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A brief history of the Salinas Spurs

How many times does a ballpark come with a free cat?

Salinas Spur Ken Briggs.
Salinas Spur Ken Briggs.

You know what they say: the fourth time’s a charm. The Mariners had coupled up with three different California League teams from 1978 to 1983, and they were hoping that their fourth partnership with the Single-A Salinas Spurs would outlast the rest.

The Spurs were initiated into the Cal League by the unincorporated Salinas Packers in 1954, and survived the transition from Class C baseball to Class A ball with the 1963 Mets. A perennially unsuccessful club, the Spurs had reached .500 only seven times in their 19-year history, and had just completed two lackluster seasons with the Cubs by the time the Mariners came knocking.

At the helm of the 1984 Salinas Spurs was Wausau Timbers’ manager R.J. Harrison, who had guided the Mariners’ alternate Single-A club to the bottom of the Midwest League in 1982 and 1983. While the Spurs’ second-place finish cast Harrison’s resume in a more favorable light, the team itself was fairly lackluster, sitting 16 games back of playoff contention and sporting only one future major leaguer: right-hander Terry Taylor, who would spend five games on Seattle’s 1988 roster before hanging up his cleats.

In 1985, Harrison’s sophomore attempt with the Spurs yielded a far better return, but not before the team suffered a serious blow. On April 22, right-hander Bob Hinson was hospitalized when a line drive from Reno Padres’ infielder Eric Hardgrave struck him in the head. The 23-year-old was immediately wheeled in for emergency surgery, where doctors discovered a blood clot in the pitcher’s brain and initiated a medically-induced coma. Hinson was later diagnosed with left-side paralysis, and, after a month of intensive surgeries and therapy, was released to his hometown in Texas for additional rehabilitation.

The Spurs, who were on their way to an 89-win season, honored their former teammate with a pizza party following a game against the Fresno Giants in mid-May. Their attendance record would tally fewer than 40,000 fans in 1985, but that night, the house was packed with over 200 staff members from the hospital where Hinson received treatment.

Without Hinson, the club finished first in the Southern Division, boasting one of the strongest pitching staffs in the California League. Together, the Spurs crafted a league-best 3.73 ERA, complementing their efforts with 37 saves, 18 shutouts, and 30 complete games. Armed with the fewest hits, earned runs, and walks allowed, they marched to the playoffs -- and promptly fell to San Francisco’s Fresno Giants in the first round.

Despite the loss, however, the Spurs had proven that there was ample room in Salinas to develop and support Seattle’s fledgling prospects. At the conclusion of the 1985 season, R.J. Harrison received his reward in the form of a promotion to the Mariners' Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts. In his place, another seasoned Single-A skipper -- 33-year-old Greg Mahlberg -- left his post with the Wausau Timbers and assumed control of the Spurs.

For the second time, Salinas proved a formidable opponent for their Cal League competition. Their pitching staff was depleted of several promising future big leaguers -- including right-hander Mike Campbell and left-hander Bill Wilkinson -- but they managed a respectable 40 saves and the league’s lowest ERA, at 3.61.

Among the more memorable characters on the Spurs’ roster was 20-year-old shortstop Chris Miller, a Pac-10 quarterback from the University of Oregon. Miller contributed a paltry eight hits in a handful of games with Salinas, and abandoned his baseball career the following season as a rookie QB for the Atlanta Falcons. For the Spurs, the 1986 season concluded with another unlucky playoff run, cut short in the semifinals by the Brewers’ Stockton Ports.

In 1987, one of Seattle’s more recognizable faces surfaced in Salinas: 20-year-old shortstop Omar Vizquel. The young infielder contributed a team-best 107 hits and .263 average, stockpiling 38 RBI and 25 stolen bags for the club. Even so, it was the Spurs’ staff that once again propelled the team to a respectable fourth-place finish, with 11 shutouts, 1,037 strikeouts, and a 3.47 ERA, good for second-best in the league.

The Spurs were keeping their heads above water, but it wasn’t enough to entice club owner Jay Goldinger to stay. The Los Angeles investment counselor had acquired the Spurs (and their hefty $200,000 price tag) in the 1985 offseason, and although he purported to be an avid baseball fan, affection alone was not enough to sustain him through the rigors of caring for a minor league team.

"It’s an incredible challenge," the 33-year-old entrepreneur admitted to the Rockmart Journal after the first month of the 1987 season, pointing out that poor attendance could siphon as much as $250,000 a year from his pockets.

On-field success was one thing, but as every minor league owner before him had discovered (and every one after him would, too), what mattered most was filling the stands. From 1984 to 1987, the Spurs’ attendance figures took a nosedive of over 11,000 fans, and their last season with Seattle saw just above 40,000 at Salinas Municipal Stadium -- an average home crowd of 599 per night.

By 1988, the Spurs had vacated the "Salad Bowl of the World" and packed their bags for Riverside, California, where they became the Padres’ Riverside Red Wave, a predecessor to future Seattle affiliate High Desert Mavericks. The Mariners, meanwhile, would try their luck with a fifth Cal League team: the San Bernardino Spirit.

Salinas trivia

  • Notable Spurs: Omar Vizquel.
  • According to the Rockmart Journal, Jay Goldinger received four assets when he assumed control of the Spurs in 1986: two hot dog bun warmers, a malfunctioning hot chocolate warmer, a broken popcorn machine, and a stray cat.
  • Baseball didn’t leave Salinas for long. In 1989, the Fresno Suns set up camp in Salinas under the direction of the Giants, where they bottomed out with 51 wins and a 10th place finish. The following year, Japanese manager Hidehiko Koga manned an unaffiliated Spurs roster. Sweeping the clubhouse after every game was a young Japanese boy by the name of Mac Suzuki -- the very one that would be signed by the Mariners not three years later.