Hero Cats, that pesky sun in centerfield and Don Drysdale. Getting to know the Bakersfield Blaze
It was announced last week that the Seattle Mariners Advanced Class-A affiliation will no longer be in High Desert, but moving to Bakersfield in the California League. The move ends an eight-year run of Seattle being affiliated with the Mavericks in Adelanto, CA. The Blaze had been affiliated with the Reds for the past four years. Ballpark Digest also chronicled the change in affiliation. So, no longer will most of the new Generals come from High-A, High Desert, but from High-A, Bakersfield. Admittedly, it is a bit less redundant to say and write.
I thought it would be fun to get to know the new M’s affiliate – get to know Bakersfield, the area and the ballpark. They are a franchise that has been around for a long time and have a rich baseball history. So, I reached out to Dan Besbris, Assistant GM for Media and Marketing as well as team broadcaster for the past three seasons. I asked him.some questions and he came through with some terrific answers.
Here is my Q&A with Dan.
CH: Where did the nickname Blaze come from?
DB: Unfortunately, the story isn’t nearly as funny as the ones that get thrown around. It’s not because we lit the field on fire or had some run-in with the fuzz. Sadly, it’s just because it’s hotter than Hades in the summertime.
CH: What is Bakersfield most known for?
DB: Oil, energy, agriculture, and country music. We are the second-largest oil-producing area in the States behind Alaska. Of course, the area does take on a bit of an odor, and the air quality here is pretty low. As far as music, Bakersfield is the home of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Most folks know it as “The Bakersfield Sound” – there was an exhibit on it at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville we were fortunate enough to check out during the Winter Meetings a couple years back.
CH: Tell me a little bit about Sam Lynn Ballpark?
DB: Sam Lynn Ballpark is an odd duck. It faces the wrong way, and centerfield is only 354 feet from home plate. The scoreboard, which was actually installed by the Mariners back in 1983, seems to have ghosts in it, adding numbers where they shouldn’t be, and putting up a mysterious “7” in the 7th that can’t be removed. But it’s also nostalgia at its best. Most folks out here remember when they played a High School tournament at Sam Lynn 40 years ago or came out and saw the Dodgers 5 straight Rookies of the Year. It’s a weird little hut, but it’s our weird little hut. Oh, and our program salesman is a man named Froggy that almost anyone that has played here will remember for his gravely voice.
CH: It is an older park, what are the prospects of a new stadium?
DB: Rumors come and go. I’ve sort of stopped paying attention to them, though the latest is a potential move to Salinas.
CH: So, the sun sets behind the centerfield wall. What challenges does that present?
DB: We have to start games around 8 p.m. pacific time in the dead of summer. The California League won’t let us start, then take a sun delay, so we have to wait until the sun ducks behind a 30-foot metal wall build behind, and above the outfield fence in straightaway center. It’s tough to get kids to stay past the 5th or 6th inning, just because of timing, but otherwise, a pair of sunglasses usually does the trick.
CH: How has attendance been recently?
DB: On the rise, for sure. We only hold 1,839 at capacity, so we’ll never be a big bopper, but we’re up from 40k in 2011 to 60k this year, and 800+ fans per night in a park that only has 1,200 grandstand seats feels relatively full.
CH: What is some of the more unique aspects of the baseball history in Bakersfield?
DB: Don Mossi, arguably the ugliest man in baseball history, was married at home plate. Don Drysdale is our Hall of Famer, and over 250 former Bakersfield players have made the bigs. The names people might know, recently at least, would be Billy Hamilton of the Reds (who set the minor league steals record with over 100 here before finishing the job in Pensacola), Josh Hamilton, Chris Davis, and going back a tiny bit farther, Rocco Baldelli.
CH: What are the biggest names to of played for Bakersfield?
DB: Oops, sort of answered this one above. Our Dodgers years were the most laden with names. Pedro Martinez, Mike Piazza, Eric Karros, Raul Mondesi, Hideo Nomo, Orel Hershiser, and so on.
CH: What is the history of MLB affiliation in Bakersfield?
DB: Yikes. There’s been a bunch. Mariners (of course), Reds, Rangers, Devil Rays, Giants, Dodgers (that gets us back to 1968). Prior to that, it was a bit of a revolving door that included the Phillies, Cubs, Tigers and Indians.
CH: As the broadcaster, what has been some of your most memorable moments since you have been there?
DB: My first month in Bakersfield I got to call (and then feel the hurt from) the longest professional 9-inning game. In April of 2011, the Blaze lost to the Inland Empire 66ers by the score of 24-19 in a game that took 4:55 and included a 10-run comeback. Being a part of the Billy Hamilton legend in 2012 was pretty amazing (took calls from ESPN, the LA Times, the NY Times, among others), and this year we had Tara the Hero Cat throw out a first pitch and ESPN did a SportsCenter package LIVE from Sam Lynn.
CH: If a Mariners fan visited Bakersfield, what would be on their to do list to see or do before leaving?
DB: Sunday brunch at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace; try some Basque food (we have a strangely large number of Basque in Bakersfield); drive out to the oilfields just to get a look at the chaos.
CH: Do you ever get any references to the movie “Cast Away” with Tom Hanks?
DB: Nope, though I’ve tried to get people to watch The Running Man with Arnold. The criminal he chases at the beginning of the film is called The Bakersfield Butcher.