Old baseball guys Ken McMullen and Jim Colborn had a great idea in 1986: Bring minor league baseball to Ventura County. The area just north of Los Angeles would be a natural fit. Many major leaguers had come out of the area, and many would also in the future. There were two successful major league franchises in the Los Angeles area, plus the San Bernardino/Riverside County area to the east had a good history with minor league baseball. The love of baseball and the coastal climate of Ventura would be a perfect match.
They bought the defunct Lodi franchise, secured a working agreement with the Toronto Blue Jays, and managed to put together a temporary stadium deal with Ventura College in hopes of getting a permanent deal with Camarillo, a city 10 miles south, or other Ventura County cities Simi Valley or Oxnard.
It failed. It lasted barely a year and went down with other Ventura County minor league failures like the Pacific Suns of Oxnard. The stadium had no lights, so no night games, and had many quirks, including a small hill in the outfield, short fences and a rocky infield. The owners were not able to secure a permanent stadium deal, and the Jays were intent on moving their High-A franchise to Florida. So what happened?
McMullen and Colborn were two local heroes who had made good in baseball. McMullen was a star at Oxnard high school who got drafted by the Dodgers right out of high school in 1960. He ended up playing 16 seasons for the Dodgers, Senators, Angels, A’s and Brewers. While he was never a world beater stat-wise, he was a starter most of those years, and he was a member of two Dodgers World Series teams in 1963 and 1974.
Colborn’s story was similar. He starred for Santa Paula high school, a few miles east of Ventura. He came up in 1969 with the Cubs and played 10 seasons. His highlights were a 20-win season with a mediocre Brewers team in 1973 where he started 36 games, relieved in seven, and pitched 314 innings overall. In 1977, he won 18 games with a strong Royals team. Throughout his career he was known as a solid top-of-the rotation guy. He went on to be a pitching coach with the Dodgers and Pirates and is currently a bullpen coach for the Phillies.
They and partner Jim Biby secured a player development deal with the Blue Jays, who under the direction of Pat Gillick and Gord Ash, had an excellent young organization who made the most of their small-to-mid-market capabilities. The list of their players who came up through their system is staggering. They usually had a few A-List stars like Jack Morris and Joe Carter, but would round it out with players like Robbie Alomar, who was given up on by the Padres, some brilliant Rule 5 signees like Kelly Gruber and George Bell, however, the bulk of their teams were the young players who came up through their system.
Some of these players included Pat Borders, John Olerud, David Wells, Derrick Bell, Ed Sprague, Jesse Barfield, Tony Fernandez, Pat Hentgen, Mike Timlin, Jimmy Key, Jeff Musselman and Dave Stieb. Most would play key roles in their back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993.
Ventura County was an area that was rife with major league talent. Besides Colborn and McMullen, many major leaguers in the 1970s and 1980s came from the area. Among them are Brook Jacoby, Chris Cordiroli, Jerry Willard, Eric King, Mike Parrott and Scott Holman.
The Gulls, like most of the Jays affiliates at the time, were strong, at least on paper. They had a strong core of pitchers, led by top prospects Todd Stottlemyre, Jose Mesa and Jeff Musselman. In the field, they featured first-round draft pick Eric Yelding and budding power guy Geronimo Berroa. Ultimately, 14 members of this team would play in the major leagues, nearly half having long, productive careers.
The team’s record was 75-67 (Pythagorean 74-68). They started off very strong with a 45-26 record, but took a dive in the second half, going 30-41 after the midpoint. They still had a chance to make the playoffs, but they lost a tiebreaker to the Visalia Oaks (a team who had only two future major leaguers, as opposed to the Gulls’ 14). Overall, for a team this loaded up with talent, it was an underachieving record, but probably not enough, in and of itself, to force the team to go elsewhere.
Their pitching was solid. Stottlemyre was the ace, compiling a 9-4 record with a 2.43 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. He was backed up ably by Musselman and Mesa, who both had 24 starts and ERAs of 3.03 and 3.86, respectively. Rounding out the rotation was Hugh Brimson, who despite a 1.45 WHIP, won 11 games and had a 3.49 ERA, with half those games in a very hitter-friendly park. The Achilles heel was their bullpen. Willie Shanks had a 3.51 ERA in 51 appearances, but no other regular bullpen guy had an ERA under 4.05, and some had ERAs in the 6.00s.
Their offense was anchored by the triple-headed power threat of Berroa (21 HR), Greg Myers (20 HR) and Darryl Landrum (18 HR). Santiago Garcia hit .305, leading the regulars, while Berroa and Myers hit just under .300 (.298 and .295, respectively). They had speed, leading the California League in stolen bases, with much of that credit certainly going to Yelding. The Gulls were second in homers, and while you could credit that to the hitter–friendly Ventura College Stadium, remember also that Berroa continued to hit homers throughout his career, and while Myers didn’t exactly tear up the planet, his power numbers were decent for a catcher. While they led the league in homers and were fourth in batting average, they were tenth in on-base percentage and worst in sacrifices. This was a team that hit homers but seemed to have trouble getting on base and moving runners from station to station.
While fielding stats of this period are sketchy, it is known that the Gulls committed the third-most errors (266) in the league. They were last in double plays (87—the next up were the Modesto A’s with 110). One can fairly assume that fielding was not this team’s strong suit.
They had the lowest attendance in the league. The lack of lighting insured that all games played in Ventura would be day games, which certainly kept many fans away. Perhaps also the fact that the Jays were a Canadian team and there were no local prospects playing on the team might have hurt it also. Perhaps Dodger Stadium being an hour away played some role. There was little to recommend the team to the casual fan.
The field was a travesty. Even for a community college, it was sub-par. David Wells, who made a few appearances with the Gulls on his way up through the Jays’ systems, summarized it.
“Yankee Stadium, this wasn’t. With fences short enough for even me to clock a homer or two, the park was oddly shaped, with a rocky, perpetually dusty infield, with an outfield that boasted a mountain in deep right. I’m not talking about a gradual incline, or a bump, I’m talking about an actual hill, rising maybe three and a half feet above the ground level at first base. Anytime there would be a fly ball hit deep to right, Rob Ducey, who played right field for us, would inevitably turn, run like hell, and wind up facedown on the grass. Seconds later, he’d be swearing up a storm while a benchful of us dugout degenerates would be laughing our asses off at his painful, but always entertaining crash landings.”
Next you have the Blue Jays. According to them, they were up front with Gulls management that they wanted to move their High-A team to Florida, despite professing satisfaction with Ventura’s efforts.”From a major league perspective, the Gulls are a satisfactory arrangement. The field is in good shape and the players are housed in a good setting” Gord Ash, Toronto’s then-administrator for player personnel told Steve Henson of the Los Angeles Times. “The only drawback is that it is not in geographic alignment with the rest of our system.”
There were attempts with local cities to set up a stadium deal, and the cities were willing to lease the land and help in the building of a stadium, but the owners would need to come up with funds for things like lights, stands and fencing. Camarillo officials reasoned that until the Community Stadium Association raised money for lights, stands and fencing, it would be irresponsible to spend public funds on a rudimentary field.
No one ever came forward with actual funds,” said Nancy Bush, a park district director. “There were promises and dreams, but nothing concrete.”
With no stadium deal, facing the loss of their affiliate franchise and little fan support, the owners sold the franchise to San Bernardino, where it played as the spirit for a few seasons before relocating to Rancho Cucamonga, where along with a state-of-the-art stadium, the Epicenter, is now a model and stable franchise.
So it looked like McMullen, Colburn and Biby had a great idea in bringing a minor league franchise to Ventura County. It looked like a great fit, but with no stadium deal, little fan support, limited government support, and no guarantee of a new affiliate, they got in over their heads. Despite a good team (at least potentially), and passionate owners, professional baseball was not yet meant to be in Ventura County.
McMullen was asked if he and Colborn would be interested in buying another minor league franchise. “Sure,” McMullen said. “The only thing is, next time a stadium would have to be in place before I bought the team. We went out on a limb. I had hoped local politicians would say, ‘They are doing well. It’s good for the community. Let’s support them.’ That didn’t happen. I’m not saying that in a bitter way. We’re not political people. We’re baseball people. I’m just disappointed they haven’t visualized how good it could be. It’s a lost opportunity.”
References & Resources
Perfect I’m Not: Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches and Baseball By David Wells and Chris Kreski
Los Angeles Times
Baseball in Ventura County: Images of BaseballBy Jeffery Wayne Maulhardt