A new stadium for the Bakersfield Blaze was dealt a staggering -- if not fatal -- blow last week. But the Blaze will remain in Bakersfield and continue playing at ancient Sam Lynn Ballpark, at least for the short term.
Plenty of questions remain: Can the new stadium plans be resurrected? Who will own the Blaze this time next month? Will the Blaze be here for the long haul?
Right now, those questions cannot be answered.
But the Blaze is assured of playing in Bakersfield at least next season and likely longer for the simple fact that there's no California city with a suitable stadium in place where the franchise can relocate to.
In order for Bakersfield to lose the Blaze, another community must step up and build a facility that meets minor league stadium requirements.
Sam Lynn Ballpark has been used by Bakersfield's California League franchise since 1941. It fails to meet minimum requirements established by Minor League Baseball.
In 2013, the Blaze averaged a Cal League-low 805 fans per game, according to figures provided by the team to Minor League Baseball. That is the second-fewest among the 60 full-season (140-game schedule) Class A teams in the United States. Only the Dunedin (Fla.) Blue Jays of the Florida State League averaged fewer fans (768).
Blaze attendance was even lower the previous two seasons: an average of 572 in 2011 and 637 in 2012.
When Bakersfield businessmen Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway purchased the Blaze from Indiana businessman D.G. Elmore before the 2012 season, they said a new stadium was essential for the financial success of the franchise.
New stadiums generate increased attendance, which generates more ticket sales, advertising revenue and concession profits. And major league teams want the best possible facilities for their farm clubs to enhance player development.
As California League President Charlie Blaney noted last week, the playing field has changed for prospective California communities thinking about building new stadiums.
In the early 1990s, the Cal League welcomed new ballparks in the Southern California communities of Rancho Cucamonga, Lake Elsinore, Adelanto (home of the High Desert Mavericks) and Lancaster. Since then, new or drastically refurbished stadiums were built in existing Cal League cities like Modesto, Visalia and Stockton.
"But all of those facilities were built with redevelopment agency monies, which our governor and legislature, in their great wisdom, has killed," Blaney said. "Which means there is no public money available for new facilities like this. The only way to get it done is through private financing."
Last Monday, Voiland and Hathaway said they had been able to raise only $18 million of the $30 million needed for a 3,500-seat, privately financed new stadium.
"We fell substantially short of the goal required to build a stadium that would be successful," they said in a statement. "A new stadium appears to be very unlikely."
Blaney said he isn't ready to give up on Bakersfield's new stadium hopes.
"There's still a possibility," Blaney said. "The patient is on life support, but the patient is not dead yet. ...
"Gene and Chad have done a wonderful job raising $18 million. They just need a few other people to step up to the plate."
Will Blaze ownership change?
When Voiland and Hathaway purchased the Blaze from Elmore, a clause was written into the sale agreement that Elmore would have the option of buying the team back if no stadium plans were in place by the end of this month.
In an email to The Californian on Monday, Elmore said he hadn't made a decision on whether to exercise that option.
On Friday, Elmore said in an email: "I am working on some things and will be better able to respond next week."
All Voiland and Hathaway can do is wait.
"It's not my call. It's entirely his call," Voiland said of the possibility of Elmore buying the team back. "I have been in touch with him. Obviously we're talking to him. I have no feel yet on what he's thinking."
Should Elmore decline the buyback option and the team is retained by Voiland and Hathaway, they will evaluate its next step, Voiland said.
Voiland and Hathaway could continue operating the team, which Voiland said has lost money both seasons since they assumed control.
They could try to find a buyer for the franchise. Less likely but certainly an option would be walking away from the team. The Cal League presumably would then assume control of the team's day-to-day operations.
That's not unprecedented. The Cal League operated the team for almost two years before Elmore purchased it in 2006.
"I'm going to let it sit for a few days. I'll have more of a feel for it then," Voiland said. "We'd have to take a real hard look at it. It's a very different arrangement than we planned for if we end up with the team."
That's because a new stadium was central to the motivation to buy the team in the first place.
"(The franchise) doesn't have value without a stadium," Voiland said. "We are really hindered by the fact that we don't have a stadium that can attract enough people to make it a success. ...
"Having a first-class stadium and first-class program that attracts a lot of people -- that was our whole goal. We bought this strictly with the idea we would build a new stadium."
Scaled-down stadium ruled out
Voiland said using the $18 million that's been raised to build a smaller facility with fewer amenities is not an option.
"We don't think we can do that and be able to make it so people would come out," Voiland said. "We looked at building a substantially more inexpensive stadium but then you'll lose amenities such as group areas and other items, things that make it attractive for entertainment purposes.
"The (stadiums) that do things for families and multiple things other than baseball do really well. It's a different world than it was. You have to have those things. You almost have to build it for half the people who don't want to watch the game."
In preparation for what Voiland and Hathaway hoped would be a new stadium in place by the 2014 or 2015 season, additional employees were hired for the last two seasons. Voiland said ownership also contributed about $800,000 to improve Sam Lynn and make it more fan-friendly.
"We did a lot of things behind the scenes," Voiland said. "We tried to put on a good show. The people who went had a good time. We did a lot to make the experience better. ...
"Chad and I really worked hard to do it and we're very disappointed that it hasn't happened. And now it doesn't look like it will happen."
Carolina League in Blaze future?
If hopes for a new stadium are completely dead and the Blaze had to relocate with no California city available, the most likely landing spot is the Carolina League, like the Cal League a Class A-Advanced league.
But any switching of leagues would require two teams from the Cal League to move. And for that to happen, two expansion cities with suitable stadiums must surface in the Carolina League.
The Cal League has 10 members and the Carolina League has eight. Professional baseball would not allow one team to move to another league without a second team also moving because leagues must have an even number of teams, according to Rick Smith, who served as Bakersfield's assistant general manager for three years and as the team's general manager for 11 years between 1982 and 1996.
"It would be a nightmare for scheduling," Smith said of nine-team leagues. "Farm directors want their players playing every day and their starting pitchers throwing every five days. (Nine-team leagues) won't happen."
In the summer of 2008, Minor League Baseball examined the possibility of moving High Desert, which also has stadium issues, and Bakersfield to the Carolina League for the 2010 season. But the recession and lack of adequate stadiums in potential Carolina League expansion cities ultimately ended that possibility. Minor League Baseball President Pat O'Conner said in February 2009 that franchise movement talks had ended.
"The entire focus since that time has been getting a new stadium for Bakersfield," Blaney said. "There has been no discussion to move any Cal League teams to the Carolina League."
Carolina League President John Hopkins said any movement of Cal League teams to his league must originate with the Cal League.
Departure threatened before
The threat of Bakersfield losing its professional baseball franchise has been ongoing since the 1970s.
Bakersfield did lose its Cal League team after the 1975 season when the parent Los Angeles Dodgers left Bakersfield for Lodi and the league dropped from eight to six teams.
From 1976 to 1981, Bakersfield had the independent Bakersfield Outlaws in the 1978 and '79 seasons but no team the other four years.
Bakersfield returned to the Cal League in 1982 as an expansion team when the league went from eight to 10 teams. The Seattle Mariners hooked up with Bakersfield for two seasons, then the L.A. Dodgers added Bakersfield as an affiliate from 1984 to 1994.
In 1993, then-Cal League President Joe Gagliardi told The Californian that Bakersfield would lose its pro team if a new stadium wasn't built or at least planned to be built by 1995.
The league had reaped the benefit of the slew of new stadiums that were built around that time and Gagliardi expected the trend to continue.
But no other city was willing to build a ballpark, so Bakersfield's franchise remained in place.
Gagliardi was reminded of his 1993 comment a few years later and could only smile. "Sometimes things change," he said.
Former Bakersfield general manager Jack Patton, whose father, Lowell, owned the team from 1984 to 2004, said he, his father and then-GM Rick Smith approached the Kern County Board of Supervisors about funding a new stadium after the 1985 season. They asked for $3.5 million.
"If we had gotten the $3.5 million back then, I'll bet the Dodgers would still be here," Patton said.