So I fired up my computer early Monday morning and began to shuffle through the dozens of unread emails accumulated during a work-free weekend.
As I rhythmically tapped the delete button and scrolled down to my next junk mail target or uninteresting group message, I stopped when I saw an email sent by a familiar name — Sam Lynn — that was secretly disguised as a press release by the Bakersfield Train Robbers.
Apparently, Sam Lynn Ballpark’s 37-year-old scoreboard located in right field has finally given up, in the same way affiliated baseball and the California League abandoned Bakersfield three years ago. The ballpark’s current tenant, the defending Pecos League champion Train Robbers, are looking for community support to help replace it.
Before even pondering the email’s value, my mind began to wander back to a memory of one of my first assignments as a freelance writer for The Bakersfield Californian.
It was 1997 and I was relatively new to Bakersfield. I knew very little about the city’s rich sports history and was assigned to cover the championship game of a high school baseball tournament at Sam Lynn Ballpark.
As I waited patiently for post-game interviews, I remembered striking up a conversation with an older gentleman in a baseball cap. He introduced himself as Sam Lynn, and I remember saying, ‘Oh, the one they named the field after?’ His response with a chuckle, ‘yep.’
I recalled returning to the office, and in passing, telling John Millman, the TBC sports editor at the time, that my first night at the ballpark was pretty cool, I even met Sam Lynn.
Millman responded with a smile, “that’s pretty amazing, since he’s been dead for more than 50 years.”
Uhhhhh … what?
OK, so I was duped. Some unknown man had a little fun at my expense. How was I to know that Sam Lynn, the owner of a local Coca-Cola factory and one of the founding members of the California League, passed away months before his dream of opening a minor league ballpark became a reality in 1941?
But now more than 20 years from my “introduction” to Mr. Lynn, the humorous encounter continues to haunt me in a way, and apparently I’m not alone.
It seems the aging scoreboard at Sam Lynn has been acting strangely the past few years, and Sam Lynn may somehow be responsible.
“I call it the ghost of Sam Lynn,” Tim Wheeler, official scorer at Sam Lynn the past 25 years, said with a grin. Wheeler will eclipse the 1,700 career-game mark by season’s end at the ballpark, and has seen his share of unexplained phenomena. “Magical numbers just started appearing on the board. They would show up without me entering them. Sometimes they would stay, sometimes they would go.
"It’s as if Sam Lynn’s ghost was trying to relay some sort of funky Morse code to the people in Bakersfield. Maybe, ‘help me’ or ‘replace me’ or ‘buy me a new one.’”
The unusual behavior started a few years ago with a mysterious zero popping up in a scoreboard slot reserved for scoring in the bottom of the seventh inning, and then in a slot for runs scored in the top of the fifth, random numbers started showing up. Even the scoreboard control pad began to have issues, forcing Wheeler to find creative ways to post balls and strikes.
“I was told by previous operations managers for the county that you can’t find replacement parts for these types of scoreboards and the light bulbs are really old school,” Tim Wheeler said. “I think they’re probably almost illegal to have right now, let alone being able to purchase. It’s just so deteriorated.”
For years, the third-generation scoreboard was a major upgrade from the hand-operated system the ballpark employed during its first 20-plus years, accessed with a long catwalk that still extends from right-center field to nearly the right-field foul line. An electronic scoreboard was installed in the 1960s and then replaced by the current one in 1982 when the Seattle Mariners’ Single-A affiliate brought minor league baseball back to Bakersfield after a two-year hiatus.
The scoreboard has also received its share of damage from flying objects.
“It’s only about 340 feet from home plate,” Wheeler said. “So you have a lot of guys taking batting practice trying to smack balls off it. The face of the scoreboard is dent city. There’s more dents out there than holes for lights.”
The long ball also sent an electronic message board, installed in left field in the late 1980s, into early retirement when former Visalia Oaks standout Jorge Soto launched a home run during a game in 2002.
A direct hit.
“Boom, it lit up,” Wheeler said. “Light bulbs exploded. “The only thing missing was the soundtrack from (Robert Redford baseball movie) ‘The Natural.’ From that point on, it never worked.”
The scoreboard, like many things at the ballpark, appears destined for a similar fate. Its condition has progressively worsened the past few years, causing some interesting power surges, and Wheeler simply turned it off at some point last season.
“A lot of the fans are really frustrated that they can’t see the score,” said Analicia Torres, stadium operations manager at Sam Lynn, who encourages the PA announcer to broadcast the score, inning and count several times during each inning. “Some of the diehard fans have accepted it. They’ve seen the scoreboard lights dance around and they realize it’s beyond repair. Sometimes it makes it entertaining. Some of the music we broadcast (between innings or during delays) kind of moves with the (flashing) numbers.”
Torres hopes to raise between $20,000 and $30,000 to replace the scoreboard with a new one, that will also feature a video board that the facility can use to entice summer concerts and other events to the venue.
“The scoreboard is older than I am,” said Torres, 27. “We’re hoping we get the support of the community. We’ll even put their name on it. We’ll accept (any donation). We aren’t going to deny anything.”
The absence of a working scoreboard has also presented some challenges for the players, who have had to rely more heavily on the periodic announcements from the pressbox.
“Honestly, half the time I don’t know (what inning we’re in),” said Train Robbers first baseman Nathan Etheridge with a smile. “I don’t know the outs, but I just go until someone tells me to stop playing.”
Unlike the scoreboard, which has no hope of returning to its earlier glory, Etheridge and his teammates are hanging on, hoping the Pecos League and Sam Lynn won’t be the final stop of their collective baseball careers.
“To me, this is a grinder league,” Wheeler said “These are guys who are still playing because they love it and because there’s an axiom in professional baseball that as long as you’re wearing a uniform, you’re on the radar. You’re hoping that one in a ‘besillion’ strike of lightning hits and you’re noticed by an affiliated club.
“Having said that, these guys that you see on the field probably have a better chance of having another year in baseball than that scoreboard. That scoreboard has a three-prong plug and 2 ½ of its prongs are already out of its socket. It’s on life support. It is beyond life support.”