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June 7, 2013
In A Pickle
The Best Way to Watch the Cal League
I don't usually go in for a shocking lede to grab your attention, but: I left the house three times recently. (Where "recently" means "in the last month.") Here are the things I like to do when I leave the house: watch baseball; drink beer; ... yeah.
Lancaster,1 California is in Los Angeles County, which is also the county in which I reside, but it takes something like 75 minutes to get to Lancaster from my house. There's only one highway, unless you count the Angeles Forest Highway, which runs smack through (ready?) the Angeles National Forest, so I don't. Count it, I mean. In an entire country full of boring drives, the cruise up state highway 14 past Palmdale and into Lancaster is a standout of nothingness. There's this church on the west side of the road not long before you hit Palmdale that I really like. There's also a point where you lose the L.A. radio stations and start picking up a whole lot more music extolling the virtuous life and its heavenly rewards.
What does stand out is that the parts of Lancaster that I have experienced aren't the hellholes frequently associated with California League towns. I don't mean to insult your city if you live in one of these towns, but my wife is fond of noting that a violent death might well be a side effect of our lifetime goal to see a game in the stadium of every affiliated minor-league team in the country.2 What little I've seen of Lancaster makes it one of the exceptions: it has a nice cultural downtown-type area with shops and restaurants of the independent variety and a performing arts center and ample parking without the hell of garages or vast lots and I haven't yet seen anyone selling or making drugs openly. Wikipedia claims, "Lancaster is listed by CNNMoney as one of the best places to live in 2012," but the citation is a broken link and I found nothing independently, though my research skills and CNNMoney's opinion on what city is objectively better to live in than what other city are suspect to the same degree.
(By contrast, Urban Dictionary has an entry for Lake Elsinore that even the most hardcore linguistic libertarian could not call "flattering." Then again, I've seen the term "Methcaster." Honestly, though, if you're from Lancaster, you should be more concerned by the lack of creativity in the insulting nicknames than by the insult itself. It's not immediately obvious that a "Methcaster" isn't a guitar.)
The reason I know about Lancaster's revived strip is because it is home to Kinetic Brewing Company. If you have heard about the amazing San Diego brewery scene, then you might have an impression that the entire SoCal region is awash in craft beer. Metro Los Angeles, though, doesn't reach San Diego's heights. It is growing, and it's far from shabby, and I can find and drink all sorts of cool stuff, but it's not routine the way it is in our neighbor to the south. Good beer is not as well integrated into the culture and ethos and palate of the city. The difference comes down to having to seek it out vs. being able to stumble into it.
Having done my seeking, it was exciting to learn about a brewpub in a town to which I'd trek for minor-league baseball anyway. Kinetic has a very nice beer list, both in bottles and on tap, and the menus rotate. Given that it's not my local joint, I feel obligated to order Kinetic's own brews, but that still leaves some breadth. The Propulsion IPA that I had less than a month ago, for instance, is not as of this writing on the tap menu. The Ignition pale ale, which I had on my first trip, in 2012, is. Both are beers to which, if I rated beers, which I don't, I'd give four stars out of five. I don't know how to taste things and tend to make a lot of subliterate noises when I eat and drink, but I'd sum both up this way: not life-changing, but something I'd gladly imbibe repeatedly.
The food is a skosh more ambitious than you might expect (poutine w/ braised oxtail, kaffir lime cheesecake, a "tangy Thai" taco, aged Vermont cheddar in the cottage pie), but I would similarly say that it is not remarkable. They do have fried pickles, which I'm required by law to mention, and the chips, made in-house, are quite nice, but man cannot live on chips alone. The space at Kinetic is vaguely industrial-cool but mainly impresses with its size. Or at least it impresses someone who's spent most of the past 10 years in L.A. and New York, where restaurant space is at a premium.
In the context of the Cal League, all of the above is also how I'd describe seeing a JetHawks game at The Hangar.3 There's a jet in front of the stadium4 and there's free parking across the street if you're willing to drive on the gravel in what will probably be a gas station four years from now and there's a video board that actually has some information on it and the view of the game itself isn't bad and you can get Kinetic beer at a special stand around the corner from the regular concessions, but it's not a descended-from-heaven place like Hudson Valley or Aberdeen. The former of these is convincingly faux-vintage and was essentially dropped into the middle of a forest. Malcolm MacMillan has some great illustrations of that at The Ballpark Guide—note in particular his forays beyond the outfield fence. The latter is more sterile but was clearly built by someone who doesn't realize that you're not supposed to pour money into facilities in short-season leagues. Praise for Lancaster, by contrast, might focus on phrases like "it's not Bakersfield" and "pretty glad we didn't hit up High Desert this weekend."
Luckily, the game itself on this day (May 11th), was flat-out fantastic.5 Stockton, an A's affiliate, was in town, which meant my first in-person look at Addison Russell and ... well, Addison Russell. Unfortunately, we didn't get seats in or around the scouts (we declined to pre-purchase and there was some sort of promotion that day, so there were many more fans in attendance than typical), which also means that I didn't have much of a view—we were out past third base, and probably eight rows from the field. Russell obliged me, though, by making his talents known overtly, knocking a three-run oppo-taco in the fourth inning. Cal League or not, matched up against a 17th-round pick with an ERA near seven (Tyson Perez) or not, wind or not, my personal feeling is that a 19-year-old in High-A bopping one out the other way is impressive. I was impressed.
Russell's bat hasn't been in question, though, and I wasn't able to form any opinions on his glove. I thought his arm looked weak, but Chris Rodriguez has noted that "Russell shows a plus arm" and Jason Parks wrote in April that Russell has "enough arm . . . to handle" shortstop after putting a 6 on the tool and calling it "left-side strong" in the preseason Top 10. The point of piling up all this evidence against what I saw from Russell's throws is to emphasize just how much I'm not a scout and just how much you can't see from the seats I had. (Or, hell, to give myself the tiniest sliver of the possibility of credit, he could well have had an off day throwing, which emphasizes a third point: that you would ideally not evaluate a player based on one game, especially as regards the tools that are less frequently used—how often does a shortstop actually have to uncork one?)
The best thing about minor-league baseball, though, and by way of introduction to where the game really got fun, is the utter lack of rooting interest. My utter lack, anyway. I'm always amazed that 70 percent of the fans in attendance in any given game actually pick a team, boo the "opposing" players, and so forth. I don't understand where this fandom came from or where it's going, but it's there and I don't have it, even when one of the two squads is an affiliate of the major-league team with which I live and die.
What all this means is that when the bottom of the eighth came around and Stockton led 6–3 and Lancaster piled up seven runs via, among other things:
well, what, I should get sad? Mad? No. That's hilarious. It was hilarious! Especially since the bases-loaded walk tied the game up at six ... and was followed by a grand slam to put a bow on the thing for Lancaster. Of course I stood up and cheered! Of course I couldn't stop laughing! You see something new every time you watch a baseball game, but sometimes you see something that's actually identifiably new, and that's what we got this time. I was not about to let some affinity for the parent organization three levels above this team ruin that.
Not being a psychopath, sure, I felt bad for Jonathan Joseph, who threw three of the four wild pitches, and for Ryan Delgado, who was trying to catch them. Of course I did. They're just kids, and they're probably not going anywhere in their chosen profession. Delgado is 25 and spent 2012 in an independent league after two years in the Braves chain. Joseph is also 25 and has been with the A's since 2006, stateside full-time since 2009. This is his eighth season with a Baseball-Reference stat-line and this year he's somehow managed to combine 40 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings with a 6.83 ERA. And he's not even Googlable—there's some dude in the NFL with his name. Someone like Joseph could always wind up having a random good 40 innings in the majors, but the odds are stacked strongly against both players.
But that's sports, yes? That's baseball. No grand slammers without grand slammees. Addison Russell is arguably the 22nd-best prospect in baseball (caveats about rankings and caveats about how that was three months ago and caveats about his slow start and caveats about how three starting pitchers ahead of him in the rankings have already been promoted all put to the side), but that's only true because he's ahead of 4,478 other guys. You can build competition on top of beer and you can build competition between cities, but zero-sum isn't an inherent factor in brewing and it isn't an inherent factor in municipal design the way it is in sport. I'd be a happier person, we'd all be happier people, if we traveled around places drinking beers and eating food and looking at pretty pictures without putting them in any ranked order, explicit or implicit, rather than delighting in the misfortune of others, which is what rooting for our own guys amounts to.