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A brief history of the Bakersfield Mariners

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You know them today as the Bakersfield Blaze, but what did the Mariners make of them back in the '80s?

It’s been 32 years, but the Bakersfield Blaze are no stranger to the inner workings of the Mariners’ farm system. Back when major league teams doubled up on Single-A affiliates, before Class A baseball fractured into High- and Low-A designations, the Mariners held outposts in Wausau, Wisconsin and Bakersfield, California.

In 1982, the Mariners brought their first crop of prospects to Bakersfield under the heading of 30-year-old manager Ken Pape. Pape was just two years removed from his post as a utility infielder/outfielder with Seattle’s Triple-A Spokane Indians, the same club he shepherded to a 56-84 finish in 1981. His run with the Bakersfield Mariners would be the last mark he left on professional baseball.

With a roster split between two affiliates, the Mariners’ director of player development, Hal Keller, stressed a return to "instruction and fundamentals." The Wausau Timbers may have clinched the Midwest League championship the year before, but the Bakersfield Mariners were as yet untested. Whether or not Keller’s mandate had any direct impact on the young Mariners is up for debate, but his instructions appeared to have little impact on the team’s collective results.

Although Bakersfield housed the more promising of Seattle’s prospects -- Darnell Coles, Phil Bradley, and Mark Langston among them -- their first circuit in the California League yielded just 64 wins and an eighth place finish. The only thing keeping them alive, it seemed, was the record numbers streaming through the turnstiles of Sam Lynn Ballpark, totalling over 1,100 fans a night. The crowd numbers would’ve been impressive for any minor league park, and ranked third among all California League franchises in 1982, but were made even more so by the peculiar layout of Sam Lynn, which faced the setting sun and was forced to delay most game times until the cusp of 8 p.m.

By the end of the season, sales were up, but (on-field) production was down, so the Mariners booted Ken Pape and brought in rookie manager Greg Mahlberg. Mahlberg filled a coaching position with the 1982 Lynn Sailors, but had yet to perform in a more direct managerial role. Like Pape’s, Mahlberg’s initiation to the California League was a harsh one. By mid-May, the Bakersfield Mariners were lodged in the bottom of the Southern Division, with just 13 wins to their name.

While the team didn’t improve much on their record in 1983, tacking on an extra four wins and cementing third place in the division, they boasted at least one head-turner: 21-year-old third baseman Donell Nixon. Nixon scorched the basepaths with 144 stolen bases, shattering major and minor league records that dated back to the 1980s under names like Alan Wiggins (120), Jeff Stone (123), and Rickey Henderson (130). His thieving tendencies extended to his older brother, Otis, who amassed 107 stolen bags between the Yankees’ Double-A Nashville Sounds and Triple-A Columbus Clippers in 1982.

Nixon’s expert baserunning would propel him to a major league career soon enough, but the young infielder’s defensive skills required considerable sharpening first. Lingering shoulder problems contributed to a cringe-inducing 82 strikeouts and 51 errors, prompting the Mariners to plant him in the outfield for the remainder of his career. Still, the 21-year-old kept it all in perspective, telling New York Times’ Thomas Rogers, "When I started the season, I set a goal of 100 stolen bases and everything above that just makes the season nicer. [...] I told myself to go to Bakersfield, do the best I could and move up next season."

Unfortunately, Nixon’s legacy wouldn’t last nearly as long as those of his predecessors. Over in the Appalachian League, Cardinals’ outfielder Vincent "Van Go" Coleman carved his name over Nixon’s with 145 stolen bases. Coleman made a concentrated effort to leapfrog the Mariners’ young star, reaching for three stolen bags in his final game of the season on August 31.

As the spotlight faded on Bakersfield, so did the Mariners’ interest in the club. By 1984, they had moved their Single-A offices to Salinas, and a neighborhood team -- the Lodi Dodgers -- was enticed to fill the vacancy in Bakersfield by the club’s board of directors. Lodi ousted their National League affiliate due to a poor showing over the last two years, hoping that a change of venue would reenergize the team.

While rumors of the Mariners’ potential move to Lodi surfaced and sank, Michelle Sprague, the longtime owner of the Lodi franchise, was flabbergasted by the sudden move. "I have no idea why they want the Dodgers down in Bakersfield," she told the Lodi News-Sentinel. "It’s so damn hot."

Bakersfield trivia

  • Notable Mariners: Phil Bradley, Mickey Brantley, Darnell Coles, and Mark Langston.
  • Baseball America dubbed the 1996 Bakersfield Blaze the "worst minor league baseball team for the decade of the 1990s." The brutal label was also an accurate one: the co-op owned '96 Blaze was run into the ground by 51-year-old ex-infielder Graig Nettles and finished with 101 losses by season's end. Needless to say, Nettles never managed a pro ball team again.
  • From 2011 to 2013, the Blaze were commandeered by Ken Griffey, Sr., topping out in 2012 with 72 wins and a brief playoff appearance.
  • Prior to the start of the 1983 season, the Mariners entertained a unique infield prospect: noted actor Billy Crystal. Between the filming of Likely Stories and the cult hit This Is Spinal Tap, Crystal auditioned for the Bakersfield Mariners as part of a promotion. "I suddenly realized that I was very serious about it," the 35-year-old was quoted in the Reading Eagle. "The scout was telling me about these terrific skills I have, and I was really getting excited. Finally, I said to him, 'Look, is there really room in the major league [sic] for a 35-year-old second baseman-shortstop?' And he said, 'Absolutely, in Section 28, Box 6.'"