Cal League Tour 2004: Phase I

This season, my buddy Jeff and I have taken it upon ourselves to visit every park in the California League. We’re old and somewhat responsible these days, so the plan is to hit two towns a weekend, one weekend a month through August.

The first phase of our journey saw us visit Lake Elsinore and Lancaster. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the drive. And don’t forget the sunscreen.

Saturday: San Diego to Lake Elsinore (and Points Beyond)

We began what has become over the years a familiar drive at about 4:30 in the afternoon. Filled the car with gas, ourselves with coffee, and started up I-15. We passed all the usual suspects: Escondido, Fallbrook, Temecula. Of course, the Lawrence Welk Resort. I’d tell you about the sky but I don’t remember much other than if there were any clouds, they were not of the variety that produce rain.

We arrived at the Elsinore Diamond a little before 6:00, about an hour prior to first pitch: Storm vs Inland Empire (Mariners). Our seats were right behind the plate, exactly one row in front of my old season tickets. Sterling Hitchcock, the scheduled starter for the Storm, had been scratched due to an oblique strain and replaced by right-hander David Pauley. First-round pick Tim Stauffer was to make his debut the following afternoon (and top Mariner prospect Felix Hernandez had worked Friday night for the opposition), but Pauley is a solid prospect (ranked #8 among Padre farmhands by Baseball America) in his own right and I was anxious to see him in person.

David Pauley warms up

Pauley, true to the scouting reports, spotted his fastball around 88-91 MPH. Every once in a while he’d dial it up a notch or two, but for the most part he was in that range. Pauley’s curveball, by most accounts his best pitch, wasn’t fooling a lot of folks this night. As a result, the Storm fell behind early and never were really in the game. They ended up losing, 16-4. All you need to know about this one is that on a stolen base attempt early on, Storm catcher Andres Pagan fired a laser that might have nailed the runner had it not hit a squatting Pauley squarely in the back. I’ve seen Pagan play before; he’s actually a good defensive catcher. This was just one of those nights where nothing goes right.

Casper the pig makes the long journey back to his house after delivering baseballs to the umpire

After the game (hey, it’s a long ride; can’t stay in one place too long) we made the obligatory yet oh-so-satisfying In ‘n’ Out stop. Double-double, animal style. Thus refueled, we started back up the I-15 in search of a place to spend the night so that our drive to Lancaster the following morning would be lessened somewhat. What we found was Norco, a town just to the north of Corona, which inevitably reminded me of the late Mike Darr.

Sunday: Norco to Lancaster, to San Diego

Our first order of business, after settling the hotel bill, was to find breakfast and, more importantly, a cup of coffee. The general rule is that where there’s an exit, there’s a Denny’s. We soon discovered the lesser-known corollary to that rule: Unless you actually are looking for a Denny’s, in which case you won’t find one.

We drove through Norco, we drove through Ontario. Heck, we even drove around a mall in Rancho Cucamonga that — I kid you not — features 52 separate movie screens.

No Denny’s.

Eventually we stumbled onto a Coco’s and stuffed ourselves with carbs and caffeine. After breakfast we continued up I-15 to Cajon Junction, where we hung a left at SR-138. This road wanders through the San Bernardino National Forest, past Wrightwood and Phelan, through Pinon Hills, Pearblossom, and Littlerock, and finally dumps into SR-14 at Palmdale. From there it’s just a couple miles up the freeway to Lancaster and the Hangar.

The drive is mainly dust, cactus, and palm trees. An occasional abandoned building. The road isn’t as devoid of human activity as, say, SR-247 from Lucerne Valley to Barstow. But it is mighty desolate. Things start to get really strange when you see a tiny dirt path off to the left that is marked with a sign that says, in alarming earnestness, "227th St." You spend the next 40 minutes watching for similar signs and finding it difficult to believe that somewhere beyond this nothingness there will be a "First Street." Who could have conceived of such an infrastructure? To what purpose? When you are driving through the middle of nowhere, the notion that someone at some time envisioned this as a place where people might thrive is absolutely mind-boggling.

But there it is, and there you are. And there, after many miles, is Palmdale. Sprawling in the shadow of Edwards Air Force Base, Palmdale is perhaps best known to Padre fans as the home of Matt Harrington, a promising young right-hander who, for reasons difficult to swallow, never had a career. As someone who has lived in large cities all my life, I look at Palmdale and see the type of place that a talented kid would leave in a heartbeat to pursue his dreams. But what do I know? There may well be a thousand more towns scattered throughout the country that are just like Palmdale, with countless talented kids whose names we’ll never know.

Regardless, Lancaster is the next town along the Antelope Valley Freeway and it is at Avenue I that we exit for the stadium. This afternoon’s contest features the Lancaster JetHawks (Diamondbacks) and the High Desert Maverics (Brewers).

Entrance to Lancaster's 'Hangar'

As at Elsinore, we sat behind home plate, this time two rows back. From this vantage point, you can see cars and trucks passing on the freeway behind the batters’ eye in center field. The mountains that surround the basin only become visible on moving down the lines. Snow-capped peaks are visible to the east from the third base side. On a cloudless day in the mid-80s, this is a cruelly refreshing touch.

Snow-capped peaks behind the first base dugout at the Hangar

Lancaster is known as one of the best hitting parks in the Cal League, partly because it is about 2500 feet above sea level and partly because of the winds, especially at night. In the game we were at, the wind swirled and shifted constantly but only gusted once or twice. One local we talked to suggested that the ball carries a lot better at night. (This same person also defended the opposition’s stealing second in the eighth inning of an 8-2 game; it is worth noting that nobody on the JetHawks so much as batted an eye when that happened.)

The game itself wasn’t particularly well played. Arizona prospect Conor Jackson took some nice cuts at the plate. He didn’t have a great line, but he did a nice job going after a couple of good breaking balls. Jackson reminded me a little, physically, of the Angels’ Tim Salmon. Big, strapping kid. Obvious power. A bit raw in left field. Good idea at the plate, probably a shade too good for the league.

The JetHawks' Conor Jackson waits for his pitch

A few familiar faces at the park. Right-hander Nick Neugebauer is rehabbing with the High Desert Mavericks and was charting pitches for this game. Former big-leaguer Wally Backman manages the Lancaster squad and dropped a few choice words well within earshot of several children when the umpires failed to call a ball foul that appeared to have bounced off the batter’s foot. I like to think that if I had kids, I’d have explained Backman’s behavior by noting that everyone has his own way of celebrating Easter. I wouldn’t have, of course, but I like to think that I might have.

Speaking of umpires, if you’ve ever thought that officiating baseball games might be your calling, I recommend paying a visit to Lancaster, preferably during the summer. Cal League umpires work in two-man crews. One guy calls balls and strikes, the other mans the field. Man on first, left-handed batter at the plate. Check swing. Did he go? Ask the umpire standing behind first base who is looking square at the hitters’ back.

Same situation, batter launches one down the left-field line. Is it fair or foul? Look at the foul poles at the Hangar. Now think of a guy kicking a field goal in the NFL. Now imagine that the official is standing behind the other end zone. And that the goal posts only extend half as high as normal. And there’s only one goal post. And the kicker is using a baseball. Absurd, perhaps, but these are the conditions.

At any rate, after the game, the kids dumped onto the field to collect Easter eggs and we headed back the way we came. Three hours of dirt, crazy kids racing down I-15 in their ridiculous trucks, and Wilco later, we were home. Glad to have gone, glad to be home. Already thinking vaguely about next month’s jaunt into the inner reaches of California…

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