Prior to Saturday's Bakersfield Blaze game, I was in the Sam Lynn Ballpark press box, mingling with some of the regulars while trying to get a feel for what I had been told was a unique ballpark atmosphere.
It sure didn't take long.
While I was busy admiring the homemade Cincinnati Reds pennant taped to the wall -- the Reds are Bakersfield's parent club -- assistant general manager Philip Guiry strolled over and introduced himself. Heavily bearded and dressed in black jeans, a black Blaze collared shirt and a black Blaze cap, Guiry looked more like a guy working the door at an all-ages punk show than a Minor League executive. But that's just what he is, and as it turned out he soon had more important concerns than making cursory small talk with a visiting MiLB.com writer.
"Excuse me, I've got to go deal with a mascot crisis," he said while gesturing toward Heater the Dragon, who had just ambled into the room in a state of disarray. "He's got these [crappy] jailhouse tattoos all over his ankles."
As Guiry turned his attention to the rapid procurement of body art-obscuring mascot socks, Blaze broadcaster Dan Besbris let out a big laugh.
"And .... welcome to Bakersfield!" he said. "I knew it was going to kick in eventually."
"It," as it turns out, is a deep wellspring of surreality that permeates Sam Lynn to its very core. The 72-year-old facility is certainly not the most glamorous place to see a game -- in fact it may be the least glamorous -- but it sure is memorable and it is most definitely strange.
Besbris was a bit off regarding the arrival of the "it," however, for "it" had kicked in from the moment I arrived. Prior to my aborted conversation with Guiry, I'd already talked to official scorer Tim Wheeler, a Sam Lynn diehard who said that baseball is his "heroin" and went on to explain that "what brought me to this job was the bathroom" (yes, that's another story in and of itself). Wheeler operates a 31-year-old "haunted" scoreboard that insists on putting a "7" in the bottom of the seventh no matter what actually happens, and as he operates this finicky mechanical creature he multi-tasks by keeping up a giddily antagonistic and oft-profane repartee with PA announcer Mike Cushine.
And I'd already witnessed an "it" moment with Besbris himself, who poured himself a cup of pregame beer and then happily assented to my request to take a picture of him doing so. Instead of putting a stop to these shenanigans, general manager Elizabeth Martin grabbed the jug of beer that Besbris had poured from and posed alongside him while holding it aloft. As they posed, a conversation ensued regarding the fact that the Blaze have "the best front-office hair, collectively" in all of Minor League Baseball.
But the quintessence of Sam Lynn weirdness, that "it" from which all else springs, is something that one notices as soon as they enter the facility. The stadium is built facing west, meaning that the sun sets directly into the face of the batter (as well as all the fans sitting behind him). This geographical layout might not have meant much when Sam Lynn first opened in 1941, when night games weren't a concern in comparison to the threat of Fascist global takeover. But these days the westward-facing setup is a major headache, causing games to begin at 7:30 p.m. (and even later) while everyone waits for the massive incendiary sphere to descend behind the giant green wall in center field and then, eventually, mercifully, disappear.
This layout, combined with Sam Lynn's age and dilapidated condition (recent repairs and renovations notwithstanding) makes it a supremely challenging environment in which to work. And this challenging work environment has begotten the slap-happy gallows humor, deadpan absurdity and ramshackle eccentricity that now characterizes the ballpark experience.
"Everything about Minor League Baseball that you know, it does not operate here," said Guiry.
Besbris, in email correspondence prior to my arrival, expressed it thusly:
"The thing about us is, we're weird, but we don't think about it all the time. We work at the single most difficult facility in the country [probably], and we have to be strange to make it work."
The Saturday night in which I was in attendance was one of those days where it worked, more or less. Nearly 1,300 fans showed up -- a good crowd for Sam Lynn -- and afterwards the team hosted a Girl Scout sleepover. During the ballgame "it" moments abounded, from old standbys (the guttural croak of assistant clubhouse manager "Froggy" as he sells programs) to fleeting moments of warped brilliance (Guiry managing to say "weiner" dozens of times as he emceed the on-field weiner launch). Even Heater got in on the act by streaking across the field upon the conclusion of the seventh inning, his "prison tattoos" being about the only thing about him that was safely obscured.
Heater, by the way, is no jailhouse felon. Rather, he's Ryan Salisbury -- a friend of Guiry's who lives in San Francisco and hitched a ride to Bakersfield via a Craigslist ad that noted that a "MiLB blogger will be there and they want their best mascot." He ended up getting a ride with a musician who works as a landscaper on the side and who boasted of once having Jerry Garcia as one of his clients.
And so it goes, but not for too much longer.
The Blaze were purchased by local businessmen Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway prior to the 2012 season, and the duo plan to have a new stadium ready in time for the 2015 season. From a practical perspective this makes sense, as Sam Lynn has certainly outlived its life as a facility acceptable for professional baseball. But once Sam Lynn finally goes that strangely appealing yet largely indefinable "it" that makes Bakersfield baseball unique will disappear as well. Guiry, for one, isn't about to go quietly.
"I tell people that after the Blaze leave [for a new Bakersfield facility] I'm going to be the Quasimodo of Sam Lynn, painting fences and changing light bulbs when no one else is here," he said. "You can bury me in center field."