The ’95 Mariners and the Tacoma Rainiers: Don Wakamatsu, Bob Wolcott, and a New Parent Team

The Tacoma Rainiers were the new AAA affiliate of the Mariners in 1995. In a cross-border swap, after the 1994 season the Rainiers succeeded the Calgary Cannons and displaced the Tacoma Tigers, the AAA A’s affiliate that became the Edmonton Trappers. A few days ago I went looking for the Rainiers’ perspective on the Mariners’ run that year, which led me to a talk with their then-public relations director, Kevin Kalal, about the Rainiers’ relationship with the Mariners in ’95. Kevin was with the Rainiers from 1991 through 2007 in several front office roles. We talked about things such as Ken Griffey Jr.’s brief rehab assignment in August, Bob Wolcott, Alex Rodriguez and his pet German Shepherd, Bill Krueger, Salomon Torres, and Rainiers’ manager Steve Smith. Here’s the result, in three parts (read parts two and three here and here):

Arne: I was just looking through some archives and noticed the Rainiers actually started their 1995 season before the Mariners did, because of the strike. That’s kind of funny, to see the new AAA team starting play before the Mariners did.

Kevin: We’d been the A’s affiliate from 1981 to 1994, and there was some benefit to that. We got to see Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Walt Weiss, three rookies of the year in a row. But in ’94 we had an expiring contract, and so did Calgary, the Mariners affiliate. When we posted scores for the major league  games, our fans would do nothing when the A’s scored, but they’d cheer when the Mariners scored. The A’s were so much farther away; a lot of fans would never see the Tigers’ players again. It was a natural fit with the Mariners, and in October of 1994 we announced we were going to be with the Mariners the next season. There was a lot of enthusiasm in anticipation of the season.

Actually even before that the Mariners, because of the tiles falling from the Kingdome in ’94, they were going to play their games at Cheney Stadium, or in Anaheim, while they fixed the Kingdome roof. Of course the strike stopped that, but it still shifted attention to our organization, our facilities. Around that time we were playing the Cannons, and Alex Rodriguez hit a homer in extra innings to win the game.

’95 was an exciting time, there were these questions about what’s going to happen if the season doesn’t start on time, will we use scab players, replacements. In fact, 5 or 7 of the guys who started the season, people like Terrell Hansen and Marty Pevey, were not everyday guys, they wouldn’t’ve ordinarily been on the team. We had one fireman who’d been a player and he made the team. Then when the major league rosters got readjusted after the strike ended we had brand new players.

We had a major turnover in our front office staff going from the A’s to the Mariners. We needed to break away from the green and gold so we came up with a new logo, a new team name. A lot of people really didn’t like the decision to be called the Rainiers. The detractors didn’t like “Rainiers,” they said it was too tied up with Seattle. “Why were we naming the team after a Seattle franchise?” They said our teams were the Tigers, and some of them would wear Tigers clothes to the game. We had a really good team in ’95, but lots of transition, guys coming and going. Two great shortstops, Alex Rodriguez and Andy Sheets. Andy hit about .293, 47 RBIs. We had Marc Newfield, Ron Villone, Desi Relaford.

Arne: What about Bob Wolcott?

Kevin: Wolcott came to us midway through the year. He was solid, not very big, not really a dominating pitcher. When he had the chance to go up to the Mariners he did pretty well, but wasn’t on the division roster. Then the Mariners put someone on the 60-day DL and took him up to pitch against Cleveland. He struggled in his first inning but got a strikeout and a double play, and got through the game. At the time, the fans, they didn’t know who he was, but the next year when he back to here he had a little more celebrity to him.

Salomon Torres, back then he had all the stuff but terrible stats. I saw just last year he was still going with the Brewers. It’s funny to see how the guys who were supposed to be stars don’t ever really make it, people like Roger Salkeld, Newfield. And then you have Andy Sheets, guys who just keep going and eventually they make it. Chris Widger was still in the majors a couple years ago.

Arne: I noticed Don Wakamatsu was on the roster.

Kevin: Yeah, Wakamatsu, he started the season with us and played briefly before the Mariners offered him an opportunity to be a player-coach at a lower level. I was talking with him as we drove to the airport and he ended up deciding to take the player-coach position instead of being released, perhaps a blessing in disguise.

Then there’s Tony Phillips. I heard about him later, that he was the mayor of a small town in Mississippi after his days as a pitcher. Then one day a couple years ago I saw him outside Cheney Stadium, and he said, “Kevin!” He said he was working for some company back East, sales, and he came back on a business trip, and took a trip over to the stadium.

(go on to part 2)

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