New Ballpark Changes The Game In Bakersfield

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 development that will include retail, entertainment and residential elements. The ballpark will feature 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 but 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,” Voiland said at a press conference announcing the deal, according to the Bakersfield Californian. “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 reins 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 of Bakersfield’s future home. “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.”

Reading By Another Name

The Reading Phillies have little reason to change.

After all, this is the franchise that topped the Eastern League in average attendance six of the past seven years. One of the best-run operations in the business, Reading has transformed a 61-year-old stadium into one of the premier venues in the minors through a series of renovations—including a $10 million facelift before last season. And the team beloved in its own community puts on an entertaining show with a cast of characters that includes a Crazy Hot Dog Vendor and the Mascot Band.

Yet, ready or not, change is coming to Reading. For the team announced that after 46 years as the Phillies, it is changing its name as part of a major rebranding effort.

“We’ve come to realize we want our fans to be able to have their own brand,” Reading general manager Scott Hunsicker told the Reading Eagle. “We want to be able to celebrate our association with the Philadelphia Phillies, yet at the same time give our fans their own name so that they can wave their flag even more proudly as fans of the Reading franchise.”

The team will unveil the new name, logo and uniforms on Nov. 17. They’re working with the sports marketing firm Brandiose (formerly Plan B Branding), with whom they have worked on previous projects including new logos and jerseys prior to the 2008 season. Brandiose was behind the name and logos for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs and Richmond Flying Squirrels, a pair of the more unique monikers in the competitive minor league landscape, but also two of the more successful franchises in the sport.

Brandiose partner Jason Klein indicated that Reading’s new name won’t be quite as outlandish as those two, but rather will play off of Reading’s history and tradition.

“There was only one team name that made the most sense when we had these conversations (with Reading’s front office) and I think that after the unveiling, fans will see that it is not a departure or a 180-degree turn (from the current name),” Klein said. “We’re sort of doubling down on their relationship with the Phillies and everything that they are known for.

“This was not a traditional process where internally we are pitching ideas . . . It was, ‘Is there a name worthy of changing the name?’ “

Klein says there is indeed such a name. And it will be married next season with a new uniform design that he would only describe as cutting edge.

“People will be wowed,” he said. “We are doing something with uniforms that has never been done before. They are going to have a uniform design that is classic and is unlike anything has been done before in minor league baseball.”

The Reading community, however, has not been wowed with the idea of change. Fans have developed quite an attachment to the R-Phils. A Facebook group called “Save the Reading Phillies” had over 2,000 members within 48 hours of the announcement and an online petition asking the club to reconsider the name change had over 700 supporters.

Few name unveilings or changes to a team name are immediately embraced by the community. There were similar responses in Lehigh Valley and Reading. Storm Chasers wasn’t an immediate hit in Omaha, neither was TinCaps in Fort Wayne. But each has become one of the top selling merchandise brands in the minors. However, none of those teams had Reading’s history, success and a fanbase that takes enormous pride in its sports teams.

“People are going to be excited when they hear the name and see the new iconic looks,” Hunsicker told the Reading Eagle.