A quick word of advice to anyone who might be thinking about attending their first Lancaster JetHawks game: Bring a jacket.
The team plays in the Los Angeles County section of the Antelope Valley, an elevated and often quite gusty region. I attended Saturday's game between the JetHawks and visiting Lake Elsinore Storm, and at game time, the temperature was 59 degrees with 26-mph winds blowing out to right field. Needless to say, jackets were mandatory, and more than a few fans arrived at Clear Channel Stadium (aka "The Hangar") with blankets draped around them.
The team has had no problem poking fun at these often less-than-ideal baseball situations. The weekly "Tumbleweed Tuesday" promotion (since discontinued) featured ticket prices based on the previous day's wind speed. And an upcoming (and certainly unprecedented) giveaway item on the 2011 promotional schedule is a Clear Channel Stadium "Dust Globe."
Such conditions in Lancaster have certainly contributed to the California League's reputation as a hitter's circuit -- a West Coast Twilight Zone of professional baseball in which home run totals and ERAs are massively inflated and 240-minute, 18-15 contests are just another day at the ballpark.
This reputation is not entirely undeserved, but as with most stereotypes, it can be applied too lazily and liberally. Longtime JetHawks broadcaster Jeff Lasky takes umbrage with those who dismiss a player's Cal League performance, pointing out that the circuit is also home to prominent pitcher's parks such as Lake Elsinore's The Diamond and San Jose's Municipal Stadium.
"For the most part, if guys have talent then playing here is not going to derail their career," he said, adding that he could only think of two high-potential pitchers who never recovered from their Cal League trauma. "The numbers might not always be pretty, but really what ends up happening is that the league exposes pitchers who weren't going to make it anyway.
"A great sinker outside and at the knees is still going to result in a groundout," he continued. "The problem is just that you're not going to get away with mistakes like you would elsewhere."
Conversely, huge numbers put up by hitters are not necessarily anomalies. Breakout career-changing seasons can happen anywhere, after all.
"Mark Reynolds started his season as a backup player, and by the time he was called up a few months later, he was leading the league in the Triple Crown categories," Lasky said of the 2006 JetHawk. "Same story with Daniel Nava, a backup outfielder who went on to win a batting title. He was a patient line-drive hitter -- a good approach is a good approach."
The JetHawks played their first season in 1996, and in that time, 98 of their players have gone on to play in the Major Leagues. Lasky points out that this number is an exact split (49-49) between position players and pitchers, a factoid proving that talent overcomes circumstance.
The team has been affiliated with the Seattle Mariners (1996-2000), Arizona Diamondbacks (2001-'06), Boston Red Sox (2007-'08) and now, the Houston Astros.
"Each time we change affiliates there's been a 'wind story' in that city's newspaper -- the Boston Globe did one, the Houston Chronicle did one. And the same sort of quotes get printed each time, exaggerated stories about how what should have been a pop fly to second gets turned into a home run. But the follow-up question that never gets asked is 'Did you get better?' ... It might not have been fun, but it will make you a better player."
And the Major League affiliate itself may make a big difference when it comes to the speed of the game and the amount of offense contained therein. As opposed to the more patient philosophy of the Boston Red Sox, the Astros preach aggressive hitting and quick work on the mound. As a result (and contrary to what may be assumed), JetHawks games are often over rather quickly. Lasky, clearly taking pride in his able dispensation of contrarian wisdom, points out that in April 2010 the JetHawks' average home game time of two hours and 28 minutes was the fastest in all of Minor League Baseball.
And wouldn't you know it? Though I arrived in Lancaster possessing my own California League stereotypes (call it a typical East Coast media bias), the game I attended on Saturday took an exemplary two hours and 12 minutes to play (with Lancaster winning by a 5-1 score). Now if I'd only remembered to bring a jacket.