From 1996-2016, the same 10 cities fielded teams in the California League. Two of them -- Bakersfield and High Desert -- are gone this year, and the league is comprised of eight clubs for the first time since 1985.
That may make 2017 seem like a season of tremendous transition and upheaval. In fact, it may be that the circuit has finally found stability.
"Definitely the Cal League -- because of addition by subtraction -- is the strongest it's ever been in its 75-year history," league president Charlie Blaney said. "We have eight solid, strong franchises with eight solid ownerships and eight experienced staffs, and all eight are affiliated with the eight natural west organizations. We have the five in California and then Seattle, Colorado and Arizona.
"It's a perfect solution to a challenge that had existed for a long time."
Those who've followed the Cal League closely recognize that the recent decades of apparent consistency were actually pretty turbulent. The stability that existed on paper always felt fragile, sometimes even ominous.
Rumors swirled about the shuttering of one team or another. There was chatter about organizational reluctance to send young pitching talent to places like High Desert and Lancaster, where fly balls tend to stay up and get out of the yard. (This year, Lancaster has found the ideal parent club in the Rockies, who have particularly good reason to emphasize ground ball-oriented pitching from the farm on up.)
The league's remoteness from East Coast and midwestern parent teams also was an issue. Several big league organizations shuffled in and blew out for a more convenient partnership as soon as their player development contracts expired. In the mid-'90s, things were so dire that Bakersfield didn't even have an affiliation for two seasons -- it was composed of overflow players from whatever organizations would send them there.
"We've always had two non-western affiliates in the California League, most recently the two in Texas, but we've also had Cincinnati, Kansas City, Boston even," Blaney noted. "Basically, they were only here temporarily until they found a home more to their liking. There were changes every year. What we have now is solidity. It's a win-win-win. The Cal League wins, Major League Baseball wins and the teams win."
The facilities that housed the Mavericks and Blaze were long in need of upgrades, which MiLB.com noted as far back as 2010. Sam Lynn Ballpark, the Bakersfield stadium built in 1941, was situated with home plate directly facing the setting sun, so games there had to start at least 35 minutes later than every other Cal League facility. Both teams, too, were victims of disadvantageous municipal development -- the cities grew where the parks weren't and the stadiums became inconvenient.
"There are 400,000 people that live in and around Bakersfield, but the way the city has grown has been all on the west side," former Blaze assistant general manager and broadcaster Dan Besbris said last August. "You could take the same backwards ballpark, the same late start times, the same stands and put it near the residential area and I guarantee you, there'd be a huge uptick in attendance."
It wasn't for lack of effort that Sam Lynn never was replaced.
"We'd been trying for over 10 years to get a new ballpark in Bakersfield," Blaney said. "And because of the economics in California, all potential [publicly financed Minor League ballpark] development was eliminated by our good governor and the legislature back in 2010. Traditionally, stadiums have been built through bonds, and those went away."
That political and economic situation also makes adding two teams unlikely, and the league is satisfied with its new, smaller format.
"[Expansion is] not on the horizon and it's not something we're considering at all," Blaney said.
There are other eight-team circuits in the Minors -- the Class A Advanced Carolina League is just up to 10 after the shuttering of Bakersfield and High Desert allowed for two new clubs this season, but the Double-A Texas League, Class A Short Season Northwest League and Rookie-level Pioneer League all operate with eight. Still, there are on-field implications to having fewer teams in the league.
"We've actually talked about that within our team," said San Jose center fielder and third-ranked Giants prospect Bryan Reynolds. "There are advantages and disadvantages to it. For the hitters, you've got the advantage of seeing the same pitchers over and over again, so you know what they've got. You know how the ball moves coming out of their hands and what their velo is and stuff like that. But, at the same time, they see you a lot, too, so they're going to know what pitches you struggle with."
Of course, fans also will have the opportunity to get to know their teams' rivals better. And Blaney, who spent more than 30 years as a player development executive with the Dodgers, sees tightened competition exclusively as a positive.
"That's a definite advantage," he said. "We always told our players, 'If you get used to beating [divisional and regional rivals] through the Minor Leagues, you're going to know them and be used to beating them in the big leagues.'"
Even Steven: The start of the season hasn't brought any runaway success stories, nor has any team buried itself early on. Through 14 games, the Visalia Rawhide (9-5) were the only squad more than two games over .500, while the Lake Elsinore Storm (5-9) were the only squad more than two games below .500.
Southern bell-ringers: Lake Elsinore and Inland Empire combined to strike out 283 hitters through their first 266 innings. The individual pitchers with the most strikeouts out of the gate were from North Division teams, however. Visalia's Jose Almonte fanned 20 over 14 1/3 innings and Stockton's A.J. Puk matched that total in 12 innings.
Coincidence? The JetHawks, with their aforementioned homer-friendly ballpark, opened the year with a league-best 15 dingers -- six more than any other club over the same number of games. Lancaster played 11 of those 14 contests at home at The Hangar.