BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Dan Besbris is stressed out.
Black-rimmed glasses and a close-cropped, meticulously manicured beard frame the diminutive 30-something face of the broadcaster and assistant general manager of the Bakersfield Blaze. He’s been fielding phone calls the last two weeks from local media outlets begging for face time. Sit with him for a couple days and you get the impression Dan probably hasn’t taken as many media requests in the last six years as he has these two weeks, and it’s all for one terrible reason:
In a few days, the Bakersfield Blaze will cease to exist.
The Blaze, along with the High Desert Mavericks, will be contracted out of the California League at the end of the year, a move that will leave the league with eight clubs and grant one of pro ball’s other Advanced-A circuits, the Carolina League, two more franchises to grow to ten for the first time in decades. The contraction has been a long time coming, so it isn’t a surprise now; for more than 20 years, Bakersfield survived through rumors virtually every offseason, be it Cal League contraction, or moving to Salinas, or Palm Springs, or some other random California city that was always anywhere but Bakersfield.
A few years ago, the team’s owner, D.G. Elmore, sold the Blaze to a couple local oil men who thought they could secure a new stadium on the west side of town and leave behind Sam Lynn Ballpark, their ancient, unfit home field. It didn’t work out, and two years later, they sold the team back to Elmore with no new stadium on the horizon.
And now, for the most recent six years of Bakersfield’s long, bizarre Cal League history, Dan has borne the brunt of the media requests that always seem to come too little, too late—never about the team, always about whether there will be a team next year.
“Do you know how hard it is for me to not just rant and rave every day like a lunatic?” Dan asks, his voice rising to exasperation as he slaps his desk and swivels on his chair in a moment between TV news crews.
“And it eats you up a little bit, because this is my sixth season with the team, and every single year, we’ve had some sort of cloud hanging over us. Every year, it’s something.”
He pauses, and lets out a sigh. His voice comes back down.
“We were actually really thrilled this last offseason, because nobody was talking about Bakersfield,” he says, talking with his hands as he hits the word ‘nobody’ with emphasis. “That’s all we really wanted, was for people outside of here to forget about us for a few months, so that we could do the thing we want wanted to do, which is put on one of the most unique experiences in sports.”
Cut right to its core, that unique experience—Sam Lynn Ballpark—is also why the Blaze are on their deathbed. Built in 1941, Sam Lynn has hosted professional baseball in Bakersfield nearly every summer since, with only a brief respite here and there. At once, it’s charmingly bizarre and unique; it’s also woefully out of date and, admittedly, quirky to the point of being miserable.
The one thing most people know about the ballpark—often the only thing—is that it faces west, directly into the sun. Night games are delayed until nearly 8:00 pm in the middle of the summer so the sun can go down behind the park’s massive center field sunscreen. The place lacks modern amenities sought by big league clubs: There are no indoor batting cages, or large clubhouses, or on-site weight rooms. Center field is just 354 feet from home plate, the shortest distance in pro ball. The stadium seats only 1,800 people, making it one of the most, um, intimate venues in the minors. It’s located in Oildale, a few miles north of Bakersfield’s downtown, and while parking is free and abundant, the neighborhood is rough. As the city expands west toward Interstate 5, few people have Oildale on their radar any more.
All this came to a head in August when Minor League Baseball made it official, though rumblings in the months before had employees, players, and fans in Kern County long seeing what was coming—even if they didn’t want to admit it to themselves.
If the Blaze are eliminated this week from the playoffs by Visalia, or the following week to a team from the league’s South Division, pro baseball will summarily vanish from Bakersfield—the ninth-biggest city in California, 375,000 people strong, and larger than Tampa, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.
“Maybe this is a situation where Kern County says, ‘oh, rats, this really happened, what do we have to do to get this fixed?’ And six, or ten years down the line, they put something together,” Dan says, exhaling out the final few words as though he already knows his plan is untenable. I almost want to pat him on the head for his optimism, or maybe hug him. All this contraction talk is eating him away.
“Bakersfield should have a team. It’s too big not to, it’s bigger than major league markets. And there won’t be a team here next year. That’s mind-boggling.”
Another TV crew shows up for an interview with Dan, the cameraman unsure of where he is supposed to be as he enters the team’s trailer-turned-front office for what’s clearly the first time in this, the final week of Sam Lynn Ballpark’s 75th season. Dan just wrapped a podcast appearance an hour earlier; a few days before, he spent an afternoon on a local talk radio show politely sitting through bizarre, off-tangent questions from the show’s host about capitalism and the free market. Surely, his patience is wearing thin, but he’s a pro, and he’ll never show it.
We pause our conversation so Dan can do the TV hit; I decide to walk the stadium, which is empty and quiet before the evening’s game. The field is meticulously manicured, the stadium quietly waiting for the evening’s excitement. And it’s hot.
Damn, is it hot.
In a few hours, players will populate the place for their pre-game routines. A few hours later, fans will dot the low-lying seats to watch one of the final games in Bakersfield history. Seventy-five years of baseball, thousands of players, thousands more fans—all set for another nine innings before a now-inevitable fade to the annals of minor league history.
This is the story of the demise of the dingiest, dirtiest outpost of outlaw underdogs in the modern history of the California League. These are the final days at Sam Lynn Ballpark, as told by the quirky, unforgettable people who knew the place the best. Welcome to Bakersfield.
I came here looking for something I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody, I just want a chance to be myself
ASK YOUR PARENTS about Bakersfield. Maybe they’ll mention Merle Haggard or Buck Owens. Buck died a few years back. Merle passed, ironically, on his 79th birthday, the eve of this April’s Blaze opener against Visalia. The two men are country music royalty, and forever tied to their native Kern County. When the Blaze lose, they play Haggard’s Kern River over the speakers as players shuffle to the clubhouse and fans file out of the stands. It’s a slow, sad song about Haggard’s girlfriend drowning in the Kern River—a river which, coincidentally, flows lazily beyond Sam Lynn’s right field wall.
“We used to have Kern River at the front of our playlist after losing, but I thought man, this is depressing, so we bumped it to the end of the losing mix,” Dan admits. “Anybody that sticks around for, like, 25 minutes after the game can listen to a really sad Merle Haggard song. It’s beautiful, but damn, it’s really sad.”
But if Haggard’s Kern River is a subtle hat tip to a hometown legend, Owens’ Streets of Bakersfield is a coronation to the king of the Bakersfield sound. Played over the stadium’s speakers after every Blaze home win, the familiar notes of the pedal steel guitar pay homage to the man that put Bakersfield on the map with his rock-tinged country style.
Go a little deeper on Streets of Bakersfield, though, and you start to realize there’s a more specific meaning to the song—a dry, biting hat tip to the hard, dusty, hot streets of this unforgiving oil town.
As a matter of fact, it turns out to be the perfect way to explain why the Bakersfield Blaze are the way they are.
“That song was written in the 1970s by a guy named Homer Joy, which, come on, that’s a perfect name for a baseball team,” says Philip Guiry, Bakersfield’s former stadium operations director and assistant general manger. “Joy was in San Francisco, and he came down to Bakersfield because Buck needed studio musicians. So Joy was like, ‘look, I’ll play, but instead of money, just give me some studio time afterwards and we’ll call it even.’”
Call it even, they did not; at best, as Philip hedges, “something got messed up.” At worst, Owens used the poor musician with no intention of paying him in studio time or otherwise. It left Joy on the streets of Bakersfield, pissed off and with an ax to grind; every morning, he showed up to Owens’ studio, and every morning, he was turned away. After days of this hell, Joy walked Bakersfield’s quiet downtown one evening, and as (bad) luck would have it, his new pair of cowboy boots bore out bad blisters on both of his feet. Dejected, angry, and in pain, Joy hit emotional rock bottom. He went back to his hotel room and let it all out on paper.
“So he wrote this song in a pissed-off state about how terrible and hard Bakersfield was to him, and it perfectly captures the place,” Guiry says. “’You don’t know me, but you don’t like me, you could care less how I feel.’ That was written in an angered state about the streets of Bakersfield, and it’s all true. He completely captured it.”
The next morning, Joy showed up again at Owens’ studio. Beyond frustrated with the pesky beggar, Owens’ producer challenged Joy to play a song he wanted to record, and not even twelve hours old, Streets of Bakersfield saw the light of day. Owens understood its significance immediately; legend has it, he called in his backing band, the Buckaroos, for an emergency recording session, acquired the song from the now slightly-less pissed-off Homer Joy, and released the track for himself a year later. Fifteen years after that, a duet re-release alongside Dwight Yoakam on an album called Buenas Noches From A Lonely Room (remember that title) gave Owens a #1 single.
It also gave Bakersfield an anthem.
“You could almost do a paragraph of story about each line in that song,” Dan says. “The first three or four lines are a perfect encapsulation of what we try to do at this ballpark. ‘I came here looking for something I couldn’t find anywhere else. Hey I’m not trying to be nobody, I’m just trying to be myself.’ That is Bakersfield baseball. What are we going to do? It’s not like we can dress this thing up and call it a new fancy stadium. So just lean into it, man.”
Dan pauses, getting emotional as he ties the song back to the team, to the ancient Sam Lynn Ballpark, and really, back to the last six years of his life. It’s just a song, maybe, but it’s not just a song.
“That song is the perfect victory celebration for our place,” he says. “That song is a celebration that we made it through another motherfucking ball game, and for once, nobody told us no. We have a motto internally here that kind of goes, um, we don’t care what everybody is saying about Bakersfield. We know what we have, and we know how hard we have to work to make this place hold together. That’s the Streets of Bakersfield to us.”
Besbris may be born in LA, but not unlike Owens 44 years ago, he intuitively got Streets of Bakersfield, and its meaning to this city, the moment he heard it. Dennis “Froggy” Gallion, the club’s longtime program-seller who’s something of a minor celebrity at Sam Lynn as the Blaze wrap up their final games, calls Owens’ hit a national anthem. And Froggy isn’t the only one.
“It’s like a fight song for us. I could be in any part of the country and I’ll hear that song, or one of my buddies will play that song, and I’ll just think of home right away,” says Justin Kelly, a Bakersfield native and former Bakersfield College star who’s wrapping up his rookie summer pitching in the Los Angeles Angels’ organization after being drafted in June. “It’s nostalgic to think how, even though we have a small-town feel, one guy can just put us on the map. It’s the best song in town. That’ll never change.”
For Philip, who spent five years memorizing the bizarre quirks of every single inch of Sam Lynn Ballpark before taking a similar position with the Charleston (SC) RiverDogs this year, Streets of Bakersfield is to the music world what the city of Bakersfield is to California, and what the Blaze have been to, well, everybody else in the minors. The legendary Bakersfield sound itself was a gritty pushback against its era’s over-produced Nashville music—bare bones and tough, with no frills, just like Sam Lynn Ballpark.
“That song represents the chippy attitude the city has, that the staff of Sam Lynn Ballpark had to have,” Philip says. “I didn’t move there with a chip on my shoulder. But once I got there, I realized the whole city has been the butt of a joke since Johnny Carson took over the Tonight Show in the 1960s.”
Philip gets on a roll here, and it isn’t just about Carson’s jabs at the oil town where he performed before making it in Hollywood. The anger rises in Philip’s voice as he defends a town—his old town, so screw you for hating it—forgotten by California, and time, and everyone else, and now professional baseball, too.
“It’s Bakersfield. It’s the butt of every joke. Nobody wants to go to Bakersfield. Nobody wants to be from Bakersfield. They didn’t even build Interstate 5 through Bakersfield,” Philip argues. “To get to I-5, you have to travel 20 miles outside of town, because they didn’t want to put an interstate through it. It’s as if they said let’s just drive by, and hopefully the smog is thick enough that no one will even know it’s there.”
An ugly, old park in an uninspiring minor league city isn’t unique to Bakersfield; arguably, other outposts in the Cal League are uglier still than the Kern County seat. And yet reputations precede reality, and Bakersfield’s—in baseball, in life, in everything—is one of bare bones, hardscrabble, make-do-with-what-we-have-type grittiness. That’s how it goes with a full-time front office staff of just six people in a stadium that, jokingly or not, could crumble into dust at any moment.
“When you’re from Bakersfield, people just give you this look,” Philip says. ”It’s the look we got at the Cal League meetings, and the look we got at the winter meetings. It’s a constant look of, ‘oh, Bakersfield. You’re a joke.’ So the song becomes a defense tactic, like, ‘you don’t know me, but you don’t like me, and you could care less how I feel.’ But you know what? I don’t care. You mean nothing to me. You mean nothing until you’ve walked the streets of Bakersfield.”
He didn’t grow up here, but Philip oozes this place, at least as much as you can when you’re a self-proclaimed idiot who took a job with the Blaze after interning in Idaho for a year. And now, as some kind of weird, honorary native, he has a good read on the local worldview after five miserable years crawling around the dustiest, dirtiest parts of Sam Lynn. You’ll know it because real natives like Kelly sound remarkably similar to Guiry.
“Everyone hates us,” Kelly says about being from Bakersfield. “Always, man. Always. When you say you’re from Bakersfield, it’s not a good reaction, and yeah, we have a little chip on our shoulder, but honestly, I love it. Everyone from Bakersfield loves it. If people say they don’t, they are trying to escape from something that’s not about the city, it’s about them. Everybody treats this place like the armpit of California, like the butt of every joke, and I get that, but this is home.”
“You know, I came down to Charleston, and here, everything is easy,” Guiry offers, noting his move from one of the worst minor league environments in Bakersfield to one of the best with the RiverDogs. “We’ve got 20 people on staff. And when someone complains about having to work on a Saturday, it’s like, ‘screw you. You would never make it in Bakersfield. You’re weak and lazy, and you’d never make it.’ If you can make it in Bakersfield doing anything, you can make it anywhere in the world. That’s why Streets of Bakersfield is the perfect song for that city, and for any underdog.”
Billy Brosemer, Bakersfield’s groundskeeper, breaks into a smile when I ask him about Buck Owens and Streets of Bakersfield. Brosemer is sitting on his lawnmower, hidden down in Sam Lynn’s dark left field corner during the seventh inning of a game against the San Jose Giants. Without a hint, he already knows what inspired this question.
“That song is Bakersfield, and it all came from Philip, who sold me on the Bakersfield way when I got here, and showed me how things work out here,” Billy says. “Phil was honestly OG Bakersfield, and he would die in this place if we gave him the opportunity. He had such a passion for this place, and what it meant to work in Bakersfield, and it’s impossible not to correlate that song to this town, and this team, and this ballpark, all because of Philip.”
Jeff MacDonald worked under Philip last summer and then took the job as operations director when Guiry moved to Charleston. He, too, admits that though he may not be from the area, there’s something special about the song.
“I’d really never heard of Bakersfield until I came out here, so for me, at first, that song was really just about us winning,” Jeff admits. “But when you really listen to the lyrics, you get how Buck Owens doesn’t care what other people think of him. That sums up Bakersfield. And when we go to the bar, yeah, we put it on the juke box just for fun and we’re the only ones singing it.”
Even Los Angeles residents—that Johnny Carson-type of big-city person Philip detests for their willingness to make LA look better at the expense of Bakersfield—grudgingly admit Buck Owens’ work carries weight as the club’s season comes to a close. Dave Gascon is an LA native who spent the year as Besbris’ assistant broadcaster, delivering play-by-play for the club’s road games and running the team’s social media accounts throughout. A muscular, well-groomed jock with a head of gelled hair and most likely an expensive teeth-whitening kit back at home, Gascon concedes he’s maybe a little less LA and a little more Bakersfield after a summer in this dusty heat.
“Before, I would have been like, ‘what is this, Buck Owens?’ You don’t hear those things down in LA. But now when I hear that song, it makes me feel like I need to go out on the field and take a bottle of liquor,” Gascon says, his photogenic smile radiating at the idea. “Like, pour one out for the homies and have a drink, because this thing is coming to a close. I’ve got a little more pride now, because I’m attached to the team, and I’m attached to the city, and yeah, I’ve put my name on it.”
Gascon’s plan is fine by Philip. In fact, a fifteen-minute conversation with Philip turned into an hour and a half during which he left various instructions about what the front office should do with the stadium (lock it up and throw away the key), the team memorabilia (send it all down the block to the Kern County Museum), and the Cal League trophy, should Bakersfield win it all (sink it to the bottom of the Kern River, or maybe give it to official scorer Tim Wheeler, or leave town with it and never look back). But for the man who’s through and through “OG Bakersfield,” as Billy says, none of it matters without Buck Owens.
“If they win the championship this year, I expect them to just put that song on repeat at Sam Lynn for a few hours, turn those ancient speakers up to 11, and flood the city until they leave town. And take the trophy with ‘em,” Philip says, before deadpanning a joke that lands late. “I’m currently engaged, and I’m set to be married in the next 60 days. She hasn’t invited me yet, but I’m sure I’ll get an invitation in the mail soon. Everyone keeps asking me, what’s the first dance? And I’m like, um, you know, I think the first dance is Streets of Bakersfield, man.”
Guiry pauses, creating his own emphasis.
“In Charleston we have Darius Rucker, so we play Wagon Wheel, which is fine, and he’s from here, but it’s not that great. And you can go to a Yankees game and hear New York, New York. But New York, New York doesn’t encompass all of New York, and Wagon Wheel doesn’t encompass all of Charleston. Streets of Bakersfield literally encompasses the streets of Bakersfield.”
Dan, meanwhile, is a west LA native and a Motown lover from birth. He fights to have his beloved golden oldies played on Sam Lynn’s speakers before games, and he laughs at Philip’s attachment to Streets of Bakersfield. And yet Dan can also concede a visceral, emotional reaction to an exceedingly simple song now more than 40 years old.
“I still don’t like country music, but I fucking love Streets of Bakersfield,” Dan says. “I’ll be cruising down the freeway, and Streets of Bakersfield will come on, and damn it, I will rock out alone in my dirty-ass Subaru Impreza, climbing the Grapevine back to LA, bumpin’ Buck Owens.”
I’ve spent a thousand miles a-thumbin’, Yes, I’ve worn blisters on my heels
Trying to find me something better, here on the streets of Bakersfield
AS FAR AS BROADCASTERS go, Dan Besbris lands on the nerdy side of the spectrum, especially in the Cal League. Lancaster’s Jason Schwartz is the hot-shot destined for bigger things, and Modesto’s Keaton Gillogly the affable, helpful bean pole; Stockton’s Zack Bayrouty is the consistent, kind veteran of the group, and San Jose’s Joe Ritzo the smooth, well-dressed one. Even Besbris’ road broadcaster, Gascon, is a radio-smooth, muscular former jock now on air. That leaves Dan as, well, the nerd.
That’s not a bad thing; he’s a smooth broadcaster in his own right and as helpful a media middleman as there is in minor league baseball. But his frail, book-smart look and unassuming demeanor leave him unique in a world of on-air personalities. A graduate of Cal Berkeley with a science background, Besbris is married to a doctor down in LA. They’re expecting a baby in November. Contraction or not, this was probably going to have been his last summer in Bakersfield anyways. Life calls, you know.
But as life tries to complete the call, Bakersfield’s dusty old ballpark is on the other end of the line, and it has a problem. Well, it has a million problems, and between Dan, Billy, Jeff, and Mikey Candela, the club’s general manager, they can usually solve most of them on a good day.
“People joke about how they wish this place would just fall to the ground, but that’s not how it works out here, man,” Dan says. “I’ve been here long enough to know that Sam Lynn Ballpark will screw with you just enough to make your life exceedingly difficult, but never enough to where you can just say, ‘damn, I can’t do it.’ That would be too easy. ‘Oh, the power went out? Guess we can’t play tonight.’ No, no, it’s never that simple. In Sam Lynn, the lights will dim, but they won’t go off.”
“Actually, here’s one,” Dan continues, volunteering before the follow-up question can even land. “The press box equipment caught on fire once in 2011, and it still worked! It caught on fire, we turned it off for 45 minutes, turned it back on, and damn it, it worked! All it did was screw things up for 45 minutes. Not enough to make us quit, but just enough to make us look bad for an hour.”
Dan shrugs. “And that’s our home.”
The Sam Lynn for whom the park is named was a local Coca Cola bottler big on youth baseball, and the field that bears his name sits on Chester Avenue, just a half-mile from Buck Owens’ legendary Crystal Palace, among a sea of Little League fields. Justin Miller, a big league relief pitcher with the Colorado Rockies and a Bakersfield native who also went to the local junior college, remembers his days as a kid running down foul balls and batting practice home runs out behind the park’s massive center field sunscreen.
“If was cool to grow up playing at those Little League fields, and after our games, me and my buddy would go behind the wall and get the home run balls that were stuck in the trees right behind the field,” Miller remembers. “He had a batting cage, so we would pick up those balls and use them for his batting cage, and I would take some home and use them to pitch with. And then in high school we played tournaments there. I even played there at junior college. It’s a landmark. Even when they were trying for a few years to build that new stadium, they can’t tear down this one. It’s a landmark in Bakersfield.”
While childhood memories like Miller’s are what give the place such character, and the real Sam Lynn himself was perhaps beyond reproach at least insofar as promoting youth baseball in the area, the ballpark that is his legacy has seen better days.
As easy-going as Dan is, he’s developed a split persona to deal with the daily betrayals the 75-year-old stadium drops on him and the staff—the little reminders which, they joke, are straight from the ghost of Sam Lynn himself that no, things will never be easy in Bakersfield.
“It’s one of the most frustrating places on earth,” Dan says, acknowledging his alter ego ‘Angry Dan,’ originally coined by Jeff MacDonald, the stadium’s operations director. “It’s so rare, but when I get mad it’s always at the stadium. It’s never at the staff, it’s never at the team, it’s always at the stadium, like, why is this broken? Why can’t we have anything nice? And looking back now, you know, I just want to be Angry Dan one more time. It’s weird to think I’m not going to be able to pass that baton. It’s all just sort of… gone.”
Angry Dan may be a recurring inside joke amongst the staff, but the real Dan—and Philip, and Billy, and Jeff, and Mikey, and Dave, and Emily Hintz and Kat Ezell in community outreach—all put in yeoman’s work to rehabilitate Sam Lynn Ballpark even just to where one finds it in 2016. It’s all relative, though, because when Dan and Philip arrived on the scene at the start of this decade, the place was brutally bad.
“I came here as a visiting broadcaster when I worked in Visalia in 2007 and 2008, and this place earned all of the nasty things that people said about it,” Dan admits about Sam Lynn Ballpark in the days before he got here. “It was a wreck back then. The seats were popping off the hinges, there were eight people in the stadium. The food and beverage manager at the time was a kid named Brandon, and the only on-field game I can remember was that poor guy doing the chicken dance, by himself, on the field. It was weird, and it was creepy, and it was a little bit sad.”
Slowly but surely, things improved. There’s only so much one can do with an old ballpark in a tough section of town, perhaps, but what do they say about putting lipstick on a pig?
“You walk around Sam Lynn now and it looks fine, and there are advertisements everywhere, and everything is painted, but when I got there, everything was painted prison gray,” Philip says, reflecting on his five years in stadium ops at what was, on the day he stepped foot in Bakersfield, the worst park in all of pro ball. “And when I say everything, I mean everything. The exteriors of all the buildings were painted prison gray, the inside of the bathrooms, the visitor’s clubhouse. Everything was prison gray except for the main grandstand, which was exposed, untreated, unpainted concrete blocks. They built that grandstand in 1994, and in 16 years, nobody ever bothered to paint it.”
“And then all the protective netting that runs along the base lines, that was six-foot chain link fence that they added way back in 1982,” Philip continues. “Before that, there was nothing down the lines, and during one of the outlaw [independent league] seasons, I think in 1979, a fan got hit in the head with a foul ball. He didn’t die, but he was never right after that, and so they put up the fences.”
As some sort of de facto team historian is wont to do, Philip sidetracks into tales of the 1979 Bakersfield “outlaws,” an unaffiliated ball club that played here after the Dodgers left (the first time), and before Seattle arrived (the first time). He runs on into stories of the team’s three-legged German Shepherd that shagged balls during batting practice, and would steal them from little kids during games. He mentions how during one game, the left fielder noticed a deranged fan had climbed up the back of the outfield fence and was firing bullets over his head. Philip’s Bakersfield baseball knowledge is up there with the best of them.
“Find George Culver, and talk to him about managing the ’78 club,” Philip urges, his encyclopedia-like brain of Sam Lynn-related contacts exposing itself, before returning to his original point. “But yeah, anyways, it was all prison gray, and there was chain link fence everywhere. The first thing I said was look, we’ve got to get rid of this chain link fence. It feels like a prison here. Even the parking lot was dirt. I felt like we were in a minor league ballpark in Detroit or something. It was rough.”
Quickly, dark green paint covered the gray—slathered on by none other than Philip himself—and actual, professional netting went up in place of the chain link. The next winter, the parking lot was paved. Lipstick, meet pig.
And yet, just as the conniving ghost of Sam Lynn continues to do time and again, problems kept popping up.
“You know the sunscreen is built in the wrong spot, right?” Philip starts laughing as he tells me about the mistake, allegedly made by an early construction plan that didn’t account for the sun setting in a different place in the winter (when they constructed the sunscreen) and the summer (when, you know, they needed the sunscreen).
“It has to be like ten degrees to the west. Oh, and they built it 14 feet off the ground, because the fence is 14 feet high, but it’s 25 feet back from the wall, so there’s a gap between the bottom of the sun screen and the top of the wall,” he adds. “So it blocked the sun at first, but in about the second inning, the sun would peek out from underneath the sunscreen and blind the catcher. In the middle of a game in 2011 the catcher was like, ‘I can’t see,’ and we had a mid-game sun delay.”
Only in Bakersfield.
“I was like, ‘wait, how long has this been going on, and how has nobody fixed this?’ And nobody had any answers, so I took a ton of pieces of plywood and screwed them to the bottom of the sunscreen just to give it that inch of space that needed to block the sun from the catcher’s eyes,” Philip continues, imploring me to go out to center field and visit the sunscreen to see them. (The plywood has since been replaced by netting, but his work effectively stands.)
“It’s just all these little things that nobody ever cared about, that somebody had to do. I know that when [former general manager] Chris Bitters was here in 2005 and 2006, he really gave it the old college try, and they got a lot accomplished. But then he left, and by the time Dan and I started, it was bad, man. That was rock bottom. That was even our slogan: ‘Bakersfield… It Can’t Get Any Worse.’”
Dan laughs when he hears that story, reminiscing on the crazy things the front office was forced to do in 2011 to save whatever little momentum they had going at the franchise’s low point. He also gives Philip most of the credit for it, which in a way makes it more painful that Guiry is off in Charleston now as the entire Bakersfield operation prepares for extinction. After five years toiling here, Guiry is Bakersfield.
“Giant man, colossal beard, looked like he wandered in off the streets of Oildale at times, and he kind of became the face of our franchise,” Dan admits, likening Philip—Billy’s “OG Bakersfield” mentor—to some sort of bizarre mascot for that 2011 team. In fact, up until last week’s final regular season home game when it was auctioned off to a lucky fan, a life-size cardboard cutout of Philip stood tall in the club’s merchandise store, beard and all. “Philip just got in there fixing things by himself, getting dirty as hell on the field, and everybody followed. It turned this place into a spot that people were proud to call home, and we learned to embrace our quirks, because it’s ours. It’s our weird little place.
“The backwards ballpark, the sunscreen, all the things that you hear, yeah, OK, they are mostly true, but when people call it a toilet or whatever, that’s not really fair,” Dan continues. “It’s not a toilet. It’s good baseball, the field is excellent, and you are bound to see something uniquely strange on any given night. It’s family-friendly, it’s clean, the seats are new, the paint is new, the promotions are new, the games themselves are new, and, OK, the building is not new. But through sheer force of will, we made it better, and even though this place is held together by duct tape and sinew, people are going to be crushed when that final curtain comes down.”
It’s not all happily ever after from there, though. A fresh coat of paint and a slightly altered sunscreen were still only being seen by maybe 100 fans every night—a laughably low total more akin to a Florida State League evening, or a rookie ball contest on the complex backfields, rather than a pro baseball game in one of the fifty biggest cities in the country.
Justin Miller isn’t only from Bakersfield, he also played professionally at Sam Lynn in 2009 and 2010 when he was a member of the Texas Rangers’ organization. Looking back, Miller can smile now when the thinks about the lack of support the Blaze routinely got back then, when Philip and Dan were running themselves into the ground for the slightest payoff.
“When I played there, I was lucky if there were 300 fans, tops, and usually 50 of them were my family members,” Miller says, laughing.
“You’re going to tell me that 80 people are going to come watch this pro baseball game? That’s absurd,” Philip says, remembering things distinctly less whimsically than Miller. “So our first focus was, OK, let’s set a goal: No game under a hundred people. Which, I know, that’s an absolutely ridiculous goal for anyone to have. In most places, you could have a secret game, tell nobody, and 100 people will show up. I could send out a mass text message and get 100 people to show up for a game. But that was our goal. And from day one, we never dipped under 100 people.”
Guiry’s job description informally changed at that point; a stadium operations director exists to make sure Sam Lynn works, and looks more like a home and less like a prison—he was the lipstick, and the ballpark his pig. He wasn’t in ticket sales, or marketing, or public relations, or anything that dealt with the public. And yet partly the product of the small front office at Sam Lynn, and partly through Guiry’s own maniacal commitment to doing what it took to get 100 people there every night, he started doing more.
“I really took it to heart, those 100 people. That was the most important part,” he says. “There were games where I would talk to every single person in the ballpark. For an inning, for an out, I would walk around and talk to absolutely everybody. Because if you’re going to spend your eight dollars, and come sit in the 100 degree heat at 8 o’clock at night, well then I should come and thank you. Most teams are above that because they don’t need it. You know what? We needed it.”
Philip sounds like a man mostly relieved to be forever done with Bakersfield, now knee-deep in a far better situation in Charleston. And yet you get the feeling a part of him might just wish the clock could turn back to 2011 so he may re-live his dirty, sweaty days as the (not so) fresh prince of Oildale. He’s getting married now, and he has a great job in the very healthy South Atlantic League. But where’s the outlaw fun in that?
“I’ll admit that I’m sort of an eccentric weirdo,” he says, drawing a laugh. “So when you see a guy that looks like a homeless monster dressed in all black in 100-degree heat out at the ballpark, and then you go grab food somewhere and there’s the same homeless-looking monster dressed in all black in 100-degree heat, you say, ‘oh, I saw that guy from the baseball game.’
“I probably became something of a mascot, and that was easy marketing, because it was like ‘hey, I’m a recognizable idiot, come talk to me about baseball,’” he continues, conceding Dan’s earlier point about his all-black branding and Oildale-friendly look. “I wore a black t-shirt, and black Levi’s and Doc Marten boots every day as an assistant general manger, man. And the t-shirt was often inside out! Every day! And that was totally fine! I think I got away with it because I would go outside every once in a while and get dirty, but that was the thing, that’s what we had to do.”
That’s what we had to do isn’t the motto for the Blaze front office, but maybe it should be.
“To be honest, nobody paid attention to us, so we really didn’t know there were rules,” Philip remembers, a particularly poignant you don’t know me but you don’t like me memory coming back to him. “I remember we’d go to the Cal League meetings, and you’ve got the San Jose Giants there who are making millions of dollars, and you’ve got all these baseball people sitting around talking about doing all this stuff that we didn’t have the resources to do, so you know what? We don’t care about your rules. We were over here with our hats on backwards, drinking heavily. We were the stepsisters of the Cal League, and everyone just kept expecting us to fail, and burn out, and be gone in two years. It was an outlaw culture because it’s Bakersfield, and that’s our city. We were outlaws, and when you’re an outlaw, there are no laws.
“And then damn it, every year, things got a little better,” Philip continues. “And every year, we lost a little less money. And every year, we got more fans, and every year promotions got better. But it was the hardest thing. There’s not any staff in any league that worked as hard as we did for as little success.”
Whether Philip in 2010 and 2011 or Jeff MacDonald in the same position this summer, joining the front office in Bakersfield means that there’s no chain of command. Outlaw culture lives, and even though that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all—Mikey is the opposite of an unorganized or disinterested GM—it’s just that, well, what kind of a chain is it with but a few rings operating on the most shoestring of budgets?
“You go to any other franchise in this country, and somebody will give you ten things to do on day one, and when you run out of those, they will give you ten more things to do,” Dan says. “You get here, and we give you one thing to do, and that’s run your damn department. You come to us with ideas, and we’ll pretty much say yes, go try it, and if it works, keep doing it. That’s how you figure out what works in minor league baseball.”
“And that’s always been our sales pitch here to get young minor league staffers to come to a place that isn’t going to be an easy ride,” Dan continues, soberly. “If you want to get into minor league baseball and you want to fast track your way to the top, there are a couple ways to do it. First, you could go work in a hierarchy, and you could be the greatest at one skill, and hope that moves you up the chain one step at a time. The other way to do it is our way. Hey, come on out to Sam Lynn Ballpark and you can run an entire department. Grab as many darts as you can with two hands, and throw ‘em all at the wall.”
That pitch sold Jeff when he showed up for work in Bakersfield in 2015. He spent that summer learning the bizarre ropes of a weird ballpark under Philip before the eccentric stadium ops veteran left for the Palmetto State. In turn, MacDonald took the reins in operations.
“We talked to Jeff at the winter meetings about how he was going to look like this guy—we pointed to Philip, who tipped his cap—and how he was going to want to murder everybody within arm’s reach because of our ballpark,” Dan remembers about Jeff’s interview to join the most unique front office in pro ball. “I sat him down after the group interview, and I said look, we are the next logical step for you. Come to our place, run our operations department, learn how to make the hardest stadium in pro ball go, and you can take that anywhere. You can go to any damn ballpark in the country and tell them you held Sam Lynn Ballpark together for two years. They’ll find a job for you.
“I mean, look at Philip,” Dan continues, at this point no longer describing Jeff’s job as much as he’s advocating for another team to hire Jeff next month, soon to be forced out of his position in Bakersfield because of the contraction. “Philip held this place together for years. Charleston didn’t even have a job for him and yet he got hired, because they know, man. Everybody knows what it’s like to make this place work. Bakersfield is a land of legend and lore, and if you can tie the rope together long enough out here, you will take that next step in your career. Although I do think there are times that Jeff wants to kill me since I told him to come here.”
Jeff is an interesting character, soft-spoken at first only to reveal a biting sense of humor aimed at, well, pretty much anyone within arm’s reach. It’s all clearly in good nature, but he loves to rib everyone, from the interns around him to more esteemed media members above his pay grade. It makes for a light-hearted work environment, a practical necessity for the man running operations at Sam Lynn who—as Dan playfully suggests—might murder everybody around him in relentless frustration.
“It’s hard to get jobs in minor league baseball, it’s very competitive, and stadium operations jobs are also getting to be a lot harder now,” Jeff tells me as we sit beneath Sam Lynn’s massive tent covering their third-base line picnic area. The Blaze are taking batting practice on the field.
“When I went to the winter meetings, there were two or three full-time stadium ops jobs, and the others are working for the county, not working for the team. That’s a very different experience to work with a county government. I’d much rather work for the team, and be around the team, and the players.”
Jeff’s job is sort of a catch-all, at times working with Billy, the groundskeeper, at times fixing important things around the ballpark, and at times doing stuff as monotonous as moving around folding tables and chairs with Froggy’s help, getting ready for whatever minor promotion is happening that evening. If Sam Lynn is the Titanic, then, Jeff has been rearranging deck chairs the last few weeks.
“I’ve been looking for jobs, because the writing has been on the wall at Sam Lynn for, what, 22 years,” he surmises grimly. “I’ve applied to a few places, had a few interviews, but nothing serious. It’s tough, but hopefully there are going to be a couple openings next year. I’ll work anywhere, do anything, I just like the atmosphere as much as I like the games themselves. I really like to help create that atmosphere.”
That it almost sounds like Jeff is treating this interview as another job interview makes some sense, and the more Blaze employees I speak to, the more I see this. Jobs in baseball are few and far between, and when you get one, you hold on for dear life, because literally thousands of other people are right there behind you—yes, even for a gig at Sam Lynn.
“When we go to the winter meetings [looking for front office employees], we tell people the truth,” Dan says, discussing Jeff’s career in Bakersfield. “If you come to work at Sam Lynn, you are going to cry. You are going to be dirty. You are going to be sad, and tired, and you will probably feel depressed, and it will be hard, and it might legitimately be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But you will never have another experience like it.”
It’s a bit ironic, that. Sam Lynn is unrelenting hell on everything and everyone for long summer days and many more spent preparing for the season, and only now, as it’s about to be unceremoniously fired off into that dreadful center field-setting sun, its employees want more. Just one more season. Maybe two.
It’s easy to feel bad about Jeff’s station, though; the rug has been pulled out from under him.
“I’m just disappointed, because a lot of people spent a lot of effort and time on this place, and if it just took some money or something in addition to that time and effort, it could have been a whole lot different,” Jeff ponders. “Visalia had a little bit of money. They didn’t get a ton, but they had enough to do a few things to keep up their ballpark that is, what, five years younger than ours? They have the new premium additions down the foul lines, the Hall of Fame club, and that big group area in left field.
“That’s where minor league baseball is going, to those big group areas,” he notes, pointing upwards from our picnic table and smirking. “We just put a tent up.
“It’s frustrating because it’s not like we got fired because we were bad at our jobs,” he continues, laughing in that way you do during a stressful situation because you’re not sure how else to react. “I didn’t run the stadium into the ground or anything. It’s frustrating because there is literally nothing I can do about it. Emily did a great job [in community relations]. Billy did a great job with the field. It’s easily one of the best fields in the Cal League, and he did it with no money, no support, no help. So it’s frustrating because you put in all the effort, and all the hours, to do a good job…”
Jeff trails off.
After a pause, I ask him about the universal mood-lightening story around these parts: Froggy.
Philip may have worked his way to becoming the closest thing this side of a Bakersfield native, and Dan may be the organization’s face to the public, at least as far as the media is concerned, but Froggy is Bakersfield. He’s dyed in the wool, old school, Oildale-style Bakersfield. Watch him walk around Sam Lynn a bit and you start to wonder if, on just the right night, maybe he’d have outdrawn Buck Owens. His nickname bestowed upon him by scorekeeper Tim Wheeler as a reference to a character in the Our Gang serials of the 1930s and 1940s with a similar deep, croaking voice, Dennis “Froggy” Gallion had the first base side of the front gate named in his honor last month, commemorating his nearly two decades of loyalty to the club.
He threw out the first pitch at the club’s last regular season home game, and got a louder cheer for it than first baseman Justin Seager did the week before when he hit a game-tying, two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth grand slam against Lake Elsinore. There’s a reason for that; nobody means more to the folks around here than the team’s longtime program seller. He’s a veritable star.
Froggy’s name lightens the mood immediately for Jeff, who breaks into a smile just thinking about the loyal, jovial program seller who has become a de facto operations assistant before games.
“There are not a lot of people in this day and age that want to take a risk on a guy like Froggy,” Jeff says, alluding to the man’s mild disabilities. “People love Froggy, and he works so hard. He’ll do anything for you. He’s never told me ‘no’ in two years. He’s helped me clean up trash, clean up the clubhouse, we’ve filled up water bottles together, done laundry, like, you can’t find people like that. The Blaze, [assistant general manager] Susan Wells, and the owner at the time, they all gave him that chance in 1997, and he hasn’t missed a beat ever since.”
Literally everyone at Sam Lynn says that I have to talk to Froggy, so I begin to steady myself for what I expect to be a difficult conversation about the death of this man’s beloved team. And yet, just like every other damn thing at Sam Lynn, it doesn’t work out the way you’d expect; rather than mope or whine about his station, Froggy’s outlook is remarkably sunny despite Bakersfield’s crappy contraction draw.
“It hurts a little bit that the Blaze aren’t going to be in town any more,” Froggy admits. “I’m going to miss this place, but I can find other places to work. I can go to a place across the street, all that stuff really doesn’t matter. I can always get another job. So I’ll go look for another job, and try to make something of it there, and still have memories of this one.”
That doesn’t do justice to Froggy’s entire story, though. The affable man, who leads the crowd in singing Y-M-C-A every night and even lent his voice to some of the team’s between-pitch audio recordings this year, is the guy people remember in Bakersfield. He even has a Twitter account. (Well, OK, Dan started a Twitter account to post Froggy-isms; it’s unclear whether Froggy tweets for himself at this point.)
Tom Browning was a pitching coach in Bakersfield with the Reds’ organization in 2014, and the stories about him are the stuff of local (unprintable) legend. But less discussed is the former big leaguer’s close relationship with Froggy. For whatever reason, the two men formed an unlikely, immediate bond after finding a common interest in a TV show.
“Tom Browning! Yeah, Tom Browning and I became good friends,” Froggy says, his face lighting up at the mere mention of the former pitcher’s name. “We would do our jobs, and then we would go joke around in the clubhouse, and there would be a game show on the TV, and we’d watch Deal Or No Deal. We watched so much of that. But he was a nice guy. I liked him.”
It isn’t just Tom Browning, though, and that’s how, in a strange way, Froggy has put Bakersfield on the unofficial baseball map more than nearly any other Sam Lynn legend could ever hope to achieve.
“Did you know Froggy had a wedding on home plate one year? Well, he had a commitment ceremony on home plate, because he cannot legally get married,” Jeff tells me. “Ask Dan, he has pictures of it. Ken Griffey, Sr. gave his wife away, which, that’s a great story, because come on, it’s Ken Griffey, Sr. And that’s for Froggy, man.
“He used to write Ken Griffey Sr. letters, but he lost his address. Apparently he still writes to Bobby Bonds,” Jeff continues, marveling at the ease in which Froggy navigates legendary baseball lifers. “Like, where else is Ken Griffey Sr. giving away somebody’s wife on home plate, and to a guy like Froggy? Where else is that happening? From what I understand, Froggy was super happy, all the players held their bats up, and she walked under the bats, under the arch. I heard the players even chipped in and got ‘em a hotel room. Where else are High-A players who don’t make any money going to help out someone like Froggy?”
It doesn’t get much more only-in-Bakersfield than that, and even though many minor league towns boast that one person who becomes part of the greater fabric of the park, and the team, and the lore, not many of those can boast watching hours of game shows with a man who won a World Series, went to an All-Star Game, and threw a perfect game.
“Leaving is sad, but what’s going to stay in my head is the fun time I had with these boys, and the people in the front office, and how all these people have become my family,” Froggy reasons. “We might go our separate ways, wherever they go, but we’ll all keep in touch. It doesn’t matter if they leave Bakersfield, nothing will take us apart, because we will always be family no matter what. The coaches, the players, they might be way over there and I might be way over here, but until the day the Lord calls us home, we’ll always be family.”
That reality isn’t lost on Jeff, arguably Froggy’s biggest champion at Sam Lynn today.
“All this won’t hit me until I turn my keys over to the county,” Jeff admits, starting to get emotional about the thought of being the last one out of the ballpark. “Because then, you know, no one is ever going to step in to Sam Lynn again, at least not for minor league ball. It’s going to be hard. Sam Lynn didn’t deserve to go out like this. Bakersfield didn’t…”
Jeff trails off again.
An unrelenting jokester that I’ve observed lighten the mood time and again among his burned-out, stressed-out coworkers late at night in Sam Lynn’s press box, Jeff is different today. He’s introspective, sad, even a little scared. He’s been in Bakersfield just two seasons, but the affection he has for this hellhole is plain to see, and only now, watching him metaphorically crumble alongside the ballpark under his care, do I finally, really, truly start to understand why his mentor Philip is the way he is after giving five years of his life to this old, rundown place.
“I think, honestly, we never expected to win,” Philip says. “When we walked into that place, I think we all knew we were pall bearers. Every day was just about survival. Can we make this ballpark survive one more game? And we did that. We did that every day for five, six years.”
That survival is the only imperative in Bakersfield doesn’t mean one can’t thrive here, though. While Jeff’s department—caring for a nearly eight-decade old ballpark—is at best a break-even proposition considering the challenges optimistically reframed as “quirks,” his colleague tasked with the field itself turned Sam Lynn’s playing surface from a disaster to an oasis in two years’ time. And the field hasn’t always been this good; just a few years ago, it was arguably the single worst aspect of Sam Lynn Ballpark.
“I know when I played there, the playing surface was pretty bad,” Justin Miller remembers of his time pitching there for the Rangers’ organization in 2009 and 2010. “My second year, there was a third baseman, I think he was a San Jose player, and I guess there was a lip from the grass to the dirt because a ball hit that lip and came up and hit him right in the throat. He went down, man. They had to get an ambulance to get him off the field.”
San Jose’s broadcaster Joe Ritzo remembers that play immediately when I ask him about it during the Giants’ Thursday night playoff game at Sam Lynn.
“Yeah, that was Drew Biery,” Joe confirms. “That was tough.”
“I remember him nearly dying on the field,” Dan offers, a somber look on his face.
There aren’t many horror stories like that any more with this playing surface. With two Sam Lynn years under his belt, groundskeeper Billy Brosemer has given respectability to the most important part of the facility, at least as far as big league clubs are concerned, and everyone has taken note. Blaze employees, players, coaches, even fans are quick to praise Billy for turning the field around.
Back in April, Rockies prospect Ryan Castellani raved about the mound after a road start there with the Modesto Nuts. A month later, I heard the same thing from Yency Almonte, another Rockies prospect, and at the end of the year, Lake Elsinore’s Brett Kennedy also shared high praise for the playing surface. In a league with more than a few treacherous infields, the fact that stingy old Sam Lynn would draw such praise as a league-leader is notable.
“We got the reputation on Bakersfield back in spring training from the guys who were here last year,” Rockies pitching prospect Jerry Vasto says about visiting the unique ballpark. “It’s a strange layout, not the greatest stands, and the clubhouse is a little tight, but it’s baseball. And you know what, once you’re on the field, it’s nice. It was a very good playing surface and mound.”
All that praise reflects on Billy, an unassuming man who quite clearly likes to stay out of the spotlight, both literally and metaphorically. During a game, you’ll find him tucked away in his office of sorts, the part of Sam Lynn nobody ever sees, hidden near the home club’s bullpen down the left field line as he waits for the game to end so he can do his work on the field. It’s him on the lawnmower as I lean against his John Deere which, he’s quick to note, are the only two pieces of equipment he has to use.
Triple-A facilities rotate dozens of groundskeeping staffers through on a part-time basis in addition to the two or three full-time staffers at each affiliate, and other High-A clubs have a group of part-timers around to help out every night with field care. Billy doesn’t have that. Besides him, there’s one guy (who leaves at 4 p.m.) and a motley crew of four teenagers that help during games, no more than two per night.
Not one to seek out accolades, Billy is at once intensely, quietly proud of what he’s accomplished with his limited resources and budget, and yet, much like Jeff, very plainly uncertain about his now-murky future. He’s made a home in Bakersfield. He has a serious girlfriend now, and she’s a native. In a different way than Dan, who’s heading back to a wife, a baby on the way, and an entirely new life in LA, or Jeff, who’s free to take an ops job anywhere in the country as he enjoys the freedom of his youth, Billy has more to consider as the Blaze flame out.
“It’s tough to see it all go, and I think that’s going to be the hardest thing when I walk out of here the last time,” Billy grudgingly admits. “If I ever walk back in here in the future, what’s it going to look like? I think it’ll break my heart if it’s ruined, just knowing the sweat and blood and thousands of hours of my life being out here trying to make the best playing surface possible.
“I’ve invested so much of my time, and my energy, and mental health. You can ask my girlfriend,” he continues, “when I’m not here, I’m still here. I’m always thinking about this place, always planning what I’m going to do, how can I improve it, how I can make do with nothing. And it’s tough, but ultimately, the best thing for me is hearing it from the guys. That’s what makes the long days and extra work worth it.”
Blaze players are firmly in Brosemer’s corner, as I find out time and again throughout the summer. There’s a mutual respect there; put in hard manual labor on the field every afternoon under Bakersfield’s unrelenting sun, and the players will take notice.
“We come to the field every day with the same group of people, and you’re with them for what, six months? So you try and get to know everybody, and make friends with everybody,” Blaze third baseman Joe DeCarlo says when I ask about Billy. “Right off the bat I kind of figured out that Billy was a good guy after talking to him a few times. And I figured that OK, if I compliment him a few times, and get off on the right foot, if I don’t like something down at third base he can take it with a grain of salt and help me out.”
“I don’t know, man, Billy is a good dude, and he’s out here working hard with the rest of us. Those guys are definitely a big part of what we’re doing, so you can’t just push them off to the side, you know what I mean?”
It takes a certain personality to make it work as a groundskeeper, and Billy’s is suited for the gig. Deflecting or outright avoiding the spotlight is only part of it, though; DeCarlo’s overly polite and friendly attitude is more common than not, but there’s always that one player who has a bad night and, looking for a scapegoat, gives Billy an earful about the playing surface.
That stuff rolls off the groundskeeper’s back, since it comes with the territory, but it’s still a humbling experience, and one that molds how he walks the line of humility and hard work.
“I try to tell our small crew all the time to work every day to get things back to where they should be, no matter what,” Billy says. “I take the input from our team every day, and I really try to make the field better than the last time they were here. Sometimes that’s hard to do when we have an 18-game Babe Ruth tournament here when the Blaze are on the road, but my goal is to see the problems and fix them before these guys get back, so we can maintain a good facility for these guys.
“The biggest compliment is that our guys like the way it plays here,” he sums up. “They say they are excited to come back home, they know how the ball is going to bounce, they know there aren’t going to be any oddities. That’s the biggest compliment I can get.”
As the big league clubs collectively eschew Bakersfield, their most obvious concerns are in two areas: playing field quality as it relates to player safety, and overall facilities (batting cages, weight rooms, clubhouses, etc.) geared toward player development. And in that first column, Dan is adamant that the major leaguers are dropping Sam Lynn in spite of Billy’s work on the field, rather than because of it.
“Besides the fact that our ballpark faces the setting sun, which to me is more of a quirk and less of a significant setback, I don’t know what everybody’s beef is with this place,” Dan says. “I’ve looked at all of the stadiums in the California League, and our field is in just as good a shape as any of them, maybe better. So if you’re talking about player safety, that’s not an issue. Yeah, if you’re talking about a gym on site, we don’t have that, so maybe that’s a thing that a parent organization wants. But we have a deal with a gym in town that has eight locations, so players can literally go any direction and land in a gym. Beyond that, it’s a bad rap, and that’s unfair.”
Maybe Dan comes off a bit defensive, or even bitter, in that quote, but that’s understandable considering his position. An assistant GM and one of the veterans on the staff, he no doubt feels responsible for the futures of those he brought to Bakersfield the last few years knowing good and well it all might blow up on them sooner rather than later. He’s not the only one quick to defend Billy, though.
“To me, when people say this place is a dump, Billy made this into one of the most beautiful fields in the league,” Kat Ezell, the team’s community relations assistant, tells me. “That guy works his ass off, and it is such a beautiful field, and fans come up to me all the time. Even my dad, who is not a baseball person, took note of the field. So if people are talking about our field with that attitude, it’s like, ‘dude, lay off, this guy works his ass off with the bare minimum of supplies.’”
As they defend each other, it’s commendable that the front office has remained as open and accessible as ever here in its final days, rather than some others that might have sheltered themselves away from the outside world. That’s not Bakersfield’s style, of course—and Dan and Kat’s defensiveness of Billy is about as bitter as you’ll find them during what otherwise has become a sort of macabre only-in-Bakersfield going-away party. But the bitterness about contraction, and the pain of losing jobs, careers, and dreams, is very, very real. For some of these people, this loss will be raw for some time.
“Yeah, I’m bitter, not really at the people of Bakersfield, but just at the situation in general,” Billy admits. “But then again, when something gets left to run like this has been, we knew it was happening. We knew we weren’t up to standards, and this has been a possibility for a while unless something was done. Nothing was done, so… “
Billy trails off. He’s not wrong, and that’s the core of the issue. The demise of the Blaze is at once the fault of the city, the county, the ballpark, the ownership group, the community, the (lack of) fan support, the front office that, try as they might, never delivered numbers, Minor League Baseball’s desire to expand its Carolina League footprint, lackluster effort from the Cal League to combat a known, two-decade long issue, High Desert’s increasingly untenable position in its home ballpark over in Adelanto, and, well, pretty much anybody else you can think to blame.
Point a finger in any direction, Dan mentioned on a radio program a few days after the contraction news was made official in late August, and you’ll find somebody who deserves a share of the blame for Bakersfield’s demise.
“The county had 25 years to try to combat this, and we here in Bakersfield have nobody to blame but ourselves,” Dan argues. “When everybody was building a ballpark in the 1990s, we didn’t build one. When we had all these opportunities over the last ten years, before the oil recession, we didn’t build one. So, what are you going to do? Maybe this is a situation where something needs to be taken away before it can come back stronger again.
“But I really don’t want to push the narrative that this is somebody else’s fault,” Dan continues, walking that line he’s been on all month in fielding media requests and playing his part as the bigger man in a no-win situation for his beloved club. “It sucks that another city is stepping up and taking baseball away, because ultimately that is what’s happening, but they are able to do that because we didn’t heed almost three decades of warning. So it’s all of our faults that this didn’t happen. The oil guys tried, they couldn’t get it done. The county tried, they couldn’t get it done. And at the end of the day, if nobody can get it done for 30 years, eventually you are going to lose it, and that’s what we are looking at right now.”
The sobering reality of being part of a dead club walking has, as you’d expect, affected morale. But again, here’s where the weird you don’t know me but you don’t like me thing rears its head, and motivation in Bakersfield hasn’t so much waned as changed.
“I struggled a little bit today. I sat out here adjusting the motors, and it was like, shit, just looking around thinking about all the work that I’ve done here and after the season, none of it is going to matter,” Billy admits. “But ultimately, I have a great relationship with our team, and now this is about them, it’s no longer about me. I know my future here is done, but the guys are out here trying to win a Cal League championship, so I have to think more about them than I do me. I can’t mope around. I can’t let our standards dip because I’m sad about losing my job in two weeks.”
Isn’t that what Dan said about the press box equipment catching on fire? This is what Sam Lynn’s all about: It’s never easy, as if the whole front office could just quit now and walk straightaway into new jobs somewhere else. That’s too simple. Here, a front office with no future in Bakersfield must now gut it out to the bitter end which, unless the Blaze win it all, will undoubtedly wrap up in playoff heartbreak sooner rather than later.
Consider that Sam Lynn’s macabre going-away present to the Blaze.
“It’s pretty sad,” Billy admits, visibly dejected as he discusses it. “That’s one thing I didn’t realize, it’s actually kind of sad. We have always known this was coming, but to see it now, it’s not just a job; a time in my life is ending. I spent the last two years busting it here, trying to make this place the best I could with nothing, and now, that’s been taken from us. So much time, so much effort, so many missed nights of not being anywhere else, and in the foreseeable future, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I don’t know where I’m going to work.
“I’d like to think that the groundskeeper dream isn’t dead, but right now it’s so hard to find positions like this, and it’s going to be a challenge to get back into this industry, even in the college ranks,” he acknowledges soberly. “In this industry, it’s so hard to find your spot. I got it here, and I was successful, but it still might not be enough to get me somewhere else. And that’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Just as with Jeff, the conversation takes a difficult turn. It’s not a fluffy human-interest story about a stupid baseball team moving out of town or the quirky ballpark it leaves behind; at its core, this is the death of a man’s dream.
“I’m not exactly sure how I’ll end up remembering this place,” Billy concludes. “The experience I’ve gained here has really pointed me to where I want to go in the future, especially being a young person with limited experience getting a shot to do it. So I guess I’m always going to hold a special place in my heart for Sam Lynn. And that’s why I think it would kill me if I were to come back and see the field torn up or something. Oh man, the amount of time I spent trimming all those weeds. That would kill me the most if I were to come back in six months and just see the field thrashed. Like, what did I do for the last two years? What impact did I have?”
Hey, you don’t know me, but you don’t like me, you say you care less how I feel
But how many of you that sit and judge me ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?
“YOU’RE GOING TO TALK to Tim Wheeler, right?”
Left-handed pitcher Anthony Misiewicz just threw ball one to lead off the top of the fourth inning for the Blaze, and Dan ought to be calling that pitch on the radio. Instead, he’s talking to me, trying to be as helpful as possible lining up interviews because, well, that’s what one does as part of a skeleton crew of a front office.
“Yeah, man, I was actually going to get him tomorrow.”
“OK, good,” Dan responds, uncrossing his arms and starting to lurch forward to his radio cubby, realizing the game is back on. He turns back to me. “You might want to ask Wheeler about the time Eli Marrero told him to hang himself.”
“Yeah, Eli Marrero,” Dan responds matter-of-factly, as though this were any other everyday conversation. “This was 2011 or 2012, whenever he was a coach here with the Reds. Eli Marrero told Wheeler to hang himself.” Dan smirks. “You’ll see.”
The straightforward delivery is at once jarring and endearing. Who would do this but a coach in Bakersfield? And who would be so blasé about it but, well, a member of the Blaze front office?
The next day, I sit down with Tim Wheeler, Bakersfield’s official scorer for more than two decades, and waste no time.
“Dan told me to ask you about the time Eli Marrero told you to hang yourself,” I stammer out, as Tim and I relax on two massive reclining chairs at the top of Bakersfield’s main grandstand, waiting for the sun to go down before a night game.
“Oh, Jesus,” Wheeler says, throwing his hands up and leaning back in his recliner as his steel trap of a mind goes back to that day in 2012 when Marrero was here as the Reds’ hitting coach. Tim was, he concedes, having the “game from hell” one evening, struggling to make several difficult scoring decisions on increasingly close plays.
“It’s like when a pitcher gets a start and everything is just a cock-high fastball that they are drilling all over the place. It’s just close play after close play, and it was killing me. All of a sudden, there’s one where the right fielder is running to a fly ball, and he makes the catch, but the center fielder crashes into him and the ball pops out. That’s an error. That’s a book rule error if a player crashes into another player who has made a catch, and so, I charge an error.”
Marrero, sitting in the cutout reserved for coaches, photographers, and on-deck batters just down the base line from home plate, sees the ‘E’ pop up on Bakersfield’s right-field scoreboard. He whips around and glares into the press box, making a hanging gesture with one hand and pointing at Tim with the other.
“This was at the start of the year, and I turn to our GM and say, ‘who the fuck is that?’ And she goes, ‘that’s Eli Marrero,’” Tim recalls. “And I say ‘yeah, well, fuck him.’ And I had another close play later, and he turns around and he points at me, and does it again. Needless to say, the next day I went down to the manager and told him I will never have any discussions with Eli Marrero whatsoever. That was pure bush league.
“I don’t subscribe to the theory that I’m only supposed to screw the visiting team,” Tim continues, the faintest outline of a smirk growing on his face. “I try to screw each side equally. I’ve been yelled at, I’ve been called everything, I’ve heard every name in the book over and over again, that I’m the worst official scorer they’ve ever seen, that it’s the worst call they’ve ever seen, I’m the biggest homer they’ve ever seen, but Eli Marrero, that’s absolutely no class whatsoever.”
Dan gets a disturbing level of macabre glee out of the fact that a long-time big leaguer requested the team’s official scorer hang himself, but Tim’s re-telling of the tale is a little more serious than I expect. It’s as though the incident happened yesterday, and Wheeler is strenuously arguing his case before a judge in baseball’s kangaroo court in the hopes that some cosmic, delayed punishment will land at Marrero’s feet. That’s kind of the way Tim has to be, because of the responsibilities of his scorer’s job; this is the way I see it, he must reason, and this is the judgment.
Deep down, though, I wonder if there’s a part of Tim that takes pride in the Marrero story. It’s such a Bakersfield thing, after all, a weird badge of honor in baseball’s most bizarre environment. Just imagine them adding a line to the song: how many of you that sit and judge me have ever walked the streets of Bakersfield… after Eli Marrero tells you to hang yourself?
It’s not just Eli Marrero, though. Tim Wheeler is a walking look at baseball history in Bakersfield. Want to know about the longest nine-inning game in pro baseball history? It happened here, back in 2011. Tim was there. He scored it, even brought a copy of the official game scorecard back to Sam Lynn this week so Dave could look through the absurd 24-19 finish between Bakersfield—who lost—and Inland Empire. Four hours and fifty-five minutes of bad, bad baseball.
“One team would score six runs, the other would answer with four, a team would score two, and the other team would answer with five, hits were going everywhere, it was a Coors Field-type of game,” Wheeler remembers.
“When the game finished, I didn’t realize it was a record until I looked at the Cal League record book, and I was like, ‘son of a bitch, we just had a league record.’ The longest nine-inning Cal League game had been 4:20-something, so significantly shorter than what we just had. And I knew there was probably no way of verifying all the different leagues in history, but I go, hey, OK, I think we’ve got a pro baseball record here.
“Just a crazy night for baseball,” he sums up. “You have a lot of boring games, and a lot of bad games, and then you have some that stick in your head, and 24-19 in just under five hours? Yeah, that’s going to stick with you.”
Admittedly, a lot of games stick with Tim, far more than anybody else around Sam Lynn can boast. He can recall teams, players, games, and single events—like the Eli Marrero incident—all at the slightest provocation. The man holds court in Sam Lynn’s press box every night before games, and one is wise to shut up and listen to him talk. Now wrapping up his 22nd year keeping score in Bakersfield, Monday night’s game three against Visalia will mark Tim’s 1,541st game in that position. The first 1,439 were consecutive, only to be halted by cancer. He missed six games and was back in the press box in under a week.
Baseball leaving Bakersfield is, by everyone’s account, one of the bigger tragedies of Tim’s life—and that’s not taken lightly, considering what the man has been through. A few years back, he lost a leg due to an infection caused by a shotgun blast he sustained years earlier that, as the story goes, probably should have killed him. He’s beaten cancer. Twice. His wife suffered a severe heart attack last year, and this year, just a month ago, his son died in a car accident. Through it all, Blaze baseball has been Tim’s escape from reality, a beautiful window of four or five (or six or seven, if it’s a 24-19 marathon) hours away from the harsh, unforgiving real world.
“I cannot legitimately think of anything else that could really go wrong for poor Tim Wheeler, and then this! Baseball is his life,” Dan tells me, obviously pained with the raw deal handed down to people like Wheeler as an ugly byproduct of contraction. “Since the news came out, he and I have been trying to figure out a way for him to work at another ballpark, for him to score some games somewhere, or something.
“He booked his surgery to lose a leg around the baseball season so he didn’t miss a game, man,” Dan continues. “It took cancer to break his streak. And that’s… I mean, I don’t know where the willpower comes from, because if I got hit with those three or four truly life-changing tragedies, and then after all that it’s like ‘oh, by the way, you’re also not going to have anything to do with your free time. The one distraction you have, say bye to that.’ I’m not alone in saying that there is a ton of love for Tim Wheeler around here. The broadcasters of the Cal League are a weird little group of people sitting around and swearing in the Sam Lynn press box, and it all revolves around Tim. He’s as much this ballpark as anybody.”
Philip says that if you ask Tim about the most memorable player in Bakersfield history, he won’t name a big leaguer; he’ll share some arcane, random guy who never made The Show, and he’ll tell you all the special things that player did during his time at Sam Lynn. All that sums up Tim, a steel trap and a gamer through and through.
“Let’s have a funeral for Sam Lynn, man,” Philip says, sharing his grandiose plan to send the park to the dustbin of history.
“I want to have a day where we open up the gates, let people walk in and walk around the field. We can leave some baseballs out and let them play catch on the field. Let ‘em run the bases, because for a lot of people, being on the field is a magical experience. Let Wheeler say something. Hell, let Froggy say something. You know, every time I’m upset at work, or over baseball because it’s 140 straight 18-hour days, I walk out on the field during batting practice and it’s like, oh, OK, this is why I do this. My first year in Bakersfield, I walked out there, and Ken Griffey, Sr., Pat Kelly, and Eric Davis were out on the mound telling stories about Dave Winfield. At that moment, I was like, OK, baseball is awesome.
“But Froggy and Wheeler, they are the tent poles, man,” Philip continues. “That ballpark was built specifically for Froggy and Wheeler. It wasn’t built for me. I fit the mold of that ballpark. I fit every broken, ugly part of that ballpark. You know, Jeff just sent me a picture of a jar of rusty metal that Mikey wants to throw away, and I’m like, ‘whoa, you can’t throw away that jar of rusty metal. I found that rusty metal at the ballpark, that’s my jar of rusty metal.’ So yeah, give me that broken, weird shit, that’s me. But Wheeler is Sam Lynn Ballpark. Nobody took his job more seriously, which is good, because we didn’t always take our jobs seriously, so I’m glad somebody did. That ballpark was made for him. He’s got other scorekeeping jobs that he does, but he doesn’t care about them. He cares about baseball.”
But as romantic as Dan and Philip may make out Tim’s place in Bakersfield lore, the scorekeeper himself—not unlike Froggy, in a way—is facing down contraction with a decidedly more realistic bent.
“It’s kind of like forced retirement,” Tim says, shrugging. “I’m retired in the first place, but baseball has always been my heroin, my drug. I feel like I’m kind of having it ripped away from me, but I’ve heard the rumors just like everybody else has over the years, so I’ve always gone into every second year with a player development contract expecting to hear those words that the end is here. And now, you know, we are on life support, we are ready for the last rites, and we are walking towards the light.”
“Literally towards the light,” I say, pointing toward the massive center field sunscreen and the ball of light dipping slowly behind it before the evening’s game.
“Exactly,” Tim laughs. “There you go. The sun is setting on us.”
Tim’s sense of humor is sharp, and biting, and yet there’s an underlying likability there. The barbs he trades with the team’s deep-voiced public address announcer, Mike Cushine, is itself the stuff of legend and lore, the two men lobbing insults and jokes incessantly in the bizarre, goofy world that is the Sam Lynn press box. During a mid-week day game in April, the stands populated by a couple thousand local kids here with a variety of elementary school groups, Tim’s helpful suggestion for ballpark music was to play Pat Benetar’s Hell Is For Children. That’s just who he is.
He’s not romantic in the slightest when it comes to Streets of Bakersfield, either.
“I hate country music, so there’s no romance to that song,” he admits. “I’ve been given every bobblehead over the years, and I gave away the Buck Owens one from this year. I’m sure Buck was a great man, but I hear the song and I just don’t like country music.
“The only time I want to hear a song is when we have clinched a [season] half, and I want to hear Van Halen’s Top of the World, so I will request that,” he continues. “But they’ve only been able to win it four times in what would be 44 halves over 22 years. The only one other song I like to listen to, and the ballpark has to be cleared out, is the unedited version of Clarence Carter’s Strokin’.”
That makes Dan laugh, maybe the hardest he’s laughed all year, to think about Tim and the not-safe-for-work words of Clarence Carter.
“Tim is a loon. I call him insane to his face all the time,” Dan says, shaking his head. “You’ve been in the press box for when somebody turns one of his pencils the wrong direction, right? Go up there today, go up to his desk and just rearrange one thing. Just turn a pencil, like, eight degrees. That’s all it takes. He’ll come in, and he’ll scour the room to see who was ‘fucking with his shit,’ as he’ll yell, and he’ll reach over and slide it back into the direction it’s supposed to face.
“So he’s nuts,” Dan sums up, before sighing. “But I love him with all of my heart.”
Cushine, who has been on the PA at Sam Lynn every night for 13 years, is the deep, booming in-ballpark voice of the Blaze that comes down from on high. Dan calls him the best PA voice in all of minor league baseball, and he might not be wrong. Cushine is cue-ball bald and whip smart, ready to hand out a jab to all comers in that goofy Sam Lynn press box. A loud New Yorker displaced in this California valley, and a math teacher by trade, Cushine is just as liable to take the one-liners as much as give them, and he does so from Wheeler every night. Much of it is show; watch Cushine closely enough and you see that deep down, tough guy New York exterior and all, he’s a big softie.
“When I first came down here with Visalia in 2007 and 2008, I knew Tim and Cushine as the two loudmouths of the Cal League press boxes,” Dan remembers, laughing about the two characters that color Sam Lynn in a way few ever could. “Those two love each other without question. They see each other year-round at other gigs around town and it’s that same bond, but when they are courtside at a basketball game, they can’t get away with the crap they can in our press box.
“They are screaming things back and forth with the press box windows open that would horrify decent people,” Dan continues, laughing so hard now that he’s blushing. “But that’s just part of the ambiance here. If you don’t act like a loon at Sam Lynn, you’re not going to make it. This place will break you if you try to be normal.”
I corner Cushine one day to talk about this.
“Hey Mike, can we chat for a minute? I just got done with Wheeler, we talked for about an hour.”
“Yeah, well you’re not going to get that out of me,” Cushine fires back. “Unlike Timmy over there, I’ve got a real job to do.”
Jabs at the other man, even when he isn’t there to defend himself—that’s Mike and Tim.
“Look, we’ve done 13 seasons together, and that’s a long time for anybody to even work in the Cal League, let alone in the same press box for 13 years,” Cushine says about Wheeler. “We just started talking and joking with each other, and after a while you kind of go, OK, that’s his personality, and we’re around the same age, so we experienced a lot of the broader things growing up even though I was in New York and he was in California. And we have commonalities in things like music and sports, even though he roots for losers, and I root for winners. But that’s part of what makes it fun.”
Another subtle jab there, this one at Wheeler’s beloved Chicago Cubs.
“I enjoy being able to kid with each other and not take offense, and if other people hear, so be it,” Cushine continues, shrugging. “That’s kind of how it all started.”
Cushine isn’t just known in the press box—or in the California League—for his relationship with Tim, though. A close friend of the people that run locally-owned Lengthwise Brewery, every night Mike brings a growler of beer (OK, sometimes two) to the ballpark. Broadcaster? Media member? PA guy? Have a drink in the press box! This is Bakersfield, after all, the outlaws of the Cal League. “Product,” as Mike refers to it, is to media members and team officials as synonymous with Sam Lynn as that massive sunscreen in center field.
“This is apparently something unique, I didn’t know this doesn’t happen at all the other ballparks,” Mike says, laughing about his product evangelism among staff during games. “I just kind of assumed, like, why wouldn’t you do this? It just makes for a happier workplace. And everything gets done, it’s not like there’s anything that doesn’t get accomplished, but look, it’s baseball. It’s a game. We’re here to have fun. And when people come to visit, we want them to have fun when they come to Bakersfield and hang out in the press box.
“All of the people that have been in charge here have had no problem with bringing product here as long as we all do what we are supposed to do, and we all obviously have,” he continues, the more-serious teacher attributes revealing themselves in Cushine’s otherwise-constant cloak of laid-back humor. “I think Timmy missed a game or two in 22 years, and I’ve missed one game in 13 years. From what I can tell, we are pretty good at what we do. So we just like sharing with people, and having a good time up here.”
Cushine pauses, smiling.
“But you’ve got to have product. It’s part of what makes Bakersfield unique.”
Philip laughs at the mere mention of the word “product,” knowing exactly where that conversation is headed.
“Nowhere in baseball does the PA announcer show up anywhere with a growler of beer, you know? I made hot keys on the PA computer so he didn’t have to think, just so he could drink and push the red button when someone struck out,” Philip recalls. “Like, let’s make it easy for Mike. He’s going to show up after the brewery, he’s going to drink some beer. He’s been working hard all day, so let’s just make it easy and make that button red. Oh, there’s a walk? Push the blue button.”
That laid-back press box culture is one more ‘screw you’ that Bakersfield fires off to the rest of the league as they depart this world. Professional, calm press box environments dot the Cal League’s franchises. None of them are bad—Lancaster and Inland Empire are gorgeous, Modesto is helpful to the point of bending over backwards, even Visalia’s old place is charmingly unique—and yet they’re all just a little more sterile than what goes down every night at Sam Lynn.
“When I came here in 1995, they were just coming off the Dodgers being here for eight or ten years, the general manager at the time ran a very tight ship, and everything was truly sterile,” Tim remembers of the early days.
“Then in 1996, the team was so bad that the general manager resigned, the owner’s son took over, and because the product on the field was so bad, you just start cracking jokes to lighten the mood. That’s when it started, back in 1996.”
That 1996 team is, itself, the stuff of legend. Well, at least in Tim’s mind it is. A forgettable year for literally everyone else involved—the team finished 39-101, and lost the last 22 games of the year—Tim remembers that summer with a perverse sense of glee. They won just 15 games in the season’s second half. They had to dress their 44-year-old pitching coach one time. If the Blaze generally are the Cal League’s ugly stepsister, then the ’96 club might as well be redheaded.
“Tim brought me a few box scores from that 1996 team that finished with 39 wins, and I’m 36 years old right now, but I felt like I was a kid again,” Dave says. “You hear his stories and you can’t help but ask another question. It’s almost like a kid at Christmas. What’s next? What’s in that box? What’s in that stocking? It’s exactly that way with a guy like Tim. He’s seen it all.”
The 1996 team was bad. They finished 50 games out of first place. They finished 40 games out of third place. An old-school co-op team that accepted random stragglers from nearly a dozen big league organizations, at one point they fielded a roster of just 12 active players. Tim remembers the night very well, on August 26, 1996, when the team activated Blake Green, their 44-year-old pitching coach, to start a game.
“We were down to 11 players, and our general manager at the time, Jack Patton, got a hold of a guy named Wayne Edwards, who had pitched for us the year before and was out of baseball,” Tim remembers. “Jack says, ‘can you make it tonight and pitch for us? We are hurting, and I’ll pay you $200 a game,’ I think the number was. And Wayne said, ‘Jack, I’ll make it as soon as I can. I’m serving subpoenas for this law firm in the San Fernando Valley.”
So Bakersfield, who was hosting San Jose (of course they were hosting San Jose) did what you’d expect Bakersfield to do in that situation, awful 1996 club or not: The outlaws started stalling.
“We did everything we could think of,” Tim remembers. “‘What happened to those sprinklers? Oh, some of the lights just miraculously did not go on, oops.’ But we had to eventually get the game going, you know? You didn’t want to forfeit when you were a co-op, because back in those days, co-op teams had to put up I think a $5,000 deposit with the league because there as always the possibility of forfeiting a game in a co-op situation. Management didn’t want to lose that money.
“So finally, the pitching coach got the game going, and he went about an inning and two thirds,” Tim remembers. “But I think he walked eight.”
Tim’s right on both counts; Green gave up four runs on no hits and eight walks in an inning and two-thirds. Edwards showed up in the second inning, rushed to get into a uniform, hurriedly warmed up in the bullpen, and then promptly got hammered over the next seven-and-a-third innings, allowing nine runs (four earned) on three walks and 14 hits. The visiting San Jose Giants won 13-0; just another ballgame for the ’96 club.
There was the time manager Graig Nettles nearly got in a fistfight with a pitcher on the field during a road game at High Desert. Nettles came out to pull the kid, and not wanting to leave the game, he turned around and fired the ball over the left field wall before Nettles could take it. Chaos ensued.
There was the game that a starting pitcher, fresh off getting shelled to the tune of 11 or 12 runs in a couple innings, was walking towards the clubhouse when his wife came barreling out of the stands. Unexpectedly, she ran up to him, took off her wedding ring, and fired it right at the dumbfounded hurler.
“She turned around, stormed off, walked all the way out of the park,” Tim remembers, laughing about it. “We found out later he was cheating on her, but yeah, she fired the wedding ring at him pretty well. The thing that always got me is how she threw the only strike by the person with that last name in that game.”
Tim’s view from the press box has colored Sam Lynn’s legendary tales for two decades. And yet, that view has always been obstructed. Just as the field faces west, so too does the press box sitting atop the stands, and the hour or two in there before a game every night are brutal due to the sun. So brutal, in fact, that a couple years ago the Blaze finally installed shades that they keep pulled down until about fifteen seconds before the game’s first pitch.
“Before we installed those shades, for a while, man, it was just a solar flare in there,” Dan remembers.
And every night, in that fifteen-second window before the first pitch, Dan is the man tasked with climbing up on the tables and rolling up the shades, because they don’t just slide up like they should. Like everything at Sam Lynn, they’re broken. Not broken badly enough to be replaced—that’d be too easy—but broken just badly enough to make Dan look bad, and seventy times a year, he has to climb up on the desks and walk down the line, rolling up shade after shade.
And yet, with the shades down, and the regulars packed into the air-conditioned room listening to Tim hold court about the 1996 team or some other only-in-Bakersfield story, a culture has been created. Go to enough “normal” press boxes, and the one at Sam Lynn just doesn’t seem real after a while.
“Those nights in the press box for me are this weird, surreal moment where it almost feels like this doesn’t count,” Dan says, acknowledging it’s the single thing he’ll miss the most when baseball begins again without Bakersfield next spring.
“Like, this doesn’t count, right? Anything you say up here doesn’t count. That’s the Sam Lynn press box, and it’s a very unique experience. Next year, I can call college baseball games. Someone will give me enough money to buy a Snickers bar and drive to a place to call a game. That opportunity is out there. But the thing that I will never have anywhere else, that I didn’t even have traveling the California League, is those three or four hours every night in the press box where we’ve got our weird routine. It just doesn’t seem real.
“And it starts with the weird mix of songs leading up to the game, and that’s on Philip,” Dan continues. I’m not sure if he’s assigning credit or blame.
“It is the weirdest, most eclectic screwball mix of songs. Like trumpet Sunday, for instance. You’ve been here on a trumpet Sunday, right? When we’ve got the ballpark rocking out to Chuck Mangione leading up to a game? Yeah.”
“Yeah, I’m responsible for bringing trumpet Sundays to Bakersfield, that’s me,” Philip boasts when I follow up. “It’s the greatest thing in the world. You can tell Dan I said this, too—it’s better than Motown Mondays. Just think, you’re hanging out at the ballpark, it’s Sunday, it’s hot as hell, and Chuck Mangione comes on. So many people double take, like wait, is this Feels So Good? Yeah, you bet it is. Between Chuck Mangione and Scatman, what else are you looking for in a baseball game?”
It’s far from just trumpet Sundays, though. The press box culture at Sam Lynn may be part outlaw, part outlier, but it’s full-on warm and weird, and all kinds of media outcasts are welcome to join in the collective love of baseball at one of the country’s most unique venues.
“When you’re broadcasting in other ballparks, you’re in your little booth, and you’re just sitting alone, and I can tell you definitively that there are many nights traveling the Cal League over the last half decade where I’ve sat in one of those booths and thought, ‘I could take a nap here for two innings and nobody would care,’” Dan admits of his on-air days on the road. “That’s not how we do things here. It’s about camaraderie. We’re stuck together, we’re laughing together, we’re having a good time, and it’s how baseball should be. Everybody is just having fun. Whether we’re screaming, cursing, picking on each other or having fun with each other, losing that part really makes me sad. The crap that leads up to the game, you do it because you have to get it done, but those few hours every night, man, that’s magic.”
That’s why Tim has kept coming back for 22 years, cancer and surgery and tragedy and all. It’s why he’s dreading the day he’ll be forced to hang ‘em up this month.
“Whatever my involvement with the game, I want it to be fun,” Tim says. “I want it to be because I want to be there, and our press box is like a six-month family reunion that changes family members and rotates every four or five years. I’ve been fortunate in that everybody who has come in can make it human, rather than this sterile, button-down environment that a lot of places probably work under.”
Better than maybe anybody on Bakersfield’s front office staff, Dave Gascon gets what it means to create and promote a press box culture. He’s among the newest of staffers, joining the front office at the start of the year to help Dan broadcast road games. At home, he runs the music and sound effects, posting up next to Cushine every night where he inserts himself gleefully in the PA man’s verbal jousting with Wheeler. But a former college football player who still holds onto his athlete’s mentality, Dave knows this culture.
“When you go back and ask athletes in any sport what they miss the most, I would venture to say, nine times out of ten, they’ll tell you they miss the locker room, and they miss it because of the camaraderie,” Dave reasons.
“Those things, you will never, ever get them back. I didn’t realize it until I was done playing football in college, and I figured out I would never see that again. So for us, this is that locker room environment, where we are all here together, and we all stick up for each other even if we snap and snip at each other. We’re together five, six months out of the year working 140 games, and a lot of us are getting one or two days off a month. We are there to lift each other up, and at the same time push each other down when we need to be humbled a little bit. We give, and we get.”
Dave knows a thing or two about giving and getting, and his relatively fresh history at Sam Lynn hasn’t precluded him from jumping into the thick of things among veterans like Cushine and Wheeler. On no day was that more evident, ironically, than what was arguably one of the franchise’s greatest days of all-time back in June: the day Osmer Morales, Isaac Sanchez, and Jake Zokan combined to throw a no-hitter against Modesto. It was the first home no-hitter in Bakersfield’s 75-year history, the first no-hitter Dan’s ever called, and the first no-hitter in Tim’s 1,500-plus games as an official scorer, so for the men and women working in Sam Lynn’s press box that night, the event was sacred, solemn, and significant.
The whole thing became an only-in-Bakersfield ‘screw you’ to the customs and superstitions that permeate baseball, much to Dave’s delight—and Tim’s chagrin.
“I like to see a pitcher, or pitchers, have a great day on the mound, and a no-hitter has been one of my two bucket list items, with the other one being the Bakersfield Blaze win a Cal League title so I can get a ring,” Tim admits. “I’ve always wanted to score a no-hitter as an official scorer. Well, actually, a perfect game, so that I had no decisions to make.”
I take that part as a wink and a nod to Timmy’s old pal Eli Marrero.
“But I’m a baseball purist, and I hate when somebody mentions that a guy’s got a no-hitter going, or, ‘oh, this pitcher has a perfect game going,’” Wheeler continues. “And in that game, in about the third inning, Dave turns to the entire press box and goes, ‘hey, they got a perfect game going!’ I was like, dude, really?”
Tim stops and leans forward in his chair, pointing down at Billy, who’s hard at work preparing the home plate area for the evening’s game.
“You see that guy right there? Yeah, that’s Dewey Dipshit Douchebag,” Tim says matter-of-factly, as if, hey, that’s just another thing that happens at Sam Lynn. “When I first met him last year, I thought his name was Dewey. And then last year one time, High Desert was here throwing a no-hitter in the sixth or seventh inning, and he walks in to the press box and goes, ‘hey, they got a no-hitter going!’ I just glared at him, like, dude, why?
“Sure enough, very next pitch, there’s a pop up in foul territory at first base and the first baseman clanks the ball,” Tim continues, taking Billy’s blunder of the don’t-talk-about-it custom as a personal betrayal against his bucket list no-hitter. “Next pitch after that, base hit. So I immediately call Billy, ‘douchebag,’ and then later I started adding ‘dipshit’ just for fun. If you look at our suggestion box, I think there’s still ‘Dewey Must Die,’ written in there. I wrote that after he ruined the no-hitter.”
Maybe Dan’s right about Tim being a loon. I decide that moving one of his meticulously ordered pencils an inch or two is probably not a good idea.
Fast-forward to the combined no-hitter in June, then, and the tale of poor Dewey Dipshit Douchebag illuminates Tim’s emotions on this night. Osmer Morales tosses four perfect innings, walks Modesto’s Dom Nunez in the fifth, and gets out of the rest of the frame unscathed. By the time Isaac Sanchez takes the mound in the sixth, Dave is loudly, unashamedly counting outs. Everybody knows you don’t count outs. And yet Dave is turning to Tim after every single batter, reminding the poor, tortured scorekeeper of the gravity of the moment.
“I grew up in LA listening to Vin Scully, and to paraphrase one thing I always remember Scully saying is don’t treat the fans like idiots, and always acknowledge what’s going on,” Dave says, legitimizing his no-hitter shenanigans to an extent, even though he clearly delights in needling Tim. “Don’t dwell on superstition. So in that press box, I don’t believe in any jinx, and I would have said it on the radio if I were calling the game, as well. But, yeah, I had no problems messing with Wheeler.”
Unsurprisingly, Tim’s memory of that day is slightly different.
“So Dave starts to say it, and I just kind of look at him, and go back to scoring the game,” Tim remembers. “And then he says something again in the middle of the fifth inning, so I stand up and stretch, and I see a baseball bat behind me in the press box. I pick up the bat and I start to take practice swings nice and easy. And I point the bat at him, and give him the stink eye. I would do that every half inning, and he would ramp it up every half inning, so I start aiming with the bat, swinging at a point on a chair. You know, just working on my hand-eye coordination. And I’d keep pointing the bat at him in between innings.”
Tim pauses, breaking from the interview to look me in the eye. “I don’t know how you’re going to write all this, but I want to see it. I want to read it all, because it’ll probably be the last time I talk about this. Now that I think about it, that’s really sad.
“Anyways, I realize in the top of the seventh inning that I had the bat on my left shoulder. Superstition, right? So I made sure I kept the bat over my shoulder the entire time the Blaze were in the field. And when the Blaze finally sealed the combined no-hitter, my superstition beat Dave’s jinx. My superstition kicked his jinx’s ass. After the game, we did a ‘hug it out, bitch,’ and that was fun. I’ll miss that.”
Maybe Tim would have bestowed a less-than-desirable nickname upon Dave had the no-hitter been broken up at some point by Modesto. It would have been just another game if a ball slipped through a hole, or a blooper landed in front of a charging outfielder. But it didn’t happen that way, and for one of the few times all summer, Tim let loose in the press box, grinning ear to ear and hugging everybody in sight to celebrate the feat. The bat—the weapon which came who-knows-how-close to being planted in Dave’s skull—now sits at Tim’s house, another memory saved before contraction will swallow the Blaze forever.
“I loved sticking it to Wheeler that day, and I try to do so as much as possible,” Dave says, grinning. “For a guy that’s been a Cubs fan as long as he’s loved baseball, man, you have to hammer a guy like that. He’s got the goat, he’s got Bartman, he’s got 1908, he’s got all this stuff staring him down. What’s another monkey on his back?”
Younger than Dave by a couple years and Tim by a couple decades, Dan goes full dad-mode trying to keep his two beloved trouble children in line when I ask about the no-hitter. He rolls his eyes and slaps his desk at the mere mention of any jinx.
“When did you notice there was a no-hitter going?”
“You mean when did I notice Dave had started torturing Tim,” Dan corrects me, starting to laugh. “Can we talk about how fucking crazy it is that Tim thinks he overcame the jinx? The only thing different about that day was that Dave was torturing him the whole way through. It’s not overcoming the jinx, it’s that you finally had someone who didn’t give a flying fuck about the jinx. Every other time, everybody is in there walking on eggshells, trying to make sure Wheeler doesn’t lose his mind, and Dave’s over there after every out going, ‘hey, eight outs to a no-no. Hey, got a no-hitter through six.’”
Dan sighs, leaning back in his chair, his head nearly resting on a huge, detailed map of the city of Bakersfield posted on the wall behind him in his office.
“I don’t know, man, they’re all crazy. That’s the best I’ve got,” he offers. “Every one of ‘em in there is crazy. I’m a radio broadcaster. I can’t believe in jinxes or I wouldn’t be able to do my job, and that’s crazy.”
Dan’s work flow on game nights is to call a half inning in his radio cubby on the first base side of the press box, and when the third out is recorded, walk out into the main room where Tim, Dave, Cushine, and assorted game day staff and media members sit. He’ll pour himself a cup of beer from Cushine’s growler, maybe, or catch up on the weird things that those in the press box discuss. He’ll say a few words to Mark Duffel, one of Bakersfield’s most loyal season ticket holders who sits up near the box so he can hear Dan call the games as the action happens. He’ll crack a joke—usually a dad joke; he’s well-prepared for fatherhood—and then he’ll pop back into his cubby hole, off to do another three outs of baseball, nine innings a night, 140 nights a summer.
“At some point when you are doing 140 games in a year, they start to blur a little bit,” Dan admits. “But when you’ve got that night where you are freaking out about a no-hitter along with the guys on the field, that’s a beautiful thing. When the Blaze scored three runs in the eighth, and then we got to the top of the ninth, I thought ‘holy mother, we are three outs away,’ and that’s when I started doing deep breathing exercises on air. The nerves were great. That’s the most fun I’ve had in the press box in a long time.
“And if you believe in jinxes,” Dan continues, hesitating to give either Tim or Dave credit for their antics during the no-hitter, “the only thing you can think about that night is that Dave undid it. Gascon deserves the credit, I guess. Not even the guys on the field, that was all Gascon!”
Dave Gascon isn’t just known for needling Tim, though. In fact, that’s what he’s least known for around here since, obviously, relatively few people ever get to see the inner workings of the club’s media operation. But if you found this story through social media, and/or you’ve tweeted about Cal League baseball at any point this year, you know Dave even if you don’t know him; he’s the man (usually) behind the Bakersfield Blaze Twitter account.
Gascon took his wit to the team’s Twitter account this year, overhauling it to the point that it became an outlet not too dissimilar from Sam Lynn’s press box feel: less official-sounding tweets, fewer boring scores and recap posts, and far more ribbing of, well, everyone he could get his hands on.
— Bakersfield Blaze (@BakoBlaze) August 29, 2016
Unknowingly, I helped create that monster the very first weekend of the season back in April. Sitting just a few seats down from Dave in the press box, my phone’s notifications lit up, alerting me somebody had sent me a message, and there it was, some biting, sarcastic comment from the official Blaze Twitter account. I don’t remember that first tweet now, but it was something playfully insulting. Maybe my subconscious chooses not to remember it. I do remember glancing down the row at Dave, and seeing a wide grin plastered across his face.
“I remember when it started,” Dan says, playing the fatherly figure once again. “It was the first weekend of the season, and Dave sent a weird tweet at you, you went back at him a little bit, and I came around the corner to make sure you guys were messing with one another, or I was going to put a stop to it. But when I saw you guys were having fun with it, I thought oh, whatever, let’s let this go and see if anybody notices it, because it’s funny. And then people noticed it.
“Technically, I guess I’m the boss of media relations around here, which is like leaving the inmates in charge of the asylum, but I remember kind of letting it ride for a moment,” Dan continues. “Because if you were at some other ballpark, and he started going after you, I would have thought, ‘well that’s goofy…’”
Dan lingers, and then stops suddenly, and looks down at his computer.
“Oh fuck,” he says, snapping back into the reality of running a gameday operation. “I have to go to El Pollo Loco in fifteen minutes [to pick up press box food]. Are the teams here yet? Who the hell is going to do lineups? Me? Yeah, maybe.”
With Dan gone, Dave picks it up, no better man to speak on his own prolific tweets.
“I’ve had more fun with it as the season has gone along, and I feel more comfortable with what we’re doing here now,” Dave says now, looking back on his first foray into the weird minor league Twitter world. “Think of it this way; everyone can listen to a game without seeing the actual elements of the game, or watch a game and put it on mute just to see what the score is, and it’s the same thing with our social media accounts. You can just go to our website if you want a score, or who did what with the stats, so social media has to be about getting people involved and having some fun with it, doing something more.”
That ‘something more’ has included daily shots at yours truly, an increasingly humorous Twitter beef with the poor, unsuspecting Visalia Rawhide and, just to stick it to Blaze GM Mikey Candela, a series of anti-New York Mets tweets. (Mikey has a Mets tattoo on his calf.) Ironically, the Blaze have never been more popular on social media, even as the season—and franchise—grinds to a halt.
— Bakersfield Blaze (@BakoBlaze) August 28, 2016
“With our Twitter account, the impressions, the followers, it has increased exponentially,” Dave says, turning a little more serious about his decidedly un-serious outreach. This is part of his job, after all—he just figured out a better way to do it than most.
“And that’s because we are connecting with people, we are engaging in conversation, and yeah, sometimes we are trolling, but we’re not cyber bullying anybody. We’re having some fun, so why not? We’re a minor league baseball team.”
In the same way that Dan told Jeff how running a department in Bakersfield comes down to grabbing a handful of darts and throwing them all at the wall, so too did Dave take on the team’s Twitter account. That’s how things go when you’re the league’s outlaw—do it now, and if you screw it up, ask for forgiveness later.
“Here, it’s like yeah, go ahead and do it, while other places might not even pay attention,” Dave concedes. “We’re having fun, and we’ll hand out our shots, but we’ll take them too. It’s give and get, and you can’t just pass it out and then not take it on the chin as well.”
Dan sees the bigger picture now as the Sam Lynn funeral looms; what’s the big, cosmic difference if a few biting tweets go out at this point, anyways?
“Now, I see no reason to lay off, because the Twitter account is going to lie dormant in a couple weeks, so, hey, we’ll go after you,” Dan says. “I mean, it’s not like anybody is doing anything bad. We’re just going to make jokes at other people’s expense and see what happens.”
“We have a brand, but it’s not one of those special brands that everybody else is working so hard on every night,” Dan continues, suddenly laughing at the realization of what he just said—a sentence that may describe Bakersfield better than anyone ever has before. “To me, we have that Streets of Bakersfield brand, and Bakersfield loves that kind of attitude. We’re snarky, and in your face, and we’re going to play the Buck Owens card every time. Hey, you don’t know me, but you don’t like me. So… you know… screw ‘em.
“I mean, not really screw ‘em,” Dan adds quickly, the man too polite to ever really, fully go there. “But you know, my dad always likes to say ‘fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke,’ and this, to me, is the perfect place to apply that. If you can’t take a silly Twitter joke, if you think that is going to blow up your team’s brand, then you’re taking Twitter way too seriously.”
Tim may not even know what Twitter is—the scorekeeper refers to his cell phone as “the type that was cool 19 years ago”—and yet the underlying attitude, outlaw culture, and press box camaraderie are all right up his alley.
“The atmosphere in the press box, it’s all one big adult fun house where we try to be professional when we are supposed to be, but we care about each other personally,” Tim sums up. “I’m going to miss that interaction. I love coming to the ballpark. I can come here in a bad mood, and as soon as I get here, something will be going on pre-game in the press box. They’ll start joking, or somebody will throw something out at me, and all of a sudden I’m right back into a happy place.
“I’ve been involved with baseball one way or another every year since I was eight years old, whether it was playing, coaching, umpiring, or this,” he continues. “I never thought I’d be an official scorer, but that’s just the way things turned out. Now, this is the place where I want to be, and I don’t know what I’m going to do next year. I really don’t. I don’t have the answer to that.”
Tim’s a big boy, as Cushine points out, and he’ll figure it all out. Retired and living out his life in relative freedom, Wheeler and his wife could theoretically move somewhere else in the Cal League for a scorer’s job next summer, as he lives out his days in a sterile, stuffy press box regaling anybody who will listen and some who won’t about the legends and ghosts of Sam Lynn. But as the sun sets one last time on Sam Lynn Ballpark, this is it. You know that. I know that. Tim knows that.
“If baseball ever did come back to Bakersfield, it’s going to be a new stadium, and a new team, and it’s probably going to be at the Triple-A level,” Tim tells me as we sit in the press box a few hours before the team’s first home playoff game on Thursday night. “And those front office people are going to have their noses stuck so high in the air. It’ll never be like this again. When this place dies, this brand of baseball dies. This is it.”
Philip knows exactly how Tim feels.
“In the mid-1990s, when minor league baseball started to become what it is today, that’s when everything changed for Sam Lynn Ballpark,” Philip reasons. “Wheeler got in, and it changed as soon as he got in, but he never changed. He’s still about the baseball. He doesn’t care about how many times we yell wiener during the wiener slingshot promotion between innings.
“By the way,” Philip continues, going off on another now-expected tangent. “The record is still 62 ‘wieners’ in 90 seconds, I think. I once said 62 ‘wieners’ in a promotion once. It’s a shining moment of my career. That, and the time Fred Willard told me I was funny. He’s at games all the time.”
Dan balks when asked to confirm the wiener record. “Philip claims 62? That’s fine, he can say that. The real total was 48, but Philip’s stories tend to grow in time.”
In an appropriate twist for poor Sam Lynn, the ballpark was broken into during the club’s final regular season road trip. The press box was ransacked, and the thieves stole a 17-year-old computer and an ancient $40 printer. (“Some criminal masterminds they were,” Dan says.)
The robbers tried to get into the home clubhouse, but couldn’t, and an alarm scared them away. Now, as Dan pieces together the disaster zone that is the press box—“once again, it’s never bad enough to cancel the whole thing, it’s only enough to make us look bad,” he tells me—Tim walks in.
“Who’s been fucking with my shit,” Wheeler jokingly booms, knowing full well what happened.
As he puts back together his now no-longer-meticulous workstation, Tim pulls out a hidden cooler with its contents still inside—among them, a bottle of tequila.
“Look at this bottle,” he tells me. “I’ve had this since 1995, and I’m supposed to open it when the Blaze win a championship. And you know what, if they don’t, I’m going to go out and bury this thing somewhere on the field.
“But really, I’m just sad I didn’t hang around long enough to see the rosters dotted with post-1995-born players,” he muses, looking out onto the field. “When I started at this place, they’d have been just born, shitting in their pants without a care in the world. Who knows, next year, I could’ve watched those same kids shit their pants out there in a very different way.”
Spent sometime in San Francisco, I spent a night there in the can
They threw this drunk man in my jail cell, I took fifteen dollars from that man
AS THE SEASON winds down with contraction on deck, Bakersfield’s bunch has worn down a bit under the looming questions from media outlets new to Sam Lynn, having never bothered to go all-in on covering the team before contraction became the story. Nobody was out at batting practice in May, or July, and yet this week, TV crews dot the stands as on-air reporters primp their makeup and look lost in a venue they don’t know, an old stadium they don’t appreciate, maybe because they never really took the time to walk its lay and learn its quirks. They’re here now, though; better late than never, perhaps.
“I have to laugh, because as the end nears, you see a lot of news teams come out and cover the team,” Dave says. “They tag us on Facebook, tag us on Twitter, and yet I haven’t seen them all year. They haven’t visited all year. But now, everybody is front-running for a news story. At least, that’s what it feels like. More than ever, we’re getting people coming out of the woodwork, like, ‘hey, how are you feeling, what’s the news, what’s going on with your team?’”
Honestly, I feel the way Dave does, especially as I watch vultures circle the team’s dying carcass, waiting to pick off the most superficial bits of Bakersfield’s seven decades, but Dan is more polite about the whole ordeal. Times have changed, and as he points out, long gone are the days that daily beat writers covered these teams 140 times a summer, so this is about all they can expect.
But you can still see it pains Dan, exhausts him even, to field question after question about the same thing—the death of his beloved team. They’re a playoff team, for crying out loud, and a couple more wins grant them entry into their league’s championship series, but the story is the death, and so the death it shall be, and on he trudges.
There’s a reason players haven’t had much of a role thus far in this tale of Sam Lynn. It’s not that they don’t understand the gravity of the situation (they do). It’s not that they don’t want to win in Bakersfield’s last stand (they do). It’s just that, well, the whole damn ballpark could blow up next month and they’ll all go about their business at some Double-A outpost, and then Triple-A, and then, if they’re lucky, the big leagues. You can’t fault the guys for that; their entire lives are broken down in three-out increments, daily sensitive to promotions, demotions, injuries, rehab assignments, and any other roster move a club can drum up.
Looking at the long play is a tough request for these guys, and that’s why “taking it day by day” is a favorite cliché, even if there’s a truth to that. If they can’t take it day by day, if they look too far ahead or behind at what Sam Lynn means in some broader, universal sense, they’re pulled out of the one job they have: perform.
“It’s good and bad, but there’s good and bad everywhere,” Blaze first baseman Justin Seager reasons about the ballpark. “This is minor league baseball, it’s not always going to be perfect or as glamorous as the big leagues, but this really isn’t a bad place. There have been some games here where a guy will make a diving play in the outfield or something, and it’s just crickets. But it’s definitely one of those places you don’t forget. And guys that come play against us, they don’t forget this place either.”
Seager is arguably the perfect man to talk about Sam Lynn, for he’s seen a lot of it (two straight summers in Bakersfield), and a lot of everywhere else (yes, he’s the middle brother of big leaguers Kyle and Corey). On a roster of helpful, polite players, Seager goes above and beyond, and more than a few times this summer I’ve observed him listening intently to the batboys, giving his undivided time to an otherwise invisible pair of kids. Sure, it’s a small gesture, but also a meaningful one; it’s also a window into Seager’s outlook as he, too, grapples with the end of an era in a place he’s called home for two long years.
“Being here two years, it’s different for me [than most other players], because two years is a long time, and this place has been a big part of my career,” Seager acknowledges. “I know a lot of people that work here, like Froggy, and it’s sad to think about how they won’t have this any more. It sucks to think about it like that, because this has become kind of a home away from home for me, but I’ve had to come to accept it.”
San Jose Giants second baseman TJ Bennett doesn’t share Seager’s experience in affiliated ball, but perspective abounds for the former indy ball infielder who was lucky enough to get a chance in San Francisco’s organization after more than two years toiling in bottom-scraping leagues. Bennett has seen some bad ballparks, some questionable playing fields, and some bizarre front offices, and yet Sam Lynn still stands out as being a particularly difficult place to play.
“I will remember this field, that’s for sure, but if I’m being honest, I don’t think I’ll romanticize it,” Bennett concedes. “[Giants big leaguer] Chris Heston made a rehab start here for us, and the first thing he said in the locker room was, ‘I told myself I’d never come back here, and here I am.’ And I think this is one of those places that you always remember, not necessarily because you want to, though.”
Still, Bennett didn’t fight through the hell that is indy league baseball just to fizzle out in less-than-inspiring High-A ballparks.
“At a place like this, you have to make the decision as a player to say, you know, I have a choice. It’s going to be a terrible night in Bakersfield, or it’s going to be a great night in Bakersfield, and I have to make a decision,” Bennett reasons. “That’s where it’s our job as professionals to choose to make it a good night, and embrace the moment, whether it’s this stadium or Fenway Park, and that’s what the minor leagues does for you, it teaches you how to go through these things. We’re not in the major leagues, we don’t get to choose where we play, we don’t get to choose the circumstances, we only get to choose how we deal with it, and that determines how your career is going to be.”
Austin Wilson, another two-time Bakersfield ballplayer, also falls in line here.
“I think people over-embellish their problems here,” Wilson, a hulking, powerful outfielder and Stanford graduate, argues. “Obviously it’s hot, and you obviously want to play in a comfortable environment, but it’s still just baseball between the lines. The facilities aren’t beautiful, but we play for our boys, for our manager, and for the Mariners’ organization, and as soon as you start saying it’s not a good environment, or it’s hot, or it’s bad here, you make it worse.”
It’s not just a life lesson at Sam Lynn Ballpark, though. Some days just suck.
“This place is weird, and it hasn’t gotten any better,” Modesto outfielder Drew Weeks, who played in the Cal League last year, too, says. “You can hear the radio guy talking as you’re hitting. Once you get in the batter’s box, isn’t it just supposed to be you and the pitcher?”
Philip Guiry has a story for that. Maybe Philip has a story for everything, but he certainly has a story for that.
“There was a guy named Stephen Hunt that played for the team in 2011 and 2012 when the Reds were here, and it was bottom of the ninth one night, the Blaze were down like two runs or something, two outs, Hunt gets in the batter’s box, and Dan’s on the radio,” Philip recalls.
“And Dan calls it: ‘Stephen Hunt steps into the box, and he’s Bakersfield’s last hope.’ And then Hunt struck out. But Hunt told me after the game that when he stepped into the box, he could hear Dan say, ‘here’s Bakersfield’s last hope.’ That has to be brutal for a hitter to step into the box and hear, like, well, it’s up to you. You already know it’s up to you, but this guy just said it to everybody, and now everyone knows that if you screw up, this game is over.”
Consider it just another quirk of the park.
The first thing players notice in Bakersfield, whether a new member of the Blaze or a visitor arriving on that first night, is the center field fence. It’s just 354 feet from home plate, a pathetic distance in a league where most center field fences flirt with 410 feet. And yet just like Sam Lynn makes things hard on the front office staff around the ballpark, so too does it make life difficult for hitters that believe they can pop a ball up to center field and get a cheap home run.
“Be careful now, because Bakersfield will sneak up on you,” Brock Hebert tells me, a former infielder for the Blaze who at midseason was promoted to Double-A. “It’s definitely a smaller park, and batting practice will tease you a little bit, but when you get to the game, there’s a force field out there.”
Hebert talks about this “force field” as if it’s a mystical, all-knowing being—hell, maybe it is. Wouldn’t that be the Sam Lynn way? In reality, it’s a subtle wind that blows in relentlessly just above the tops of the tall trees that line the outfield fence. Keep a line drive low, below the wind, and it can get out. Hit a ball up in the air just a little bit, and it’s going to hang up there forever until it lands harmlessly in an outfielder’s glove, no matter how hard you hit it. The ‘force field’ is a thing, though, because this wind is non-existent on field level, so it’s difficult to reconcile a calm night at the plate with a swirling, impenetrable force just a few feet up in the air.
“I’ve seen some balls hit really well, and they just hang up there forever,” Hebert says, visibly mystified by it. “I’ve seen ones where it’s almost like the ball comes back to the outfielders from over the fence. I’m not really sure what it is, but it literally plays like a force field. Something just grabs the ball and pulls it back down.”
Pitchers appreciate that force field, as you’d expect, but only to a point. Nothing can be simple in Bakersfield, and some days, for no discernible reason, the force field never goes up.
“I’ve come to this place for three years, and every time I come out to the field, it’s something new every day,” left-handed pitcher Tyler Pike jokes. “During batting practice you’ll hear guys in the outfield yelling, ‘oh, the force field is up today,’ or ‘force field’s down today, boys.’ Sometimes guys absolutely crush balls, but if they get it up high enough, something is going to knock it down, and I don’t know what it is, because other nights the ball just flies. It’s weird every night.”
Pike shrugs. A veteran of Bakersfield both as part of the home team and a visitor, the lefty has been there, done that in Sam Lynn, and you can tell, even as polite as he is, that he’s over it.
“Everything that happens is like, ‘oh, well, welcome to Bakersfield,’” Pike says. “It’s always something different. I do enjoy pitching here. It’s not my favorite place, but…”
The lefty trails off for a moment, and shrugs. Most early-20s prospects hanging around the Cal League are fresh out of college, or a couple years out of high school, and at some level still a little bit immature. Pike is different, at least insofar as he’s married. No longer playing for just himself, he has a wife to think about as he makes career decisions, so being assigned to a random minor league outpost means something different to him and his wife, Gina. That Bakersfield, of all places, will end up being one of their first homes as a couple is… unique.
“We’re from the east coast, so it’d be a lot easier for us to be in Tennessee or something, up in Double-A, and we kind of expected to go to Tennessee this year,” Pike admits. “But we’ve come to learn in the years we’ve been together that nothing is for sure. So we take it day by day.
“It’s not really the greatest place to be,” he continues about making a home in Bakersfield. “She’s ready to get home. She’s over it, and she misses family and friends, but she understands I have a job to do, too, so she’s really supportive of that. She said she’ll follow me wherever, so…”
Pike trails off again. His and Gina’s is an interesting story, one that could be turned into its own feature someday, of a marriage working to make it amid weird cities, long road trips, little pay, and dusty, old ballparks.
“I want what’s best for us, and best for the future, and I think it’s actually pushed me a little bit harder,” Pike reveals. “It’s like, I’ve got to get down to business now, help us out for the future, and get her out of here, get us out of here. This place isn’t a long-term solution for sure,” Pike laughs. “I probably will not come back here after we leave.”
Just as Seager makes for a good interview, so too does Pike, who seems to be involved in every little thing around Sam Lynn. One of superfan Mark Duffel’s favorite stories is the time, last summer, when Pike found a snake just past third base. It became something of a team mascot; even this year, the home bullpen down the left field line is appropriately named the ‘Snake Pit,’ written out with a backwards ‘K’ in chalk above the bench.
On the night the contraction news first broke, after a Sunday evening game the Blaze won on the road at Stockton, Pike posted an eerie image on Twitter. The media had just officially swept the Blaze into the dustbin, and hours later, the club delivered a spooky response, spelled out in cups in a dugout fence and lit up by just a couple stadium lights long after fans had filed out of Banner Island Ballpark: We Is Blaze.
— Tyler Pike † (@tpike10) August 22, 2016
The grammatically incorrect message was loud and clear, and what was a tongue-in-cheek motto in the clubhouse throughout 2016 showed its face during Bakersfield’s most difficult day. It might as well have been the players’ official response to the contraction news: you don’t know me but you don’t like me, and We Is Blaze.
But as much as Pike—and his wife—may be ready to leave Bakersfield for good, he’s also taken the lead among teammates in getting out in the community this year to visit hospitals, schools, and pretty much anywhere else the club is needed. The responsibility to set all that up falls on Emily Hintz, Bakersfield’s director of community relations. She came into a position that didn’t exist the last several years, and played catch-up at warp speed trying to get players out into the community all summer.
A Nebraska native who went to college in Missouri, Emily is affectionately known as ‘Nebraska’ at Sam Lynn—even over the PA system on the field during games, since it’s a nickname handed down to her by Cushine. You have to love people to work in community outreach in minor league baseball, and Emily (usually) loves people. If Philip went around in 2011 saying hello to every single one of those 100 fans dotting Sam Lynn’s grandstand, then that job has been passed on to Emily, and her assistant, Kathleen Ezell, in 2016.
The pair handles all on-field promotions in addition to finding creative spaces for the team, mascot, and players out in the community. Truthfully, they also provide a much-needed female perspective in a far-too-male-dominated, over-the-top environment. And even though she’s not a fan of Streets of Bakersfield—I had to explicitly assure Dan that his disappointment in Emily for disliking Buck Owens would make it onto the record here—she is a relentless, passionate employee who created a community relations department quite literally out of nothing when she arrived in Bakersfield less than a year ago.
“People this year have gotten really excited about Blaze players and the mascot being out in the community, because that hadn’t been done the last few years, the Blaze were just not out in the community,” Emily says, sitting beneath the same third base line picnic tent where Jeff earlier regaled me with stories of Froggy and Ken Griffey, Sr.
“Now, people see me out in the community, and because of it, I think we’ve gotten to a lot of very different groups out this year, a lot of people who wouldn’t have come out in the first place.”
All that’s a testament to Emily, who’s been a boon to the Blaze in the short few months she’s been here. The front office appreciates her work, the fans have responded to her attitude, and even in spite of morning calls to random outreach outposts, the players enjoy being around her, too.
“We have a good group of guys this year who have really been willing to go out, even though there have been a couple months where there have been 10 or 11 appearances a month,” Emily says, acknowledging it’s not always a player’s favorite thing to make an appearance, especially the morning after a late night or the first day back from a long road trip. “Whether they like to get up at 10 o’clock in the morning to go with me or not, I’m not sure, but they have been great sports about it.”
Pike has been one of Emily’s favorite players for outreach this summer, the starting pitcher eager to go out and see kids on days he’s not pitching, up for whatever an outreach situation can throw at him ranging from a sobering day at a hospital to a goofy morning at a YMCA.
“We’ve never done this much community service as a whole organization, and the new [Mariners] front office coming in really wanted to focus on getting us out there,” Pike says. “Once you get to the big leagues, you have to do this kind of stuff. I enjoy doing it because it’s something for me to do instead of sitting inside all day, and it’s nice to get out there and meet people, show people that we care.”
Those words are likely music to Emily’s ears, and yet it still may not make up for the most (regrettably) memorable moment of her community outreach work in Bakersfield.
One afternoon back in June, Emily took Pike and a few other players to the local YMCA for a meet and greet, and to allow a few of the guys to play some whiffle ball with the kids. It’s a pretty standard day—one the Blaze had done earlier in the year, as a matter of fact—but with one big difference: The first time around, Emily made sure the players weren’t allowed to hit the ball.
With little kids pitching, and pro ballplayers swinging a bat, the chances of something bad happening were, well, significantly greater than zero. And so that first time out, the Blaze just played defense as a group of elementary school-aged children ran all over them. Like they’d done so many times before this summer, it had been just another fun outing.
— Bakersfield Blaze (@BakoBlaze) July 11, 2016
This time, though, things would be different.
“The players were pitching to the kids and after a while, all the guys were like, ‘we really want to hit, we really want to hit,’” Emily remembers. “So I give in. I let them hit. And I’m standing right behind the little kid who is pitching as Tyler Pike comes up, and right before his first swing, I go, ‘if you hit me, we are going to have problems.’ Sure enough, on the first pitch, he hits a line drive that nails me right in the arm. The kids went crazy.”
“We had already been there before and she didn’t let us hit the first time, so it felt good that finally she was like, ‘OK, you can hit this time,’” Pike offers, sheepishly, as he points out at his teammates wrapping up pregame batting practice. “All these guys always talk about how the pitchers can’t hit and stuff, so you know, I had to show ‘em.
“I saw how close those kids were, and I was trying to lift the ball,” he continues. “Of course, when I’m trying to do something, it ends up the opposite, so it just went right back at her. I’m glad I didn’t hit any of the little kids, though. Better her than a five-year-old.”
The physical pain didn’t last, but the emotional trauma did. Somebody in the front office posted the video on the club’s Facebook page, and ‘Nebraska’ heard it from every angle the next few days up in the press box. It comes with the territory here.
“I’m going to walk away with pretty fun memories of these guys,” Emily sums up, with arms welt-free, now able to laugh at her own misery. “It’s fun seeing them act like kids, and run around, and play, and see these 22, 23, 24-year-old guys acting like six-year-olds. I get to see the fun side of them, and do stuff like that, and they really are a good group of guys.”
Whiffle ball welts aside, all of this has been a beneficial point of emphasis for Dan, and yet it’s also the maddening aspect of the entire situation: The Blaze are out in the community more than they’ve ever been since the broadcaster arrived, they’re drawing better attendance numbers and more interest across the city than any time in recent memory, and now is when it all blows up. Five years ago, if the league had told Dan and Philip to board the place up and light the whole thing on fire, at least it would’ve made sense. Today, it’s just painful.
“It’s incredibly frustrating, because I’ve seen most of the documents, and this is the best season of Bakersfield Blaze baseball since 2006,” Dan contends. “That’s as far back as we can see, because that’s when the Elmore Sports Group bought the team, which means there is an upward trajectory that could happen if everybody would just sort of leave us alone for a few years. But we also realize that’s not feasible because parent clubs want gyms, and bigger clubhouses, and indoor batting cages, and all those things that are common in modern ballparks that we can’t do here.
“And this year, with Emily, we finally got a glimpse of that, and we’ve seen how we can take off, but it’s fleeting,” Dan continues, resigned again on his emotional roller coaster of the past few weeks. “It’s frustrating, but it’s also rewarding to know that we could have existed, we could have actually made this place a viable, profitable facility. But it would have taken time, and it would have taken conditions that you need three or four years to create.”
Just like it was for Billy doing the grounds, it’s been a challenge at times for Emily to keep her foot on the pedal late this summer as the Blaze go from a rumored contraction candidate to a dead team walking. Kathleen, too, lost her dream job just a few months after finding it, and now both women are out on the proverbial street, forced to grow up quickly because of something bigger than them.
Kathleen—or Kat, as everybody around here knows her—graduated from Whittier College in May, and immediately latched on as Emily’s community relations assistant back here in her hometown. Running the on-field promotions, among other things, Kat knew coming in that hers was a seasonal job, but the Bakersfield native and baseball fanatic took it and ran with it, hoping that maybe, in an alternate universe, a full-time job in baseball might be waiting on the other end.
“My mom and I are die-hard baseball fans, and it’s something we grew up loving since I was a little kid,” Kat says. “I saw so many games here, and now, a little piece of my hometown is gone. Seeing it getting taken out of here, it sucks, you know? When you’re spending 14 hours a day here it’s tough to just let something go like this. I want to see it succeed, even if I were to get a job with another team.
“But after working here, this job has proven to me that I am on the path I want to be on,” Kat continues. “I love working here. Some people call this place a dump. Whatever. I love it. I have such a great time working here. But now, at this point, I’m looking at jobs in Omaha, in North Carolina, and I’m fine with that because I’m so passionate about it, I don’t care how far away I am from home.”
That’s all part of the challenge at Sam Lynn—you can’t just quit on this place and leave scot-free, especially young in your career like Emily or Kat. The baseball gods here will make you love this ballpark just enough so that you’ll never want to leave. And then they’ll unceremoniously rip it out of your hands. But wait! Before they can do that, it’s playoff time! And it’s nose to the grindstone pushing forward in a lost cause, no matter how difficult and heartbreaking that may be.
“It’s hard, because coming into it this winter, Dan kind of told me hey, there’s a bunch of rumors, and on top of that a lot of people in town don’t even know we’re here, they think we left a while ago,” Emily admits, laughing at the lay of the land she was forced to navigate. “And it’s been even harder because we didn’t have anybody out in the community the past couple years, either, so for me, I had to hit the ground running and get ready to go. There were always rumors, and there’s always news of us moving in or out, but when it all came up [last month], everybody went into panic mode a little bit.”
For Dan, the de facto Dad presiding over a young, dysfunctional press box, that’s heartbreaking.
“It’s brutal, and at the end of the day it’s my family here that are the ones I feel the worst for,” the broadcaster says, pursing his lips. “These are the people who get ignored in stories like this. Nobody talks about how there is a full-time staff here that’s going to be dropped on their ass some place with, um, job prospects? Maybe? Like, we can give them all excellent, glowing recommendations, but at the end of the day, a job has to be open for you to get that job.
“So this sucks for Billy, and Emily, and Kat, and Jeff, and Dave, and I don’t even really know where to begin,” Dan continues. “I don’t know what to tell them. It really stinks for young, full-time staffers here who are working on trying to build a career only to have the rug yanked out from under them. I wish I could say more on that, but it just kind of sucks.”
Emily didn’t come all the way to Bakersfield to mope about her station here, though. Never mind that she wasn’t entirely sure where Bakersfield was on the California map, she, too, had been given the same spiel as Jeff before showing up, and she knew things weren’t going to be easy at Sam Lynn.
“I was a little skeptical about this job at first, a little nervous,” Emily admits. “I didn’t know anybody in Bakersfield, and the entire job is like, oh, I’m supposed to be the one in the community who knows everybody, but I didn’t know anybody. But I am glad I made the move to come out here, even though it’s not as luxurious as other teams.
“And I made it,” she concludes, smiling. “I got through a year in Bakersfield. The next team will be a breeze.”
Left him my watch and my old house key, don’t want folks thinkin’ that I’d steal
Then I thanked him as I was leaving, and I headed out for Bakersfield
THIS WHOLE THING SUCKS for full-time staffers like Emily and Kat left abruptly out in the cold, but the rawest of deals is handed down to the fans. At least front office employees, one reasons, can move elsewhere for a new job. What’s a fan supposed to do, move their life to Visalia, or Lancaster, or Modesto just to cheer for another minor league baseball team next year? Just like Sam Lynn itself, baseball has left these people behind.
Admittedly, any discussion of fans can’t be had without a frank admittance: there aren’t many. Long gone are the days Philip begged for a hundred people to show up, and then made it his life’s work to talk to all hundred by the end of the night, but there are definitely weekday evenings at Sam Lynn that don’t draw a hell of a lot better than Philip and Dan’s first teams did a few years ago. That the Blaze are only just contracting, to most residents of the club’s host city, is the culmination of a long time in coming.
But Mark Duffel is at Sam Lynn Ballpark every night.
It seems like every team has a Mark Duffel; minor league baseball could always use more. He’s here every night with his camera, taking pictures of the players. He’s here glad-handing Dan, and Tim, and everybody else around the press box. He’s here holding court among the senior citizen season ticket holders that dot the stands, watching out for them in the same protective way Dan does for his employees. And he’s here cheering on his beloved Blaze all the while, usually wearing one of the team’s special SpongeBob SquarePants-inspired jerseys he purchased at a recent auction. (“I’m just glad they made one in a Bakersfield size, if you know what I mean,” he says, laughing.)
He sometimes wears a Seattle Mariners hat, but he’s not a Mariners fan—it just happens to be the affiliate here now. The Mariners are moving to Modesto next summer, and if Bakersfield were hanging around for the new season, Mark would show up on Opening Day wearing a Rockies hat, or an Astros hat, or a Rangers hat. Whatever supports the new parent club.
He and his wife go down to spring training every year, too. Already planning on another trip next spring, he’s not sure which complex to visit. The Diamondbacks, since they’re just up the road in Visalia? The Rockies, who are set to be the new tenants in Lancaster? Which club will be his team? Not Seattle. That’s too painful.
I sit in the front row with Mark for the last few innings of a game one night, taking in the sights and sounds from a vantage point I don’t usually see. Just as he does everywhere else in the ballpark, he holds court here, too, and he’s open to anyone around who’s interested in talking Blaze baseball. If you love the game—and if you love the game here, in this ballpark—you’re OK by Mark.
“I played on this field when I was in high school, when this was all wooden,” he says, pointing up at the grandstand and press box. “Obviously if I was any good, I wouldn’t be a truck driver, right? But I remember coming here with my grandfather, when these were wooden bleachers, and the press box was open, and there were no windows. If you watch The Natural, or A League of Their Own, that’s kind of what it was like. You could sit down here and hear them calling the game. I even remember the splinters I’d get on my ass on those old wooden seats that needed paint.
“There’s a lot of meaning here for me, and this is frustrating, because right now, this is what I do in the summer,” Mark continues. “I have a stressful job, and I come out here, and I screw around, you know? This is my diversion. My wife and I will still go to baseball games next year, but it’s going to be in Visalia, or Lancaster, and that means we’re not going to be season ticket holders.”
Mark is used to driving his truck across the better part of southern California every day, and with that job comes stress and loneliness, a hell of a double-feature. That Sam Lynn Ballpark alleviated both in Mark was one of the best parts of the old, downtrodden place.
“This is a big social connection for me,” he acknowledges. “I’ve known some of these people for years, and I come out every night and talk to them. And this is the only place we’re connected. And now, it’s just going to go up in smoke.”
Philip Guiry knows Mark very well, maybe from the days the bearded monster sat with Duffel during the lean years a few summers back. It’s not just that, though—it revolves around the team’s baseball cards.
“Mark Duffel is what every team wants, because Mark Duffel doesn’t want anything special,” Philip says. “He doesn’t want to throw out the first pitch, he doesn’t want to be treated like he’s the owner of the team, he just wants to come out, watch baseball, and talk about the team.
“He just sits up there next to the press box listening to Dan call the game as it’s going on, which I guess is one of the few benefits of having no one in the crowd,” Philip concedes. “And then one year, he became our baseball card guy.”
‘Baseball card guy,’ I learn, is another word for ‘savior’ in minor league ball. “Fuck baseball cards,” Dan says, explaining to me that the Blaze didn’t print a set a few years back, balking at the $2,500 price tag (for the smallest quantity) when they realized they wouldn’t be able to come close to making up the difference in their merchandise store or online with collectors. So when Mark stepped up to cover nearly half the cost of printing out a card set, Philip and Dan were ecstatic.
“Mark’s sponsorship covered about 40 percent of what we would need to run the whole thing, so we thought you know what, screw it, if we can sell 150 of these, and break even, everybody gets a card,” Dan says. “The cards are pretty sweet, too.”
“No team really wants to make baseball cards, because you order 1,000 sets, you sell 200, and then you have 800 baseball card sets sitting in a shed for the next 20 years,” Philip offers. “But Mark offered to sponsor the baseball cards, so I was like, OK, you know what, we’re going to make some baseball cards. And then he didn’t even do it in his own name.”
Feeling guilty now that I know the economics on these things—even with Mark’s sponsorship help—I pony up a couple bucks in the merchandise store one day to buy a set. Dan’s right; they are pretty nice. And there’s an interesting logo up in the corner of them, too: the Mission at Kern County.
The Mission, now more than 60 years old, is a Bakersfield homeless shelter that serves 200,000 meals a year and provides other basic needs to the area’s at-risk residents. It’s a cause Mark felt so strongly about that he gladly gave up real estate on the cards to promote it.
“Yeah, we’ve been doing that for a few years,” Mark shrugs. “I guess it’s something a lot of people don’t know about because I’m not, you know, a name-on-the-scoreboard guy or whatever.”
It isn’t just baseball cards, though; the publicity for the Mission is nice, but one of the organization’s programs focuses on helping people trying to get off the street by bringing them to Sam Lynn to clean up the facility and learn job skills and marketable tools for self-improvement.
“They are trying to get these people off the street, and off drugs, alcohol, whatever their substance abuse issue may be, so they come out here—Oh! Yeah, yeah, get him get him get him!” Mark interrupts himself, looking beyond me to yell to the field of play, where Blaze shortstop Drew Jackson is chasing down a visiting Lake Elsinore base runner trapped in a pickle.
“So, anyways, they come out here the day after fireworks nights, and they clean up all the remnants. They’ll come clean the stadium, help out with jersey giveaways. They get some job skills, and they learn some personal responsibility.
“I look at this baseball situation from that viewpoint, OK? Where are those folks going to work? For them, this is an honor thing,” Mark continues. “Get six of ‘em, here’s the van, come out to Sam Lynn, the team will feed you, and you have to do your work. And if you mess up, you don’t get to come back. There are some incredible long-term benefits to that. I don’t know another place where we can see that.”
— Bakersfield Blaze (@BakoBlaze) July 8, 2016
That’s the part that really floors Philip.
“There are certain people that you really have to work for, and you have to go out and really get them,” Philip says. “And then some fans just show up because they love minor league baseball, and because they understand what the team does for the community even if the community doesn’t understand. That’s Mark.”
As Mark and I sit back and watch the ninth inning of this ballgame, a big, low-flying owl comes overhead, crossing the field from home plate to right-center just above the scoreboard.
“Oh, wow,” Mark says, noticing the bird before me. “That’s kind of eerie.”
“What is that, an owl?”
“Yeah.” Mark nudges me with his hand. “You know what that means, right?”
“It’s supposed to be a bad omen, or so they say in Native American culture,” he tells me. “Owls are a symbol of bad spirits. Yeah, that’s eerie.”
The owl might be appropriate, but the omen has been bad here for a while. Mark’s diversion is disappearing, his beloved Blaze just eyelashes away from extinction. At this point, the owl is just overkill.
Does the ghost of Sam Lynn have no mercy?
“What struck me most is the emotional connection I have made with this front office, and the game day staff, and the people I see all the time,” Mark returns to his point. “I think about Froggy, what is that guy going to do? He’s not going to do nothing else. And I think about a lot of the older fans out here, they don’t have the funds to go be a Bakersfield Condors [minor league hockey] season ticket holder, or the ability to drive to Visalia or Lancaster for games. For us, we’re going somewhere every Saturday next year. Visalia, Modesto, Lancaster, whatever, we can go see those games. But we’re lucky. We can afford to do that.
“I wrote this 500-word diatribe on my laptop the other night, and then I deleted it, because I don’t want to be that angry ex-fan,” Mark continues, sighing. “I’m kind of a realist, and I really try to not let these things ruin my life. But you can tell from seeing me out here, this is a big social experience for me.”
To me, this part of Mark’s story is the most heartbreaking. When I was a kid, I watched an old VHS tape that had an interview with Tommy Lasorda, and on it, the legendary Dodgers manager explained how he knew he was in the right career because every afternoon, he’d just sit at home counting down the minutes until he could head to the ballpark. I get the feeling that’s how it goes with Mark, too, measuring his life in miles and minutes in that lonely, stressful truck, counting down every passing tick until the sun starts to set, and he can once again head out to Oildale for a ballgame.
Mark’s a realist, though, and he’s quick to remind me of it.
“It is what it is, and we kind of got ourselves into this mess,” he acknowledges of the decades-long issues that plagued Sam Lynn and its (lack of) fan support. “But it’s going to be sad. I won’t see you as much. I won’t see the front office guys at all. For folks like my wife and I, sure, we’ll make other connections, but I come here every night. If there’s a home game, I’m here. And if they’re on the road, I’m listening at home on the radio and I’m involved on social media, giving Dave and Dan shit on Twitter. That’s what I do best, right? You can ask my boss.”
The game against Lake Elsinore is over, a win in hand for the Blaze. Streets of Bakersfield starts to blast on the speakers down on field level as Mark and I stand there chatting. He’s a Bakersfield native, I think to myself. Why not ask?
“Hey Mark,” I toss out, “what do you think of this song?”
He starts to laugh.
“You know, every time I hear this song, I think of watching Buck Owens sing it on Hee Haw,” he says, his face lighting up at the memory. “You probably don’t know that show, I’m a little older than you. But when I was a little kid, I remember him wearing this colorful shirt, and playing this song.
“And the other thing I remember, you know, a few years ago, this old couple would come to the Blaze games,” he continues. “I have no idea who they were, but the man wore a little hat, and they had to be in their nineties. When this song would play, they would dance all the way down the concourse to the steps, head down, and dance right on out. And everybody else would just kind of stop around them, and watch them dance.”
Tonight, the Blaze take on Visalia. If they lose, they’re done forever. Maybe I’ll go sit with Mark for a few innings; it might be the last time.
Hey, you don’t know me, but you don’t like me, you say you care less how I feel
But how many of you that sit and judge me ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?
ONCE AGAIN, DAN BESBRIS is stressed out.
“The franchise is over if they lose this game tonight. It’s not like you can pick it up and go try again in 2017 if it doesn’t work out. The franchise is over if they lose tonight, and folks, I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that.”
Dan’s in the middle of the Sam Lynn press box, Dave by his side, kicking off the live Thursday night broadcast of game two of the playoff series between the Bakersfield Blaze and San Jose Giants. On Wednesday up in San Jose, the Blaze blew an early lead and lost. A loss tonight means, well, it means what Dan said. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that, either.
Throughout Thursday’s game, as the pair rotated between play-by-play and color commentary, Dan and Dave field Twitter comments, read texts from former players and coaches, and hold court among an unusually busy press box compared to the rest of the summer. Stephen Hicks, the one local TV guy who’s been a consistent presence at the park, is here. Beyond him, the press box is a bunch of confused people trying to figure out where they’re allowed to sit in a stadium relatively unfamiliar.
Dan’s to-do list is longer than it should be, and all night, he’s running behind. He’s very anxious, too. Cushine and Wheeler aren’t able to shout their customary jabs across the room to each other. Mikey Candela never comes up to count money during the game, as is customary on a normal night. The place’s jovial, humorous spirit has been sapped, and it’s not just Dan who feels stressed.
“I don’t know about this,” Tim tells me before the game starts. “Something feels wrong. I have a funny feeling about tonight.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I offer. “It feels like they’re walking into an ambush.”
But then a funny thing happens. Dylan Davis, San Jose’s power-hitting lineup anchor, is scratched from the lineup immediately before the game. He hit a home run and walked twice on Wednesday night; his absence from Thursday’s is a big deal.
And though Tim and I may feel funny, Zack Littell doesn’t. The pitching prospect shoves the ball down San Jose’s metaphorical throat all night on Thursday, striking out 11 Giants and giving up just a single run on four hits and a walk in seven and one-third innings. The Blaze score early and often, Art Warren makes quick work of the last five outs, and Bakersfield runs away with it from the start, heading into Friday with the best-of-three series tied at one game apiece.
On Friday night, Bakersfield does it again in game three. A minor mid-game dust storm floating in from center field can’t deter the Blaze (“oooh, the ghost of Sam Lynn is here tonight,” Tim turns and says to me in a spooky voice as the sky above the field gets hazy for a moment). Tyler Pike starts, pitches well, and gives way to a bullpen that hangs on down to the last out. The Blaze win 5-3, knock San Jose out of the playoffs, and punch their ticket to the second round against Visalia, beginning Saturday night.
Three wins in these here Division Finals, and they’re off to the championship round. Three losses and it’s all over. All of it. After dropping both Saturday and Sunday’s games to Visalia, tonight, back home in Bakersfield, the Blaze are playing to stave off elimination. They are playing for Bakersfield, and for Sam Lynn, and for 75 years of history.
Don’t expect the ghost of Sam Lynn to go quietly.
“I’m just going to assume that we are going the full 13 games of the playoffs, that every series is going three games, five games, and then five more, all of them will be extra-inning affairs, and that we are going to go the distance, man,” Dan tells me. It’s Bakersfield; things can’t just wrap up quietly.
Of course, the swan song here isn’t just for Sam Lynn. Dan probably wasn’t coming back next summer, anyways, with a baby on the way and his future planted in LA.
“Everybody around here is aware of the fact that I have my first child due in November, so this was probably going to be my last year here anyways,” he acknowledges. “But when the contraction news happened, my immediate reaction wasn’t one of relief to where I wasn’t going to have the burden of making a difficult life decision, it was an overwhelming sense of emptiness.
“I thought about the thousands—literally thousands—of hours that I and everybody else over the last few years had put into this place, and how it will all just kind of evaporate,” he continues. “Is there something we can do here now to make sure everybody remembers all the things we did the previous decade? There’s no way to do that, it has overwhelmed me, I’m very sad, and that’s where I am with it.”
Tim is sad, too.
“This is the way baseball used to be,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “This place is like Middle America, only in 115-degree weather and you need SPF 50 sunscreen to watch the first inning. But if you’re a baseball die hard, a little chunk of your heart goes with this place. It’s like losing something from your childhood. In a way, this is a piece of my youth.”
And Philip. My goodness, poor Philip. If Tim is sad, Philip is despondent.
“We had something at that place, and nobody ever got it, and that’s a shame because it was so easy to get,” Philip says. “It was right there, man. I showed up after the 2010 season with another guy, and he quit within three months. He was like, ‘what the fuck is this? This is Bakersfield? I’m leaving.’ And I was like, ‘OK, cool man, I’m actually going to stick around and see what happens.’ And now, when I put on my Blaze hat, people know. ‘Don’t mess with that guy,’ they say. ‘He’s from Bakersfield, and he’s probably crazy.’”
Philip is a little crazy, I think, but his first point here is a cogent one; nobody ever got Sam Lynn like they probably should have. But is that the fans’ fault for missing the message? Or the team’s fault, for failing to get that message across to where they could have survived in Kern County? Dan is quick to levy blame at everyone equally, refusing to call out one specific factor alone. Maybe there’s something to that, because at some point, the Blaze must acknowledge a hard truth: There’s a reason things didn’t work out at Sam Lynn. It’s on the city, county, ownership group, front office, and maybe even the parent clubs to own that.
“My reaction to all this coming down is that part of me wants to point fingers, but what I’ve been saying to anybody here that will listen is that you can cover your eyes with a blindfold and point in any direction, and you’ll find somebody or something that deserves some of the blame,” Dan acknowledges.
“The situation with the city of Adelanto [and the other contracting franchise, High Desert] was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back this year, but that camel’s knees were getting messed the hell up, because we are talking about 24 years of things not really ever being right. We had chance after chance after chance after chance to try to take that one leap and make this permanent, and make Bakersfield home for another 75 years. We didn’t leap.
“In retrospect,” he continues, “I should have known. It was weird going into this season, because there were no rumors for us. We weren’t the story. High Desert was the story. And as a front office, we were actually really relieved that nobody was talking about Bakersfield for the first time in God knows how long, seven, eight, nine, maybe twenty years? We were able to craft a message, and execute it, and put together a really good season.”
Dan shrugs his shoulders.
“I don’t know, hopefully the new cities take good care of their teams,” he says, dejected. “Didn’t Kinston have a team as recently as like five, six years ago? And it’s insane to think that Kinston is what, 25,000 people? We have fifteen times that.”
Tyler Maun knows a thing or two about this, and so I call him up to talk about Kinston’s Grainger Stadium. Now, technically, the Rangers will be heading from High Desert directly to Kinston, a small town in eastern North Carolina, while Bakersfield’s contraction comes part and parcel with a brand new ballpark and team Fayetteville, North Carolina. But since the Fayetteville ballpark is still an unknown, Kinston serves as a good jumping off point for an emotional high equal to or greater than the low Blaze fans are feeling this week.
Maun, who reports for MiLB.com and hosts an influential podcast on the Colorado Rockies, used to broadcast games for the Myrtle Beach affiliate of the Carolina League from 2009 through 2011. Tough life, that; as Philip and Dan were cutting their teeth on jars of rusty metal in dusty, old Sam Lynn, Tyler was spending every day carefree at the beach. (OK, that’s an exaggeration.)
Maun knows Kinston very well, and so he makes for a perfect, sobering analyst in an otherwise heart-driven tale of baseball and loss. The bad guy, in other words.
“You know what, that’s fine with me,” Tyler says, laughing as I tell him he’s been set up to be the villain here, before he turns serious. “I will say, Kinston’s park is old, but it’s extraordinarily good. It’s an old park that feels like it opened last week. Ten years ago or so, they put in a massive amount of money to refurbish that park. All the seats are new, the clubhouse is relatively new, and I know the Rangers have committed something like $4 million to improve the clubhouse and things like that, too. It is an old park, but it’s not the old rundown bleachers or sections of seats that are falling apart.”
Sound familiar? Ten years ago, Kinston did what Bakersfield should have done. Bakersfield had this chance in about 2006, but it never materialized, and the irony of this ought not be lost, especially considering Kinston’s quaint Grainger Stadium is only eight years younger than Sam Lynn Ballpark.
“This has been in the pipeline for a long time,” Maun contends. “In the 1990s, minor league baseball adopted facilities standards, and Bakersfield is not up to those standards. It’s not like somebody from Kinston just popped up and said, ‘OK, we are going to take this team now.’ It’s a business decision. Kinston’s is a better facility than Bakersfield and High Desert, and the Rangers have entered into a 12-year agreement to be in Kinston.”
That’s a serious commitment, and the Astros are making their own major show of faith in Fayetteville as their beautiful, new ballpark is constructed over the coming months. Simply put, nobody was ready to make that same commitment, or anything close to it, in Bakersfield in 2016. Maybe in the late 1980s, when the club was a Dodgers affiliate and Mike Piazza and Pedro Martinez came through, but not today.
“They’d have built a new stadium if people were showing up,” Philip argues. “But Bakersfield never showed up. Bakersfield said, ‘hey man, we’ll show up if it’s the Dodgers,’ to which I always said, ‘well, Rancho Cucamonga is coming to town next week,’ and nobody would show up anyways. We had Hanley Ramirez rehabbing at Sam Lynn Ballpark, and we didn’t sell out. He was there for three nights. Yasiel Puig played here with Rancho. He autographed our door, which, when Dan is leaving, he should take that door. But you know what I mean? The Dodgers came to town, and still nobody showed up.”
That’s the thing—Bakersfield never really showed up. Maybe they expected somebody to build a ballpark to which they could suddenly start showing up, but that’s not how things work. You have to earn that. Look at Kinston; 25,000 people or not, they showed up for their beloved team until they lost it kicking and screaming in 2011. Now, they’ve earned it back.
“That’s the only part that ever really made me upset,” Philip says about Bakersfield fans. “Bakersfield is a strange town, and it’s not the greatest city I’ve ever lived in. You can put it in print, I don’t care. It got stuck in the 1990s. Things changed, and minor league baseball went from being about the baseball to being about family fun. Bakersfield didn’t catch on early, and then they never caught up, and by the end of it, it was like, ‘hey, we’re here, and we are doing what we want to do. If you get it, you get it, and if you don’t get it, go watch a Condors [hockey] game. They’ve got air conditioning.’”
The natives understand that.
“This was an institution when it was the Bakersfield Dodgers,” Mark remembers, “and I think that’s how you create that connection with the community. Because everybody knows, OK, it’s the Bakersfield Blaze, but they also know, oh, this year it was the Reds, this year is Seattle, it’s this, it’s that, it’s whatever. We’d have been better off if the Dodgers had picked the place, hunkered down, and let the community become a part of who they were.”
The Dodgers, with their big league ballpark not even two hours south of Sam Lynn down in Johnny Carson’s LA, mark a bit of a sore spot for Philip.
“Everybody always says they used to watch Mike Piazza play here, and OK, yeah, Mike Piazza played 117 games in 1991,” Philip dryly offers. “For everybody who said they came to watch him that year, Bakersfield’s attendance must have been 7,000 people a game. And I know that’s not true, because the damn ballpark holds 1,800 people.
“But this town lost the team in 1994 when the Dodgers left,” Philip continues. “The Dodgers left and people quit. And then Lancaster got a new ballpark, and Visalia got renovated, and we didn’t get anything. And then for years, the front office quit. You had regimes that didn’t know what they were doing, and really didn’t care. They just opened the gates and hoped people showed up.”
In a small way, Maun might appreciate some of that bitterness, at least insofar as Kinston is concerned. After all, they lived through losing a team themselves in 2011.
“The sad irony of this is that fans in Kinston just went through the same thing five years ago,” Maun offers. “I think they really understand what it means, and I don’t think they take it lightly, that this is the situation in which they find themselves, where you are getting a team back, but you are getting it back at the expense of another market that is going through what you felt five years ago.”
A big part of the Carolina League disappeared when the Kinston Indians disappeared after 2011; never the most glamorous market in the league, the K-Tribe had been a part of the minor league circuit in various incarnations since 1956. In a forgotten, small town that has fallen on hard times, baseball was the thing in which people identified for decades. Any of this sounding familiar?
“There is a lot of emotion tied to Grainger Stadium, and tied to Kinston, and I don’t honestly know what it is about that place,” Maun says. “The ads on the outfield wall, the houses behind left field, the home run balls that bounce into people’s front yards, that’s what you think of when you think of minor league baseball. The Carolina League that people think of when they think of Bull Durham, and when they think of the classic era of minor league baseball, Kinston really embodied a lot of that. So to get that back is a big thing for the league, the city of Kinston and the people of North Carolina.”
Back in Bakersfield, I must have caught Brett Kennedy at a good time.
The San Diego Padres’ prospect, who spent the season’s second half pitching for Lake Elsinore in the Cal League’s South Division, is walking off the Sam Lynn field fresh from throwing a bullpen two days after his most recent start, a loss at this ballpark. When I ask about pitching here, he tells me what other players have said—but, unlike most of the other guys, Bakersfield or visitor, Kennedy suddenly turns emotional when I tell him what the future looks like for baseball in Bakersfield.
“This is what minor league baseball is about, it’s places like this that make the minors what they are,” Kennedy contends. “It’s sad to see a town lose its team. I know there are some die-hards here and this isn’t a good thing.
“When I go back to New Jersey in the offseason and guys ask me about playing minor league baseball,” he continues, “I’m not going to be talking about how Lake Elsinore has a nice minor league baseball stadium. No, I’m going to tell them all about how we played at a park that was 354 feet to center field with a force field up in the air. These are the things that are memorable about minor league baseball. These are the stories you should tell.”
Dan almost falls out of his chair when I tell him that story. He clenches his fist and hits his desk, fired up as if Kennedy’s words are enough to call off this whole damn contraction mess.
“Yes! Exactly! That’s memorable, and you want your stories to be memorable,” Dan exclaims, slapping the desk again. “All of these stories are things that people go, ‘oh, haha, only in Bakersfield.’ And you know what? Good. Good! You’re damn right only in Bakersfield, that’s interesting! That’s a story! A 3-2 game in a cookie cutter ballpark is not a story. A 14-13 extra-inning comeback win with a ninth-inning game-tying grand slam, where a man tries to climb a light pole, and somebody else is having a barbecue down on the river, that’s a story. And that’s our weird, little home.”
But more than Dan, even, Justin Kelly might be the saddest person at Bakersfield’s contraction. At least Philip and Dan got a few years to run the pro ball side of things at Sam Lynn. At least Mark gets to sit under the lights one more time tonight against Visalia. Kelly, the Angels’ rookie ball pitching prospect from Bakersfield, might have had a shot to play at Sam Lynn as a visiting Cal Leaguer next summer, or the one after that. Not any more.
“When I was growing up, my friends and I would run all over that place chasing foul balls, and it was always a dream of mine to go back and play there as a professional,” Kelly notes. “I get that other people don’t understand that, because they see the ballpark and it’s a piece of crap, but growing up, man, that was the mecca. It was the only thing my buddies and I wanted to do, play pro ball back in Bakersfield. We didn’t care who the affiliate was, the Dodgers, the Rays, or whatever, we just wanted to play for the Blaze.”
A left-handed reliever for the rookie-level Pioneer League’s Orem Owlz, and a major college product with stops at Virginia Tech and UC-Santa Barbara, it’s possible the Angels test Kelly at their High-A affiliate in Inland Empire at some point next summer. He’s a likable guy, and maybe I’ll see him pitch for the 66ers roster next year, imagining a smaller version of him running up and down the stairs and ramps at Sam Lynn, chasing down foul balls. In some ways, he still sounds like that hopeful, wide-eyed version of himself. I hope he never loses it, even as the hallowed ground of his childhood comes crumbling to its knees.
“Growing up, you don’t really realize that Sam Lynn is unique, but after seeing other ballparks, you finally understand this is old baseball,” Kelly says. “This isn’t a cookie cutter ballpark, and you start to realize, man, this field is unique. You face the sun, you have a freakin’ force field in center field, and yet it’s 354 feet. Go there just once, you’ll never forget it.
“Seeing all that growing up was a dream, and now, it’s ironic that I’m starting my pro career just as the Blaze ends theirs,” Kelly continues, turning pensive. “Baseball can end just like that, so it’s a good metaphor for cherishing what you have, and realizing how special it is to play this game. People move on, and the game moves on, just like affiliates are moving on from Bakersfield, so you have to enjoy it while you have it. Work your ass off and maybe, one day, you can play somewhere like Sam Lynn.”
I stop dead in my tracks at that last line. You should, too, because it’s the wildest sentence of this entire piece. There’s a six-second pause on the audio recording here, and it’s all on me, fumbling for my words while trying to process what I just heard. Sam Lynn’s most fervent apologists, like Philip, its most staunch defenders, like Dan, and its most resigned romantics, like Tim, can all at least concede one thing: The place is a hellhole. It’s lovable, but come on. It’s a hellhole.
And yet here’s Kelly, with his inner child creeping through, revealing his dream to one day play somewhere like Sam Lynn. Not Dodger Stadium a few hours down the road, or Angel Stadium in his own organization. I’m sure he has those dreams, too, but this is about Sam freakin’ Lynn. It makes no sense, and yet to anyone who had a local ballpark they grew up visiting, it makes perfect sense.
“And you know,” Kelly says, snapping me out of my stupor, “I’m pulling hard for them to win it all. If it’s those final two [with High Desert], let’s do it. Winner gets to stay.”
How many of you that sit and judge me ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?
“HEY, DOES ANYBODY in here want these?”
Jeff walks into the press box, carrying a stack of papers and notebooks that he dragged out of God-knows-where in what I can only imagine must be a spider-infested shed out behind the right field grandstand or something.
He walks up to Tim and I, sets down the papers, and asks again.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know,” Jeff says. “I think it’s pitching logs and stuff. This one looks like the pitching log from the 2013 team, when we were with the Reds.”
“Yeah, sure” I say, still not really sure what I’m getting, “I’ll take a look.”
“If you don’t want them,” he responds, “I’m literally going to go throw them out right now, so, please, take ‘em.”
I pick up the notebook labeled ‘Blaze pitching records,’ and leaf through it. Jeff is right—it’s literally a month-by-month list of every single pitcher on the team, broken down by day, that reflects how many pitches they threw in every outing. Did you know future big leaguer Jon Moscot threw 83 pitches in his first start for the Blaze on April 6, 2013? Did you know he threw 87 pitches in five and two-thirds innings on April 23, 2013?
Those are things I know, now, because of this notebook. I pose these questions to Dan, quizzing him on Moscot’s pitch counts through the rest of the summer. I don’t quiz Tim, because I assume Tim knows already. I should have expected that Dan would, too.
“Eighty-five,” Dan says. “The answer is always eighty-five. The Reds were absolutely maniacal with the pitch count that season. I love Moscot, though, that’s my brother in Judaism.”
Moscot didn’t have a great time in Bakersfield in 2013 (2-14 with a 4.58 ERA in 22 starts), but all’s well that end’s well, and he’s a big leaguer. So, too, are Carlos Contreras, Kyle Waldrop, Michael Lorenzen, Robert Stephenson, Steve Selsky, and Yorman Rodriguez, after spending time on that Blaze team. Seven big leaguers—that’s not too bad. Didn’t stop the Blaze from going 55-85 that year, though.
Ken Griffey, Sr., was the manager that summer, his third at the helm in Bakersfield. Maybe, I think, I should give this notebook to Froggy. And when I search for information on that club’s pitching coach (it was Rigo Beltran), I come across an article announcing the coaching staff from back in December, 2012.
“The new owners and front office have done a great job bringing fans into the park,” Griffey, Sr., is quoted as saying. “And with the new park coming in 2014, it’s all very exciting. I can’t wait for year three. We’ll go get a championship this time.”
Less than two years later, the new owners sold the club back to D.G. Elmore after failing to find a viable path forward with a new stadium. That ugly 30-under-.500 record precluded Griffey’s hope for a championship. After that third year at the helm in 2013, Griffey was gone at the end of the summer. And somewhere along the way, that season’s pitching log just sort of got left behind.
Now, it’s my own little piece of Sam Lynn. Dan, Dave, Jeff, Emily, everybody else has one, or maybe a few. For Philip, maybe they’ll send along a few more jars of rusty metal. Wheeler will be given the sign above the stadium’s front entrance that commemorates his late son. They’re going to let Froggy have his gate-top sign, too. The rest of it, anything not bolted down, ought to head down the block to the Kern County Museum.
And quickly, almost overnight, the stadium Philip rehabilitated from its prison roots will be picked apart, left for dead and handed over to the county. Never again will it be like it is in this moment before Friday night’s playoff game. Never again will it look like it did when Osmer Morales, Isaac Sanchez, and Jake Zokan threw that no-hitter. Never again will it host Froggy’s game show viewing habits, or Wheeler’s idiosyncrasies. Never again will a bunch of bums break in and trash the place—at least not with it holding anything of value, that is.
And never again will it be the home of the Bakersfield Blaze.
“That fuckin’ ballpark,” Philip abruptly says. I’m not even really asking him questions any more so much as I’m listening, speechless, as he walks through all his emotions.
“I fuckin’ love that ballpark so much. I didn’t want to love it. I hated it, you know? For years, I hated that fuckin’ ballpark. Every time I had to crawl into some dusty, black widow-infested hole, I was like, ‘this is fucking dumb.’ I almost fell off a sign in left field once. I can’t count the number of times I almost died in that ballpark. And for four years, every Saturday, I would get up at 5:30 am and pick up all the fireworks that we couldn’t see the night before, just so the players wouldn’t have to play on a littered field. Working from 8:00 a.m. to midnight on Friday, and then getting up at 5:30 the next day to go pick up fireworks, what is that? That’s a terrible life.
“And every Saturday morning, it was like, ‘man, screw this town, we set off fireworks for 200 people last night, and now I’m out here picking up fireworks for these stupid players who are stupid,’” Philip continues, exasperated. “And you know what? I’d do it again the next week, too. Sam Lynn would just force me to do it.”
Now, for Dan, there’s one thing left to do: Win the whole damn thing.
“Hell yeah,” Dan says, “let’s see a High Desert-Bakersfield final. And I’m not alone in wanting it. I’m getting text messages from guys working for teams that have been eliminated saying, ‘hey, you guys have to win this thing.’ I think I’m going to get text messages from teams that aren’t eliminated saying we have to win this thing.”
Nearly everybody not in Visalia must be rooting for that Bakersfield-High Desert final.
“Yeah, I hope that’s true, but I sure don’t feel much pity for the city of Adelanto,” Philip admits. “They tried to lock their team out of the stadium. Like, really? We had a slogan here, we even almost put in on t-shirts: ‘Bakersfield Blaze: At least we’re not High Desert.’”
“But if it’s an out-the-door championship,” Philip continues, “I hope the winner takes the trophy with them. You can sink it in the Kern River for all I care, but just take that thing and leave, middle fingers to the air. Bakersfield is middle fingers up all the time anyways, so let’s win it, and let’s take the trophy. Let Wheeler keep it. If anyone earned it, he did. He went through the terrible years. But don’t let the Cal League keep it, and whatever you do, don’t give it to San Jose. We’re gone, man. We’re gone, and we’re taking this with us.”
DAN TURNS IN HIS chair, facing me head-on for the very first time. He leans forward, puts his hands on the desk, and looks me dead in the eye. He speaks quietly.
“This is good advice for any casual baseball fan, and it will be the most important advice I ever give to a die-hard baseball fan,” he starts. “Find a way to be alone in a baseball stadium at sunrise, when the only sound you hear are about nine birds that got lost, and found themselves in a stadium, and they’re chirping across the grandstand trying to figure out where the fuck they ended up. I did that at the end of the season two summers ago, and it was the most peaceful, serene experience I could ever describe.
“I got back into town from an airport run [to drop off players] and I stopped at Sam Lynn for a minute before going home to take a nap. I just sat in the stadium and watched the sun come up, and it was…” he trails off, struggling to describe the feeling. “Maybe outdoors lovers get a similar experience by climbing a mountain and looking down on civilization beneath them. Me, I’ve been in love with baseball since I was a little kid but I’ve never been physically gifted enough to play the game, and so that was my moment, to be alone in my castle, looking down on my world beneath me and thinking, what happens next?”
A 6am shuttle run for 3 Venezuelans. Now, alone in the yard. It's magically peaceful. Just me and some birdies: pic.twitter.com/f6zu2PY5qu
— Dan Besbris (@DanBesbris) September 10, 2014
He sits in silence for a moment.
“If you feel about baseball the way I do, find a way to do that. That’s a special thing.”
Suddenly, he leans forward again.
“Whenever this crazy ride ends, there’s a 100 percent chance I find a way to do that again this year, especially with Sam Lynn closing” he says. “I want to be alone in the stadium one last time after the season ends, and the playoffs are done, and the players are gone, and the clubhouse is empty.
“And then I’ll leave, and I’ll turn in my keys, and I’ll drive off to start the next phase of my life. It’s time to go be a dad.”
He pauses again, leans back, puts his hands behind his head. After a moment, he starts singing.
“I came here looking for something I couldn’t find anywhere else, hey, I’m not trying to be nobody, I just want a chance to be myself,” he sings, starting to smile. “And of course, I’ll sign off my last broadcast with ‘Buenas Noches from a lonely room.’”
This piece is somewhere north of 36,000 words. It probably should have been a book, and soon, a deeper version of it will be. I’m told it’d make for a great movie one day too, since there are a lot of crazy characters here. That’d be interesting—I know of an empty stadium where they could film it.
“That’s one hell of a story,” my editor texts me after reading the first draft of this piece. “Some way, somehow, I want that on my website.”
I share that text with Dan in the press box during Friday night’s elimination game against San Jose. He starts nodding. “So he gets it,” Dan says of the text. “He gets what I’ve been seeing for six years.”
It makes me think back to something Philip told me in an earlier conversation about trumpet Sundays, and the unique playlists the front office uses during pre-game warm-ups every night at Sam Lynn.
“Not everyone’s going to get what we do here, and that’s fine with us,” Philip had said at the time, “but the one guy who does get it is really going to be into it.”
In one sentence, that sums up the beauty—and the downfall—of Sam Lynn Ballpark and the Bakersfield Blaze. Mark Duffel got it, most people didn’t, and the basic math in that equation doomed this franchise. But man, Mark was really into it, and for Philip, that’s victory enough.
Some time in the coming days—perhaps tonight against Visalia—this will all end. Sure, they’ll play high school games here, but never again will a professional baseball team grace this field; the minor leagues have grown up and gotten all big-time with fancy new multi-million dollar facilities. Sam Lynn Ballpark can’t compete with that.
When it ends, Justin Seager, Tyler Pike, and the rest of the guys will pack up their stuff, say goodbye to Froggy, and walk out, never to return. Most of this team will be in Double-A Jackson next summer, others back in High-A at the Mariners’ new outpost a few hours north in Modesto. Still others will be released before they can get there, and out of professional baseball forever. Maybe they’ll tell their children about Bakersfield one day.
When it ends, Billy will never again mow the grass at Sam Lynn. If there’s one constant through my six months of work on this piece, it’s high praise from every corner for the on-field work of Billy Brosemer—from players, fans, coaches, and front office members. Somehow, somewhere, he deserves another shot.
When it ends, Jeff, Emily, Dave, and Kat will start applying for jobs across the country in better, newer, easier facilities. Wherever they land, it’ll be a breeze for them; after all, if you can make it in Bakersfield, you can make it anywhere. Maybe one day next summer, after a long night in some new city and with an early morning ahead, one of their co-workers will complain about the brutal in-season schedule. You can’t be serious right now, they’ll think about the co-worker, you’re complaining about this place? You would have never made it in Bakersfield. Bakersfield would’ve eaten you alive.
In Charleston, Philip will smile about that. Bakersfield people are crazy.
When it ends, Cushine and Wheeler will look for new part-time gigs, new ways to fill the time in their now-open summer schedules. It’ll be easier for Cushine, at least emotionally. Outwardly, Wheeler will shrug it off and lob some insults Mike’s way, but deep down it will sting. When Visalia and Modesto and Lancaster and Stockton and San Jose begin play next April, that’ll kill a small piece of Tim Wheeler. “I’m not going to be driving to Visalia and Lancaster a lot,” he tells me in a private moment. He looks to be nearly in tears. “I might go once just to watch a baseball game, but a big part of what I consider personal enjoyment is going to be taken away.”
Having the ’96 club back would’ve been better than this.
Even Eli Marrero would’ve been better than this.
I ask Tim about that on Sunday: If the Blaze could stick around for another year, or two, but Eli Marrero were the manager, would he go for that trade-off?
“I would strictly enforce Baseball Rule 10.01,” Tim responds, answering in the way maybe most acceptable considering his job at Sam Lynn. “Specifically the two lines contained within this rule: The official scorer shall have sole authority to make all decisions concerning application of Rule 10 that involves judgement, such as whether a batter’s advance to any base is the result of a hit or an error … Club officials, coaches, and players are prohibited from communicating with the official scorer regarding any such decisions.
“I would then add: only the Cal League President can overrule an official scorer’s decision,” Tim continues. “Feel free to contact him immediately after the game, I hear he’s available 24/7 and doesn’t go to sleep until all the night games are completed. I would then print this statement in very large boldface letters, with appropriate underlines, and tape a copy to his desk, the wall behind his desk, and the manager’s only bathroom stall.”
The Bakersfield Blaze may be dying, but long live Tim Wheeler.
When it ends, Mark Duffel will start studying the Diamondbacks’ and Rockies’ minor league systems; he has to get ready for games in Visalia and Lancaster, you know. Maybe he’ll put his Mariners hat in storage, buy a Diamondbacks one. He says he won’t get season tickets anywhere since he can only go to a game or two each week. That may be true, but something tells me he’ll still take a peek at ticket packages.
When it ends, a land of legend and lore will quietly disappear.
“I’m really sad that it doesn’t exist any more, even though it was a terminal patient, and we all knew it was going to happen,” Philip says. “It’s just such a bummer. But it’s a bummer for like 150 people in a city of 350,000. Those are the people you feel really bad for, and the other people, they’ll figure it out. Ain’t that always the way it goes? You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone? That’s what is going to happen, man, and it’s going to be rough.”
Tonight, the Blaze will play Game Three of the Cal League North Division Finals against the Visalia Rawhide at Sam Lynn Ballpark. They are down two games to none, and unless they can rip off three straight wins starting tonight, they’ll be eliminated before the Championship Series.
“If you bump into D.G. [Elmore, the Blaze owner], tell him to buy me a plane ticket,” Philip says, hoping for one more day in Bakersfield. “It’s like a thousand bucks, I can’t afford it. But I know he can afford it, and he only paid me $20,000 my first year there, so I figure he owes me at least a thousand.”
The Blaze could lose, or maybe they’ll win the whole damn thing, but regardless, the end is near. Soon, Dan will watch one final sunrise in his beloved old ballpark, and then Jeff will lock the place up one last time and hand over the keys to Kern County.
And when his work is done, Dan will start to make the drive over the Grapevine in his Subaru Impreza, just a few miles standing between his old life in Oildale and his new one in LA. He’ll turn up the volume on a certain Buck Owens song as Sam Lynn, and Oildale, and the rest of Bakersfield fade away in his rearview mirror until it’s all slowly, completely claimed by the San Joaquin Valley’s thick cloak of tule fog. It’s time to go be a dad.
But the story doesn’t fade to black here.
It can’t. That’d be too Hollywood, and this is Bakersfield. This is Sam Lynn Ballpark, the place where an illuminated “7” is permanently lit up in the bottom of the seventh inning on their 34-year-old scoreboard. They can’t shut it off. They’ve tried. It’s just there, and so they work around it every day.
Maybe they’ll score seven runs in the seventh tonight against Visalia and finally get their money’s worth.
“Actually, you can tell the Mariners to take the scoreboard with them when they leave,” Philip says. “The last time they showed up in 1982, they bought the damn scoreboard. You can still call the place out in Illinois and they’ll tell you how to fix it. Just make sure you use brass-based bulbs when you replace them. And don’t replace them during batting practice, because the team will try to hit you.”
Yeah, the story of Sam Lynn isn’t going to have a perfect ending.
Maybe it ends when Dan’s car gets a flat tire climbing the Grapevine on the way home, the minor inconvenience before his new life just one final, macabre wink from the ghost of Sam Lynn: not enough to make him quit, but just enough to make him look bad for an hour.
Or maybe it ends in November.
Best as science can estimate, Dan’s new baby will enter the world at a hospital in west LA on November 13, and when that moment comes, the broadcaster-turned-father’s role in the bizarre, winding tale of Sam Lynn Ballpark will finally, fully be written. Buenas noches from a (less) lonely room. Bye, Dan.
And on that same day, just a two hours’ drive north that might as well be a world away, Justin Kelly’s first offseason as a professional baseball player will be in full swing.
“I can’t wait to go back to Sam Lynn this offseason,” Kelly had told me earlier. “I can’t wait to spend time back there and reflect on the place. I can’t just forget about it. I’ll probably sneak in and play catch.”
And there it is.
That’s how the story of Sam Lynn Ballpark ends, in the way most fitting for Bakersfield, the outlaw oil outpost of California—because only a true Bakersfield outlaw would sneak in to a decrepit, rundown old ballpark just to play catch.
All Justin Kelly wanted was to pitch at Sam Lynn Ballpark as a professional, in the California League, on some random, hot July summer. Now, that dream will never happen. That moment is forever gone.
But maybe, on a certain day in the middle of November, at the same moment a broadcaster’s life changes forever down in west LA, a left-handed pitcher hops the easiest fence (it’s down in the right field corner, Justin, but you didn’t hear it from me), jogs out on to the field, and toes the rubber on the Sam Lynn mound.
The pitcher isn’t wearing Blaze gear, instead an Orem Owlz hat, but as he peers out to the plate for his sign, all you see is a professional baseball player getting ready to deliver a pitch at ol’ Sam Lynn.
Now pitching for the Blaze, number 12, Justin Kelly.
You sit behind the plate, and you squint just the right way—I hear there’s a setting sun in center field that can help with that—and everything looks just as it should.
Froggy’s here, and Billy, and Jeff. Mark is holding court with fans a few sections away. He’s wearing an Angels hat today. Kat and Emily are preparing the next inning’s on-field promotion, and there’s even a homeless monster-looking guy walking around, wearing a black shirt with black jeans, talking to everybody.
Dan’s not here—his story has been written—but Dave is up in the booth, and so is Cushine, voice booming out over the speakers. Well, when he’s not yelling over at Tim, who’s busy scowling down at a Blaze hitting coach sitting in foul territory.
The lefty delivers the pitch, and the crack of the bat reverberates around the low-lying stadium. As the ball travels high and deep out to left center field, rising well above the tops of the high trees, you wonder if the wind will knock it down like it has so many other long fly balls before it for 75 years.
Force field’s down today, boys.
You didn’t actually think Bakersfield’s story would have a feel-good ending, did you?
As the left-handed pitcher turns around, gets a new ball, and digs back in on the mound for the next hitter, the meaning is clear. The ghost of Sam Lynn has reared up for one final, mischievous message, this one meant for the lefty just as so many others have been handed down in the 75 years before him:
Not enough to make you quit, kid, just enough to make you look bad for a while. Welcome to Sam Lynn.