Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Visalia Rawhide 9 at Bakersfield Blaze 3 - April 25, 2010

I've seen all the California League Parks, but in one case, there was a stadium I hadn't seen in ten years. That would be Sam Lynn Ballpark, home of the Bakersfield Blaze. They were starting a four-game set against Visalia so I decided to stop in to see what has changed over the past decade.

Sam Lynn Ballpark

Sam Lynn Ballpark was built in 1941 and is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. It's located in north Bakersfield in a non-descript area of town, off Chester Avenue. Parking is plentiful and (gasp!) free.

The first thing that you notice when you enter the ballpark is the sun setting directly behind center field. It is not often that home plate faces west, and there is a huge batter's eye to mitigate the problem. Even then, games have to start at around sunset, once the batter's box is in the shade. This early in the season, a start time of 7:15 is OK, but in the summer, start times move to as late as 8:00.

The other thing that you might notice is the how shallow center field is. At only 354 feet, it is the shortest in pro baseball. But balls have a tendency to die there unless they are absolutely creamed, so it plays deeper than you might expect.

There is no actual ballpark structure here, just several separate seating sections. Tickets are cheap, with three seating areas to choose from: the $9 green box seats behind the plate, the blue reserved seats down first base at $8 (you can see them above), and the general admission grandstand along third base for $7 (or $1 on Dollar Monday, which was when I visited). There are also a couple of party areas for groups, and a beer patio from where the below photo was taken.

Unfortunately the Blaze are not drawing well these days, averaging around 800 fans a game, so you can sit wherever you want. I ended up in the front row of the green box seats because it had a unique perspective. The ground here is about two feet below field level, so you are looking up at the on-deck batter. It also gives a good angle for seeing the movement on breaking pitches. Definitely worth trying, if just for a change.

Concessions were limited but the hot dogs were pretty good, especially since they were also a dollar due to it being Dollar Monday and all. Game notes and rosters also sell for $1 (every day though) and are worth buying.

The Blaze did have the starting lineups posted, but they used a different marker for some of the batters. I guess they lost the green marker after the previous game.

Bakersfield is now affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds, but was once a Dodger farm club and they still have a couple of pennants on the wall behind the main seating area. I'd like to see more history here even if it is Dodger-related. Hall of Famer Don Drysdale and other Dodger notables including Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza all played here. Pointless trivia: Hideo Nomo began his American career in Bakersfield, appearing in a single game in 1995.

The scoreboard is very basic, with just the line score displayed. For some reason, the run totals are shown with a leading zero (i.e. a 3-2 game is 03-02). Beyond the fences are some large juniper trees which are there to cut down on the wind sweeping up and over the wall and blowing sand and dust around. Unfortunately, the trees also keep the flag from moving much, so players are never quite sure which way the wind is blowing.

And that's about it. A very simple setting that is little changed from ten years ago. What has changed though are fan expectations. When I came here in 2001, it was a lively place with about 2,800 fans. I remember tutoring a young boy on scoring the game. Last night there were only 669 fans and you could hear every heckle. I'm not sure why the Bakersfield ball fans have stopped coming out, but I hope they realize that although they might not have the fanciest ballpark, they have a unique and memorable one that should be enjoyed before it too is replaced.

The Game

Visalia started Mike Belfiore, who is considered by some to be a top Arizona prospect after being drafted in the sandwich round in 2009. Curtis Partch (26th, 2007) took the mound for the Blaze, who came into the game hitting .337 to lead the league.

But they didn't have much of a chance to hit against Belfiore, who had a lot of trouble finding the strike zone. He loaded the bases on 3 walks in the first but escaped with no damage after a questionable double play. Visalia opened the scoring in the second. After Bartch walked Kyle Greene (11th, 2008), Bobby Borchering (16th overall, 2009, below) reached on an error. Rossmel Perez then attempted a sacrifice that Bartch fielded and promptly threw into the next county, allowing the two baserunners to score. Perez later came home on a David Nick (4th, 2009) double to make it 3-0, all runs unearned.

In the second, Belfiore walked 4 more batters and gave up a couple of hits that led to 3 Bakersfield runs. But Visalia got those back right away on a Greene 2-run homer followed by a Borchering double, Perez single and sac fly from Jon Mark Owings.

In the bottom of the third, Ryan LaMarre (2nd, 2010, #11 Reds' prospect, above) called time but the umpire rightly chose to ignore him as Belfiore threw a rare strike. On the next pitch, LaMarre grounded to Nick who booted it for an error, but LaMarre injured himself running to first and had to be replaced by one-time Jays' farmhand Welington Ramirez. Belfiore walked the next batter but again used a double play to get out of trouble. He was relieved after 3 innings, walking 8 of the 18 batters he faced but only giving up 3 runs.

Visalia added two more in the fifth on an Owings dinger, and Borchering added a solo shot off Taiwanese pitcher Tzu Kai Chiu (below) in the 7th to complete the scoring.

The Rawhide won 09-03 as you can see.

At first glance, this might appears to be a pretty boring game, but there were some interesting statistical tidbits (well, interesting to me at least). Rawhide hurlers gave up 12 walks but only 2 of them scored. Cincinnati's #6 prospect Yasmani Grandal (12th overall, 2010, below), walked in all five of his plate appearances but was stranded each time. He was visibly frustrated after his last at-bat. Each of the seven pitchers managed to record at least one assist or putout, a rare occurrence.


Ken Griffey is managing Bakersfield, his first stint as skipper.

The Blaze are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the ballpark with the promotion "70 Years, 70 Games, 70 Stars". A former Bakersfield player will be profiled during each of the 70 home games. Yesterday's star was Larry Sherry, 1959 World Series MVP, who played 21 games with the Bakersfield Indians in 1954. This is a cool promotion but doesn't seem to be attracting any additional fans.

Draft Position

In these minor league posts, I note a player's draft position when they are in AA or lower. For first round picks, I'll mention their overall position and year, while those drafted later are noted with the round and year. Players that are drafted more than once are only denoted by their most recent draft. If there is no note, that player is an NDFA (non-drafted free agent) which is the usual for non-US players.

Finally, a big thanks to Dan Besbris, Bakersfield's Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations, for his help and notes about the ballpark.