With the unveiling of the Padres' AAA affiliate in El Paso's new name and mascot fresh on everybody's mind, I thought now would be a good time to look back at the previous AAA teams the organization has had since their inception. There have been five, from Salt Lake City in 1970 (that's not a typo) to Tucson for the last three seasons.
Not only were the Salt Lake Bees the Padres' first AAA team, they were the club's first minor league affiliate of any sort. In the franchise's inaugural season of 1969, the Bees were actually the organization's only minor league team of its own, seeing as how there weren't enough players to fill the ranks. SLC functioned as a single-A team that first year but the organization wasn't completely bereft of talent at higher ranks. The Kansas City Royals, a fellow expansion team, shared their AAA team in Omaha and AA team in Elmira, NY that first season but the Padres were on their own starting in 1970. That was when Salt Lake City got the bump up to AAA. That affiliation ended after that season, as the Padres hooked up with Hawaii, who had been the Angels' AAA team. The Angels in turn took over the Salt Lake City franchise but you don't care about that because you didn't click on a link about the Angels' affiliates over the years.
The Hawaii Islanders became the Padres' first stable AAA sidekick; the two teams had a working relationship that stretched a dozen years, from 1971 through 1982. Because the team was literally out in the middle of an ocean, they would have homestands and roadtrips lasting nearly a month apiece, with series lasting over a week. In Jim Bouton's groundbreaking book Ball Four he wrote about the joys of being a visiting player in Hawaii, noting that if it were his home team he might not want called back up. The Isles had the highest attendance in all of minor league baseball their first year working with the Pads, but the numbers plummeted due to a move to a new, out of the way ballpark and other factors. Dirty dealings behind the scenes found their way into the light, as they are wont to do. Players' checks were bouncing, the IRS got involved, and the Pacific Coast League took control of the team, much in the same way Major League Baseball would swoop in on the Montreal Expos nearly three decades later. By the time San Diego's deal with the Hawaii club was up at the end of the 1982 season, the big team was ready to cut bait and brought their youngsters back to the mainland. The move wasn't all that drastic; both Hawaii and Las Vegas are tourist destinations festooned with palm trees galore. Hawaii has a lot of Spam, and Vegas eventually got Spamalot.
After cutting ties with the Islanders, the Friars took control of the Spokane Indians club, which had had been the Angels' AAA team the year before. That scenario sounds familiar for some reason but I can't quite put my finger on it. Huh. The organization then moved the AAA club to Las Vegas and gave Spokane a low-A team in its place. That had to be quite the blow to the community of Spokane. I know that Charleston, WV used to have a AAA farm team and then got downgraded to A-ball. You could call "chicken or the egg" on it and I wouldn't argue. All I know is that if your city's economy is in decline, getting a far inferior level of professional sports does the exact opposite of reinvigorating the people. This is all just an aside to the when, where, and why of it all.
For all of the same reasons Spokane fans had to complain, baseball enthusiasts in Las Vegas had a right to rejoice. The newly named Las Vegas Stars were not only the city's first AAA team, but their first professional sports team of any sort for over a quarter-century. I don't think I need to spell out for you why leagues were, and continue to be, apprehensive of that market. Sin City took to the next-best brand of baseball and the Padres kept the longest affiliation relationship of their history with the Stars, one that lasted 18 years through the 2000 season.
As had become a pattern, the Padres essentially swapped AAA teams with another club before the 2001 season. The Dodgers took over Las Vegas as their top barnyard and the Padres reached a deal with what had been the Albuquerque Dukes. The higher-ups promptly moved the Dukes to Portland, OR, where they revived the legendary Beavers name.
The most-recent incarnation of the Portland Beavers had a good run, lasting ten years as the Friars' favored feeder. However, the city of Portland decided to embrace Major League Soccer and squeezed the team out of their home to make room for a series of 0-0 ties. They couldn't find a spot to build a new ballpark so ownership cashed out. Padres owner-of-the-day Jeff Moorad bought the team and found them a home in Tucson for lack of anywhere better to go while he tried to get a ballpark built in Escondito. When that fell through Moorad threw his hands up and sold his controlling interest in the club to a group from El Paso who got things done. Construction is wrapping on a brand-new stadium with a 30-year lease.
And that brings us to the Chihuahuas.