CAL LEAGUE TOUR: BAKERSFIELD

The Bakersfield Blaze are the Cincinnati Reds’ hiA affiliate and they play their home games at Sam Lynn Ballpark on the northern edge of town, not long after arriving at the city limits on southbound Highway 99. Bakersfield’s history with minor league baseball goes back to 1941 and the city has been affiliated with several big league clubs, including the Dodgers and the Indians, before aligning with the Reds in 2011.

Bakersfield is similar to many other California League cities in that it is an ideal locale for baseball as the sun shines regularly throughout the months of the baseball season. While the heat may be a factor, rainouts are rarely in play. North of the mountains that separate the metro area of Los Angeles from the San Joaquin Valley, and on the edge of the desert lands that lead to Las Vegas, Bakersfield is a sun-lover’s paradise.

When discussing the Blaze or any other team that has called Bakersfield home, the ballpark is something that is always of interest. Built in 1941, Sam Lynn Ballpark was named after a local businessman who owned a Coca-Cola bottling plant in this city in the 1930’s. Not only did Lynn sponsor a local semi-pro team, he was involved in founding the California League itself.

Photo: Steve Cummings/HotStoveHeat.com

One of the reasons the park is so noteworthy is that the field was built facing the setting sun. It is said that only one other pro park is juxtaposed this way, that being the one in Pittsfield, MA. Researching this oddity, the reasoning seems to be that day baseball was prevalent in the 1930’s and early 1940’s while night games were not. Thus, the setting sun was not thought to be a problem.

Such is not the case today, however. When we traveled down Highway 99 to the country music hotspot of Bakersfield, the start time for the game between the Blaze and the Lancaster Jethawks (Astros) was 7:45PM. It was a great ballpark experience and the venerable facility was more than accommodating for this night of minor league baseball.

*******************

Sam Lynn Ballpark sits in a complex with a sprawling parking area, all of it free of charge. That’s always a plus as the California League has some venues with paid parking and others without. From there we took our pre-printed tickets to the entry way and were greeted by many very cordial staff members in their orange shirts. It was fan-friendly from the word “go” and the staff was on the “all-star” level all night.

Just inside the gate I bought the Program/Yearbook and got a big surprise. I believe I paid $5 and I got an 86-page book that rivaled anything you get at a major league ballpark. Plus it had a small scoresheet booklet inside as well as a separate three-page package of the rosters, starting lineups and game notes. As a season ticket holder for the Oakland A’s I have picked up the various publications they have put out over the course of the season and this package is on that level. The rich history of baseball in Bakersield is highlighted and there are several outstanding interviews with manager Ken Griffey Sr. and members of his staff. The whole thing is very impressive, and another indication of how the Blaze organization is prioritizing the fan experience.

My tickets were bought online and I got three seats in the front row of section 7 right behind home plate. That put my crew right behind the backstop and in front of the on-deck circle in seating that is actually below the field level, dugout style. The park isn’t very elaborate in design, basically grandstand seating with a picnic area-type section along the third-base line and everything all on one level. But it is excellent for intimacy and these up-close seats below the field level are really enjoyable and offer a pretty special way to see a game.

Photo: Steve Cummings/HotStoveHeat.com

Right away, the layout of the ballpark is an eye-opener. Due to the setting-sun issue, the centerfield wall is extended very, very high while trees have been planted around the outfield fence to try to block the sun. Not only is the centerfield fence high, but it is also very short, at 354 feet. The dugouts for both teams are well down the baselines, beyond first and third base, with the on-deck circles obviously closer to home plate and, thus, a long ways from the dugouts. The Blaze club sent several batters to the on-deck circle area at a time. That was good for us in our front-row seats as the players were directly in front of us and conversing amongst each other as they prepared to hit.

The Blaze have the lowest attendance in the California League with an average of 811 fans a night. The next-lowest is High Desert with 1,378, more than 500 fans per night better. Maybe that has to do with Sam Lynn being the oldest park in the circuit or maybe it is the heat and the setting sun. On this night, the crowd checked in at 757 and it didn’t look like that many. The good news is that the 811 figure is up from a 637 average last year and 572 in 2011, so it is the third straight year of increased attendance.

For those who show up, they are treated very well by the staff throughout the game. The concessions are reasonably priced and readily abundant with several windows open. The merchandise store has a wide array of current items and also features mementos of Bakersfield’s rich past in minor league baseball. You can get an up-to-date Blaze hat, t-shirt or polo as well as a bobblehead for past stars like Billy Hamilton. For a little more money, there are jerseys for Jackie Robinson as well as game-used uniform tops autographed by Blaze players.

In our lower-level seating we had staff to serve us with concessions, which was a nice touch. For a $10 seat we had the added perk of having our Gatorade and water brought to us and it was done quickly and courteously. If we hadn’t had these seats, the lines at the concession booths weren’t too bad and you could easily get in and out with the good service there, but the seat-side service was a pretty convenient bonus.

Photo: Steve Cummings/HotStoveHeat.com

Blaze staff was prevalent throughout the park and always with a pleasant, helpful attitude. That shouldn’t be front-page news, but we’ve all dealt with something less in various ballparks so it is worth noting. The fun and games that involved the fans was on par with what you see at minor league baseball and the sound effects were especially clever. Famous movie soundbites that mocked the opposing players when they struck out and good music that everyone enjoyed went on all night. There were several mascots walking about and you have to wonder how hot it is inside those suits on a night when it was over 100 degrees most of the day. The mascots were great with the fans and added to the experience for the small, but lively crowd.

********************

The game pitted the first-place Lancaster Jethawks (Astros), winners of the first-half of the Cal League South division, against the homestanding Blaze. Bakersfield was holding down last place in the  Cal League North division, but on this night they had the upper hand. RHP Brady Rodgers of Lancaster faced off with RHP  Shane Dyer of Bakersfield as the series opened and the Blaze looked to right the ship after having just been swept by Visalia in a three-game set.

Photo: Steve Cummings/HotStoveHeat.com

Jethawks 2B Delino DeShields was on my radar as he was the Astros organization’s #6 prospect going into 2013 (Baseball America). DeShields didn’t disappoint as he went 3-for-5 and scored a run from the top of the Jethawks order. Also for the Jethawks, 3B Matt Duffy popped a two-run homer over the centerfield wall to get his club on the board in the fourth inning.

But by that time, Bakersfield had already plated five runs and the final score was 6-3 in favor of the home team. DH Juan Duran and LF Kyle Waldrop each had two hits for the Blaze and Dyer made it through five innings, giving up just the two runs on the Duffy homer. Three Blaze relievers went the other four innings, giving up just a seventh-inning run and five hits.

DeShields was as advertised with the three hits including a double, two stolen bases and a run scored. Waldrop was another player I had my eye on going in. He was ranked by Baseball America as Cincinnati’s #22 prospect before the season and they were looking for him to improve on the eight home runs he hit last year at loA Dayton. He has definitely done that, with 13 dingers going into this game, but the slash line was a bit of a concern at .237/.291/.415. This game may have been an indication that Waldrop has gotten it going as he has had multi-hit games in three of the five games since then and has hit two more bombs to raise his total to 15. So the prodigious power is starting to show through in games and it was good to see him on a good night.

********************

The trip to Bakersfield was good in every way and it will be the first of many. The 72-year old ballpark wasn’t a hindrance to the baseball experience but it could have been better with a bigger crowd to rally behind the home win. The new owners, Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway of the Bakersfield Sports Group LLC, have a nice message to fans inside the program/yearbook where they pledge to “provide the best experience we can for our fans so you leave our games having had a good time.” They go on to talk about a new ballpark complex that they expect to have in place for 2014. Maybe that is what it will take to get the fans back out in big numbers.

With nearly 350,000 residents and reliable sunny weather, Bakersfield has the two biggest components it needs to draw big baseball crowds. The direction of the ownership is a huge plus and it looks to be on the way to getting Bakersfield out of the California League basement as far as attendance.

The staff at Sam Lynn Ballpark made for a great ballpark experience and they treated each fan with the hospitality that you don’t always get at a professional sporting event. This is a California League club and there is a standard throughout the league that fits with what goes on in minor league parks nationwide. There’s always great baseball talent on the field at this level, but whether it is a good night for the home team or an off night, the staff makes sure that you’re having a good time on a summer night out. The Bakersfield Blaze are no different and they did it up right. It can only get better if they get a brand-new facility.

LINKS

Jethawks vs. Blaze Game Story

Box Score

Sam Lynn Ballpark History from Blaze website

New ballpark story at BakersfieldNow.com

New ballpark story at BakersfieldCalifornian.com

Sam Lynn Ballpark review at StadiumJourney.com

Sam Lynn Ballpark review at UncleBobsBallparks

HOTSTOVEHEAT on TWITTER