Saturday, February 9, 2013

Bakersfield: An Appreciation

There was a time when I routinely traversed the Southern California landscape, attending dozens of minor league baseball games. These were mostly centered around my home based out of various locations in the High Desert. I'd typically attend High Desert Mavericks games, which were the most local, followed by games in Rancho Cucamonga and San Bernardino. In the mid-90s I also attended the occasional game in Lake Elsinore (which was the team I rooted for at that time) and Riverside. These were all Southern Division teams in the California League. Being that the Northern Division teams were based in Modesto, Visalia, San Jose and Stockton, it wasn't likely I was going to make that trip without looking into booking a room at the Motel 6 first. However, in 1995 I got the brilliant idea that Bakersfield was only two hours away. I could pull that off. I'd seen the Bakersfield Dodgers a couple of times, but never had I seen the newly minted Blaze. So after consulting the schedule to see when the Storm were visiting, I took a ride up CA-58.

So what did I know about Bakersfield? Well, growing up in the desert burg of Barstow and living particularly close to California State Highway 58, I was very familiar with the name, because there were signs all around that looked something like this:

Middle of nowhere

The sign my school bus drove by every day stated that Kramer Junction was 29 miles west, Boron was 69 miles west, and Bakersfield was a mind-numbing 129 miles west of Barstow down CA-58. That would take approximately two hours driving at 60 miles an hour. (I was a math nerd as a kid) It wasn't until a friend of mine in high school stole his parents' car that we decided on a whim to travel to Bakersfield. After my friend made an ill-timed passing attempt almost killing us in a head-on collision just west of Kramer Junction, I vaguely recall hitting up a mall and purchasing a cassette single by Nu Shooz. (don't ask, it was 1988 and we had limited funds) It would be seven more years before I head down that highway again.

So I thought I had some pictures of the day I saw the Blaze/Storm game in 1995, but I don't. I remember being impressed with the facade of Historic Sam Lynn Ballpark, which had murals of some past Dodgers greats who had apparently graced the field at one point. I recall not being impressed with the ballpark itself, which after spending my time at games played in brand new ballparks seemed ancient. I do remember being able to get a seat right next to the Storm dugout, which was pretty cool.

$5 for that seat? What a bargain!

I don't even really recall being impressed by the fact that the ballpark is literally backwards, as in the sun sets over the outfield wall. More on that later. As I write this now, 18 years later, what I recall most was that there were 65 people present in the stands (yes, I counted) and an announced attendance of just over 500. Unreal considering I was used to 3-4 thousand a game at the other parks I attended around that time. Lake Elsinore would routinely seat 6000 plus! And while the trip was fun, and it's always great to see a game no matter where its played, I honestly saw no reason to ever go back.

However, the next time I did go back was in 2003 and by this point my cap collecting had begun in earnest. I still saw no need to get a Blaze cap. I was more into taking photographs of various stadiums I visited. And while this time I did take note of the extra large batters eye, and the tall trees that line the outfield wall in order to reduce the sunlight blasting directly into the faces of the batters, it was something else that stood out to me on this trip.

When I would take photos around the ballparks, I tried to get a shot from every conceivable angle, culminating with a shot taken from right behind home plate. In every stadium I've done this, there had never been an issue. Until Bakersfield. Apparently it is against the rules to take pictures during the game or something. I was informed of this in a rather curt fashion by an older gentleman who threatened to have me removed from the game if I did it again. Here is the offending photo:

Breaking the law! Breaking the law!
Anyway, this gives you an idea of what the stadium looks like. And honestly, it's a really charming ballpark. I've come to really appreciate places like this, where you can just sit, relax and enjoy a game around people who really care about enjoying the game. That is when you're not being harassed by the camera cops!

View from the right field bleachers. Before the game, so no trouble.

A few years later I attended another game in Bakersfield and the Blaze were wearing these awesome stars & stripes jerseys that they were auctioning off after the game. They had replaced the original Blaze logo with one that was kinda different. The most apt description I've heard to this day is flaming marijuana leaf, but who knows. I left that night with the new cap, already lamenting that I had never gotten the previous cap.

This is what minor league baseball is all about.

Here is a view from the left field side.

Aluminum bleachers gone, replaced by a big tent.

Of course, I had to get the classic shot.

Successfully evaded the Photo Police!

I have not been back to Bakersfield since. I did have the mirrored B cap stolen in a targeted burglary (along with 31 others) though I did manage to get it replaced. Good thing because not long after that the Blaze changed logos again, and this time they hit a home run (no pun intended) in my opinion. A solid black cap with a black script B lined in orange and white. One of the classiest caps in all of minor league baseball. And it wasn't until recently that I did manage to acquire the original Blaze cap, thanks to Benjamin Christensen (@Shakabrodie on Twitter) who tipped me off on its availability. So here now is my complete Bakersfield Blaze New Era cap collection.

Love all three of these caps.

So the first one was worn between 1995-2004. I always felt it was kinda dull, which is likely why I ignored it. Of course, once it became defunct, it was the most awesome cap ever and I was an idiot for not picking one up. As of two weeks ago, problem solved.

The middle one is easily the most controversial. What the heck is that supposed to be, anyway? I think it would have worked better without the mirrored B, but what do I know? I did end up with a jersey from this era.

#19 on the back, of course.

Here's a picture of a Blaze player from a game I attended in 2006 in San Bernardino, showing off the road unis.

Paid attendance: 65. Just kidding. It was a 10am weekday game.

I was seated right next to the Blaze dugout and I got this cool shot of their batting helmet.

So there you go. My personal history of Bakersfield. My understanding is that the team is planning on opening the 2014 season in a new stadium, so if you are in the area and have never been, check out Historic Sam Lynn Ballpark. You'll be glad you did.

Just watch the cameras.

Oh yeah, Buck Owens via Dwight Yoakam. "Streets Of Bakersfield," baby!

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