Take me out to the ballgame? Sure, as long as you’re taking me to San Jose or Lake Elsinore.
Those cities don’t have major league teams – that’s the point. In California, Major League Baseball is miserable. Big league games run too long and cost hundreds of dollars to attend. The stadiums in Oakland and Anaheim are dumps, as are this year’s teams in San Francisco and San Diego. In Los Angeles, the championship-contending Dodgers greedily cling to a cable contract that prevents most Angelenos from watching their great season on TV.
But there is an antidote to big-league baloney: the California League, our very own minor league. The games are fast-paced (the lack of TV commercial breaks helps), the ballpark entertainment is fun, and tickets are inexpensive.
Of course, the California League is Californian, and mirrors the challenges of our high-cost, high-poverty state The league has teams in Stockton and San Bernardino, cities known for surviving municipal bankruptcies, and three teams in each of our state’s two most economically challenged regions—the San Joaquin Valley and the Inland Empire. The other two squads are in Lancaster, in L.A. County’s high-crime High Desert, and San Jose, a city with wealthy residents but a starving government because it has too few sales-tax producing businesses.
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Like California itself, the league has had trouble with out-of-state migration. After the 2016 season, two of the 10 teams were shut down and shifted to the Carolinas. One, the High Desert Mavericks, left after the city of Adelanto canceled the Mavericks’ lease in the publicly owned ballpark. The other, the Bakersfield Blaze, departed after seven years of unsuccessful attempts to replace historic Sam Lynn Ballpark, which failed to meet the minimum facilities standards of professional baseball. (Among other problems, the stadium’s geographic alignment meant the sun was dangerously in player’s eyes, causing games to be stopped or postponed for “sun delays”).
Charlie Blaney, the California League’s president, told me that the state’s elimination of local redevelopment agencies earlier this decade has thwarted attempts to build new ballparks. It’s hard to construct housing in California – for people or minor league teams.
At the same time, the history of the league (it dates to 1941, nearly 20 years before major league teams arrived) help make it great. In Visalia, you can visit Recreation Park, built in 1946, and watch Rawhide play in a park so intimate you can hear the players chatting with each other. In Riverside County, you can join the passionate crowds at The Diamond, home of the Lake Elsinore Storm, a Padres affiliate that draws 200,000 fans a year to a city of just 55,000.
But there is no place better to watch a ballgame in California than San Jose Municipal Stadium, which opened in 1942. The San Jose Giants, a San Francisco affiliate, spruce up the old place with paint – baseball cartoons, quotes about baseball, and banners cover every flat surface. The open picnic space down the left-field line is perfect for parties. Behind the plate, Giants staffers keep their office doors open to fans.
The stadium shows its age – worn spots in the outfield, and port-a-potties to supplement actual bathrooms. But I paid $13 for a seat behind home plate, 10 rows up. (You can’t sit anywhere in Dodger Stadium for less than $21 ever).
The game was played well and quickly. Every minute between innings was filled with entertaining promotion: fans played blackjack against the mascot, tossed balls into a toilet (a contest sponsored by a plumber), and faced off in an air guitar competition.
Fans really came alive when the night’s designated “Beer Batter,” Arturo Nieto of the visiting Modesto Nuts, approached the plate. After he struck out swinging, beer was half-price for the next 15 minutes.
“Don’t run too fast and don’t drink too fast,” said the public address announcer, as one-third of the crowd scurried to the beer stands.
I hadn’t planned to stay the whole game, but the hot dog and the Fritos nachos were cheap and tasty. I can’t wait to go back.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at email@example.com.