Local ownership has returned for Bakersfield's California League baseball team.
Bakersfield businessmen Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway announced Thursday they had signed an agreement to purchase the Blaze from D.G. Elmore, an Indiana businessman who has owned the team since 2006.
Voiland, 65, said he will own 51 percent of the team and Hathaway will own 49 percent once the agreement is finalized by Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball.
California League owners unanimously approved the sale of the team last week, Cal League President Charlie Blaney said, and he added the Minor and Major leagues signing off of the purchase should occur around opening day, which is April 5.
"From here on out, we see it as just a matter of formality and time," Blaney said. "There are no concerns at all."
Voiland declined to reveal the purchase price but said he began exploring the idea of purchasing the Blaze about two years ago.
Hathaway, 35, said he joined Voiland's bid to buy the Blaze nine to 11 months ago.
Except for three years during World War II and the 1976-77 and 1980-81 seasons, Bakersfield has had a California League team every year since the league formed in 1941. Bakersfield's home games have been played at Sam Lynn Ballpark.
Currently the park does not meet minor league stadium requirements and low attendance has been prevalent in recent seasons.
For more than 20 years, minor league and Cal League officials have stressed Bakersfield needs a new stadium.
The city and county have not been able to develop a plan for a publicly financed new stadium.
While specifics about a new stadium were not revealed Thursday, the ballpark issue was evident.
"After we gain final approval for the sale and get the season started, we will be evaluating opportunities for a new stadium," Voiland said. "(Sam Lynn) is not up to standard. We'll be looking at what we should do. Sam Lynn is just not it. But I'm not at liberty to say anything else."
Hathaway described the ballpark issue as "important, extremely important."
"I can't get into details on a stadium," Hathaway said. "You'll have to stay tuned."
But Hathaway did refer to how a quality stadium enhances the baseball product from fans' perspectives and increases the value of a team.
"Obviously the most successful minor league teams across the country have nice venues, have very nice stadiums," Hathaway said. "That's something very important going forward."
As for a timeline for a new stadium, Hathaway said: "I can't discuss that. Sorry.
"...But I can assure you that if everything goes as planned, we will have a baseball experience that will be envied by the whole nation."
Blaney's predecessor as Cal League president, Joe Gagliardi, said in the early 1990s that Bakersfield would lose its Cal League team if a new stadium wasn't built within two to three years. But after many new stadiums around the Cal League were built about that time, new stadium construction ended in potential new cities. So Bakersfield has kept its team despite Sam Lynn's shortcomings.
"Sam Lynn Ballpark has certainly seen its better days," Blaney said. "We've been very patient because it is Bakersfield and we don't want to leave Bakersfield. It's such a great baseball community."
Blaney said there is optimism from the league that Voiland and Hathaway can address the ballpark issue.
"I'm very hopeful because it's something they've been looking at," Blaney said. "It's one of their options."
Having local ownership is a huge advantage, Blaney said.
"They know the territory," Blaney said. "They have contacts in the community. They're here full time. They're right on top of the scene. It's the ideal way to go. We're so happy Gene and Chad were interested in being a part of this."
The Blaze is about to start its second season as the High Class A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
Between now and opening day, Voiland and Hathaway have OK'd some ballpark improvements.
"There's a lot of stuff," Hathaway said. "We're going to spend quite a bit of money. We've actually started working on it. We're going to do as much as we can do in 45 days."
"Our goal is to improve the fan experience," Voiland said.
Voiland said restrooms will be cleaned and painted. Kiosks will be added to the concession options to help reduce lines. Some poor-quality seats will be removed. Safety nets will be installed. Voiland said he has OK'd a request from Blaze manager Ken Griffey Sr. to improve dugouts.
"There will be less trash and the field will be cleaned up," Hathaway said. "We're going to put lipstick on the pig as fast as we can."
Voiland and Hathaway will own and operate the team as the Bakersfield Sports Group LLC.
Voiland, a longtime Bakersfield resident, is the former president and CEO of Aera Energy, one of California's largest oil and gas producers. He is currently chairman of Valley Republic Bank and acting president of Orion California LP. He is also a director and former chairman of the board of the California Chamber of Commerce.
Voiland has established a reputation locally for being generous with his time and wealth. He has served in advisory and foundation board positions at Cal State Bakersfield and Bakersfield College, and has made financial contributions to both institutions.
In 2008, Voiland made a $17.5 million financial commitment to his alma mater, Washington State. The university responded by renaming its engineering school after him and his wife, Linda Voiland. Some of the donation money was to be paid up front, and the rest dedicated as a "legacy" gift after the couple's death.
Hathaway, a 1994 East High graduate, was born and raised in Bakersfield. He owns Hathaway LLC, an oil and gas production company, and Payzone Directional Services, which provides directional drilling for oil and gas companies. Hathaway is active with many local organizations.
Voiland said it was during his time at Aera that he began thinking about possibly buying the Blaze
"One thing that cemented it in my mind was that Aera sponsored the new stadium off Stockdale Highway and Buena Vista," he said. "I got to go out and throw out the first pitch. I saw 3,000 kids there. I don't see that many kids at the baseball park at Sam Lynn right now. I said to myself, 'This is going to be a great opportunity.'"
Voiland said he knew Elmore through some of Elmore's relatives. "I started to talk to him. A couple of years later, here we are."
Hathaway said he and Voiland had worked together previously on oil deals. It was Voiland who invited Hathaway to join in the Blaze purchase.
"He said, 'I"m working on this. This is something we need to do for Bakersfield,'" Hathaway said. "I was not quite on board, but after I started thinking about it ... it was something we really need. It's a good opportunity, a great opportunity."
The front office of the Blaze is unchanged. Elizabeth Martin, who took over as the Blaze general manager prior to the 2011 season, will remain in that position and oversee the day-to-day operations of the team.
The Cincinnati Reds supply players, manager, coaches and trainers for the club.
The Voiland-Hathaway purchase marks the fourth ownership of the Bakersfield franchise since its return to the California League in 1982 after a two-year absence.
The California League operated the club for two seasons in the mid-2000s before the team was purchased by Elmore.
The Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers and Reds have been the team's parent organizations since 1982.
Many standout major league players have been sent to Bakersfield as they worked their way up through the minor leagues.
Some of those players include Don Drysdale, Johnny Callison, Ron Cey, Mike Piazza, Pedro Martinez, C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton.