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Vale Bakersfield Blaze

blaze

If you build it, they will come. If you don’t, they will leave.

I’m paraphrasing that fantastic movie Field of Dreams, of course. Because today another town has shuttered its ballpark and lost its team.

Bakersfield, in California’s Central Valley, has had a professional ball club since 1941. And since then the club has played its home games at Sam Lynn Ballpark. Its the kind of ballpark that harks back to another era. The seating was sparse and the food selections were minimalist by today’s standards, but there were hotdogs and beers, so what more could you want for?

The field was built on the old fairgrounds when all the games were played during the day, so when the lights arrived and night games became the norm they realized that the batter was facing due west, right into the setting sun. It was decided to build a large scoreboard in center field to block the sunset, and in that country town just-git-‘er-done way, that’s what they did. Only later did they find out that the sun actually set in the height of summer just to the left of center field. So they started the games at sundown.

In the Miami Jones series I often portray the minor leagues as a cut throat business: players desperate to make it to the Majors, or desperate to not be cut altogether. Such is life for the minor league clubs, too. They don’t get the press or the coverage of the major league teams, they aren’t filled with star names – stars of the future maybe, but not the present. Often such teams are the life blood of a town, the talking point at the local cafe, the source of consternation for the old timers who remember the good old days when winning records were the norm and pennants flew high.

I had the good fortune to visit Sam Lynn ballpark a couple of years ago. It was a warm night, the sun burned into our eyes as we sat behind home plate (a position few can afford at any major league stadium). The beer was cold and the dogs lukewarm and the banter was genial. I recall the ATM machine stopped functioning in the club store and the club General Manager had to be summoned to fix it, because the Assistant General Manager was busy calling the game from the announcer’s booth. My son was called upon with some other kids to participate on the field in a between-innings game of some sort, but a last minute technical snafu prevented it from happening. The kids got free popcorn and tickets to a future Blaze game, so they were all pretty pleased with the outcome.

As for the baseball? It was Class A Advanced, three rungs and a thousand miles from the bigs. The players all had those massive forearms that ball players have, and they ran hard and swung harder. It was baseball up close. Foul balls left the facility altogether, and when the catcher ripped off his mask to catch a popup foul, his sweat sprayed through the wire onto the first row of seats.

There were more errors than you see at big league games.  And that is all part of the attraction for me. Major League Baseball, like all top flight sports, is about the pursuit of perfection. Even the outfield grass is perfect. But minor league ball is more human. You hear the effort from the batter as he sprints to first, and the groan as he slides in. It is real and raw. And very, very human.

But we don’t live in a world that wants human. We want bright lights and distraction. Human is what we do every day. Baseball is a diversion from regular life, a different plane of existence, where the players are not just guys giving it their all, but rather distant gladiators to be adored or despised.

There were numerous attempts to get a new ball park up and running in Bakersfield over the past decades, but as often happens they came to nothing, and the owners and the MiLB saw greener pastures elsewhere. Bakersfield may rue the loss of their team, but then the club came dead last in California League attendance in each of the last ten years, so perhaps the mourners will be few. Cheap nuts and even cheaper admission didn’t cut it. And this in a period where the league overall has enjoyed growing attendances. Clearly people want more. They don’t want old. They don’t want raw. They never have.

Groups of wealthy investors have been buying up minor league clubs, but not to the detriment of baseball. I’ve watched games in the last few years at clubs like the San Jose Giants in Northern California, the Bridgeport Bluefish in Connecticut and the Port St. Lucie Mets in Florida (of course you know, where Miami Jones finished his minor league career). These clubs have stunning facilities in wonderful boutique stadia. And whilst the price of admission and the cost of a beer don’t compare to Sam Lynn Ballpark, they are a far cry from the lofty wallet-emptying prices one sees in the big league fields. And the people come.

Minor league ball has a proud tradition and will continue to hold an important role in the towns in which they play. Better facilities for players and fans alike, comfortable seats and craft beers and bobbleheads for the kids. The lights are bright and the food is nigh-on restaurant quality. It’s like the major league, just in miniature.

And maybe that’s what I miss. I miss the sun in the eyes, and the floodlights that don’t quite capture the entire flight of the ball. The hokey between innings entertainment, and the sound of crickets as you leave the game.

And maybe in some way, that’s why Miami Jones lives on.

The Bakersfield Blaze and the High Desert Mavericks have both been closed down by the MiLB. The California League will drop from ten to eight teams in 2017, and it is planned that two new teams will be added to the Carolina League.

The Bakersfield Blaze will have their farewell open day at Sam Lynn Ballpark tomorrow, September 17, 2016. If you’re in the neck of the woods, drop in and visit an old ballpark, before she becomes nothing more than a smile on an old man’s face.


14 Responses to “Vale Bakersfield Blaze”

  1. Marian Parsons says:

    Nice. Thanks.

  2. Sheryl says:

    It is truly a shame that the minor league ball teams have gone to the back burner of baseball sports. My home town has a team but has changed names so many times that people don’t even know what it is anymore. We used to support this team but now no one even knows who they are. Guess there must be farm teams but when the changes are made by the new owners there is no thought given to the fans or to the legacy they are throwing away.

  3. Pamela Archer says:

    I agree with you on the human aspect of Minor League Ball. That is what I loved when in Daytona Beach. I am a Bull Durham kind of fan. Up close and personal to the playing field. So sad everything has to be the greatest thing ever, in order to appease the public now.

  4. William Callaway says:

    I never made to any minor league games, but went to a lot of American Legion baseball games, and loved every bit of it. The guy playing short stop was my barber, the guy out in right field pumped gas at the Conoco station. Over half the small town I came from never missed a game. Hot dogs, soda pop, (we lived in a dry county) and popcorn. I moved to the big city years ago and don’t know if they even have these games anymore. But I’ll never forget them.

  5. Mary says:

    I love your writings! Thank you for emails, please do keep me on your mailing list! Looking forward to the next book…xoxoxoxo mj

  6. Rick Red says:

    A. J. I am sure that I am in an endangered species minority here in Los Angeles. I was very sad to see the Dodgers move west to Los Angeles. I loved the old local Pacific Coast League teams, the Hollywood Stars and the Los Angeles Angeles. We would always manage to find our way over to Gilmore Field to see the Stars play. It was intimate, right up front, and close! I felt abandoned.
    So I read you loud and clear about your feelings regarding the Bakersfield Blaze dissolution. With boundless greed flourishing nationally and worldwide, MLB is no longer a sport but big business. It’s ironic, the bigger the business aspect gets, the bigger the dropoff in the talent and the quality of the sport.

  7. Debbi says:

    That’s so sad to see that happen. It’s a great place to take kids to watch the players.
    We have the Quad Cities River Bandits which are a Class A minor league baseball team, affiliated with the Houston Astros. They play in the Midwest League. Its home games are played at Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, Iowa. We’ve had a team here for as long as I remember, but the Quad Cities has had to do things to the park to keep a team. Now we even have a ferris wheel for the kids. The nice thing is it looks out on the Mississippi River.
    Have a team here makes reading about Miami Jones even more enjoyable.

  8. Jim Andersen says:

    Growing up in the Los Angeles area pre Dodgers I grew up with minor league ball. The Los Angeles Angels (Chicago Cub farm) and the Hollywood Stars (Pittsburgh farm). Going up to Bakersfield for a game is an opportunity I missed. It’s sad to hear that another Class A town is folding its tent. It wasn’t all that many years ago that Portland, OR. let the AAA Beavers get away. Just not enough local support I suppose. But they were fun to watch back in the day.

    I have enjoyed the Miami Jones novels to date and am looking forward to the next episode. Keep them coming.

  9. Kathy says:

    Sad to hear Bakersfield will be losing their team. Would they have stayed if the attendance had been better? Hope they do something special with the ballpark,a nd give the team a good send off.

  10. Vince Stark says:

    All things new are not always better.

  11. Mary Dryden says:

    I live in Illinois so I can’t attend. I agree with you and it is a sad event taking place. Thank all the players for me and keep me posted. Thanks again. Mary

  12. Jesse Teal says:

    I agree with your statements. Our Huntsville Stars have left town to go to a bigger, nicer stadium, built by the taxpayers, in another town. No doubt, in a few years, the team owners will want another better stadium, with more revenue generators in another town and the team will move. In another words, the money that the team owners want will be the decider of who gets to watch the real close up baseball games. I went to minor league baseball games, riding the public city buses, when I was growing up for 25 cents, Now the only option is games in Atlanta 200 miles away. and the prices are outrageous. Times are changing.

  13. Julia Milburn says:

    Love Miami!!! Really have enjoyed all of the books. Very well written & informative. Eagerly look forward to whatever you have coming next.
    Thanks for doing what you do.

  14. Vincent Zaleski says:

    Very true about Americans loving glitz and glam. I frequented the Long Island Ducks when I lived there, now it is the Fort Myers Miracle. (rainy season and all). There IS something special about the minors!