Granted, the following quote may not be etched in granite and placed in front of an eternal fountain off Highway 395 for residents of the High Desert to reflect, but it sure defined an era for California League baseball:
“Where the hell is Adelanto?”
That was the reaction of league president Joe Gagliardi when he heard the Riverside Red Wave wanted to migrate north after three seasons. The Red Wave was the third franchise to head to the Inland Empire and by far, the least successful, playing at UC Riverside. Neighboring residents had objected so strenuously to having a team in the area that the franchise was denied a beer license, a sobering reality to where team owners were desperate enough to listen to a proposal for a stadium in a town of fewer than 7,000 people.
My boss drove to what was already called Mavericks Stadium two months before the team debuted in 1990. He remarked the light blue steel awning gave it the appearance of a desert mirage off Highway 395.
Now, 26 seasons later, it may as well be. The Cal League is contracting from 10 teams to eight, with two franchises vanishing — Bakersfield and Adelanto. In response, the Carolina League will expand from eight teams to 10 next year.
The Mavs played a role in the peripheries of the memories of my young adulthood. The stadium drew legions of fans from across the High Desert — Victorville, Apple Valley and so forth — for many years. As such, the move was a stroke of genius for the owners. The Red Wave never drew more than 90,000 people. The Mavs, if my memory is correct, almost drew twice that in year one.
That team was managed by one of the most genuine men I had ever met in baseball. I know this to be true because years after being impressed by the guy, I eventually covered the major leagues and in the Padres dugout, Bruce Bochy was still every bit as earnest and friendly as he was back in Adelanto.
I was covering a Mavericks game the night when our nation was shocked over a pipe bomb explosion that killed one and injured 111 more at the Atlanta Olympics.
I caught my first foul ball at a Mavericks game — on the fly, thank you very much. Still have it.
I also remember that was the first place where I heard of “the Cal League curse.” If you’re a sportswriter, never mention the speed of the game or it will last more than four hours. I was no longer in the Cal League on June 28, 2009, but I’m guessing some nitwit in the press box smiled over the prospects of going home early and mentioned the game was going fast — and the Lake Elsinore Storm edged the Mavs in a 33-18 pitchers duel.
There are fewer than 10 Mavericks currently in the majors. Two of them — Billy Butler and J.J. Hardy — were all-stars. MLB Network announcer Matt Vasgersian is a former play-by-play guy. Kind of a funny dude, but I’ve never heard any tales of cow tipping in Visalia from the guy during his current broadcasts.
And now, Heritage Field — as it is currently called — will be silent at the end of the month, when the Cal League season closes. Its blue awning had faded and rusted long ago. The Adelanto City Council had developed a hostile relationship with the team, although I don’t know who is to blame for that. The council tried to evict the Mavericks. It’s not like there’s many options for the town. Its population is at fewer than 32,000.
I don’t really know how to react to that. Many Cal League teams have shuffled across the state. Riverside still doesn’t have a team. And it’s not like the cry went from “Where in hell is Adelanto?” to “Where in the hell does Adelanto get off doing this?”
I guess the best way to put it is this: Minor league baseball had a heyday in the 1980s-1990s. It was billed as local entertainment for areas like the High Desert that was sorely lacking.
Only we don’t lack for entertainment options in most of the United States, anymore. You can’t go 30 miles in any direction without finding a casino. You can stream baseball games at bus stops in the middle of nowhere. We don’t need minor league baseball to keep us happy as much as we need a good data plan and an outlet.
Not that the Cal League is dying, mind you.
But must-see? Oh, that’s a mirage now.