In response to rampant rumors regarding his untimely demise, Mark Twain famously quipped that "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
The High Desert Mavericks and Bakersfield Blaze, a pair of California League clubs, can relate. Burdened with unsatisfactory stadium situations and resultant stagnating attendance, the two Golden State entities have long been surrounded by relocation rumors.
But the calendar soon will turn to 2011, with both clubs still ensconced in their familiar homes. While the long-term future of each is still very much up for debate, recent developments indicate that the 2011 campaign will be one of growth and improvement.
Looking for an oasis
The High Desert Mavericks got their name for a reason, as the club is based in the Mojave Desert town of Adelanto. During their entire two-decade stint in Adelanto, the Mavericks had been owned by Brett Baseball and Entertainment (a group led by Bobby Brett and his brothers, including Hall of Famer George), who in recent years made it clear that they were not happy with the upkeep of city-owned Stater Brothers Stadium.
Attempts to move the club failed, including a much-talked about 2008 plan to relocate, along with Bakersfield, to the Carolina League. The death knell of Brett Baseball's ownership reign sounded in August 2009, when the group bought the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. (Minor League Baseball does not allow ownership of more than one club within the same league.)
Enter Main Street Baseball, who assumed full ownership of the Mavericks last week. The group, headed by political consultant Dave Heller and partner Bob Herrfeldt, also owns the Midwest League's Quad Cities River Bandits. Main Street Baseball vice president Kirk Goodman, who also serves as general manager of the River Bandits, has been tasked with overseeing the daily operations of the Mavericks.
"[Main Street] always keeps an eye out for different opportunities," said Goodman. "We've built something strong in the Quad Cities and are happy with what we've done, but now we want to bring that River Bandits brand of baseball to new markets."
Main Street has certainly revitalized baseball in the Quad Cities since taking over the River Bandits (then named the Swing) in 2007. The team's identity was overhauled, myriad improvements were made to Modern Woodmen Ballpark and attention-grabbing promotions began to appear on the schedule.
"We've done a lot of things [in Quad Cities], but so much of it comes down to customer service," said Goodman. "We want people to feel welcome at the ballpark and take great pride in that."
This philosophy will carry over into High Desert.
"It's evident that there is a very loyal fan base here, people who really want to see the team succeed," said Goodman. "Now it's our job to let people know that there's something different in town, with new entertainment options. This market is spread out, and an interstate runs right through it. Much of our early conversations [with the community] will be trying to convince people to make the drive."
But the proverbial elephant in the room is the Mavericks' still-shaky stadium situation. 2011 will mark the first of a new two-year lease between the Mavericks and the City of Adelanto, but either side may opt out after the first year. Goodman says "now that Main Street officially owns the team, there will be opportunities to talk about things like that."
"But right now we're in the planning stages [for the 2011 season]," he continued. "We'll use this season to evaluate the market, to see what the fans want and what kind of potential exists here."
Feeling the heat
Elizabeth Martin, the new general manager of the Bakersfield Blaze, doesn't mince words when asked to describe Sam Lynn Ballpark. "It's old and it's built backward," she said.
Indeed. The batter faces west at Sam Lynn, forced to look directly into the setting sun. Perhaps as penance for this indiscretion, the 70-year-old facility also boasts the shortest center-field fence, approximately 354 feet, in all of professional baseball ).
These eccentric quirks are trumped by more pressing concerns, however, as the archaic county-owned facility has been widely derided as being unable to meet professional baseball standards. The Blaze's previous parent club, the Texas Rangers, bolted for Myrtle Beach after the 2010 season. Bakersfield then signed a Player Development Contract with the Cincinnati Reds, a relationship that is the baseball equivalent of being the only two people left in the bar at closing time.
But Martin, who came to the Blaze after an assistant general manager stint with the nearby Visalia Rawhide, says she "loves a good challenge." And one of the first tasks in this particular challenge is to "put a little extra lipstick on the pig."
"My goal is to keep [Sam Lynn] as fresh, safe and clean as possible," she said. "We're going to do things like repave the parking lot and replace some of the external lights. The neighborhood [around the ballpark] is fine, but we want to increase the comfort level. You wouldn't go shopping at a store with burned-out lights."
The cumulative effect of such small improvements shouldn't be overlooked, but the larger question remains: When, if ever, will Bakersfield get a new stadium?
"We've definitely had some good meetings with the folks in charge, but they don't want to put a ton of money into the facility. It would be very hard to do that and be politically correct," said Martin, who possesses a law background and helped negotiate the lease of Recreation Park while working in Visalia. "The whole country has been hit hard [economically], but this state is broke and you hear that every day. Right now we're making a priority list, pinpointing a few things that could be done to make [Sam Lynn] livable."
And regardless of the stadium situation, there's plenty of other work to be done.
"This is the first time that Bakersfield has had a true offseason staff, so we've been making phone calls, going to community events and putting together sponsorship packages," said Martin. "Things had been a bit disorganized in the past, so it's almost like we're starting out in a new market. But people we talk to are aware that there's a glorious baseball history here."
And that's one of the many positives that Martin and her staff will be focusing on as they try to revitalize one of Minor League Baseball's most maligned franchises.
"One of the great things about baseball is that there's room for the old and quirky, and the more we embrace that idea then the better it will be received," said Martin. "We have a goofy little ballpark, but we love it, and we're going to project that attitude in everything we do."