By J.P. Hoornstra
The Nostalgic California Vacation 101 is an introductory travel course, with a required reading list authored by literary giants. Henry Miller’s Big Sur is still as beautiful as ever. So are John Steinbeck’s Monterey and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Napa Valley. Miss the basics, and you’re missing some the best respites from urban life that the Golden State has to offer.
But if you’re looking for something farther off the beaten trail – and want to take in a few baseball games – the Single-A California League provides a surprisingly useful advanced course. Within the league’s 10 cities, the history of California and baseball intersect every summer.
The league traces its history to 1941, a full 17 years before the Giants and Dodgers came west from New York. Its teams currently play in San Jose, Stockton, Modesto, Visalia, Bakersfield, Lancaster, Adelanto, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga and Lake Elsinore. Whether heading north from Lake Elsinore or driving south from San Jose, it’s a geographically convenient 550-mile route. What you spend on gas, you’ll save on tickets — the combined minimum admission to all 10 parks is less than $70.
San Jose is the most populated city in all of Single-A baseball. In a hub for technological innovation, the Giants’ home park, Municipal Stadium, stands out as a charming anachronism. Built in 1942 under the Works Progress Administration, it’s a true piece of Americana and emblematic of the city’s attempt to retain a slice of its small-suburb past. It’s also close enough to downtown to enjoy a night out after the game, but you’ll feel far away at the ballpark.
Enjoy the old-school ads on the outfield wall, which might as well be the backdrop for “The Natural.” The beer selection is major-league quality, and if the designated “beer batter” strikes out (he’ll be announced to the “Beer Barrel Polka”), both the domestic beers and the imports are discounted for the next 15 minutes.
Next stop, Stockton. Get on Interstate 280 south in San Jose and follow it as it winds north to Interstate 580 East. Then take Highway 205 East to Interstate 5 North. Take the downtown Stockton exit to Banner Island Ballpark, the youngest park in the league (opening day: April 28, 2o05).
But don’t be deceived. Historians believe that baseball was first played in Stockton in the 1860s. The famous poem “Casey at the Bat” was penned in 1888 by then-San Francisco Chronicle sports editor Ernest Thayer, and locals insist it was inspired by a game he saw in Stockton (which was once called Mudville).
Inspiration today is drawn from the scenic setting along McLeod Lake, off the Port of Stockton, for which the team is named. The laid-back vibe extends onto the right-field porch, where 50 wooden rocking chairs offer fans a unique, cozy seat in the shade.
Modesto is a half-hour drive south on Highway 99 in the heart of California’s Central Valley. John Thurman Field has stood on its present location, at the edge of a municipal golf course, since 1952.
The quirks here are subtle, starting with the team name. The Modesto Nuts are named for the local agriculture industry, and mascots Al the Almond and Wally the Walnut eliminate any vagaries. The concession-stand menu includes a lobster sandwich (don’t be afraid!) nestled in among the standard ballpark fare. Check out a pair of unique libations offered on the express stands: Wine from the local McManis Family Vineyards and Kona Longboard Lager (at the west express stand only).
The two-hour drive to Visalia is the longest on your trip, but it’s a straight shot south on Highway 99, followed by a short 5-mile drive east on Highway 198. Exit Mooney Blvd., turn left on Giddings St. and find Recreation Park, home of the Visalia Rawhide, about a mile ahead on the right.
Opened in 1946, Rec Park recently enlarged its seating but is still the smallest park in the league with fewer than 3,000 permanent seats. The renovated entrance is curiously located down the right-field line, where the newest bank of seats juts out from a brick building.
The best seats are still behind home plate, at a proximity close enough for the umpires to hear your every profanity. If you’re looking for a convenient insult, part of the right-field fence is the broad side of an actual barn. It all adds up to the type of historic small-park charm that other buildings try to emulate – think of the grassy knoll in center field at Houston’s Minute Maid Park – but is difficult to pull off.
Once you’ve exhausted the nooks and crannies of historic Visalia, trace your route back from Highway 198 to Highway 99, then go south for about 90 minutes until you reach Bakersfield. Exit Olive Drive, make a right on Roberts Lane, then turn left on Chester Ave. and drive south for a mile until you see Sam Lynn Ballpark on your right.
Since 1941, the Bakersfield Blaze (and its predecessors the Dodgers, Mariners, Outlaws, Dodgers again, Bears, Boosters, Indians and Badgers) have had to look due west into the sunset while batting, making the park unique for an inconvenience. When selecting your seats, know that the best here aren’t behind home plate.
The other quirk in the league’s oldest park is a center-field fence that sits a scant 354 feet from home plate, reputed to be the shortest in professional baseball. A high wall makes it tough to clear a ball entirely out of the park, however. You don’t have to close your eyes to imagine Dodgers prospects from Mike Piazza to Don Drysdale on this field wondering if they’d ever make the big leagues.
Lancaster, home of the JetHawks, is less than two hours south of Bakersfield. Get back on Highway 99, take Highway 58 East, then exit Highway 14 South. Take the Avenue I exit, hang a right, then make the first left onto Valley Central Way to find the ballpark.
Technically it’s called Clear Channel Stadium, but it’s immediately clear why locals call it “The Hangar” — a giant model jet blasting off in front of the stadium entrance, an homage to nearby Edwards Air Force Base. There isn’t much to do in the Antelope Valley, especially for an off-duty pilot, and the JetHawks have drawn well since their birth in 1996.
Other than the jet, the relatively copious amounts of healthy food make The Hangar unique. The Club House Cantina by first base is full of Mexican goodies. A nearby Robek’s serves up smoothies and muffins. Wander over to the third-base side for coffee or tea, and you can leave on a full stomach without touching a hot dog, burger or pizza.
Get back on Highway 14 and plan on a one-hour, 15-minute drive to the city of Adelanto, the next stop. Veer east on Highway 138 and keep straight on Highway 18 as you take in the desert views. Look for Highway 395, turn left, and keep going straight on Adelanto Road when the highway veers left.
If it seems like you’re in the middle of nowhere, you’re probably in the neighborhood of Stater Bros. Stadium. The home field of the High Desert Mavericks is one of two major landmarks in Adelanto. The other is a static inverter station, so stick around and have some fun.
Because Adelanto itself is so sparsely populated, the Mavericks draw knowledgeable, diehard fans from all around the desert. And the locals dig the long ball. A combination of short fences and thin air means that more home runs sail out of Stater Bros. Stadium than any park in the league. Double-digit scores are de rigeur, like the 33-18 loss to Lake Elsinore in 2008 that set a Cal League record for most runs scored in a game.
It’s only appropriate that (part of) the road leading to the home of the Inland Empire 66ers is its historic namesake, Route 66. Take Highway 395 south to Interstate 15, over the Cajon Pass, then exit Interstate 215 south into downtown San Bernardino. Exit 5th Street (alternately marked Historic Route 66), turn left, then turn right on E Street and find Arrowhead Credit Union Park a mile ahead on your right.
You’ll immediately notice the architectural resemblance to The Hangar, sans the fighter jet statue out front. The visual attractions here are inside – the enormous scoreboard, the San Bernardino Mountains in the background and the NBA-style dance team that performs atop the dugouts.
A glimpse of the team’s history sits next door in the form of the Branding Iron, a rowdy country bar that alludes to the Sixers’ former incarnation as the San Bernardino Stampede.
Rancho Cucamonga is especially close and you can take advantage of the proximity by getting your kicks on Route 66. Rather than taking the freeway, drive West on 5th Street, taking note of the Rat Pack-era architectural relics you’ll pass along the way. Turn left on Rochester Ave. and The Epicenter emerges grandly on the right.
The park opened in 1993 but looks much newer thanks to a 2008 renovation. What was sacrificed in old-school charm is compensated for with modern comforts like cupholders and seat backs. Because it doesn’t look like a Single-A stadium, the Epicenter has been the backdrop for Nike, Gatorade, Budweiser and Miller Lite commercials, to name a few.
In such a modern setting, the most historic footnote is just outside the park: The intersection of Rochester and Jack Benny Drive. It’s not far from the historic train station site that made “Anaheim, Azusa and Cooc-amonga!” famous in a line from the Jack Benny Show in the 1940s. Benny got a street named after him, plus a statue that was recently moved from the ballpark to the local cultural center.
Drive a block north on Rochester, make a right on Foothill Blvd., then another quick right onto Interstate 15 and drive 40 miles South to Lake Elsinore. Look for the Diamond Drive exit and take a right – the park is unmistakable sitting beside the massive lake.
The Diamond matches the Epicenter’s upscale veneer, albeit in a much different setting. Tucked between the lake and a remote valley, it doesn’t get much better than a day on the lake followed by a night at the park.
Kids roll around on a grassy knoll behind the right-field bullpen — not unlike the scene in San Bernardino and Lancaster. A different vibe exists in the Diamond Club, an indoor restaurant behind the right-field foul line with a ceiling-high window facing the field. Enjoy a restaurant-caliber meal and a full range of beverages while you watch the game, not to mention air conditioning – a nice option in a triple-digit summer swelter.
Whether starting south and heading north, or vice versa, you’ll start and end at either side of the historic spectrum. Lake Elsinore is a non-traditional baseball market that led the league in attendance in the 2010 season. San Jose has a fine tradition, but it could be thwarted if the Oakland A’s ever move to the South Bay.
Meanwhile, the High Desert Mavericks and Bakersfield Blaze have suffered from poor attendance and been linked to rumors of relocation. You get the sense that the unprecedented stability in the Cal League (all the teams have played in their current city since 1996) isn’t going to last forever.
In other words, there’s no better time to plan a trip.