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03/07/2006 8:00 AM ET
Scenery, food make Cal parks golden
League prides itself on cleanliness, atmospheric entertainment
California League ballparks serve up picturesque settings like this pastel sunset at Rancho Cucamonga's Epicenter every night. (Rancho Cucamonga Quakes)

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Joe Gagliardi knows what California League ballparks have going for them -- scenery and food.

Why listen to Gagliardi's opinion? Well, he's just been president of the league for 26 years. He's seen ballparks built and rebuilt, fans grow up with the game and the food get better and better.

Rancho Cucamonga's Epicenter seems to be at the center of attention despite its larger size because of its compact build. And attendance has backed that up, as the Quakes have led the league for the past 13 years.

"It seats about 6,500 people, a little over 7,000 with the berm on the side," Gagliardi said. "Everyone's kind of close and tight. It's probably the most energized as far as our ballparks go. It's because the fans are close. If it was spread out, you wouldn't have the same effect. They keep the activities going and the promotions. They keep the fans active for about seven innings. You can just feel the atmosphere.

"Every seat is a great view. It's situated near a freeway. There's a nice look of the mountains. It's just a pleasure to go and see a ballgame there."

That's totally by design, according to Rancho Cucamonga community/public relations manager Meridith Zembal. "Southern California has beautiful sunsets, and although we're not on the beach, the lovely purple, pink and orange hues make for a great atmosphere," Zembal said. "With the mountains so close, it's easy to forget that we're in such a densely populated area. We can see palm trees and snow-topped mountains all at once from our seats.

By contrast, Lake Elsinore's Diamond feels more like an expansive Major League ballpark to Gagliardi and Zembal. "It's spread out like (Baltimore's) Camden Yards ... without having the upper deck. It goes way down the baselines," Gagliardi said. "You kind of get a different feel.

"The fan reaction is a little different because it's spread more," he added. "They just really go out of their way to serve their fans. The atmosphere is just totally different because of the type of ballpark they are."

Among the park's many charms is the sight of mascot Jackpot jumping out of a hole in the 36-foot-high "monster wall" in right field and dancing when the Storm crosses the plate. "It is the way it is run that makes it the best," Bakersfield Blaze assistant general manager Brian Thomas said. "They have a huge hi-def video board in the outfield and manage to insert their mascot in movie clips that are played throughout the game. They use it to give visiting players a hard time during the game as well."

But California is also known for a more laid-back approach. Gagliardi says Inland Empire's Arrowhead Credit Union Park in San Bernadino might be more of some fans' cup of tea. And Hollywood might agree with that assessment, because the stadium has been used for numerous national commercials throughout the years.

"Barry Larkin and Carl Lewis did a shoot for Nike back in 1997," 66ers broadcasting director Mike Saeger said. "Last year we had Shawn Green and Eric Chavez shooting spots on separate days for a video game. Ichiro shot a commercial here for some sort of Japanese sports drink about a year ago. There is a T. Rowe Price ad that still runs from time to time that was filmed here about two years ago.

"We get so many opportunities because we are only 60 miles east of L.A.," Saeger added. "It is much cheaper for companies to rent our facility than to rent Dodger Stadium or Angels Stadium for a few days of filming."

The luxury suite sponsors have carved out their own niches at Inland Empire's ballpark as well. "The different company owners have gone all out redecorating with various themes," he said. "I haven't seen anything like in the other parks that have suites."

As one of the first ballparks to upgrade, High Desert's Mavericks Stadium in Adelanto continues in that tradition. "It's so open," Gagliardi said. The Mavs' distinctive double fencing also adds to the park's allure, points out Jeff Lasky, the Lancaster Jethawks' director of broadcasting/media relations.

Compare and contrast that vibe with that of Visalia's Recreation Park with 1,100-1,200 seats. "Our first row is about 10-15 feet from the field, you can't get closer to the action at a Minor League game than here," said Kevin Huffine, the Oaks' director of sales and marketing. "You're really right on top of the field," Gagliardi added.

Lake Elsinore director of media/public relations Casey Hauan, Thomas and Zembal think Stockton definitely plays to its atmospheric strength at Banner Island Ballpark, which opened last year. Gagliardi thinks the Ports' VIP area at the park even outdoes Triple-A ballparks. "They put it in the right place," he said. "It is downtown right by the water. On one side, you see downtown. You sit on the other side, you see the waterway. It looks like the big city."

"Stockton is great because of the water bordering the left-field wall and the boats passing by during the game," Thomas added.

In right field, the Ports set up a wine-and-import beer bar and patio that appeals to Huffine. "It's a great aspect with the large lounge chairs on the patio where you can kick back and watch the game," he said.

Speaking of atmosphere, when they talk about the wind blowing out at Lancaster's Clear Channel Stadium in the Antelope Valley, they're not kidding around. "Twenty-five to 30-mile-per-hour winds are fairly routine, and gusts of more than 50 mph are not unheard of," Lasky said. "And the wind usually blows out to right field, so there are a lot of home runs."

But those winds won't budge another Lancaster trademark: the FA-18 fighter jet that stands at the main entrance to the stadium. "This was donated by NASA," Lasky said. "The JetHawks' name is a tribute to the aerospace industry, one of the big economic forces of the Lancaster area, as well as Edwards Air Force Base (where the space shuttles land in California when they don't land in Florida)."

Gagliardi and Hauan never mind visiting San Jose's Municipal Stadium, which has been around since 1942 but started getting mouths watering more recently with some high-quality barbecue. "People go to the ballpark to have dinner and maybe watch four or five innings," Gagliardi said. "To me that's where it's uniquely at.

"You see the number of people who stand in line to get served, including yours truly. I'm no different from any other fan," he added. "Their ribs are good. They barbecue the big turkey leg. You can make a meal out of that alone. That's my favorite."

Visalia feeds off its food legacy as well. "We cook the area's favorite tri-tip beef," Huffine said. "It is very popular with the fans and the traveling teams that come to play."

No matter if the ballparks are new, old or a renovated combination of the two, fans will always find them to be clean. "Always spic and span," Gagliardi said. "That's one thing about our ballparks in California." Of particular note on this front is Modesto, after John Thurman Field underwent renovations a few years ago. "It's one of the cleanest we have," the league president said proudly. "Plus (it has) new seats that are very comfortable."

Then there's the old-time charm of Bakersfield's 65-year-old Sam Lynn Ballpark. "It faces the wrong direction with batters facing the setting sun in the West, which has led to many night games being delayed and now scheduled as late as 8 p.m. to avoid those delays," Thomas said. "It also features a very short center-field wall at just 354 feet. The wall is 15 feet high all the way around, but the 354 distance is believed to be one of the shortest in Minor League ball."

Other attractions grabbing attention of others in the league include San Jose's "throwback feel" to baseball's golden era, the dancing bunny at Lake Elsinore, "Froggy" selling programs in Bakersfield and the statue of Jack Benny at Rancho Cucamonga.

Paige Schector is a staff writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.