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A brief history of the Stockton Mariners

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day...

One of the Stockton Port's "Mudville Nine" in 2000.
One of the Stockton Port's "Mudville Nine" in 2000.

The Mariners had checked most of the boxes on their big league to-do list. Secure a claustrophobic concrete ballpark? Check. Field a lineup of generally competent ballplayers? Check. Revive the spirit of baseball fandom in the Pacific Northwest and help to heal the wound left gaping in the absence of the Seattle Pilots? Check and check.

By spring 1978, the only thing left on the list was a fully rounded-out farm system and a crop of promising minor league talent -- not an easy thing to come by as a fledgling franchise. In 1977, the M’s only had two affiliates to their name: the short-season Single-A Bellingham Mariners and the rookie-level AIL Mariners. Although Seattle wouldn’t secure a Double-A club until 1980, they began the next level of their minor league instruction in 1978 with the Triple-A San Jose Missions and the Single-A Stockton Mariners.

Stockton was also going through a dry spell when the Mariners came knocking. Although the city supported pro ball clubs dating back to 1886, their last major league affiliate left in 1972 at the close of an 85-loss season. Now, the pressure was on to rekindle a relationship with the baseball community and prove Stockton’s prowess as one of the longest-tenured members of the California League.

To the Mariners’ credit, that crucial first impression was a positive one. They made a strong showing against the returning Cal League champion Lodi Dodgers, posting a 4-2 win during their season debut and a 7-3 win in the Dodgers’ home opener the following night. In mid-May, the Mariners were holding onto second place after conceding a 4 ½ game lead to the Dodgers following a three-game sweep.

On a smaller scale, Stockton manager Bobby Floyd was navigating drama of a different sort. In the never-ending shuffle of minor league lineups, the Mariners’ catcher was relegated to third base halfway through the year, prompting the skipper to reach out to former Bellingham Mariner Rodolfo Arias. At just 21 years old, Arias already had the accolades of a more seasoned defensive catcher, but had taken a mean fastball to the jaw the year before and was itching to resume his career.

"I was going nuts at home," Arias explained to the Palm Beach Post. "I had my father pitching, my sister at second base and my mother in the outfield. I couldn’t let myself get out of shape. I had the doctors mad at me because I was running and throwing and my jaw was wired."

Despite what was probably very sound advice from Arias’ doctors (who, in the backstop’s first surgery, wired his jaw too wide, and in the second, too small), he threw himself back into baseball at the first available opportunity. In his first at-bat with the Stockton Mariners, he singled; by the end of the year, he stoked a .179 average with 11 extra base hits, 19 RBI, and 70 appearances behind the plate.

Unfortunately, that kind of production was not uncharacteristic for the 1978 Mariners. The club trailed their Cal League competition with 628 runs, 42 home runs, 525 RBI, and a batting line of .260/.341/.350. Even a top-tier pitching staff, wielding 50 complete games, 12 shutouts, and a collective 3.77 ERA, was not enough to reconcile the Mariners’ record. The end of the season found the team with just 63 wins, well under the .500 mark and a hefty 22 games back of the division-leading Lodi Dodgers.

Much like the 1972 California Angels, the Mariners’ affiliation with Stockton had a quick expiration date. The end of the season signaled the end of their time with the Ports, but the M’s would return to the California League the following year on the arm of a familiar-looking beau, the San Jose Missions. Stockton, meanwhile, turned their gaze to another team that was once linked to Seattle sports: the Milwaukee Brewers.

Stockton trivia

  • Notable Mariners: Dave Henderson.
  • Stockton, California is one minor league city that lays claim to the inspiration behind Ernest Thayer's iconic poem, "Casey at the Bat." In the 1902, 2001, and 2002 seasons, the Ports shed their moniker to pay tribute to Thayer's "Mudville Nine." Although no city or team has ever been officially verified by the poet, there is compelling evidence on Stockton's side: Thayer used to be a journalist assigned to follow the Ports in the late 1800s, back when the area now known as Stockton was called "Tuleburg," "Fat City," and "Mudville."
  • According to MiLB records, the Ports won more games in the 1980s and 1990s than any other minor league franchise, topping out at 977 wins through 1991.
  • During one of many heated contests between the Cal League Dodgers and Mariners, a controversy with the home plate umpire led skipper Bobby Floyd to protest the game. In the bottom of the ninth inning, with the Mariners and Dodgers knotted 6-6, Lodi's second baseman drew a walk... and his bat drew the eye of the ump. Black marks streaked the bat, thought to be left over from batting practice or pine tar. The umpire booted the second baseman from first base, then called a last-minute conference and decided to reverse the decision. To repay the umps' generosity, Lodi pulled off a 7-6 walk-off, and Floyd dropped the protest two days later.