Field of Nightmaresby Steven Booth
July 28, 2010
We all love baseball stories. From The Legend to Field of Dreams, we love feel-good stories about redemption where you can feel the rush of energy as Robert Redford comes up to bat, or the line from the second movie, “If you build it, they will come.”
There is always a mythological aspect to it. Even comedies like Major League have the redemption of a misfit team that wins the World Series even when its own owners have given up on it.
In real life, it doesn’t always work out that way. You can build it, and they won’t come. You can put together a team of has-beens and misfits, and they will often end up in last place, even in a last-place league.
One good case in point is the Pacific Suns of Oxnard in 1998. They had just moved up from Palm Springs, thinking baseball talent-rich and generally affluent Ventura County would embrace a minor league baseball team. They staffed the team with a couple of ex-major leaguers who grew up in the area, plus some Latin players who they thought would appeal to South Oxnard’s largely Latino population.
It not only was a failure- it was a disaster the Coen Brothers couldn’t even write. It wasn’t just that they finished 28-62, 35 games behind division winner Chico Heat. It was the ramshackle way the team was run, the complete lack of support from local fans and bizarre player moves. Anything else that could go wrong probably did.
Owner Don Di Carlo saw opportunity in Ventura County that he didn’t see in Palm Springs. It was certainly an area that liked it baseball. Many major league players have come from Ventura County, including Jered Weaver, Jeff Weaver, Jack Wilson, Jay Gibbons, Dmitri Young and his brothers, just to name a few . The weather was better and the fan base was larger and more affluent.
Based on what’s written about him, Di Carlo was a mix of Charles O. Finley, Ed Wood and a carnival barker. Some of the promotions he ran in Palm Springs didn’t exactly endear him to the fan base. There was “Draq Queen Night” and “Nude Night” among others.
"We kept those going so everybody would know who we were," said DiCarlo to the Los Angeles Times. "They weren't designed to offend the community, and we got incredible exposure." It wasn’t enough to keep them in Palm Springs, where they played until 1996. Although they planned to move to Oxnard for the 1997 season, they didn’t have everything in order the way the Western Baseball League wanted, so they sat out that year.
In 1998, the ball got rolling. They hired manager Jim Derrington. He was best known as the youngest pitcher to ever start an American League game when he started for the Chicago White Sox on Sept. 30, 1956. He didn’t have much of a major league career after that, and had spent the past few years managing in independent leagues.
On the roster were a few local heroes. Opening Day starter Eric King (born in Oxnard) had won 54 major league games for the Tigers, White Sox and Indians in 1986-1992. He was retired and working as a sports fisherman when he tried out for the Suns. Another player with major league experience was Dennis Moeller, who had cups of coffee with the Royals and Pirates in the early 1990s. Others included outfielder Alejandro Sanchez and pitchers Mike Smith and Alex Sanchez.
Also getting a big chunk of roster space were Latin players, many of whom were procured by Frank Valdez, a third basemen who had played many years in the Twins system. Notable among them were Rafael Ozuna, who played Single-A ball in the Dodgers system for a few seasons, and Bernardino Nunez, who had played in the Blue Jays system.
They tried to talk Ventura and Camarillo into building ballparks, but local residents and/or governments were against it. They settled in for what they perceived as a temporary home at Oxnard College. The college and the City Council okayed them being there, perhaps as part of the city’s larger re-development plans. A number of local residents objected, but it wasn’t enough to keep the team from going there.
The field needed major renovations, and these changes were being completed almost right up until game time. When asked by a Times reporter about the last-minute rush to get the field set up, Di Carlo shrugged. "This is like being in a war. Nobody cares about the battles, just who wins. On Opening Day, we will have won. Ventura County will have a professional sports franchise and all the trouble will have been worth it."
The fun was just starting, however.
The Western Baseball League was an independent league that lasted from 1992 to 2002. Most of the teams and players in the league weren’t unlike Pacific’s, a mix of longshots and has-beens. One team, Grays Harbor, had to be taken over midseason by the league, played the remainder of its games on the road, and still was in the championship race that year. Probably most notable about the league were the managers, who comprised a “where are they now” list of old ballplayers.
Dick Dietz coached the Sonoma County Crushers, Wally Backman ran the Bend Bandits, Buck Rogers coached the Mission Viejo Vigilantes, Bill Plummer managed the Chico Heat and Charlie Kerfeld coached the Grey Harbor Gulls.
There were field problems. The lights went out in the middle of the Opening Day game, the sprinklers came on in the middle of another, and many fans were turned off by the cool and fog that sets over Oxnard in the evenings. Even games in the middle of the summer would be overtaken by a cool fog that would roll in from the ocean. There was also the crime issue in South Oxnard. It was a blue collar area that was perceived as rough by surrounding communities.
"We hear it every day: 'We'd love to come to the ballpark, but don't want to come to south Oxnard,'" DiCarlo said. "There've been no problems here, but the perception of south Oxnard as unsafe is not going to go away easily. Getting people here for that first time is a problem."
Then there was the winning, or lack thereof.
The Suns opened the 90-game season at 13-32. They fired Derrington and replaced him with John Wood, another local Oxnard guy. In a hitter-friendly leagu,e they couldn’t hit and while their pitching wasn’t as bad, it couldn’t make up for the horrible hitting. Valdez hit .341 and first baseman Chris Unrat hit .290, but no other regular hit above .260. Nunez hit 13 home runs, but nobody else hit more than seven. They ranked the lowest in all team offensive categories, hitting only .246, 29 points lower than the next worst team. Their OPS of .655 was 100 points lower than the next worst team, and they had 111 fewer hits than any other team.
Their de facto “ace” was Moeller, who was 8-7 with a passable 4.10 ERA. Another strong starter was Ken Krahenbuhl, who went 4-5 with a 3.51 ERA before being traded at midseason. The 4.99 team ERA was a middle-of-the road for a hitters' league, and they were ranked around the middle of the pack in most other pitching categories.
The partnership around Di Carlo also nearly imploded during the season. One major shareholder accused him of “malfeasance and deliberate wrongdoing” in his handling of the franchise. The suit apparently didn’t go anywhere, but the writing was on the wall.
The most notorious occurrence was the Suns trade of Krahenbuhl to the Greenville Bluesmen of the Texas-Louisiana League for $1,000, a player to be named, and a case of catfish. The pitcher was stunned and angry, so he went out for his first start for his new team and threw a perfect game.
The end result was a 28-62 record. The Suns were 35 games out of first place in their division. The next worst team, the Tri-City Posse was 11 games ahead of them.
They folded after the season, along with Bend, Mission Viejo and Grays Harbor. It was not a stable league: The teams owed lots of money and never were able to bring out the fans. Ventura County will wait and is still waiting for a successful minor league team.
So why did it not work? Baseball teams, whether low minors or MLB, need stable and engaged management, an attractive place to play, a willing fan base, and decent players. Di Carlo and the team failed to get good players, didn’t have a decent place to play (or any prospect of getting one) and failed to engage the fan base.
Perhaps it wasn’t all their fault. Most independent leagues in any sport are unstable by nature. Without a parent team controlling the strings, they basically end up with what’s left after the major league organizations get what they want. That leads to the generally transient nature of the teams and players in those leagues. The Suns did try to get a more attractive place to play, but most cities in the area were unwilling to finance and/or tolerate a baseball stadium within their limits. Even poor South Oxnard, desperate for development and revenue opportunities, put up some decent-sized opposition to the Suns being there.
With poor or weak management, a questionable place to play, fans who didn’t care and little talent on the field, this was doomed from the start. Ventura County’s talent pool and demographics point to it being a very attractive place for an “A” level or independent baseball team—or do they? In this case it was a failed experiment and nobody else in the area has tried since.
References and Resources
Thanks to Chris Chi and Steve Henson at the Los Angeles Times. Thanks also to baseballreference.com