Seventy-five years of history and a steady flow of nearly 10,000 professional baseball games in Bakersfield will come to a screeching halt next month.
Minor League Baseball announced Monday that the Blaze and the High Desert Mavericks, another team in the California League, will cease operations when this season ends, with two High Class A franchises moving from the Cal League to the Carolina League.
Monday was a scheduled off day for the Blaze, but Sam Lynn Ballpark, which has housed the franchise since it started in 1941, seemed more somber than usual.
“It’s just quiet,” Blaze general manager Mike Candela said. “People are keeping to themselves. You get all these years of people saying, ‘We’re moving, we’re moving,’ but when it actually happens, it’s a different ballgame. You can’t really prepare yourself for it.”
Candela, who has been in Bakersfield for four seasons, said the Blaze’s eight full-time employees, plus a part-time groundskeeper, will be out of work. The team also hires about 100 seasonal employees every season.
Candela replaced previous general manager Elizabeth Martin, who arrived in Bakersfield in 2011 with assistant GM Phillip Guiry and broadcaster/spokeman Dan Besbris as the three mainstays in a crew who tried to turn a dilapidated franchise around.
“The place was kind of a wreck at that point,” Besbris said. “We got in there and got our elbows dirty and dug in head-first and tried to fix it with our bare hands.”
That meant new paint jobs and new hinges on gates, and it also meant promotions and giveaways, many tied to the team’s history during this year’s 75th anniversary celebration. The result was a significant uptick in attendance (though the team still ranked last in the Cal League).
“I really think this had become something pretty special again,” Besbris said. “People could get cool giveaways and see fireworks and bring their families and feel safe and happy.”
That work, however, couldn’t stop the Blaze’s demise.
“Baseball has had a long and wonderful history in Bakersfield,” said Blaze owner D.G. Elmore in a prepared statement. “I am sorry to see it come to a close.”
Monday’s announcement ends a long “Will they stay or go?” saga regarding the team’s future, and it ends — at least for the foreseeable future — an even longer history of professional baseball in town.
“Historically, there aren’t that many cities that can compare with what we have in Bakersfield, at least not west of the Mississippi,” said Besbris, the team’s spokesman and broadcaster for the past six seasons.
The first pro team in Bakersfield was called the Badgers and was an inaugural member of the California League. Beginning in 1943, Cal League took a three-year hiatus because of World War II; when it returned in 1946, the Badgers had become the Bakersfield Indians.
The team went through seven more nicknames — Boosters, Bears, Dodgers, Outlaws, Mariners, Dodgers again and, since 1995, Blaze. Bakersfield won two Cal League championships, in 1970 and 1989 and had countless future stars play as young prospects at Sam Lynn, including three future Hall of Famers: Don Drysdale, Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza.
“That stuff is awesome, but I can’t tell you how many people say, ‘You know what, I grew up here,’” Besbris said. “Their parents brought them, and now they’re bringing their kids. To me, that’s the stuff that’s really great. It’s who in town has a memory here.”
But as those memories were being formed, the stadium kept getting older and older. In fact, for years, baseball has stayed in Bakersfield even though Sam Lynn fails to meet several key Minor League Baseball standards for ballparks, including an on-site weight room, indoor batting cages and big clubhouses.
Thus, it’s long been rumored that baseball would leave. Then-Cal League president Joe Gagliardi said in the early 1990s that Bakersfield would lose the team if Sam Lynn weren’t replaced within three years.
The city made an aggressive bid to construct a new stadium in 2000 and 2001 as part of commercial developer Ray Olmscheid’s City Center project, which would have included a stadium as part of a shopping, dining and entertainment complex along the north side of California Avenue just south of Rabobank Arena.
But the Patton family, which owned the Blaze, balked at the $2.5 million downpayment. City Manager Alan Tandy and Gagliardi pressured the Pattons to sign the lease or sell the team. They did — to Hank Stickney — but by that time Olmscheid said all the delays had made it impossible to get funding for the project. The City Center project was dead by the end of 2001.
In 2006, Elmore, who owns several minor league franchises across the country, bought the team. He sold it in 2012 to private investors Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway, who had a grandiose plan for a west-side ballpark at the corner of Brimhall and Coffee roads. They wanted to raise $30 million, but when fundraising stalled at about the $18M mark in 2013, they sold the team back to Elmore.
Still, the Blaze remained, mostly because there weren’t suitable stadiums elsewhere; that changed this year when two North Carolina cities, Kinston and Fayetteville, appear to have stadiums lined up with the help of Major League teams Houston and Texas.
“Every year there was a chance we were gone, and every year it passed us by, and we just started to think, ‘nothing is ever going to happen,’” Besbris said. “But no matter how much you prepare it still blindsides you a little bit.”
So Bakersfield and High Desert are left in the dust. The Blaze begins its final regular-season homestand tonight and plays its final regular-season home game at 7:15 p.m. Sunday. The team is almost a lock to make the playoffs, though, and so the possibility remains that Bakersfield could ride off into the minor-league baseball sunset as a champion.
“It would be awesome,” Besbris said. “It’s like the scene from Major League, where they say, ‘There’s only one thing to do now: Win the whole bleepin’ thing.’
“As a staff, we’re sad right now. Emotionally, we’re a little beat up. But hopefully the community realizes this is something they’re going to miss. The team isn’t trying to leave anybody. We’re getting ended. Come on out these last couple of games and give us all a hug.”
— Californian staff writer James Burger contributed to this report.