Vale Bakersfield 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.