A Minor League Baseball Odyssey
I have an outdoors friend, R. Scott Jones, and one of his trademarks is "travel quests". I met Scott through social media (and he's discussed in my LA Dodger Spring Training post). He's the "king of quests" and I decided to follow his lead and come up with my own. (He's at justgetoutmore.com). I certainly wanted to make it something I'd love to do - especially since having a quest means a damn completion. After too many years of bureaucratic BS I'm not into necessarily having another "task" to complete - not even for myself- let alone an ungrateful group of local politicians. In other words, this HAD to be something I would love doing. No more gutting it out...
Once I set my mind to it I didn't take long to figure it out. Perhaps, you may recall I like our national pastime? I have another social media and SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) friend, Tom Thrash who is also a travel quest (and National Park) guy who has traveled to all the Big league parks and many minor league ones. Tom and Scott got me thinking...the California League is a High A league in California - how fun would it be to venture to each of the team's stadiums and watch a game? I decided to find out. A quick bit of background on the league - it consists of 8 teams in 8 locales and representing 8 major league clubs:
I started visiting the clubs on April 16 and finished on August 7. I saw some sights in California that I'd never have seen and some stellar baseball. After a lifetime of living, working and recreating in California, I was able to see and experience things that I simply wouldn't have without the inspiration from Scott and Tom - so, thanks guys. Talk about a slice of Americana...
If I had it to do all over again (and who says I won't?) I would change my seats. Since I ordered most of my seats online pre-season I decided to sit directly behind home plate in the first row which was a mistake. For years I've known that the best baseball seats for watching a game are as close to the press box as possible. There's a reason they put the radio and TV announcers there - it offers the best view of the action. In my overly enthusiastic approach I bought the tickets closest to the home plate action which, in retrospect, was an error...although I did get to hear some salty baseball language but you'll notice most of my photos are marred by the dumb screen and occasionally I thought pop ups were deep fly balls.
I also chose not to bring my Nikon to the games and only used my iPhone for photography. Carrying a camera around minor league parks would be a pain and a worry - I just wanted to relax and have fun - and that I did. In addition, the iPhone has a minor league app that allows you to follow the game and get info for each player, during the game, real time, - which is quite enjoyable. Each ballplayer has their own story and I find their birthplace, draft status, professional path, and experience, and of course, stats, so very interesting. It adds human interest the game.
I started my quest on April 16 in Lake Elsinore to watch the Storm play the 66ers. Only about a 1000 other people joined me to watch a very entertaining but frigid game. It was only 59F at the start with about a 20 mph wind blowing. I was glad I'd bundled up. Inland Empire scored a run in the top of the 9th to win 6-5. I did manage to get my first and only foul ball of my life. The place was so lonely that it hit a seat behind me and rolled right to me with no one else even trying to chase it. No kids were around so I kept it. It now proudly adorns my home office.
Lake Elsinore Storm
Each of the minor league teams has a mascot. As silly and juvenile and kitschy as they are- I enjoyed all of them. The Nuts were my favorite but more about that later. Here are the Lake Elsinore mascots - they are "Storm" and "Jackpot".
I had a ticket for a week later in San Bernardino but it was raining and very cold - again -so I decided I'd go later and geared up for a road trip to the Central Valley. On April 24, I drove to Visalia to see the Rawhide take on Lancaster. The JetHawks kicked the home team's butt 9-3. The most notable feature of this game was the "cow bell" that fans bring to the game and clang whenever the home team does something of note. After the game I certainly did not have a "fever for more cowbell". Also, at this game some local district attorney people were behind me loudly and drunkenly voicing their support for the imbecile in the white house, discussing current cases inappropriately, and laughing about people they'd recently thrown in jail. It was, without question, the worst fan experience I had on the trip. Also, several young Latino fans came down and sat next to me and were immediately asked to show their tickets - I wasn't though - gee, I wonder why. I asked the usher, "Hey, aren't you going to ask me where my ticket is?". He, of course, didn't get it.
Anyway, I wasn't sad to see the home team lose. On the plus side, they did have a cool bathroom.
The Visalia Rawhide mascot is a Holstein cow named "Tipper".
The next night I was in Modesto to see the Nuts. I love this team and their stadium was lovely and the ushers and crowd were fun and friendly. I had a terrific time. Unfortunately the Nuts lost to the 66ers 3-2 in a well played game. I did buy a hat - had to - and the mascots were the best the league has to offer in my opinion. Here are Wally the Walnut, Al the Almond and Shelly the Pistachio. Hilarious...
Here is the ticket booth at John Thurman Stadium. I'll be back soon and remember, "GO NUTS"!
Rancho Cucamonga Quakes
My next visit was to see the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, the Dodgers High A team. This stadium is the closest to my home - a scant 40 miles away (Lake Elsinore is 45). I went to the game on April 29 and it was a terrific little stadium. That night storm clouds rolled by the San Bernardino mountains behind the stadium and I met Rylan Bannon an excellent third base prospect for the Dodgers who, turns out, was the 2018 league MVP. He and I had a fun conversation and I teased him about Justin Turner getting old and he said, "Yep! I'm coming for him!". He's become a real favorite - unfortunately the Dodgers traded him in the Manny Machado "rental trade". My friend Tom (see above) asked me what my favorite parks were and I'll rank them at the end - just know - this is a great little park. The Quakes lost a close one, 7-6 to Lancaster.
The mascot for Rancho Cucamonga is Tremor.
June was time for hanging out with my great daughter but, in July, Lupe and I headed up to Stockton and San Jose and went to AT&T Park in San Francisco for the first time.
It was HOT on July 9 for the Stockton vs San Jose game but it was an excellent game as the Giants scored 2 runs in the top of the 8th to win 5-4. Our hotel was literally next door to Banner Island Ballpark which made the experience even more fun. I really enjoyed the little riverfront park although I didn't take many photos.
The Port's mascot is Splash and this is a stock photo - the guy never made it down to the field and who can blame him? It was 97 degrees - I can't imagine how hot he must have been.
San Jose Giants
On July 13 we went to San Jose and it was packed and expensive. Tickets at each of the California League venues are $10 - a great deal but they were $25 at San Jose. The game was a blowout - San Jose beat Visalia 10-2. I enjoyed the park and its atmosphere. The photo on the bottom right were golf like bathroom "rules" for the men - cracked me up.
The San Jose mascot is Gigante.
On July 31 I finally made it out to San Bernardino to see the Inland Empire 66ers. It was my most enjoyable evening despite the heat. In fact, it turns out, the stadium with its mission style motif and mountain backdrop was my favorite. I also got to go to my favorite restaurant of life - Rosa Maria's. On the downside, the city of San Bernardino has truly fallen on hard times. It was sad to see what used to be lovely neighborhoods now with many, many homes abandoned and vacant. Tough years lately...here's hoping there's a brighter future for San Bernardino. The 66ers beat Lancaster 7-3.
Latino alter-egos were developed, this year, for many, many teams and the 66ers are the "Cucuys" (boogeymen). I had to have a hat. I wear it proudly.
Inland Empire 66ers
The mascots are "Slick" and "Bernie". Bernie cracked me up.
My final trip, to Lancaster in brutal heat, was on August 7. Turns out it was the most exciting game of the year - with the scored tied 3-3 after 9 innings the 66ers scored 2 runs in the top of the tenth but the JetHawks came back and scored THREE to win 6-5. Game time temperature? 101F. Whew... Still, it was a grand way to finish my quest. Rene Rivera of the Angels played on a rehab stint. I also found a terrific Mexican restaurant with the best dang tortillas I may have EVER had -"Que Paisa" in Littlerock, CA.
It was quite a summer for baseball travel! Man, I enjoyed it. As promised here is my ranking of the stadiums - I used scenic value, amenities, friendliness of stadium personnel and crowd comportment as my criteria:
1. San Manuel Stadium, San Bernardino
2. LoanMart Field, Rancho Cucamonga
3. John Thurman Field, Modesto
4. Banner Island Ballpark, Stockton
5. San Jose Giants Municipal Stadium, San Jose
6. The Hangar, Lancaster
7. The Diamond, Lake Elsinore
8. Rawhide Stadium, Visalia
Like baseball? Check out the fun of minor league ball - it's a kick. Thanks for following along with me. See ya at the ballpark.
This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.