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July 21, 2010

California League Tour, Part 1

A trip to Stockton, Lake Elsinore and High Desert

by Charles Dahan

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California has been home to professional baseball for over 150 years. The move of the Giants and Dodgers from New York actually dramatically diminished the vibrant baseball scene in the state, as it lessened the importance of the Pacific Coast League and the farm system that fed PCL teams. In 1941, the California League was established. The league is in the High-A classification and has 10 teams-the Modesto Nuts, Stockton Ports, and San Jose Giants in Northern California, the Visalia Rawhide and Bakersfield Blaze in the Central Valley, and the Lancaster Jethawks, High Desert (Adelanto) Mavericks, Inland Empire (San Bernardino) 66ers, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, and Lake Elsinore Storm in the Los Angeles area. 

The league's stadiums range from post-World War II projects such as San Jose Municipal Stadium to state-of-the-art facilities with major-league worthy sky boxes, roving waiters, and enclosed restaurants and bars. Moreover, although statistics are normalized to counteract the effects of different stadiums, the features of different minor-league parks are largely unknown and not quantified. In this edition, three parks--Stockton, Lake Elsinore, and High Desert-are profiled, along with the towns and front office executives that make these clubs unique. Five parks and franchises-San Jose, Inland Empire, Modesto, Rancho Cucamonga, and Visalia-will be featured next week.

Stockton Ports

Stockton has been the home of professional baseball for nearly a century and a half with its original stadium near Banner Island in a community referred to as 'Mudville.' San Francisco journalist Ernest Thayer penned the class poem Casey at the Bat in the 1880s in which Casey played fo the Mudville Nine and the Stockton Club was even known as the Mudville Nine from 2001-04. Today, the city has a new ballpark in the Banner Island neighborhood (though the island no longer exists) that borders a dock for luxury yachts, and in a nod to San Francisco's AT&T Park the outfield promenade features views of the water and the potential for hitters to hit a ball into the delta. 

General manager Pat Filippone previously ran the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies, the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, and the Prince William Cannons, and his experience certainly has paid off for the Ports, with attendance topping 200,000 and over $60,000 in cash and in-kind donations to the community in 2008. Filippone notes the difference between major- and minor-league general managers as, while having identical titles, "A major-league GM's role is procuring talent. My responsibilities are marketing, community relations, and sales." To that end, the Ports attempt to become integrated in the community and ranking the results in attendance as due to, "the day of the week, weather, and promotions." Of course, underlying these is a community support and buzz, created through the team's outreach to integrate the club into the city. "Win-loss record plays a valuable role, but primarily later in the season when a team that is competing for the playoffs can garner space closer to the front of the town's sports section," says Filippone.  

The stadium manages to be both intimate and modern, featuring immaculate restrooms and concession stands and well-groomed lawns for fans. Center field features a section of rocking chairs that causes the fence to slightly protrude into the field, creating a somewhat gimmicky outfield wall but one which offers fans some of the best seats in the minor leagues. It's certainly a hitter's park, with a right-field porch that would make any slugger salivate. Along with the rocking chair deck that causes the concave right-field wall, it's only 300 feet from home plate down the right-field line. In last Saturday night's game, left-handed center fielder Jermaine Mitchell hit a bomb to right that easily cleared the fence, aided by winds blowing out directly to center, while Yusuf Carter hit a ball that cleared the entire stadium, going at least 405 feet.

Gathering, aggregating, and analyzing statistics are tasks that fall to the major-league club with the minor-league team's starting pitchers who are not starting that night tracking pitches and the team's official scorer reporting statistics to MiLB.com, which provides a back end for teams and GMs to analyze data. As for the minor-league club, Filippone states, "I don't control what goes on within the white lines, but I make sure your family is having fun. Food, cleanliness, promotions all play into whether-regardless of the score-folks leave with a smile." For the success of a minor-league organization, "In terms of importance, ticket sales is No. 1. There are a few facets of ticket sales, and with local media disappearing at a rapid rate, social media has been a huge help for minor league baseball. Our web ticket sales have almost doubled from last year." Media director Kristin Pratt designs and executes the online marketing strategy, which has fueled interest and sales as the availability of coverage in media outlets dwindles. 

A major-league club can assist with the success of a minor-league affiliate by replacing players who are called up and taking an interest in the team winning. To that end, Filippone regularly interfaces with Keith Lieppman, the Athletics scouting director, and notes his appreciation for the A's supporting their farm clubs, signing independent league players to take the place of call-ups and promoting players only when they're ready to compete at a High-A level. "I've been with a team that simply didn't care," notes Filippone. "The franchise left us with 19 healthy bodies-and one catcher-for a month." 

In terms of competition, movies are the biggest concern to minor-league baseball, but baseball is unique in its ability to provide an outdoor, summer activity in which families can sit with neighbors and friends and socialize. To that end, Filippone also ensures the average ticket price undercuts the movies-the primary theater in town is only two blocks away. The new park doubled attendance and tripled revenue. The staff ensures the stadium stays gleaming-from the bathrooms to the four luxury suites-and great sight lines provide for a feel in which families can view the entire park-and their roving children-from their seats. Filippone also notes the large portion of the family entertainment budget is controlled by women, and caters to aspects of entertainment experiences particularly emphasized by mothers, emphasizing immaculate facilities and ample options away from the field for children. The outfield kids' section includes two large lawns and batting cages, and a roving announcer who appears to be one of Red Bull's most frequent customers as he keeps fans engaged between innings.  

Stockton's prices are average when compared to other Cal League stadiums, with $5 parking, tickets largely coming in under $10, and food options ranging from $4 hot dogs to premium barbecue sandwiches from local Kinder's restaurant for $8. Known as an asparagus hotbed, Ports fans recently watched competive eating legend Joey Chestnut set the world asparagus eating record, and the vegetable can be purchased (along with a Heineken for a delicious Beer-Asparagus combo) in the stadium. The hot dogs are average for a minor-league park, but Kinder's is the option to which most fans flock. 

Hot Dog Rating: 5

High Desert Mavericks

The High Desert Mavericks play in Adelanto, 80 miles from Dodger Stadium and 60 from Angel Stadium. The commute from Adelanto to Dodger Stadium takes nearly four hours, and the mountain atop which the stadium rests is nearly 3,000 feet. Despite the climb, triple-digit temperatures for evening games are the rule rather than the exception. Winds that blow directly out to center cool the stadium slightly but create conditions for what is generally considered the most hitter friendly park in the minor leagues. Moreover, the team is plagued by constant rumors of moving to the more densely populated-and wealthy-Apple Valley.  

The biggest issue for High Desert on the field is the difficulty of playing in a facility owned by the town without proper funds to properly maintain the playing surface. While keeping a playing surface in manageable shape in the middle of a desert would be a challenge for the most experienced facilities staff, a lack of funding results in an outfield that is less than ideal and an infield which allows otherwise routine ground balls to pick up speed and make it through holes.

The Mavericks' two major prospects are Rich Poythress and Johermyn Chavez, both of whom had huge nights on Monday. Chavez came to the Mariners as the second player (with Brandon League) in the team's December trade of Brandon Morrow to the Blue Jays and rarely sees a pitch he doesn't like. His OBP is a respectable .371, but the fact he strikes out every 3.75 at bats is certainly a concern. He produces runs with an OPS of 937 and 23 home runs through 92 games (and at a rate of one per 15 at bats), one of which he hit in Monday's game against Inland Empire. Though he's been in professional baseball since 2005, he signed as a 16-year-old and is just 21 with plenty of upside. 

The stadium's dimensions are nothing extraordinary, 400 feet to center and 330 down the lines, with no gimmicks in the construction of the field. Yet the heat, elevation, and wind all combine to create what one manager referred to as 'arena baseball.' The Mavericks are in contention this year, finishing the first half four games above .500 and currently only one game back in their division for the second half. Yet, since the High-A All-Star break (which features a game pitting the California League All-Stars against the Carolina League All-Stars) the Mavericks have an ERA of 3.55 on the road against an absurd 8.88 mark at home. At Monday's game against Inland Empire, High Desert gave up five runs in the second, and Inland Empire never looked back. By the middle of the fifth, the score was 16-2, after Marwin Vega surrendered nine runs through two innings. Rarely does a player like Vega get much ink, and upon entering the game had a 9.88 ERA and was visibly frustrated after being yanked (leading to an ejection).

Poythress managed to make a blowout interesting. No one can blame fans for streaming out of the stadium when the home team is down 16-3, but in Adelanto's bandbox a 13-run comeback isn't unheard of. With two outs in bottom of the sixth, the Mavericks put up five runs, including a three-run shot to right by Poythress. He went deep again in the eighth with a long bomb. It eclipsed Dodgers prospect Pedro Baez's earlier bomb, clearing the left-center field fence as well as the 15-foot high billboards that rest on a 10-foot hill behind the stadium, finally touching down on the road behind the ballpark, and coming to rest across the street at the foot of the visiting team's bus. A very conservative estimate from everyone in the press box was 450-and one of the longest shots anyone had seen in Adelanto in quite a while. Poythress finished the game 4-for-4 with a sacrifice fly, two home runs, one walk, and seven RBI. Delving into the season splits, however, reveals some concern about his progress. While Poythress' OPS is 1.036 against lefties and 906 at home, against right-handed pitching it's .779, and away from the friendly confines of High Desert, it is .794. Surprisingly, he has nine home runs both at home and away (even with eight fewer road games played).

Upon moving to Adelanto from Riverside, the Mavericks' Stater Brothers Stadium was one of the best in the minor leagues. With a capacity nearing 4,000, all individual seats (as opposed to bleachers which were standard for minor-league parks through the 1980s) and individual boxes for groups, the Mavericks regularly sold out. But in 1992, George Air Force Base-now a Superfund uncontrolled hazardous waste site (though the federal government lists the current level of ground water contamination acceptable for human exposure)-closed, and the High Desert area is a location with a significant, but geographically disparate, population. Along the way, Adelanto was largely left out of development plans, with cities such as Victorville and Apple Valley becoming affordable bedroom communities for families who commute to work down the hill in the Los Angeles and Anaheim areas. Thus, on a recent Monday night game against Inland Empire, the paid gate was generously announced at  872, though it appeared no more than 300 were in attendance.

The games here are some of the most enjoyable in the California League as the ballpark is intimate, comfortable, and extremely affordable. Parking is free, most concessions on Mondays and Fridays are $1, and hot dogs come in at $2.50. Play-by-play announcer and director of broadcasting Alex Freedman puts together an excellent radio broadcast, particularly given the challenges of calling games for which double-digit run totals are common. For fans, players are extremely accessible before games with kids able to meet Mavericks on the field each Wednesday.

Hot Dog Rating: 6

Lake Elsinore Storm

Lake Elsinore is the California League stadium that least resembles a minor-league park, seating 8,500 with luxury boxes that are worthy of major-league stadiums, a huge, all glass-enclosed stadium club that seats hundreds and features a full bar and restaurant, large fog machines to cool off fans in the numerous party decks, and lawn seating that extends down the right-field line. Waitresses offer in-seat delivery, and the facilities-while cavernous-are very well kept.

A bedroom community located an hour between Anaheim and San Diego, Lake Elsinore's population is young (a median age of 29) and with few outdoor entertainment options (other than the dull mustard-colored strip malls that appear every four miles). Thus, the Storm draws very well, particularly for the weekly Friday fireworks nights and $1 beer Thursdays. 

In terms of on-the-field talent, few top prospects are currently on display in Lake Elsinore, particularly with Drew Cumberland's recent promotion to Double-A San Antonio. The Padres have plenty of bullpen help coming through the minors, which, of course, is the last thing they need at the major-league level. The best hittig prospect in Lake Elsinore is outfielder Jaff Decker, the 42nd overall choice in 2008. After dominating at low-A Fort Wayne, Decker has been missing some of the power he showed at the lower as he has a .420 slugging percentage after slugging above .500 in rookie, short season and low-A ball. The downside of such a massive stadium is that teams-and fans-appear quite lackluster with a light Sunday night crowd. 

The field is immaculate, and in my brief time in the team store, merchandise moved at a brisk pace while most fans were clad in some sort of Storm paraphernalia. The logo itself, though, is quite a mystery. Considering the city receives 12 inches of rain per year, the original storm cloud logo made little sense. Quickly, it morphed into a very angry cloud, perhaps indicating that-although sparse-those rain drops mean business. Finally, the current logo is a pair of very creepy, anatidae eyes, described best by Christina Kahrl as the, "preferred chapeau of Scrooge McDuck's evil nephew, Axe Murderer McDuck." The Storm's new uniform logo fits its valley location well. A modified tribal tattoo, the jersey logo is the word 'Storm' written in a script only Ed Hardy could reproduce, and should be seen this season on the men of Jersey Shore, sans sleeves of course.

The $4 Farmer John hot dogs are absolutely delicious. While the buns could have been fresher, the hot dogs are generously thick and well worth the premium price. A few specialty burrito stands dot the stadium, and the Diamond Club offers air conditioning and a full restaurant menu for fans to escape the heat. There aren't many options close to the park, though the ample lawn space for family meals, stadium restaurant, and solid standard ballpark fare more than suffice.

 Hot Dog Rating: 8.5  

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