Bakersfield, High Desert Set To Contract

After years of rumors and speculation, California League franchises High Desert and Bakersfield are officially contracting at the end of this season.

Minor League Baseball made the announcement Monday afternoon that this season will be the last for High Desert, currently the Rangers’ high Class A affiliate, and Bakersfield, the Mariners’ affiliate.

The Cal League will drop to eight teams once the franchises contract, the first time the league will have fewer than 10 teams since 1985. The contractions of High Desert and Bakersfield were followed by an announcement that two new franchises will be awarded to the Carolina League next season in Fayetteville, N.C. and Kinston, N.C.

“Bakersfield and High Desert have been very important franchises in the Cal League for many years, and, while we are disappointed they will no longer be in the Cal League, for the overall good of Minor League Baseball we are working and cooperating with our Major and Minor League partners,” Cal League president Charlie Blaney said in a statement. “As a league we worked diligently to explore alternatives to realignment, but the lack of alternatives combined with the importance of this project to address broader issues within Minor League Baseball led us to help facilitate this Single-A realignment.”

The news comes with both High Desert and Bakersfield mired in stadium controversies that have lasted for years. High Desert, which has been in existence since 1991, has ranked in the bottom three in the league in attendance each of the last 10 years and is currently embroiled in a legal battle with the city of Adelanto, Calif., where the franchise is located, over use of their stadium, Heritage Field. Earlier this year, city officials tried to evict the team from the stadium, but the franchise sued and won an injunction just three days before the start of the season for the right to play in their own stadium.

“It is with great regret and reluctance that the Mavericks are one of two teams being contracted from the California League, as the Mavericks would prefer to remain in Adelanto as members of the California League,” High Desert owner Dave Heller said in a release. “The uncertainty of the future, stemming directly from the City of Adelanto’s effort to lock us out of a ballpark for which we have a binding legal contract, creates too much uncertainty for next season and beyond. That uncertainty is simply unacceptable to the team, the other members of the California League, the Texas Rangers and Minor League Baseball. As a result, this unfortunate action had to be taken.”

Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Ballpark has been in use since 1941 and is the only stadium in the league that does not meet minimum facilities standards set forth by the Professional Baseball Agreement. In addition to lacking modern facilities mandated by the agreement, the stadium faces the setting sun, causing game times often to be delayed until the sun goes down.

The contractions come after multiple, unsuccessful attempts by both franchises to remedy their stadium problems within the California League. High Desert was purchased in Nov. 2010 by Main Street Baseball, LLC., which also owns the Quad Cities River Bandits of the Midwest League. For a short time on Quad Cities’ website, the bio page of Main Street principal partner Bob Herrfeldt noted he and Heller “purchased the High Desert Mavericks in the California League with the intention of relocating and rebranding this team in a new market.”

The franchise prepared to relocate to Chico, Calif., but the move was aborted when a law abolishing California’s state redevelopment agencies—and thus the public financing mechanism for new sports stadiums—was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown and upheld by the California State Supreme Court. The law prevented a new ballpark from being built in Chico, and also killed a proposed stadium in Escondido, Calif. for the Padres’ Triple-A affiliate.

Bakersfield, which has been home to a minor league franchise since 1941 with limited interruption, was purchased by local oilmen Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway in March 2012 with the stated goal of constructing a new stadium to keep the franchise in town. However, the ownership group announced a little more than 18 months later, in Oct. 2013, they had raised only $18 million of the $30 million needed for a new ballpark. With the hopes of a new stadium dead, Voiland and Hathaway returned the franchise to previous owner D.G. Elmore, who owns the franchise today. He is the son of the head of Elmore Sports Group, which also owns the Cal League’s Inland Empire franchise as well as five other minor league baseball franchises.

With both cities having failed in their attempts to get new stadiums in the California League, major league affiliates began pulling out. High Desert and Bakersfield received new affiliates in 2014, and earlier this month the Rangers and Mariners elected not to renew their player-development contracts with the franchises.

Despite their present-day issues, both franchises have a rich history in their markets that make their contractions significant. High Desert was the first California League franchise to ever draw 200,000 fans in a season—accomplished in its inaugural season in 1991—and was the first stadium in a wave of new facilities that revitalized minor league baseball in Southern California. Bruce Bochy was the franchise’s first manager, while future All-Stars Brad Penny, Vicente Padilla, J.J. Hardy, Kyle Seager, Michael Pineda and Billy Butler all played for the High Desert Mavericks on their way up the minors. High Desert won three Cal League titles in its first seven seasons in existence, buoyed by one of the league’s largest fanbases, before economic and political complications pulled the city of Adelanto downward and left the stadium geographically isolated and without much local support.

Bakersfield, meanwhile, is in its 75th year of minor league baseball and counts more than 275 major leaguers among its alumni. Hall of Famers Don Drysdale, Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza, along with decorated major leaguers Johnny Callison, Larry Bowa, Ron Cey, Rick Sutcliffe and Josh Hamilton, were among those who called Sam Lynn Ballpark home in their minor league careers. Bakersfield is the ninth-most populous city in California, in between major league cities Oakland and Anaheim, and the second-largest California League market behind San Jose.

“Baseball has had a long and wonderful history in Bakersfield,” franchise owner Elmore said in a release. “I am sorry to see it come to a close.”

Bakersfield’s final regular-season home game is Aug. 28, and High Desert’s is Sept. 1. However, High Desert has already secured a playoff berth and is guaranteed at least two more postseason home games by virtue of winning the league’s first half title in the South Division, while Bakersfield is on pace to clinch a second half title in the North Division that would give it at least one postseason home game.

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