baseball1

Train Robbers third baseman Nick Vehlewald, who played at Garces High and CSUB, makes a tag against the Monterey Amberjacks’ runner Keegan Sanford in the third inning of Thursday’s Pecos League season opener at Sam Lynn Ballpark.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I was skeptical about the new baseball team inhabiting Sam Lynn Ballpark, the Bakersfield Train Robbers.

Skeptical about the level of play. Quizzical about the Pecos League, an independent league unaffiliated with any Major League teams. Doubtful about whether fans would show up or come back or care at all.

But everybody deserves a chance, and I took a drive up Chester Avenue to watch the Train Robbers play their first game, bringing baseball back to Sam Lynn for the first time since the Bakersfield Blaze waved good-bye and ended 70-plus years of California League baseball in town.

This wasn’t a Cal League game, even one of the quirky Bakersfield ones: There were no high-level prospects in the game (or really, any Major League prospects at all) and the game wasn’t being broadcast on the radio and there was far less advertising signage around the park.

And besides that, something was just different at Sam Lynn after the Blaze’s emotional swan song last fall. As longtime Blaze scorekeeper Tim Wheeler, who will fill the same role with the new team, put it, “It just feels like this place lost its soul.”

But you know what? The Train Robbers and Monterey Amberjacks (which is a fish, apparently) put on a pretty good show, anyway.

They lined up on the first- and third-base lines, faced the American flag and stood for the national anthem. Froggy, the beloved program hawker of many Blaze seasons past, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and the teams played with passion in front of a decent-sized crowd of about 500 people.

The Train Robbers scored the game’s first run on an error, an overthrow on the infield you wouldn’t imagine a Cal League player making, and it was fairly obvious that the level of play isn’t going to be the same.

But then, walking around Sam Lynn and listening to fans laugh and cheer and soak in a late Opening Day, I realized something: Nobody here really cares about that.

Think about it: Once you’ve had a couple of Coors Lights (or even Coca-Colas), are you going to care whether the center fielder is the Mariners’ No. 10 prospect or a guy who didn’t play much in college and never got drafted? Is your daughter, midway through a hot dog with extra ketchup, going to have a bad time because the starting pitcher is throwing 86 mph instead of 94?

Nope. Baseball is baseball, and for those who have the game in their blood, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Maybe the crowds dwindle as the summer gets hotter and the season drags on, or maybe crumbling Sam Lynn — the scoreboard wasn’t working until two days ago — will cause the Train Robbers problems. And sure, some folks will still long for a new ballpark and a new Cal League franchise (or, if you dare to dream, the Dodgers’ Class AAA affiliate). And one day, they might just get it.

In the meantime, Bakersfield might just provide some modest success for the Pecos League. And in turn, the Pecos League might just provide Bakersfield with something every city should have in the summer: A reason to go to the old ballpark.

Zach Ewing can be reached at 661-395-7324. Follow him on Twitter at @zewing.

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