California League Seems Stuck In Bakersfield

BAKERSFIELD—On a quiet summer night at historic Sam Lynn Ballpark, the 69-year-old facility hit its all-time low.

In the seventh inning of the July 5 game in the high Class A California League between the Bakersfield Blaze and San Jose Giants, team trainers motioned to the press box to call 911.

On the field, San Jose third baseman Drew Biery was struggling to breathe.

Moments before, Biery had been struck in the throat by a groundball. Described by Biery as a routine play, the grounder took a bad hop and struck him centimeters from his larynx. With the 24-year-old gasping for air and the trainers worried his throat would swell shut and he would die, Biery was rushed to the emergency room in critical condition.

Upon arrival to a Bakersfield hospital, doctors worked frantically to find a solution to help the young man get more oxygen. After several hours of treatment, Biery's life and career had been saved.

"It felt like every time I was trying to take a deep breath, it was like a punch in the chest," Biery recalled. "I could barely get enough air in. That was by far the scariest moment I've had on a baseball field."

Athletics and accidents go hand in hand. Preventing these accidents are a priority.

For this reason, San Jose manager Brian Harper has no reservations saying Bakersfield's playing surface is unfit, and at times unsafe, for professional baseball. Outdated facilities aside, the field must be safe for his valued players to work on.

"I almost had a player die on the field, so I don't really have to complain about (conditions). It speaks for itself," Harper said. "It was a rough situation.

"The field and the playing surface itself needs to be addressed. I really think, definitely, something needs to be done for the playing surface in Bakersfield if we are going to play there again next year," Harper said. "The field needs to be leveled out. There are lips all around the infield."

The field is just one of many problems at the ballpark built in 1941 that has devolved into perhaps the worst in minor league baseball. It no longer meets Minor League Baseball facility standards, and California League president Charlie Blaney has spent much of his first year in office searching for a way to get a new park built in Bakersfield.

"I'm knocking on all doors and listening to anybody who can help," said Blaney, who admits to finding little interest from private sources to invest in a stadium, and none from the public sector.

Problems Persist

Bakersfield was not Blaney's only project when he took office last January. Another was to find a buyer for the High Desert Mavericks, who play at another ballpark that has fallen into disrepair. He may soon be able to check that one off his list, as High Desert owner Bobby Brett is nearing a deal with a buyer who would probably move the team. Neither Blaney nor Brett could comment on where the team would go, though rumors have Chico, Calif., as the front-runner.

The Bakersfield problem, however, remains unsolved.

Many of the 2010 California League managers and players believe Sam Lynn Ballpark should be put to rest, or at least significantly renovated. But at this point the historic stadium will enter 2011 with nothing more than a little bit of makeup brushed on. Individuals associated with the league believe the issue has become an embarrassment to the league and has taken away from its prestige.

"Bakersfield is an absolute joke," Modesto manager Jerry Weinstein said. "For professional baseball to play in that facility is an embarrassment. If everyone was being honest, they would say the same thing."

Several years ago, Modesto was in a similar situation. John Thurman Field, built in 1952, was in bad shape. The city and team had to either replace or renovate the park or face the possibility of losing the franchise.

So in the mid-1990s, the city and owner at the time plowed $4 million into renovating the stadium, and the investment has paid off.With larger crowds and more sponsorships, the city and the franchise signed an extended lease agreement in 2006, and the city invested an extra $3 million to make even more improvements.

Again the investments are providing a return, as the Nuts were selected to host the 2011 California-Carolina All-Star Game.

"Before the big renovation, it was an old, rundown place," Modesto general manager Mike Gorrasi said. "Basically, Major League Baseball said, 'We are going to take away your team unless changes are made.' It got to the point where Modesto came close to losing minor league baseball."

The Visalia Rawhide just completed a similar transaction with their city to renovate an outdated facility. The San Jose Giants have a $15 million renovation on the table. And the Stockton Ports are in their sixth year of a brand new stadium.

The Southern Division's oldest facility is in High Desert. The Lancaster JetHawks, Inland Empire 66ers, Lake Elsinore Storm and Rancho Cucamonga Quakes each have facilities that have been built within the past 18 years. Each venue has its pros and cons, and a handful of the visiting accommodations are less than ideal. But these issues pale in comparison to the liabilities that remain in Bakersfield and High Desert.

Back To The Drawing Board

In 2008, Minor League Baseball attempted to step in to fix this problem.

President Pat O'Conner proposed that the Mavericks and Blaze franchises move to the Carolina League, and the California League continue with just eight teams. O'Conner had spent the last 14 years in Minor League Baseball's front office keeping a close eye on the state of the California League, and he felt the move made sense.

Minor League Baseball would rid itself of two headaches in the Cal League and give East Coast organizations two more high Class A affiliates closer to their homes. Now O'Conner sounds like he's throwing up his hands.

"I'm not sure the Bakersfield situation has moved at all," O'Conner said. "It is in the league's hands now. I tried to solve it another way, and we were unable to solve it in the transfer. But the problem hasn't gone away. We are still concerned with their facilities."

The moves were undone by several factors. The discussions began around the time the country's economy began to dive. The two leagues couldn't agree on specific financial agreements. And the Cal League owners didn't want to part with either franchise.

There is no opposition to moving High Desert to another California city, but there is a strong push to keep baseball in Bakersfield. No owner or GM wanted to lose the Bakersfield market. The Bakersfield metropolitan statistical area, as defined by the Census Bureau, has a population of about one million and has its own devoted media markets. It is the third-largest inland city in California, behind Triple-A cities Fresno and Sacramento.

This potential gold mine is what gave Bakersfield its "ninth life," as described by O'Conner in a 2009 statement to league presidents when he compared the city to a cat. Another year with no movement on a new or renovated stadium leaves the city on life support. O'Conner is not happy with the current situation, and he isn't far from pulling the plug.

"Bakersfield needs a (new) ballpark in the worst way," O'Conner said.

"Something has got to give out there. Sam Lynn is going to fall down. It's getting to the point where we are just going to have to do something . . . Step in and take a ballclub from the city." "My solution is somewhat of a death-penalty. A drastic measure," O'Conner added. "I have tried to nudge it along for a solution that was good for anyone involved. But we were unable to accomplish that."

Jason Gonzalez covers the California League for the Antelope Valley (Calif.) Press