It had been a season of celebration at Sam Lynn Ballpark in Bakersfield. The home of the Bakersfield Blaze (High A; California League) had turned 75-years-old in 2016, and the Blaze ran a series of promotions and giveaways to commemorate the milestone.
But it was not just in the name of nostalgia that the Blaze’s front office had been so aggressive in promoting the 75-year campaign. Low attendance had been a chronic issue for the Blaze over the years, and though the numbers had seen an uptick this season, it was not enough to prevent the 75th season at Sam Lynn Ballpark from being the last.
The Blaze and one of their California League counterparts, the High Desert Mavericks, announced Monday they would both be re-locating to the Carolina League in North Carolina starting in 2017. For Bakersfield, it was the sad, but inevitable, conclusion for a franchise that has long struggled to survive in its outdated ballpark.
Efforts to build a new stadium for the Blaze failed in 2012, and the march toward Monday’s announcement had been inexorable.
“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,’” Blaze broadcaster and spokesman Dan Besbris told Bakersfield.com. “But no matter how much you prepare it still blindsides you a little bit.”
Stadium issues were at the heart of both announcements. While Bakersfield’s stadium issues had lingered for almost a quarter-century before finally reaching its point of no return, a heated dispute in High Desert that began only earlier this year led to its sudden demise.
When the Adelanto City Council terminated a 2012 stadium agreement that allowed the Mavericks’ ownership to lease city-owned Stater Bros. Stadium for $1 annually, re-negotiations took an unpleasant turn, with acrimony and lawsuits launched in both directions.
Watching the situation deteriorate – and knowing with Bakersfield’s impending departure making a nine-team California League unfeasible — excising the growing mess in Adelanto to create an eight-team league became politically expedient.
“It just became very clear (who would be joining Bakersfield),” league president Charlie Blaney told the Victorville Daily Press. “You know how the tone in the city radically changed in the last year.”
According to the Daily Press, the $1 rent agreement in 2012 was the only such arrangement in the California League, its proponents in the City Council believing that it would ultimately save money by transferring field maintenance costs to the Mavericks.
But at the start of 2016, the city claimed to have lost $1.8 million in revenue and sought to re-negotiate by terminating the contract.
“I live in Adelanto. This is my tax money that’s going to pay for someone to play ball and make a profit, and the city isn’t going to get anything out of it,” Mayor Rich Kerr told the Daily Press. “If we could have come up with a different contract in order to facilitate the city not spending that much money, then, yeah, we could have, but that wasn’t going to happen.”
Caught by surprise, team owner Dave Heller sued for formal remediation. The city counter-sued for breach of contract, attempted to evict the Mavericks and subpoenaed the team’s financial records. A county superior court judge sided with the team, forcing the issue to arbitration and filing a preliminary injunction against the city pending resolution.
That process will continue, even as the team leaves for North Carolina.
“The team is going to make every effort to hold the city accountable,” Heller told the Daily Press. “It’s incredibly disappointing to me and I’m sure to Mavericks fans all over the region to see the team be taken away, because of the reckless and rogue actions of the mayor and the officials from the city of Adelanto.”
One of the two departing franchises will become the High-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers in Kinston, NC. The Mavericks, who currently lead the California League in overall record, had been in Adelanto for 26 years.
The Blaze are also in the playoff hunt. But for all their success on the field in 2016, the Mavericks and Blaze have struggled at the gate. It’s average attendance of 1,056 is second-lowest among the 10-team California League. The only team averaging fewer than High Desert is Bakersfield, with an average of 846.
Attendance had been just one of Bakersfield’s challenges. There are no weight rooms and indoor batting cages at Sam Lynn Ballpark, and its cramped clubhouses combine to make it a substandard Minor League facility. The Blaze’s demise had been predicted going back to the early 1990s, when Sam Lynn seemed to be on a year-to-year deadline.
Several attempts to finance a new ballpark over the past 20 years have failed. The city attempted to incorporate a new stadium as part of a City Center project in 2000, but team owners rejected a $2.5 million down payment. City officials pressured the owners to sell the team, which was successful, but not in time to save the overall project, which was scuttled in 2001.
Another attempt to build a new stadium took place in 2012, but ownership was only able to raise $18 million of a needed $30 million. The plan dead, the team was sold once again, and its inevitable march to relocation entered its final phase.
“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.”
Image courtesy Bakersfield Blaze.
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