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Another brief history of the San Jose Missions

Relationship status: It’s Complicated.

Untangling the relationships between major league clubs and their minor league affiliates is sometimes as challenging as a 15-person game of Human Knot. Take, for instance, the San Jose Missions. They sprouted out of the remains of the Single-A San Jose Bees in 1976, receiving a new Triple-A classification and relocating to the Pacific Coast League as an affiliate of the Athletics and the Mariners for the 1977 season. In 1978, the Missions dropped their partnership with the A’s and played solely under Seattle’s heading, but were dumped by owner Bob Piccinini in the offseason for $175,000. The club packed their bags for Ogden, Utah in 1979 and moved back under the A’s control, while a brand-new team moved into San Jose and was assigned to the Mariners of the California League.

Which, all straightened out, brings us to Seattle’s Single-A San Jose Missions of 1979 and 1980.

San Jose wasn’t the Mariners’ first affiliate in the California League. That distinction was held by the 1978 Stockton Mariners, who careened to a 63-77 finish on the backs of future major leaguers like Bud Anderson, Karl Best, Bob Stoddard, and Jim Maler. When the offseason rolled around, the M’s split their prospect pool into two rosters for the 1979 season: half became the Alexandria Mariners of the Carolina League, and half the Missions of the Cal League.

Manager Bobby Floyd followed the minor league Mariners to the Carolina League, while the Missions received one of the organization’s best prospects in 20-year-old Dave Henderson. Directing the Missions was former major league catcher Bob Didier, three years removed from his own pro ball career with the Atlanta Braves. Didier, son of former Mariners’ scouting director Mel Didier, had managed two teams to winning records since 1977, but none in a field as advanced as the California League.

Fortunately for both the Mariners and their new Single-A offshoot, Didier’s lack of experience was not reflected in the results. The Missions catapulted above their competition to first place in the South Division, missing the 90-win mark by one game and sitting a comfortable three games above the second-place Visalia Oaks.

Their record rested on the shoulders of a dominant pitching staff, one that crafted a 3.71 ERA, 950 strikeouts, and 10 shutouts over the 140-game season. Right-handers Ronald McGee and Douglas Smith contributed three shutouts apiece, though both of their pro ball careers would fizzle out by the end of 1980. On the basepaths, 23-year-old infielder Alfred Watson sizzled with 66 stolen bases, single-handedly accounting for nearly 24 percent of the team’s league-leading 276 bags. And, at the plate, Dave Henderson, Jim Maler, and Dave Edler directed the spotlight to San Jose with a combined 303 RBI and 65 home runs.

The cherry on top, of course, was a spectacular postseason finish. The Missions topped the Twins’ Visalia Oaks in the semifinals, then the Brewers’ Stockton Ports in the season finale. Theirs was not only the first championship among Seattle’s Single-A affiliates, but the first across all divisions of Mariners’ baseball.

Beginner’s luck is a hard thing to replicate, and the Missions’ sophomore season was no exception. Bob Didier’s unprecedented success bought the team another year in the California League, but Didier himself moved on to greener pastures in the Pacific Coast League with the Brewers’ Triple-A Vancouver Canadians. In his stead, the Mariners elected 33-year-old Bill Plummer, another former catcher with little managerial experience. Plummer arrived with even less familiarity of the Cal League than his predecessor; despite spending eight seasons in the minors, including two years with the Mariners’ Triple-A branches in 1978 and 1979, he had never been more than a player in the minor league circuit.

Perhaps predictably, the Missions were unable to defend their championship this time around, but they were far from failure. Plummer navigated the roster through 73 wins, falling short of division lead by half a game in September. While Dave Henderson graduated to Triple-A after his championship run, the Missions inherited first-round draft pick Al Chambers, as well as backstop Dave Valle and first baseman Bud Black. Chambers served up a league-best 12 triples, while highest batting average was awarded to 20-year-old outfielder John Flammang and his mark of .348.

Although the Missions boasted the second-best record in the South Division, they failed to clinch either the first- or second-half division race and were technically ineligible for the California League playoffs. That winter, the Mariners picked up a new contract with the Single-A Wausau Timbers of the Midwest League, leaving the San Jose club under co-op control. Several Seattle players remained on the roster through the 1981 season, along with prospects from the Angels’ camp, but by 1982, the Expos had absorbed the Missions into their farm system and the Mariners turned their attention to Bakersfield.

San Jose trivia

  • Notable Missions: Bud Black, Al Chambers, Dave Henderson, and Dave Valle.
  • Former Athletic Rene Lachemann managed the Missions in both 1977 in 1978, answering to the A’s in the first season and the Mariners in the second.