BY MATT LaWELL
BAKERSFIELD, California | Right now, the stadium is 71 years old. Home plate faces the setting sun. Scheduled start times are little more than a suggestion. The scoreboard is accurate until at least the sixth inning. The shortstop is the most distracting player in baseball. The manager has two World Series rings and a future Hall of Famer for a son. The general manager has a law degree and dreamed about a career as an agent. The radio broadcaster studied molecular and cell biology at Berkeley and married a doctor. The scorekeeper hasn’t missed a game since he started in 1995, not even when he needed to have his right leg amputated. The p.a. announcer hasn’t missed a game since he started in 2005, and has waged a comically profane war of words with the scorekeeper ever since. The assistant general manager studied six years at a community college, worked three years at a liquor store even though he never drank and, a decade after his high school graduation, landed an internship offer from exactly one minor league baseball team.
Also, he has a tattoo on his chest of an eagle attacking a lion on a slice of pizza.
Ladies and gentlemen, your Bakersfield Blaze.
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“Make the intern slide again,” Liz Martin says, and the intern slides again, dirt streaking on his uniform pants, bruises developing on his thighs, because Martin is the general manager.
The Blaze needs to shoot a new commercial for local television, so a handful of players and every member of the front office is out on the field at Sam Lynn Ballpark more than six hours before the next first pitch. A relief pitcher named Pat Doyle stands on the mound, his glove over his left hand, a sun shade over his whole body, poised to pitch, though he never will. Doyle is out here only for appearances, not for his powerful right arm. An enormous first baseman named Donald Lutz, the team leader in doubles, homers, RBI, OPS and sheer intimidation stands near home plate. Shortstop Billy Hamilton, on pace to shatter the professional record for steals in a season, is here, too, his pants baggy and low. How he runs around the bases and never trips over the folds of fabric billowing around his ankles is sort of incredible. At one point, he leaps over Lutz.
“We need another take!” Martin shouts. “Another take!”
Why the Blaze needs to shoot another take and another commercial is no mystery. They play at Sam Lynn Ballpark, a stadium in such disrepair that one staff member makes sure to mention “no one has respected it for years” and another describes it as “decrepit.” The entrance is little more than a chain link fence at the end of a parking lot. The seating bowl is asymmetric, metal and can fit a couple thousand fans. The on deck circles are more like on deck ovals and the dugouts are so small most players opt to sit in lawn chairs arranged in rows down the foul lines. And then there’s the fact that Sam Lynn is one of two professional stadiums in the country constructed with home plate pointed west, which means that games start only after the sun sets behind the outfield wall.
The characters who call the front office trailer their home for five or six months every season are just as rough around the edges, all of them wandering along some other professional career until minor league baseball grabbed them. Liz Martin, the general manager, attended DePaul Law School and worked for Minor League Baseball and the Oakland Raiders before she arrived here. She likes to walk around in black heels, negotiate $50,000 sponsorship deals and still be able to take out the trash. Philip Guiry, the assistant general manager, is in his fourth season in professional baseball. Before the Idaho Falls Chukars hired him as an intern in 2009, he worked most recently as a pool boy and a punk band manager. He almost landed a position as a draw bridge operator. He once lived in Europe with a bunch of anarchists. Dan Besbris, the radio broadcaster, has a math and science background and didn’t start talking into a microphone until his early 20s, after he realized a life of lab work sounded awful. He likes to say he has fulfilled the dream every Jewish parent has for their daughter, which is to marry a doctor. He and his wife live in an apartment in West Hollywood, so during the season, he sleeps on an air mattress in the spare bedroom of the house Guiry shares with his girlfriend, who goes by Bubba.
The minor leagues tend to attract dreamers with quixotic ideas about how to change standards. How else would half the promotions that litter every team schedule (Titanic Memorial Night, Salute to Cows Night, Charlie Sheen-co de Mayo Night, and on and on) ever see the light of day under the stadium tower lights of night? How else would front office staffs small enough to fit into the bed of a pickup truck (better stay quiet on that one, sounds like another promotion) stay loose for 140 games packed into 152 days?
In Bakersfield, they’ve managed by somehow attracting the most idealistic and impractical dreamers of the bunch.
“You think it’s hilarious,” Guiry says, “but you don’t have to make money here.”
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Two years ago, the Blaze and the Visalia Rawhide played nine afternoon innings and wound up tied at a run each. The sun burned down and tempers flared as tempers sometimes do in baseball. In the bottom of the 10th, Blaze centerfielder Engel Beltre hit a home run high over the wall in right and realized immediately he had won the game. He posed for a couple seconds, watched the ball fly, then started a leisurely trot around the bases. Between second and third, he exchanged words with a few Rawhide players, turned and continued toward home plate.
Before he touched home to win the game, dozens of players in black and dozens more in red poured onto the infield. Punches connected and a tackle or two landed some players on the grass. Filmed by a local television sports reporter, the brawl found its way into newspapers and onto broadcasts and, of course, all over YouTube.
A walk-off brawl. Of course.
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“1941,” Guiry says. “Sam Lynn is a Coca-Cola bottler in Bakersfield and the champion of baseball in town. He runs all the youth leagues, he does all this baseball stuff. By ’41, he gets enough teams together and starts the California League. In February or March of ’41, he goes to New York for a meeting and he dies of a heart attack. He never sees a single pitch in the California League. It just seems sad.”
And so begins the magical history tour of Sam Lynn Ballpark, which lasts about eight minutes.
The stadium opened in 1941, when stadium entertainment was limited to what happened on the field. No bounce houses (Sam Lynn has one today) or team stores (Sam Lynn has one today), one or two concessions stands, tops (Sam Lynn has one today). Games started later then, too, which was why no one worried about home plate and the sun. Before radio and television dictated earlier times for maximum commercial purposes, first pitches arrived in the early afternoon, when the sun was high and out of the way, or at night, after the sun set and was tucked behind the wall and the trees. No problems in Bakersfield.
Why build the stadium backward at all? To save money, of course. Sam Lynn sits on the old fairgrounds, which featured a horse track and a wood grandstand. When baseball replaced races, the diamond moved in right over the track and the stands remained in the same spot. The last couple decades, different management groups reached different solutions. One roped giant garbage bags from telephone poles beyond centerfield. Another ordered a wall for the same spot, measuring sunsets for weeks to determine the optimal position. Too bad they measured in November. The wall blocks the sun best right around Thanksgiving.
“And then you can see the sky between the actual wall, which is like 14 feet tall, and where the sun screen is, which is 14 feet off the ground but 15 or 20 feet behind the fence, so there’s now a two-inch gap,” Guiry says. “When the sun sets, you’re cool, but as it keeps setting, it shoots back out of the bottom and goes right into the catcher’s eyes and the umpire’s eyes.”
In less significant problems, the scoreboard in right busted earlier this season and wiped out a good chunk of bulbs. The board is 30 years old and parts are on back order, so if you want to know how many runs the teams score after the sixth, or how many hits or errors they have, you better keep track yourself.
The great irony in all this is that, for as bad the team has been for so long — one season during the 1990s ended with 101 losses, even more impressive considering the team plays a 140-game schedule — the Blaze is good this season, in first place in the North Division and owners of the best record in the California League. Hamilton leads all of baseball with 67 steals in 56 games and is on pace for 164. The professional record? Just 145, set by Vince Coleman in 1983, seven years before Hamilton was born. He unnerves pitchers so much from the base paths that, at one point earlier this season, he was responsible for 19 percent of all balks in the league. Also, not long ago, he had a .364 batting average ... on infield ground balls. A few players have already received promotions to the Pensacola Blue Wahoos of the Double-A Southern League and manager Ken Griffey lets his players run wild on the field, swing for the fences, win games. In his first season at the helm, he appears to be getting the most out of them.
He also seems to be getting more out of them on the road, where they’re 17-11, than at home, where they’re 17-14. Perhaps that makes sense, though. Home field advantages are rare when there are so few fans.
The Blaze has attracted a total announced attendance of 17,491 fans, which is good for 583 per game and last in the league. They finished last in attendance last season, too — and the four seasons before that — though their current average represents a bump from the 572 fans they averaged in 2011, and the first time average attendance has increased since 2007. Over that stretch, the average has dropped from 1,160 to 962 to 952 to 932 to 572. Every other team in the league averages at least close to three times as many fans.
“It’s something different,” says Hamilton, who played last season in Dayton, where the Dragons of the Low-A Midwest League have sold out every game for 13 seasons. “When you’re used to playing in front of 10,000 fans, and there are something like 100 people here, the whole game changes, the momentum you have. But it’s baseball. You can’t worry about it. You have to make do with whatever you have to work with. You know?”
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Twenty years ago, a man named Bob Kapler still played an organ at Sam Lynn close to every game. He sat on a bench behind home plate and plunked out songs like Back Home in Indiana and Slow Boat to China. Some of the selections were so far out of the ordinary stadium rotation even then that few fans picked up on his musical nuances. Kapler listened to the game on a transistor radio tucked in his shirt pocket, closer to the field than the broadcaster, though he was never more than a few dozen yards from either.
Funny, even when he looked at it directly, the sun never did bother him, even during those blinding early innings.
He was already blind.
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“Did I interrupt your interview?” Tim Wheeler asks Michael Cushine. “No?” he answers rhetorically. “Then sit down and wipe that look off your face!”
Ah, the first notes of another night of the always entertaining, always vitriolic, seldom appropriate Tim and Mike Show, curling the ear hairs of visiting California League radio broadcasters for the last eight seasons. Wheeler has worked 1,223 straight games as the official scorekeeper at Sam Lynn, the last 523 straight with Cushine as the p.a. announcer. Cushine picked up this job after he arrived for an open audition and read five names and an ad from a script. Wheeler landed his in the stadium men’s room after the previous scorekeeper griped about unwanted criticism from players and managers and walked out of the press box during a game. Now they lob insults back and forth, most of them blue, none of them fit for print.
“It’s funny when other radio guys come in here,” says Cushine, who teaches math and whose teenage son is licensed to fly a plane but not to drive a car. “We’ll just start up on something and they’ll think we’re serious about it and they get a little nervous about what’s going to happen next up here.”
“We try to make this a nice atmosphere, and it is,” says Wheeler, who has rescheduled the removal of abscessed teeth and the amputation of his right leg to work around the baseball schedule. “When I started, it was sterile. And then, the ’95 year, they were a co-op and lost 101 games, it got loose real quick and it just kind of stayed that way.”
“A lot of it is high school humor that boys will do at times,” Cushine says. “But it’s fun. If it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t be going on our streak, never missing a day.”
They work in a press box as open literally as it is figuratively. The radio booths sit on either end, without doors. You can listen to Besbris in your right ear, the visiting broadcaster in your left — in stereo, if only on different tracks. New stucco covers exposed blocks that provided a boiler room atmosphere for years. The air conditioning works now, at least. Because of the setting sun beating in on the window, the temperatures used to stumble into triple digits. Stockton Ports radio broadcaster Zack Bayrouty remembers a game a couple years back when the thermostat flashed 137 degrees. “This place wouldn’t be the same with nice amenities,” Bayrouty says. “The atmosphere wouldn’t fit if this was a palace of a park.”
There are whispers about a palace of a park, or at least a new park, somewhere in Bakersfield in the next two or three seasons. Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway, two local businessmen who made much of their money in oil, purchased the team during the offseason from the Elmore Sports Group, which still owns five other minor league baseball teams, including the Inland Empire 66ers in the California League. Before Voiland and Hathaway bought the Blaze, rumors swirled about moves out of California, perhaps as far across the country as the Carolina League. They say they want to keep the team in the city, though not at Sam Lynn.
“There’s no money in the state, no money in the county, and California has rules that make it very difficult, but we’ll get there,” Voiland says eight rows behind home plate during the late innings of a Wednesday night game against the Stockton Ports. Voiland has missed only one home game, and he wants to see this one. The Ports have lost 16 straight. “I’m not saying we’ll build a new stadium, but we’ll figure out how to do it.”
Voiland and Hathaway poured more than a quarter of a million dollars into stadium renovations, from new outfield walls without exposed nails, new chairs and tables near third base, new paint just about everywhere. “Everything was gray,” Besbris says. “It looked like a prison. It was awful. It feels so much more like a ballpark this year.” Besbris says Bakersfield has a hold on him. He lives two hours away and Bakersfield has gripped his imagination. Martin says she always wanted to keep moving up the minor league ladder, but now she’s not so sure now. There’s opportunity here.
The game unfurls in front of Voiland, just not how he would have liked. In front of an announced crowd of 505 — the team has had 16 smaller crowds already this season — Blaze relievers give up a run in the seventh, another in the eighth and another in the ninth. They let an early lead slip away. They lose to the Ports, a team that had gone nearly three weeks without a win. Voiland looks out and sees empty seats. He thinks about the thousands of kids all over Bakersfield, almost none of them here for this game. “This is a baseball city,” he says. He talks about a stadium that exists only in dreams right now. He wants this to work.
“I did my homework,” he says. “I know what this is, I think I understand it, and I got a lot of energy to do it, Chad’s got a lot of energy. I view it as something that’s going to be fun. There are absolutely no regrets. We’ll make it work, make it something great for us and something great for the community.
“This is a bet in the longevity of the town. This is a great adventure.”
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Thirty years ago, the Bakersfield Mariners and the Visalia Oaks were still on the field at Sam Lynn as the clock ticked closer to midnight. Without warning, the automatic sprinklers turned on and sprayed the grass with water. The groundskeeper was nowhere to be found, already gone for the night, so ushers tried to solve the problem by stamping the sprinklers, which managed to just pool the water on the grass. After a while, Visalia manager Phil Roof suggested something he had seen years before and, without any better options, folks listened to him.
They poured gasoline on the field and then lit it on fire.
The grass dried, the game continued, Bakersfield lost and burn marks remained on the left side of the infield the rest of the season. Thirteen years later, the Blaze was born.
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Griffey arrives first the next morning in a sedan that cuts across the parking lot. He steps out behind a pair of sunglasses, opens his trunk, rolls his luggage for the short trip down the ramp and into the home clubhouse. His 1987 Topps baseball card is pinned to a cork board just inside the door. He has passed it almost every day for a month. Players say he has never noticed it there.
Griffey disappears for 10 minutes, then 20. Other coaches pull in, then players. Some are with teammates or girlfriends, though most are alone. The bus pulls up and its windshield stares at the stadium for almost an hour.
This is not a time for smiles and small talk. The loss still lingers, but the bigger matter is the time of day. In the low minors, most days start later than this, hours after The Price is Right is over and the soaps have started. Sleep cycles and meal patterns and rhythms are all broken when a morning game pops up on the schedule or a road trip is about to start. Players shuffle between the clubhouse and the bus. Draped in a gray sweatsuit, Hamilton carries a McDonald’s bag up the steps of the bus after depositing his bags underneath. Griffey holds a brown paper bag, the size used for elementary school lunches, in one hand and a can of Mountain Dew in the other.
Yeah, they lost last night. Whatever. There are a lot of games. Time to pack up four dozen bottles of water and three dozen duffel bags and a pair of hard plastic cylinders filled with bats and ride south to Lake Elsinore.
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Forty years ago, a man named Homer Joy penned and played one of the classic country songs of the last century. Recorded in the early 1970s and revived in the late 1980s, Streets of Bakersfield is still on the air in plenty of markets, three minutes of little more than guitar chords and storytelling cracked with old emotion.
“I came here lookin’ for somethin’ I couldn’t find anywhere else,” Joy belted out thousands of times in a twang familiar to those who are familiar with Bakersfield. “But I don’t wanna be nobody, just want a chance to be myself. I’ve done a thousand miles of thumbin‘ — yes, I’ve worn blisters on my heels — tryin’ to find me somethin’ better on the streets of Bakersfield.
“You don’t know me, but you don’t like me. You say you care less how I feel. How many of you that sit and judge me ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?”
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