Financing a minor league baseball team can be a perennial struggle, but for former scouts Bill Lutz and Norb Wishowski, adopting the ailing Wausau Timbers was the natural result of a lifelong passion for baseball.
The pair, along with six other co-owners, took on Wausau’s first affiliated franchise when the Mets left town in 1978 after an unsuccessful four seasons in the Midwest League. The 1979 club was a co-op effort populated by prospects from the Rangers’ and Indians’ farm systems, and in January 1980 was handed over to Lutz, Wishowski, and their partners for an unspecified amount between $40,000 and $60,000. The money was repurposed to solve some outstanding debts from the previous owner, and the team was strengthened with the addition of Mariners’ prospects like third baseman Jim Presley and right-hander Ed Nunez.
In 1981, after another sub-.500 run, the entire team was handed off to the Mariners. A 34-year-old Bill Plummer headed off the roster for his sophomore attempt at managing; in 1980, he headed the Single-A San Jose Missions, whom he guided to a 73-66 finish. This would be his most successful year yet.
The Timbers’ inaugural season with the M's coincided with a one-month strike in the major leagues, during which owners and players went head-to-head over free agent compensation. The strike severed the middle of the season, only coming back together in time for a belated All-Star game during the first few weeks of August. The consequences of this dispute trickled down through the minor league rungs in peculiar ways, opening up vacant major league stadiums to their farm teams in hopes of luring fans back through the gates.
At the tail end of the strike, the Brewers’ County Stadium was leased to their Single-A Burlington Bees for a contest against the Timbers, which was nearly pulled when several local sponsors retracted their funding at the last minute. At the last minute, the teams found support from a Wausau-based metal company and the Timbers put forth a 5-1 effort over their division rivals, fueled by the acrobatic flair of second baseman Harold Reynolds and an explosive five-run surge in the sixth inning.
It may not have incited the frenzied excitement of a major league game, but some fans were hungry for a taste of the sport, no matter how unseasoned its participants. "To a baseball fan, any game is a good game," one fan was quoted during the game.
In all other respects, however, it appeared that the MLB strike had little effect on the Timbers’ successes. They outperformed all Midwest League clubs in nearly every offensive category, putting up 145 home runs, 658 RBI, 237 stolen bases, and a collective batting line of .274/.364/.430. Harold Reynolds emerged from the pack with a league-best 69 stolen bases, while outfielder Glenn Walker held the most home runs (35) and RBI (111). On the mound, 18-year-old Ed Nunez outpaced all Midwest pitchers with 13 complete games and 205 strikeouts, while fellow starter Rick Adair racked up four shutouts.
It came as little surprise, then, when the Timbers navigated their way to first place in the division and a postseason finish. They dominated the Waterloo Indians in the semifinals, then advanced to the final round against Chicago’s Quad Cities Cubs, where Ed Nunez capped the club’s first championship title with a stunning one-hitter.
Such high quality production proved unsustainable throughout the rest of the Timbers’ tenure with Seattle. In 1982, Bill Plummer took a break from managing and the Timbers brought in 28-year-old R.J. Harrison, who had ended his playing career with the Mariners just the year before. The recognizable names had vanished from Wausau’s roster -- Reynolds, Nunez, and Presley among them -- and of the 37 players left in 1982, only four would eventually graduate to the majors. For the next two seasons, Harrison squeezed no more than 55 wins a season out of the hapless Timbers.
1984 saw yet another managerial change and a temporary reversal in the Timbers’ fortunes. Wausau inherited manager Greg Mahlberg from their other Single-A affiliate, the California League Bakersfield Mariners, who were ousted after the 1983 season for the Salinas Spurs. On the field was a new face, albeit one that would soon become familiar to many Mariners fans: 21-year-old third baseman Edgar Martinez.
As Timbers' alumni and Martinez's predecessor, third baseman Jim Presley, got his start with the big club in Seattle, Martinez celebrated his first year of pro ball with 15 home runs, 11 stolen bases, and a .303 average in 126 Midwest League games. The combined power of Gar and 22-year-old outfielder Dave Hengel propelled the Timbers to a league-best .256 average and third place in the Northern Division. Although it was the first time the club had topped .500 in several seasons, they were unable to pull off a playoff finish and would see just one more winning season before vacating Wausau in 1989.
Despite the club's recent successes, it looked as if baseball might have a short lifespan in Wausau. Between the 1984 and 1985 season, management fielded an offer to purchase and relocate the Timbers to Evansville, Indiana. The Tigers' Triple-A Evansville Triplets had just terminated a 15-year agreement with the city and moved to Nashville, Tennessee. The community fostered by Timbers' owners Bill Lutz and Norb Wishowski and general manager Jack Roeder was not something the city of Wausau took lightly, however. They granted the Timbers $50,000 (with another $10,000 thrown in by a private sponsor) to renovate Athletic Park and keep baseball in Wisconsin a while longer.
Roeder, meanwhile, set about creating promotions for 30 of the Timbers' 137 games in 1985. No matter what the Timbers did on the field, attendance sagged at the bottom of the league, often averaging no more than 700 fans per home game in a field that topped out at 3,850. Appealing to the diehards no longer made good business sense (if it ever did) -- the Timbers needed seats filled, no matter how many cheap gimmicks it took. As The Milwaukee Journal's Dale Willenbrink put it, "The Timbers are in the entertainment business, not the baseball business. Baseball fans won't keep a franchise above water -- at any level. Teams need customers."
While the front office fought to preserve Wausau's baseball community, the Timbers themselves flopped out of playoff contention after posting 85 losses during the regular season. Both their offensive and defensive efforts scraped along the bottom of the league, and their last-place hold in the Northern Division signaled the end of the road for manager Greg Mahlberg, who would migrate to the California League in the following season.
1986 heralded the last winning season for the Timbers during their run with Seattle. Yet another rookie manager moved into the Wausau dugout: this time, it was former M's pitcher Bobby Cuellar, whose own playing career had been terminated in 1985 when his shoulder finally wore out after eight seasons at the Triple-A level. Like those who came before him, Cuellar would last just long enough to taste both the best and the worst the Timbers had to offer.
Superstars in the making, like Edgar Martinez, had long vanished from Wausau's lineups, but the 1986 club received a defensive standout in 19-year-old shortstop Omar Vizquel (or, as this card would have you believe, Omar Visquel). Supplemented by lesser-known first basemen Pablo Moncerratt and Richard Slominski, who led the team with 21 and 19 home runs, respectively, as well as right-hander Mike Schooler, who posted a 12-10 finish with a team-best 171 strikeouts, the Timbers climbed up to second place in the division by season's end. They also tacked on almost a full 10,000 extra fans to their attendance record, and by 1987 would see well over 60,000 pass through the turnstiles.
Just as offers came floating in after the Timbers' 1984 season, another group of investors approached the Timbers' ownership after their successes in 1986. The RediMed Professional Sports group, based out of Fort Wayne, Indiana, purchased the club with the intent of relocating to Fort Wayne's worn-down Carrington Field. The plan, it appeared, was to throw money into a full-scale renovation, but RediMed fell short of their $2 million mark by $750,000 and passed the franchise off to the Wisconsin Baseball Partnership. This partnership was no more successful than the last, and their attempt to fund a $2.5 million stadium in LaCrosse, Indiana was met with the same obstacles. It seemed as if baseball was destined to stay in Wausau, at least for the time being.
While the new owners tried their best to uproot the club, the Timbers’ players did little to cement the affection of the surrounding community. Bobby Cuellar saw the 1987 squad through a dismal 83 losses despite the presence of top prospect Pat Lennon and future big leaguers Jim Bowie, Mike Gardiner, and Pat Rice. Wausau cycled through two more managers in their final two seasons under the Mariners’ thumb -- promoting short-season Single-A captain Rick Sweet in 1988 and Yankees’ Double-A skipper Tommy Jones in 1989 -- but neither managerial change yielded a .500 finish.
In the end, the Mariners left Wausau quietly. Fewer than 50,000 fans turned out for their final season with the Timbers; in 1990, the Baltimore Orioles took over the Mariners’ affiliation and eased the inevitable transition to Geneva, Illinois in 1991, where the Timbers would become the Kane County Cougars.
- Notable Timbers: Darnell Coles, Pat Lennon, Edgar Martinez, Jim Presley, Harold Reynolds, and Omar Vizquel.
- In the first season after the Timbers were turned over to the Orioles, several prospects got into trouble for a not-so-harmless prank. During a particularly rainy week in mid-August, three pitchers, a catcher, and an infielder sneaked into Stanley Coveleski Stadium after hours to pull back the infield tarp. A wet infield, the young men reasoned, would be grounds to cancel a makeup doubleheader against the South Bend White Sox the following day. Of course, the players were apprehended and four of the five pranksters were suspended for the remainder of the season and the first 10 games of the forthcoming 1991 season. The fifth, right-hander John Boothby, was unluckier still: he was promptly released by the team, and would never play professional baseball again.