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July 28, 2010

California League Tour, Part 2

Inland Empire, San Jose, Rancho Cucamonga and Visalia

by Charles Dahan

Inland Empire 66ers

There are a number of ways to make money with a minor-league baseball team. The most advisable is receiving ample support from a major-league affiliate in the nation’s second-largest market, building a stadium with a bevy of state-of-the-art luxury boxes leased by the season to Los Angeles’ most wealthy individuals and corporations, and having a band of Indians supply the second-largest video board in minor-league sports west of the Mississippi. Having that same band of Indians sponsor a scantily-clad female dance team is also advisable.

After extensive upgrades to lure the Dodgers back to the California League from Vero Beach of the Florida State League (prior to which Bakersfield served as the Dodgers’ single-A affiliate) Inland Empire boasts the finest video board and luxury suites in minor-league ball. The luxury boxes are reminiscent of those at the Giants’ AT&T Park, with large, individually-owned suites and ample outdoor seating. Most of the boxes in IE are privately leased, leading to wealthy owners hiring private decorators for their suites.

The Dodgers are heavily involved with the 66ers, providing a video intern who assists with operating the new media options the team has been provided, as well as submitting video to the Dodgers and accessing video from the Dodgers’ media department to display highlight videos between innings for fans. Each season, LA invites the 66ers front office to Dodger Stadium to learn new marketing and promotional techniques, and the 66ers are able to piggyback on Dodgers promotions, thereby receiving significant discounts. These opportunities allow the team to provide unique discounts to fans, as San Bernardino has been hit particularly hard by the recent economic and real estate downturns. The 66ers provide $2 tickets three nights a week, and significant discounts to host family and group events.

Mountains serve as the stadium’s backdrop, though smog sullies much of the view—particularly to the east. The crowd certainly gets its cue from the parent club, with plenty of bleach, hair gel, and tanning booths required for fans who stream in through the gates throughout the first two innings. And because it’s the San Bernardino Valley, there are cheerleaders. Though as Mary, a retired nurse who serves as the gatekeeper to the luxury suites corrected me, “They’re the dance team. And you should see the outfits!” I saw the outfits.

Inland Empire boasts two of the Dodgers’ top prospects, pitcher Ethan Martin and third baseman Pedro Baez. I watched Baez hit a monster shot at High Desert that cleared both the outfield fence and a group of billboards 20 feet behind the stadium (which were over 10-feet high as well as up a 10-foot hill). But his season hasn’t been as successful, posting only a 754 OPS with five home runs and nine walks against 39 strikeouts. Moreover, since June 1, Martin has had a rough run, posting a 4.69 ERA in 10 starts with a WHIP of 2.68 and 29 walks against 29 strikeouts.

San Jose Giants

The San Jose Giants were named the 2009 Presidents Trophy recipients, the highest honor awarded by Minor League Baseball for a team’s front office leadership. Since taking ownership, Jim Weyermann and the Giants have set attendance records for four consecutive seasons, including drawing over 200,000 fans in 2009 for the first time in team history. The San Francisco Giants were impressed by these developments, and became an ownership partner in 2010, providing additional stability for San Jose, which has been a Giants' affiliate since 1988, the longest affiliation in the California League.

But for San Jose, with only one major professional sports franchise in town (the NHL's Sharks) despite the highest median household income of any metropolitan area in the U.S., and serving as the epicenter of the 31st-largest area by population, building a new minor-league park—particularly to serve a single-A franchise—is problematic. First, there is constant talk of the Oakland Athletics moving south, which would—at least in Santa Clara County--infringe upon the San Francisco Giants’ territorial rights. San Jose mayor Chuck Reed has shown little appreciation for the team, launching a ballot measure to draw the A’s to San Jose (a move that drew the ire of Bud Selig) and which would effectively evict the Giants from Municipal Stadium. Yet the prospect of a major-league club limits any motivation for building a new ballpark in San Jose that may have to be abandoned upon the arrival of the A’s. Attracting a Triple-A franchise also seems unlikely, with gorgeous new facilities for the A’s and Giants in Sacramento and Fresno, respectively. And so the San Jose Giants continue to play in a stadium nearing its 70th year, with few of the amenities that provide teams throughout the Cal League additional sources of revenue, such as advanced video boards for in-game advertising and luxury suites.

San Jose Municipal Stadium, built in 1942 as a public works project, hasn’t undergone a major renovation in its history. Yet the team did add a video board, player workout facility (at the request of the San Francisco Giants) additional concession stands, and a team merchandise tent. Recently, the price of admission—$10 for adult general admission, $15 for a box seat in the first few rows and $13 for a seat a few rows back—has far outpaced inflation and is comparatively high, as is the exorbitant $9 for parking. The A’s sell Wednesday tickets for $2, and the San Francisco Giants offer dynamic pricing that less desirable games to go for as low as $5 (if you can stomach a Tuesday contest between the Giants and Pirates on a frozen San Francisco summer night). 

And while San Jose is largely a one-industry town (the Sharks’ alternate black uniforms are sponsored by Seagate, and external hard drives are—ill advisably—thrown into the stands) the Giants offer some of the greatest in-game contests. For $1, fans can purchase a Baseball Bingo card, with numbers corresponding to particular on-the-field results. Missing N-37 to complete a row? Better pull for that 260-pound first base prospect to steal third. The current blackjack competition is certainly unfortunate, as watching two people play blackjack with giant cards against a dealer for free buffet coupons to some Indian casino outside Sacramento is about as exciting as it sounds. That said, booing a woman for hitting an ace-seven against a dealer’s six was a good time. 

San Jose’s two classics are the Smash for Cash and Beer Batter. The former pairs three Giants with fans, with a very creepy van rolling in from the home bullpen and players throwing two balls in attempts to shatter the jalopy’s headlights. Frankly, this should be added to the All-Star Game festivities. The Beer Batter is nearly as legendary as the Montgomery Biscuits’ Biscuit Canon. An opposing slugger—usually a hitter with Adam Dunn’s pure hitting stroke and Mike Greenfield’s power—is named the game’s Beer Batter, and when the poor sap strikes out beer is 2-for-1 for the next 15 minutes. If you think fans react hostilely to a player laying down a bunt in the ninth inning of a perfect game, in 20 years of attending SJ Giants games I’m convinced a riot would ensue if the Beer Batter tried such a stunt. The key to fully appreciating the beer batter is that, in a sport dominated by pauses and subtlety, with the Beer Batter, every pitch counts. Regardless of the score, tension builds from the first pitch. The first strike? Good-natured cheers and a bit of jostling by male fans to reach the aisle, with the hardcore saucers appearing catlike in their moves. The more professional begin to ask whether anyone needs a brew. Strike two, and those that answered in the affirmative get up from their seats and queue in the aisle, breath baited. When Casey finally bites the dust, ushers earn their paychecks reminding fans to walk, not run, to pay $6 for two plastic cups of Budweiser. Even at a Tuesday day game, a throng of shirtless 20-somethings presumably bearing the brunt of the current economic crisis turned their section into a good-natured frat house.

The amazing thing about the Beer Batter promotion is that everyone is rooting for the opposing hitter to go down. Girl scouts, Kiwanis Club members, even the pregnant woman two rows up gave the pitcher a standing ovation when he painted the corner for strike three. To that end, this season, when beer sales end in the seventh inning, the batter becomes the Martinelli Sparkling Apple Juice batter. Now, if only a strikeout could halve the price of parking.

Rancho Cucamonga Quakes

A weekday, 10:30 a.m. game in Rancho Cucamonga serves as the best example of minor-league baseball’s most fertile revenue streams. While a game in 104-degree heat in the middle of the work week seems like a recipe for failure, local summer campers show up en masse to create a crowd that exceeds the average weeknight gate. And boy, are they loud. While a routine infield pop up elicits cheers louder than 400-foot home runs at other stadiums during weeknight games, the biggest screams are saved for the Quakes’ mascot, Tremor, strange dinosaur-alligator hybrid whose appeal is difficult to convey in words. 

On the field, Rancho Cucamonga catcher Alberto Rosario certainly has torn up the California League since his demotion by the Angels from Double-A Arkansas, with an OPS of 1.034 and OBP of .418, yet his walk rate is still in need of improvement as he has only one base on balls in 34 plate appearances. 

Visalia Rawhide

The Cal League’s reputation as ‘arena baseball’ due to hitter friendly parks is largely undeserved, with only two stadiums—Lancaster and High Desert—particularly to blame. One of the top pitching prospects in the Astros' organization is Dallas Keuchel, who put up a 2.31 ERA on the road in the California League before being promoted to Double-A Corpus Christi earlier this month, but had a 4.47 ERA in Lancaster. The other two most successful pitchers for Lancaster—Ross Seaton and Shane Wolf—have produced similar lines, doubling their ERA at home as compared to the road, with Seaton having an 8.92 at home and 4.55 at home and Wolf putting up a 6.89 in Lancaster and 3.96 on the road.

 Visalia is not a hitter's haven and has a capacity of under 3,000, yet the ballpark has undergone extensive renovations in the past five years, adding a restaurant and stadium club, an equipment and training facility in the outfield (that takes the shape of a barn, with the doors serving as the right-field fence and any balls hit on the roof being counted as home runs), and a deck down the left-field line that features plenty of beer taps and food options and at which fans stay far after the last pitch.   

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