Minor-league baseball in California's Central Valley is a big-time hit
"This is a simple game," says the manager in the movie Bull Durham, distilling baseball to its essence. "You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball."
It's a perspective that's easy to lose in a world where major-league ballparks have swimming pools and steam-locomotive replicas, hotels, and art galleries, where stadiums are named for banks and beers, tech companies, and Ted Turner. Pony up $50 million, and they might even name one after you. Even the minor leagues have gotten more gussied up with their scaled-down yet state-of-the-art throwback parks.
And then there's the simplicity of a Visalia Oaks game ― just baseball in a ballpark with no official name. The Visalia ballfield ― usually referred to as Recreation Park, after the city park in which it sits ― is the second smallest in all of baseball, a 1,612-seat bandbox, where front row is less than 30 feet from home plate.
They've upgraded by adding a covered picnic deck and seats with cupholders. But the stands still sit on a Gunite-covered slope, made from dirt excavated when State 198 was cut through town in the 1960s. Glamorous it's not.
"We've got the smallest press box in professional baseball," says official scorer Harry Kargenian. "It seats three comfortably. And I'm one of the three."
A valley tradition
The Oaks play in the California League, the venerable Single-A league and longtime Central Valley presence. The valley has produced a few of baseball's notable figures, including Hall of Fame pitcher and Fresno native Tom Seaver and Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox, who graduated from Selma High School. For that matter, Stockton has staked claim to none other than the Mighty Casey himself; the city is in a dispute with Holliston, Massachusetts, over which town is the real-life Mudville that inspired the famed Ernest L. Thayer poem, Casey at the Bat.
Visalia has had teams since 1946. Hours before the game, Oaks ballplayers run and stretch with their hitting coach. The smell of oak-fired tri-tip drifts into the hot, muggy air of a Central Valley summer evening. Some nights the concession stands barbecue up 60 to 70 pounds of meat ― burgers, chicken, and linguiça ― making a plain old hot dog seem besides the point, tradition notwithstanding.
For Oaks outfielder and Bakersfield native Sean Barker, Visalia is a homecoming after playing college ball at Louisiana State University and with the Tri-City Dust Devils of the Northwest League. As a kid, he recalls watching such future major-leaguers as Eric Karros and Mike Piazza during the days when the Bakersfield Dodgers played in the California League.
"It's great here," Barker says. "My friends and family show up all the time. Plus the bus trips aren't as long in the California League. I dreaded the eight-hour rides I used to have."
He heads into the clubhouse, a cramped den of mayhem, where Animal House meets Field of Dreams. It's the day after the major-league All-Star Game, and players are still buzzing about the Home Run Derby competition, shouting over a TV tuned into some daytime detritus.
Over in the equally crowded but far less raucous team offices, general manager Jennifer Whiteley is keeping the team running, handling everything from ticket sales to the players' $20-a-day road-trip meal money and their housing needs.
"They get here with a couple bags and no furniture," she says. "So we'll help them move in with members of the booster club. It saves some of these guys, and a lot of them really appreciate the feeling of being at home."
Boosters still pass the hat, collecting donations when an Oaks player hits a home run or strikes out three in a row, because the minor leagues are hardly immune from baseball's modern economy. Meal money is truly meal money for most players. But a few are already rich, including Jeff Francis, the night's starting pitcher (now with the Double-A Tulsa Drillers). Right out of college, he signed for $1.85 million per year with the Colorado Rockies organization.
This night he's facing the High Desert Mavericks, the Milwaukee Brewers' Single-A affiliate. As Francis takes the mound, fans above the overflowing Oaks dugout shade themselves with umbrellas, while others just rely on cowboy hats. Streaky monsoonal clouds turn pink and orange over the field as skateboarders and basketballs in the adjacent park pop into view beyond left field.
Booster-club members proudly cheer on their boarders as chatter from the 576 fans easily reaches the players and umps. Some of it has bite.
"You guys are the worst team in the league. Probably in America."
"He's got no throw, Johnny, no throw."
"C'mon, Blue! That was a low pitch. Just 'cause you're a small man doesn't mean ya gotta have a small mind."
The Oaks go on to win 4-2, their seventh straight victory. The game's particulars quickly fade away. What lingers are the sensations: the whoosh when they throw the ball, then the whack when they hit the ball, and the thwock when they catch the ball.
"It's still a game," says a coach, looking out on the field as the scoreboard goes dark and the bat boy lowers the American flag. "Something to enjoy."