Charlie Blaney has often said that Bakersfield could be the best market in the California League, if only it had a new ballpark. The former Dodgers farm director and third-year Cal League president will now get a chance to prove his point.
The Blaze are building a new ballpark.
The privately financed venue is expected to cost $20 million and is scheduled to open during the 2014 season as part of a larger mixed-use community to include retail, entertainment and residential. The ballpark will include the typical bells and whistles of modern stadiums—including luxury suites, group-seating areas, a playground and special-event space that can be used year-round—and has been in the works since local businessmen Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway purchased the club from the Elmore Sports Group in early March. The Blaze plan on breaking ground early next year. They'll spend 2013 at Sam Lynn and could open 2014 there if the new venue is not completed in time for Opening Day.
“If you and I were starting a California League today, Bakersfield would be one of the first places we would put a team,” Blaney said. “It’s centrally located in the state. It has its own media market. It has a population of 450,000 people within an hour’s drive . . . This is why the league been so patient with trying to keep affiliated baseball there.”
Specifically, it is why Minor League Baseball has allowed the Blaze to stay at Sam Lynn Ballpark, the team’s 71-year-old home that no longer meets facility standards and is considered among the worst stadiums in the minors. Bakersfield averaged just 637 fans in 2012—which was actually an 11 percent increase from the previous season and was the lowest among full-season teams. The new owners spruced up Sam Lynn before this season with fresh paint, an expanded home clubhouse and a renovated playing field. But Voiland and Hathaway vowed that it would not remain the team’s long-term home in its current condition.
"Things have changed from when I was a kid going to games with my dad," Blaze owner Gene Voiland said at a press conference today announcing the deal, according to the Bakersfield California. "It's family-focused entertainment."
It was just four years ago that Bakersfield appeared on the verge of losing its team. In late 2008, Cal League owners were considering a proposal from Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner to send the Blaze and High Desert Mavericks to the Carolina League. Several major league teams in the East and Midwest had requested to expand the Carolina League from eight to 10 teams in order to keep their high Class A affiliates closer to home, and moving Bakersfield and High Desert would also remove the Cal League’s two worst-performing franchises. Ultimately, the deal was doomed by money—how much the Carolina League would require for an entry fee and how much Cal League owenrs wanted to be compensated—as well as a lack of two viable markets in the Carolina League.
Blaney took over the reigns of the Cal League from longtime president Joe Gagliardi two seasons later and said the league would no longer consider shifting two teams to the Carolina League. Solving the Bakersfield and High Desert issues would become his top priority. And it appears that his mission has been completed, as High Desert signed a lease extension at Mavericks Stadium with plans for a significant ballpark renovation.
“This is something that we’ve been working on the past three years,” Blaney said. “This has been a top priority for the league. It’s a great day for the California League and a great day for Bakersfield and a great day for Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball.”