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July 1, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

Glory Days

by Ken Arneson

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Ken Arneson operated the now-defunct Baseball Toaster blog network. Ken wrote for two Toaster blogs, Catfish Stew and the Humbug Journal. Since retiring from blogging two years ago, Ken now spews most of his baseball opinions on Twitter.

 

I have a friend, he wrote a baseball book,
just recently pressed.
Saw him the other night in this quaint bookshop,
doing a reading on a publisher's tour.
There was buzz about a movie or TV deal,
but I don't know how real that was.
The store passed out bookmarks featuring his name.

"Maybe," I said to him,
"I should keep this bookmark as a souvenir,
of how I knew you before you hit the big time,
before your name appeared on billboards
instead of bookmarks."

"Or maybe," I teased him,
"This bookmark is your peak.
Maybe it never gets any better
than this thin slice of cardboard with your name on it.
Youneverknow.
Today, me, you, right here, might be the best day of our lives."

* * *

Ever wonder how the average college athlete feels listening to his commencement speech? "You will do great things. Your best days are ahead of you," the speaker invariably says. And the athlete knows deep down that this is probably untrue. More likely, his glory days just ended. If only they could have lasted just a little bit longer.

* * *

College baseball schedules itself using the standard academic calendar, ending in June. This doesn't match up very well with the traditional baseball calendar, which runs through the summer. To fill that gap, collegiate summer baseball teams are formed all around the country to give college players a place to continue playing and honing their skills.

Collegiate summer baseball teams are typically formed as non-profit organizations, to enable the players to retain the amateur status required for college eligibility. Players who have completed their freshman year but not yet played their senior season are eligible to play. Yet despite those simple rules, summer collegiate baseball remains the last unsettled frontier of baseball. There's no monolithic organization like MLB or the NCAA that sets barriers to entry. It is still possible for anyone who wants to to form a college summer baseball team. Teams and leagues all around the country come and go from one year to the next. Some teams formally join leagues if they can find one, and others just barnstorm around.

The oldest summer college team in the country is the Humboldt Crabs, who were founded in 1945. They have survived so long by integrating themselves into the culture of their hometown of Arcata, a city along the Northern California coast, about 100 miles south of the Oregon border. They draw between 500-1500 fans for every game, averaging about 850. They even have a band, the Crab Grass Band, which plays at their home games.

Yet for all the success the Crabs have had as an individual team, they have not yet found a stable league to be part of. The history of summer baseball has mimicked the settling of the country: the West remained wild long after the East Coast started getting civilized. With the notable exception of the Alaska Baseball League, most of the successful summer baseball leagues are found east of the Mississippi.

This year, the Crabs helped form the Far West League, built on the merger of two previous NorCal leagues. The hope is that by assembling the best-run teams and management under one roof, there can finally be a strong and stable summer league for Northern California.

* * *

Here we are, at a ballpark nestled along the shores of San Francisco Bay. It is Friday. We're watching the first game of a three-game weekend series.


Here is #51
a left-handed pitcher
from Stockton, California,
the heart of the 209.

He can't throw his speedball by you
so he'll work the corners
give you some wrinkles
keep you guessing, off-
balance, sometimes

you'll guess right, but mostly
—fast, slow, in, out, up, down, straight, curved—
not.

Here, in the wink of an eye,
are three runs allowed
in eight crafty innings.

This isn't Dallas Braden of the Oakland A's. It's Zach DeValle of the California Glory, a Far West League team from Lodi, California.

And this isn't the Oakland Coliseum or AT&T Park. It's Willie Stargell Field, a high school baseball field in Alameda, California. It's the home of the Neptune Beach Pearl, another Far West League team, enjoying its first year of existence. Here, like at AT&T Park, you can hit the ball into San Francisco Bay. But here, unlike AT&T Park, there's no glory in doing so. Here, a splash hit is a mere foul ball down the right field line.

DeValle is not taking the mound in front of 30,000 people against the richest teams in the world, rostered by Hall-of-Fame players with movie star girlfriends. Today, he's here in front of a gathering of about 50 people. This includes his parents, who took the day off from work and drove the two hours from Stockton to Alameda to see him pitch, and exactly two other people in the stands who are rooting for his visiting team.

Here, there are no Chosen Ones. No once-in-a-generation swings, no golden arms that make major-league scouts drool and Hollywood starlets swoon. Those types of players are in the more prestigious summer leagues, like the Cape Cod League. Here, there are no shortcuts to success. Here, no one ascends like a rocket to the dizzy height of a jet-set life. Here, nothing is handed to you for free. Here, every inch of progress is earned.

Braden once travelled the path that DeValle is now on: from a Stockton high school to a local junior college to a four-year-college halfway across the country, with a stop in a summer college league town along the way. Braden then became a 24th-round draft pick, worked his way slowly up through the minors, then joined the Oakland A's, where he got into a spat with Alex Rodriguez and threw a perfect game before damaging his shoulder. For these types of players, Braden is the model of success.

* * *

Here in the Far West League, there is no central recruiting bureau, no drafting of players to ensure an even distribution of talent. Recruiting is the responsibility of each individual team. The kind of talent each team can bring in is partly a function of personal connections, how many college coaches they can call up and ask, "Who do you have for me this year?" It's also a function of how many volunteers the team can find to serve as host families for the players. The more host families a team can find, the more players it can recruit from out of the local area. Otherwise, it's restricted to recruiting players who can sleep in their own beds at night.

Dustin Chavez, the General Manager of the Neptune Beach Pearl, was quite happy that he was able to find eight host families in the team's first year. He was expecting maybe three or four. With that kind of support, he was able to grab some players from distant colleges like UCLA, Boston College, Delaware State, and Eastern Michigan University. He says that if the Pearl want eventually to compete with the more prestigious summer leagues in the country, they need to get up to around twenty host families per year.

As the Far West League matures, Chavez hopes to recruit more sophomores and juniors than he was able to in his first year. "Over half our players this year are freshmen," says Chavez. Chavez is taking special care to make sure the players are treated well and have a memorable time, so they will go back to their college programs and spread the word. If they execute the fundamental things right, they should be able to compete for those better players from around the country. After all, they have a natural advantage: they can offer players the opportunity spend a summer in sunny California, where baseballs magically wash up along the beach.

* * *

The Glory won Friday's game, 14-6, thanks to DeValle and a pair of three-run homers by Brandon Jossey, a freshman outfielder from Ohlone College. On Saturday, the series moved to Lodi, where the Pearl won, 6-2, behind three shutout innings by Kyle Barraclough, who was a 40th-round draft pick by the Minnesota Twins. Sunday's rubber match returns the two teams one more time to Willie Stargell Field.

For Chavez, Sunday is the biggest day in the short history of the Neptune Beach Pearl. It's the first weekend game of the summer, and Chavez has made a big push in the community to promote this particular game.

Chavez has dreams that the Pearl can be to Alameda what the Crabs are to Arcata. "Alameda has a great baseball tradition," says Chavez, pointing out its strong Little League and high school programs. Several major leaguers, including Stargell, Jimmy Rollins, and Dontrelle Willis, grew up here. Chavez himself played Little League and high-school baseball in Alameda and now works as a high-school baseball coach in Berkeley. He wants to give back to the community that developed him. "Alameda deserves a minor-league type experience," he says.

Chavez had hoped to play the Pearl's home games at the College of Alameda field, which has a press box, a concession stand, and more seating than Stargell Field. But the Alameda Recreation & Parks Department, which maintains the College field, looked at the Pearl's roster, which includes only one Alameda resident, and decided it would have to pay non-resident fees of about $800 per game to use it. With a limited budget in his first year, Chavez had to go to Plan B and rent from the school district instead.

Revenues are minimal for a brand-new team like the Pearl. The players are charged a nominal fee to help cover expenses. There are some donations and sponsorships, but it takes time to develop those relationships and create a steady stream of income. And while some teams like the Crabs can sell tickets for their games, the Pearl don't charge admission—yet. That's partly because the high school layout makes it difficult to restrict access to the field, and partly to help get the word of mouth spreading more quickly. "We want to establish that we're an important part of the community," says Chavez. And, left unsaid, once they have done so, perhaps they can get that non-resident fee waived for the College of Alameda field.

About 250 people show up for Sunday's game, including Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore, who throws out the ceremonial first pitch. To promote a family-friendly atmosphere, the Pearl introduce their mascot and hold on-field contests for kids between innings. To present the highest-quality baseball they can, the Pearl trot out their best pitcher, Chris Garrison, for the game. Garrison is a junior college player who was drafted in the 28th round by the Chicago Cubs in the most recent draft. He might have gone higher if he didn't intend to honor his letter of intent to play for the University of Kentucky next year.

The Glory have trouble making good contact against Garrison, who shuts the Lodi team out over eight innings. Neptune Beach ends up winning the game 6-1, and the Pearl's GM is happy the day went so well. "We started this organization for days like this," says Chavez.

* * *

Just about a year ago,
I set out on the road,
Seeking my fame and fortune,
Looking for a pot of gold.
Things got bad, and things got worse,
I guess you know the tune.
Oh, Lord, stuck in Lodi again.

Creedence Clearwater Revival

Will the Far West League succeed at stabilizing the college summer league scene in Northern California? Or will it fall apart, like all the leagues before it? Was Sunday's success as good as it gets for the Neptune Beach Pearl, or was it just the first of many high points on the way to fulfilling a dream?

Early in our lives, we are essentially just passing through, heading toward some other place in some future time. Our current location, whether it's called Lodi or Alameda or Cape Cod or San Francisco or New York, is just a stepping stone on our way. But youneverknow. This place, here, could be the place we end up. This day, today, could be our day of glory.

When we accept that our turn on the field is over, that we've had our day, we plant ourselves, and stand aside. We become the stepping stone. The dream moves on, even if we stay put. We let the next generation have their turn running the bases, soaking in the glory, and we high-five them as they go by.

9 comments have been left for this article.

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