the Midwest League Appleton Foxes.
San Bernardino trivia
- Notable Spirit: Scott Bankhead (traded from Kansas City for Danny Tartabull), Jim Bowie, Dave Burba, Rich DeLucia, Ken Griffey Jr., and Jose Tartabull.
- Spirit owner and actor Mark Harmon used Fiscalini Field as the backdrop for his 1988 film Stealing Home, in which Harmon portrayed an aging baseball player who returns home to deal with the death of his childhood sweetheart (Jodie Foster). In a 2006 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Harmon only had positive things to say about the filming experience, despite the negative press surrounding the film: "That was about a bunch of actors loving a script, going there and burning it on both ends for five weeks just to get it done. That was a fun one to make."
- A Triple Crown wasn't the only thing Ruben Gonzalez won with the 1989 Spirit. The 22-year-old bested San Bernardino general manager Bill Shanahan in video baseball, taking the GM down four games to one. His hard-won prize? A Spirit dress shirt.