Bakersfield, California —— On Sunday night, almost exactly ten months after the Bakersfield Blaze played the final affiliated minor league game in the 75-year history of Sam Lynn Ballpark, I returned there. The occasion was a playoff game between the old ballpark’s new tenants, the Bakersfield Train Robbers, and, ironically, the other independent league team that replaced a California League team in 2017, the High Desert Yardbirds.
I shouldn’t have gone.
This isn’t a shot at the Bakersfield Train Robbers or the independent Pecos League, neither of which has ever claimed to be affiliated ball and, in all honesty, offered on Sunday night a much better product than I was expecting. This isn’t a shot at the California League, either—there’ll be no ill-advised anger here wishing the Blaze (or High Desert Mavericks) were still around. Those teams were contracted for many good reasons. But I’ve sat on posting this for a full week now, and I think I’ve finally come around to it: more than anything, this is a reminder that you can never go home again. The things you love change. It’s inevitable—once it ends, it ends, and you can never get it back.
Before I drove up through the treacherous Grapevine to Bakersfield on Sunday, I texted Dan Besbris about my trip. Dan spent six years broadcasting in Bakersfield, and thousands of hours helping to keep a seven-decade-old ballpark from disintegrating at his feet. Over the past year, he’s put on a professional, mature front—saying it was time for him to leave anyways at the end of 2016 to raise his newborn son—but few people took the contraction harder than Dan when it finally came last September.
“Heading up to Sam Lynn,” I wrote him in my text message. “It’s their playoff game tonight.”
“That stupid shit for brains city,” came the response, almost immediately. “They need to let baseball die so it can ever get better.”
“Hey,” I countered back, trying to be playful. “If the Train Robbers lose tonight…”
“Poor Bakersfield,” he responded. “Doomed to an existence in baseball purgatory. At least the Twitter account went to hell.”
I laughed, but I wondered — did Bakersfield need to just let baseball die at Sam Lynn Ballpark? Why did it take me all summer to return to Sam Lynn—a place I gleefully visited dozens upon dozens of times the year before, not caring about the four hour round-trip just because I wanted so badly to be at such a quirky, cool ballpark? Was I burned out on Bakersfield? Was it the city? Why was I, in that moment, finding the drive such a goddamn chore when a year ago I was chomping at the bit to turn down Chester Avenue?
Finally, I got there. I descended down into the Central Valley, passed through Arvin—the country’s most polluted city, they say—rolled into Bakersfield, and pulled up at Sam Lynn Ballpark. On the outside, the same as ever.
On the inside, a shell of its former self.
The meanings we assign to places are arbitrary and personal. To most, Sam Lynn Ballpark was a shit hole, and deservedly so. To me, it was a romantic throwback to the baseball days of years past. To Dan, or to Tim Wheeler, the longtime Blaze scorer who is still there to this day documenting Train Robbers games, the park is home. But to anybody—you, me, Dan or Tim—the Sam Lynn Ballpark of 2017 is not the Sam Lynn Ballpark that deserves to be remembered.
Dan’s text proved right. Bakersfield should have let baseball die after 2016, if only so they could re-build with a new stadium and maybe a flashy Triple-A franchise or something a decade from now. Instead, baseball persists, and the game is the same. But the little things—really, the big things—have left. It’s actually tough for me to describe Sam Lynn as it stands now; it’s just… empty. Not only from a lack of attendance (though that problem exists for the Train Robbers as it did for the Blaze), but because the banners, the picnic areas, the team store, the game day staff (however tiny a crew it may have been)… it’s all left town, leaving behind the stadium itself and little else. The place is a shell of what it was even a year ago.
The Train Robbers will be back in Bakersfield for the 2018 season. They announced it over the loudspeaker during Sunday night’s playoff game. That’s great—baseball returns to Bakersfield for one more summer at least. A small group of fans can keep enjoying the game. Those seeking a pilgrimage to a minor league park of yesteryear have one more season’s shot to make it to Kern County if they’ve never been here before. Maybe I’ll even head up there once or twice next year, hoping the magic of that weird, quirky 2016 summer might reuturn.
But I know it won’t.
The magic left with Dan, and it left with the rest of that quirky front office. It left when the Seattle Mariners left town, and it left when the California League decided enough was enough with Bakersfield. In that wake, it left behind scorekeeper Tim Wheeler and super-fan Mark Duffel and a few dozen committed Bakersfield baseball fans who don’t know what the hell else they’re supposed to do in the summers now.
Philip Guiry, who ran stadium operations for several years with the Bakersfield Blaze up through 2015, once told me that the most recent versions of Sam Lynn Ballpark and the Blaze were never designed to appeal to the masses. “Only a few people are going to get what we’re doing here,” I remember him saying last year. “But the few people who get it are really, really going to get it, and that’s good enough for me.”
Maybe that’ll have to be good enough for me, too. Everybody said it last year when the Blaze rode off into the sunset, but it feels like now is the most appropriate time, because now we know for sure: the weird, quirky, dusty, frustrating magic is gone, and it’s not coming back.
Goodbye, Sam Lynn Ballpark.
The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book We Is Blaze. I had originally intended to release the book this summer, but growing this website and traveling the country to write about baseball—a great thing!—has taken over my schedule. Because of that, I’ve pushed the release date back. It’ll come out this winter after I finally get some sustained time at home to put the finishing touches on the final draft. It’ll be available both as an e-reader and in paperback through Amazon.com; details about that will come soon.
Have you ever seen the movie Little Big League?
It’s a goofy 1994 kid’s movie about baseball that explores what would happen if a 12-year-old boy became the owner—and manager—of the Minnesota Twins. The film deals with all the familiar tropes of mid-90s sports movies aimed at kids, but as a baseball-specific movie it scores high marks for its realistic portrayal of big league life and on-field play, especially considering the target market. Above all, though, it’s ridiculous; pre-teen Billy Heywood (played by actor Luke Edwards) works through the movie to gain the respect and admiration of the rag-tag bunch of (adult) players, and by the end of it, the Twins find themselves in a one-game wild card playoff against the Seattle Mariners and super star Ken Griffey, Jr.—who shot his own scenes for the film. The Metrodome in Minneapolis hosts one final game for it all: the winner gets into the playoffs, and the loser goes home. No pressure, right?
Late in that final, fateful game, Lou Collins (played by Timothy Busfield) strolls to the plate with a chance to win it for the Twins. In from the bullpen comes Randy Johnson (like Griffey, the Big Unit plays himself in the movie), and on the at-bat’s second pitch, Collins connects on a shot deep to center field. Even if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you can probably sense what comes next: Griffey takes off running, and running, and running all the way back to the center field fence, where he steadies, leaps, and catches the ball for the final out of the game, saving what would have been a game-winning home run. Mariners win, Twins lose, and pre-teen Billy Heywood and his bunch fall short of the playoffs.
As the Mariners celebrate on the field, the Twins and their 12-year-old leader trudge up the ramp to their clubhouse underneath the stadium. No one says much—an accurate depiction of what it’s like to be in a clubhouse after any loss, let alone the loss that ends your season. It’s awkward as Heywood tries to unsuccessfully console the players on the end of their playoff hopes, and then informs them he’s not going to come back to manage next season. He has to go be a kid again.
Suddenly a security guard enters, walking up to Billy in front of the team.
“Mr. Heywood,” the guard cuts in. “They’re still here.”
Billy responds incredulously.
“Everybody,” the security guard replies.
The next thing you know, the camera pans down through the tunnel and back on to the field, and the movie’s final scene shows all 64,111 people in the sold-out Metrodome giving a standing ovation to the Minnesota Twins and their kid manager. Heywood and the team slowly walk back out onto the field, jaws dropped, amazed at the reception. Even though you lost, 64,000 people’s applause said to them, you won us over. We love you.
I know. It’s cheesy as hell, but damn it if it isn’t emotional and perfect.
And damn it if Bakersfield didn’t come up with its own twist—a twist that could really only happen in Bakersfield—to that perfect Hollywood ending.
September 12, 2016
Sam Lynn Ballpark — Bakersfield, California
California League playoffs: Rawhide 6, Blaze 3
It became clear the Blaze were going to get swept out of the California League playoffs and into oblivion in the top of the fifth inning. Visalia pushed across four runs in that frame, chasing Bakersfield starter Osmer Morales and giving the Rawhide a commanding 6-1 lead when the dust settled. Sure, the Blaze had five more chances to make up five runs, but the magic always runs out sooner or later, and no ghost of Sam Lynn was coming to save this club from a clean sweep out of the playoffs and into contraction purgatory.
So when it ended, everybody knew. There was no climactic Ken Griffey, Jr. in center field saving a home run to clinch the game for Visalia. A week before, against San Jose, “one more game” chants had taken over Sam Lynn as Blaze fans realized their team wasn’t going to be eliminated yet. But not on that final night against Visalia; that game was never really as close as the 6-3 final score might have indicated.
I hung around for a long time after the game, reminiscing in private moments with players and fans and front office members alike about what the hell we all just collectively went through. My last stop was back up in the press box, where Tim and Dan and Visalia’s broadcaster, Danny Angel, were holding court and trying to act like it was the end of any old ballgame on any old night, even though they all knew this was different. Angel had to drive home to Visalia and then immediately turn around for Adelanto—and the California League Championship Series—the next day, but he lingered for a long time. He knew it like we all did; it wasn’t over until you left the press box. But once you left the press box, it was over.
Eventually, Danny left. I decided to leave shortly thereafter, too. I had a two-hour drive home ahead of me and I figured maybe it was time to let Dan and Tim and the staff say goodbye in their own way. This was their ballpark. So, I said goodbye, climbed down the stairs and headed out towards the parking lot. As I walked through the front gate—more than two hours after the game ended, somewhere near one o’clock in the morning—I noticed them.
All of them.
Dozens and dozens of fans were still in the darkened parking lot, waiting for the players to come out to their cars so they could say goodbye. Bakersfield may not have cared enough about baseball in the last few years of the Blaze, but they sure gave a shit after the final game at one o’clock in the morning in a pitch-black parking lot. (Little did those fans know, the players had earlier planned to spend the night in the clubhouse, partaking in a sleepover to say their own goodbyes before getting on early morning flights back home to North Carolina, and Florida, and the Dominican Republic, and everywhere else.)
Shocked by the amount of fans still waiting hours after the game, I got to my car and immediately pulled out my cell phone. Flashes of Little Big League danced in my head; this was meant to be. Bakersfield’s perfect Hollywood ending. I was already imagining how meaningful a final, solemn meeting of fans and players would so perfectly and romantically cap the final minor league game in the 75-year history of Sam Lynn Ballpark. I unzipped my bag and started putting my camera back together. I had to be ready to document this farewell moment.
I called Dan. My heart was racing.
“Dan, they’re still here.”
Just like Little Big League.
And just like Little Big League, there was a pause after “everybody.” With Dan, it probably lasted five seconds, but it felt like sixty. At last, he came back on the phone, as if he’d been thinking about the logistics of letting fans back into the ballpark to say goodbye one last time.
“Eh,” he finally responded. “Fuck ‘em.”
Hopefully you enjoyed this small excerpt from We Is Blaze — moving forward, I will share more teasers like this. In a few months, I’ll also share information on how to purchase the book from Amazon.com. In the meantime, if you’d like to stay up-to-date so you don’t miss the book’s release this winter, the best thing to do is follow the book’s official accounts on Twitter and Facebook, and/or to follow my personal account on Twitter.