We were told not to come here. Friends and followers alike heeded warnings about its dilapidated state. They said, “Why are you going there? Just spend a few extra days in San Francisco. The Giants have a beautiful stadium. You’d love it.” Only a few sung its praises, our expectations formed through the underwhelming experiences of others, but we are not your conventional baseball fans and this is not your father’s baseball road trip. We ignored these passionate calls for prudence, eager to lay our eyes upon the horror show we couldn’t stand to turn away from. Through the desert and mountains we drove until it appeared, like a dim lighthouse: Bakersfield in all its beauty.
Built in 1941, Sam Lynn Ballpark in Bakersfield, California is easily one of the oldest stadiums in professional baseball. But unlike Wrigley and Fenway, there is no income to finance luxurious upgrades. While much of the park has probably been refurbished in one way or another since 1941, it doesn’t feel like anything in the park has been refurbished since 1942. The dimensions are nuts (345 feet to dead center field) and the dugouts are further from home plate than any other field I’ve ever seen at either the pro or amateur level. The press box is essentially a sea container with windows, the batting cages look like an abandoned mini golf course, and the wooden center field fence has literally disintegrated over time. Physically, this stadium is unquestionably one of the most rundown in all of professional baseball. But what Bakersfield lacks in modern amenities, it makes up for in sincerity.
In the two or three years we’ve been “reporting” on “baseball”, we’ve traveled to over 20 minor league stadiums. We’ve come to realize that our best experiences come at places like Bakersfield. Last year we visited the Double-A Huntsville Stars in the team’s final year before relocating to Biloxi. While the park was a decaying deathtrap and the reported audience of 700 was overstated by about 400, our time there was awesome because the organization, its front office, and its staff didn’t take itself too seriously. Bakersfield was the same way.
From the moment we arrived we knew this was going to be a different animal. We picked up our credentials at a ticket window that looked like an 18th century pirate prison. Everything in the team store was crazy cheap; I got a gray Blaze dry-fit polo for ten bucks and Jordan bought two bobbleheads—Josh Hamilton and Ken Griffey Sr.—for five bucks a piece. Oh, and the team offices and away clubhouse are basically in sheds behind the first base stands.
The front office isn’t oblivious to their surroundings. They fully understand the ridiculousness of their situation. They know having the visiting clubhouse in a trailer outside of the stadium isn’t ideal. They know it’s absurd that a game last week was delayed by an hour because a festival next door was shooting fireworks above the batter's eye in center. They know some of the players are not so pleased that they have to spend their early 20’s in Bakersfield, California. But at the end of the day, the crew in Bakersfield and the ballpark itself combine to provide an experience unlike almost anything else you can find in professional sports. It seemed like the park’s surreal physical state afforded the front office staff the opportunity to carry themselves in a much more genuine and personal way.
Our time at Sam Lynn made us realize that the entire Bakersfield Blaze situation operates outside of traditional sports culture. Sure, it is raggedy, old, and falling apart. But the whole place has a certain magic to it that we couldn’t ignore. Baseball is a business, as it has always been and always will be. But from time to time, it is extremely rewarding to visit a place independent of that ever-present reality. Keep doing you, Bakersfield, and don’t change a thing. –Jake Mintz
Usually when we come to minor league stadiums, we like to interview players. However, our appreciation for Sam Lynn Ballpark, and the kind folks who work there, pushed us in another direction. Dan Besbris, Bakersfield’s Director of Media Relations and radio broadcaster, introduced us to gentleman known as “Froggy”. Froggy sells programs right inside the entrance to the park and has become a mainstay at Sam Lynn for the past two decades. He’s earned a fair bit of attention from local media outlets over the past few seasons and deservedly so: his fellow employees love him, the fans love him, and even the players recognize how essential Froggy is to the overall Bakersfield experience. We were lucky enough to ask him a few questions.
On what he did when he first started working for Bakersfield in 1997:
I didn't grow up in Bakersfield; I grew up in San Jose area and then came down to Bakersfield. They needed a program seller so I did that, but I've done a lot of other things too around the park for about 18 years now.
On the best player he's seen in all his years at Bakersfield:
I think Billy Hamilton would be the best player I've ever seen. He stole a lot of bases and he's still doing it in the big leagues.
On whether Billy Hamilton ever stole one of his programs:
On the difference between all the affiliates over the years:
When I started in '97, we were the Giants. Then we had Tampa, then the Rangers, then the Reds, now it's been Seattle for two years. It hasn't been different with the different teams. Some people that work here will say, you know, if Froggy's not here, then we should just close the gates and close the game down because he's not here.
On the craziest California League game he's seen:
If you're talking about extra-innings, I have been at games where I didn't get out of here until midnight, home by 1:30, get to bed at like 2 AM because the game is over so late. In terms of a lot of runs, we've had Chris Davis and Josh Hamilton hit over the monster in center field. That's at least, you know, 400-something miles.
On whether he has ever hit it over the monster in center field:
- In the press box, we sat next to Tim who has been Bakersfield’s official scorer for over twenty years and an overall Good Dude for even longer. After a lengthy conversation about how absurdly awesome Josh Hamilton was when he was in Bakersfield in 2002, we asked Tim about his own personal fanhood. Despite his long-term relationship with the Blaze organization, Tim referred to himself as an “unapologetic Cubs fan”. Sure, there are plenty of diehard Cubs fans. But how many diehard Cubs fans have this tattoo on their right bicep?
Actually, probably a fair number of them.
- Craig Gentry was at the game in mannequin form. Not sure how he deserved a shirt with his name on it, seeing as he had a .696 OPS there in 51 games in 2007. Now, Mannequin Craig Gentry has been relegated to a lifetime of backward K’s against 7-year-olds.
- In the bottom of the first inning, Blaze outfielder Guillermo Pimentel grounded into what appeared to be an obvious double play; Pimentel seemed to know he was out at first and did not argue in the slightest. Strangely, the first base umpire—named Adrian Gonzalez—called Pimentel safe, prompting the High Desert manager to come out and express his disbelief. That conversation didn’t take too long, as the first base umpire consulted briefly with the home plate umpire and ruled Pimentel out. This prompted Blaze manager Eddie Menchaca to come out and scream at the first base umpire for changing the call so quickly. Menchaca was tossed, and the game resumed. Generally, this would be the last you see of the manager in this scenario. One would expect Menchaca to hit the showers and wait for his team in the clubhouse. Not in Bakersfield! Around the 4th inning, Menchaca suddenly appeared behind us up in the press box. Just chillin’, watching his team. Menchaca spent a few innings hanging out before resorting to an empty seat behind home plate just outside the press box.
- Bakersfield has a 26-year-old Dominican outfielder named Burt Reynolds. He’s Robinson Cano’s cousin. While Reynolds’ hilariously ridiculous moniker is hardly a secret, seeing him play in person was still a fairly surreal experience. And he hit a dinger! Go Burt Reynolds!
- The starter for High Desert, Connor Sadzeck, made just his second start since coming back from Tommy John surgery. Last week, in his first start, he got completely destroyed, allowing five runs on four hits and five walks in only three innings. Rangers farm system savant @TepidP told us that he was all over the place with his fastball during that outing. This time around, he fared much better. He was 93-95 MPH with his fastball and touched 97 a few times. While his command was iffy at times and the fastball was pretty straight, he did a good job of challenging hitters in on the hands. His change was 87-88 with good arm-side movement and looked similar to the fastball out of his hand. The slider was just OK and he controlled it decently at 72-75, but he slowed his arm down so much that hitters could tell it was coming, and he failed to find any success with that pitch. All in all, Sadzeck is certainly an interesting guy to keep an eye on.
- There were a slew of good prospects in this Cal League clash: Tyler Pike, Austin Wilson, Ryan Cordell, and Ronald Guzman, just to name a few. But the one we came away most fascinated with was High Desert’s 27-year-old designated hitter, Alex Burg. We had never heard of Burg before yesterday, despite him entering the game with the 2nd best OPS in the California League. After Burg’s 2-3 day with a home run and walk, we were eager to learn more. Texas is Burg’s 3rd organization; he was a 24th round pick by San Francisco in 2009 and played with them until 2012, when he was released and signed with Miami. He had bounced around the upper levels of the minors for Miami in 2013 and 2014, before signing with Texas this past offseason. Burg stands out for his apparent defensive versatility: he’s played at least 40 minor league games at five different positions: third base (92), right field (85), catcher (68), left field (48), and first base (45). The last time he was hitting anywhere close to this well was his first trip to the Cal League in 2011 with San Jose. He’s much older now—over four years older than the average Cal League player—but it will be interesting to see if he can maintain this offensive resurgence, especially if he gets bumped up to Double-A.
- After the game, we drove to some place in the middle of total nowhere called Tehachapi and did some awesome bat flips, along with other shenanigans. After pulling over to the side of the road, we struggled with the insane wind the town had to offer. The wind there was so strong, it was literally the first place the United States government put a wind farm after they figured out that wind farms were a plus-plus idea. It was one of those moments that made you realize, like damn I’m in Tehachapi playing wiffle ball. You know those moments? You don’t? You’ve never heard of Tehachapi? Oh.
-Meals at In-N-Out: 2
-Mexican Food Meals: 4
-Dr. Peppers consumed: Jake – 16/Jordan – 14
-Times we listened to Evergreen by Westlife: 1
After the game, we planned on driving to Barstow, where we would spend the night and drive to Vegas in the morning. But the bright lights of the Sin City got the better of us and we sped right through Barstow and decided to spend the night in Vegas instead. If you’ve seen The Hangover, you know exactly what not to expect from us while we are here. We plan on galavanting around Vegas, but considering we aren’t 21, the scope of our galavanting will be severely restricted. We do plan on checking out Bryce Harper’s high school baseball field, and the spot where he hit that 570-foot dinger. If the city is still standing by nightfall, we’ll head over to Cashman Field to catch some raucous Triple-A action between the Colorado Springs Sky Sox and the Las Vegas 51’s.
Thank you for reading
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