By: Joe Pohoryles
Looking at all the big-time players on Washington’s teams today, it’s easy to name the ones who jumped on to the scene right away. Alex Ovechkin and John Wall are both former No. 1 overall picks who pretty much instantly became the best player on their respective teams. Max Scherzer joined the Nats in free agency and immediately slotted into the ace spot in the rotation. Terry McLaurin has played just one season in the NFL, but the former third-round pick has already established himself as the team’s top receiving threat.
Yet some had to wait to join the big stages, and spent the earliest days of their professional careers developing in the minor leagues. The Nationals, Capitals and Wizards have a combined eight minor league affiliates, and they have each played a role in shaping the parent clubs of today.
The NFL does not have any minor league system, although given that the majority of the Redskins’ young core players came out of Alabama or Ohio State, perhaps they should count as de facto affiliates.
With the true minor league teams, they not only allow major teams to develop players, but also provide less expensive, live-sports entertainment to much smaller markets. They also provide the opportunity for eccentric team names, like the Montgomery Biscuits (Tampa Bay Rays Double-A), the New Orleans Babycakes (Miami Marlins Triple-A) and the Rocky Mountain Vibes (Milwaukee Brewers Rookie League). Those are all baseball teams, but today we will be looking at all eight affiliates to the major DC teams and ranking them from least unique to most bizarre.
8. Fredericksburg Nationals (Nationals; Class A-Advanced)
The team formerly known as the Potomac Nationals have moved to Fredericksburg for the 2020 season, but for this list, the location doesn’t matter so much. As far as team names go, adopting the exact same one as the parent club is the opposite of unique.
7. Harrisburg Senators (Nationals; Double-A)
Although the Senators’ name appears to pay homage to Washington’s previous major league team, that was not the origin of Harrisburg’s team name. The Senators were an affiliate of the Nats’ predecessors, the Montreal Expos, beginning in 1991, long before it was even considered that the Expos would move to Washington. The fact they ended up as an affiliate to Washington’s major league team is pure coincidence.
Instead, the Senators’ name stems from the city of Harrisburg itself. Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania, which houses the state legislature. It’s essentially the same as the Washington Senators but on a state level. Though it’s fitting for the Nationals to have the Senators as a minor league affiliate, it’s not close to the most unique name.
6. Hagerstown Suns (Nationals; Single-A)
As far as team names go, ‘Suns’ and ‘Senators’ are probably on the same level of uniqueness; both have major teams that share the same name (Phoenix Suns and Ottawa Senators). I’ll give Hagerstown a slight edge since their location is more obscure than Harrisburg. Whichever way you slice it, the Suns are not exactly the most exciting name out there.
5. Fresno Grizzlies (Nationals; Triple-A)
For a long time, the Nats’ Triple-A team was the Syracuse Chiefs. I felt Syracuse was fairly distant for a Triple-A team, which consistently has guys getting called up to or sent down from DC. Then Syracuse became the New York Mets’ affiliate (and were renamed the Syracuse Mets), and the Nats received a team on the other side of the country to be its new Triple-A affiliate. Guess Syracuse wasn’t so far after all.
With the name and colors meant to resemble California’s state flag, it’s at least fitting to the location, but otherwise, it doesn’t do much to move the needle.
4. Hershey Bears (Capitals; AHL)
The Bears name alone certainly isn’t unique, in fact, ‘Bears’ is a less specific team name than ‘Grizzlies.’ Still, this specific team gets extra points because it plays in one of coolest minor league cities/towns in the country. Playing in the Giant Center just outside Hersheypark (home of The Great Bear roller coaster, built in 1998), the Bears are one of the most successful minor league franchises of all time, with 11 Calder Cup wins and 23 conference championships.
Starting in 1932 as the Hershey B’ars, the team’s name became the Bears by 1936. Frankly, a team named the ‘Hershey Bars’ would top this list for how perfect it would be, but it was just not meant to be. The generic nature of the name ‘Bears’ holds it back slightly, but with chocolate-colored uniforms and the team’s location, it definitely has an eccentric nature.
3. South Carolina Stingrays (Capitals; ECHL)
This one is my personal favorite of the eight teams, it’s just not nearly as crazy as the next two. The Tampa Bay Rays exist in baseball, which is supposed to represent “a ray of sunshine” rather than the Devil Rays they were originally named for, but it’s far from a common team name on a national scale. Retaining the ‘Sting’ part in the name is much cooler, and the name fits the location well.
Pretty much every “tough” animal in existence has been used for a sports team constantly, so it’s nice to see such an underutilized one in action (although I’m sure it’s used much more in sunny coastal areas). Perhaps the most eccentric thing about this team is that it plays ice hockey in North Charleston.
2. Capital City Go-Go (Wizards; G-League)
The name certainly fits the area well, as go-go music originated in Washington, D.C. and remains popular. Personally, I don’t think it’s the best choice for a sports team name, but there is a precedent for sports teams having a music-related name (i.e. the New Orleans/Utah Jazz and St. Louis Blues). I do, however, like the location name ‘Capital City’ as an alternative for ‘Washington.’
Whether you like it or hate it, it’s undoubtedly unique, but somehow not the weirdest name on this list.
1. Auburn Doubledays (Nationals; Short Season-A)
Upon first glance, I thought the Doubledays were an oddly-phrased reference to doubleheaders, a common practice in baseball, and figured it to be pretty weak. After researching the team’s origin, however, I discovered the team is instead named after Civil War general and Auburn, New York native Abner Doubleday, the man who was widely credited, then widely discredited, for inventing the game of baseball. There is a lot to unpack here.
First, this man’s real last name was Doubleday. Second, he played a massive role in two infamous Civil War battles, firing the first shot at Fort Sumter (the first battle of the war), and was extremely involved in the Battle of Gettysburg. His post-war career included working in Washington as a military administrator, and he later worked in San Francisco, where he helped obtain the first patent for the city’s cable car system. Afterwards, he moved to New York City to become the president of the Theosophical Society. Then of couse there’s the whole baseball thing.
It seems like I just described four or five different people in the last paragraph, but it was all Doubleday. In late 1907, Doubleday was officially credited by then-National League president Abraham G. Mills’ committee for inventing the game of baseball in Cooperstown, New York, where the Baseball Hall of Fame stands today. Plenty of writers and baseball historians have overwhelmingly refuted the claim, and it is now accepted as myth.
Instead, just a two-hour drive from Cooperstown, Doubleday still lives on in baseball lore through this Short Season-A affiliate to the Nats. You will be hard-pressed to find a more eccentric, obscure team name and origin anywhere else.
Notable former affiliates:
Vermont Lake Monsters (Nationals; Short Season-A 2005-2010)
This has to be among the best team names I’ve seen for any sport at any level. Playing on the University of Vermont’s field in Burlington, the Lake Monsters are now affiliated with the Oakland Athletics, but I’d say getting a Lake Monsters t-shirt is a worthy investment no matter which team you’re a fan of.
Fort Wayne Komets (Capitals; IHL 1981-1990)
The name ‘Comets’ is far from common, but definitely not unheard of. But Komets? What’s the significance with the K? A hockey legend from Fort Wayne nicknamed Komet? Is there a former Civil War general from Fort Wayne rumored to have founded the game of hockey? Close. The team founder, Ernie Berg, opted to spell it with a K because his wife’s name was Katherine… and she went by Kay.
Romantic gesture? Sure. Obscure backstory? Definitely. The current Vegas Golden Knights affiliate, originally founded in 1952, has been a longtime fixture in minor league hockey; only the Original Six NHL Teams and the Hershey Bears have played in the same city under the same name for longer.
Savannah Sand Gnats (Nationals; Single-A 2005-2006)
Seems only right that a Nats’ affiliate would be the Gnats. However, the affiliation did not last long. Still, the name ‘Sand Gnats’ is about as on-brand for a minor league baseball team as possible. The team is now a Mets affiliate, and has since relocated to Columbia, South Carolina as the Columbia Fireflies. I guess if Nats fans can’t enjoy the Sand Gnats as an affiliate, no one can.
Philadelphia Firebirds (Capitals; NAHL 1974-1977)
The fact that the Caps had a minor league affiliate in a larger market than the parent club is laughable, but regardless the team name is awesome. The Firebirds were affiliated with a handful of other NHL teams throughout its run from 1974-1980, but this name needs to return in 2020. The team’s most notable former player was Mike Eruzione, captain of the United States’ “Miracle on Ice” team from the 1980 Winter Olympics. The former Boston University forward played just six games with the Firebirds in the 1978-79 season.
New Orleans Zephyrs (Nationals; Triple-A 2005-2006)
The Babycakes were previously named the Zephyrs, after the Zephyr Roller Coaster at the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park. The name ‘Zephyrs’ also has indirect ties to DC sports, as the Wizards franchise began as the Chicago Zephyrs.
Quad City Mallards (Capitals; UHL 1998-2001, 2004-2005)
The Mallards were located in Moline, Illinois, but the Quad Cities region also encapsulates Rock Island in Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa (and technically East Moline, IL, but that would make it five cities, which messes things up). ‘Quad City’ has to be among the best location names I’ve heard, and Mallards are definitely a unique mascot.
The black, green, orange and white color scheme is wacky, but also represent the animal well. I also appreciate the irony in a team from a region called ‘Quad City’ being represented by an animal whose legs are eaten across the country; I guess having a turkey or chicken mascot would have been more fitting. Unfortunately, the team was replaced by the Quad City Storm in 2018, ending the run of a great team name.
Honestly, every one of these former affiliates would have ranked in the top three of the actual list, so it’s a shame they’re no longer affiliated to DC teams, but it was certainly fun while it lasted.