Rancho Cucamonga gets it right

The Rancho Cucamonga Quakes are an example of a Single-A franchise getting it right.

Of its predecessors, scrappy Lodi could not compete with a larger Stockton market only 14 miles away, the Ventura County Gulls were a great idea but nobody in the Ventura area seemed to notice or care, and San Bernardino, one of the core California League markets, but the franchise was only biding its time until the Epicenter was built. From this then-state-of-the-art ballpark, the Quakes revolutionized minor league baseball on many levels.

They made minor league baseball a viable entertainment option in Southern California, especially for those on the outskirts of the two major metropolitan areas. Their brand new stadium raised the bar for most of the teams in the league to build new facilities, seriously renovate the ones they had, or move to a city that would provide such a stadium. On top of that, they did a fine job, at least for the Angels, in helping develop raw talent into major league players. The Angels team taking the field in 2011 will be chock full of players who played pivotal parts of their minor league careers in Rancho Cucamonga.

Longtime owner Hank Stickney, partnering with Ray Engelbrecht and actor Mark Harmon, purchased the Ventura County Gulls from former players Ken McMullen and Jim Colborn, and moved the franchise south to San Bernardino, a blue collar town 65 miles east of Los Angeles, in 1987. It was losing money, so Stickney bought a 60 percent share of the team and struck up a deal with Ranch Cucamonga, which was building a then-$11.5 million ballpark that would soon become known as the Epicenter, one of the first in a wave of major league-grade, Single-A stadiums.

Before the Epicenter was built, the San Bernardino Spirit (as the Quakes were once known) played in 3,500-seat Fiscilani Field, which was built in 1934. Other California League teams were playing in similarly old stadiums. The San Jose Giants played (and continue to play) in San Jose Municipal Stadium, built in 1941. The Bakersfield Blaze played (and still plays) in Sam Lynn stadium, also built in 1941. Aside from Mavericks Stadium (built in 1991 for the High Desert Mavericks and now called Stater Bros. Stadium) and the UC Riverside baseball park (where the Riverside Pilots played), no other field was built after 1953, and many of the teams still play in those parks.

The building of The Epicenter used 400 trucks of concrete, yielding over 4,000 cubic yards worth. Over 95,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved, and 500,000 square feet of asphalt paving was laid, efforts that required the use of more than 60 subcontractors. The Epicenter’s price tag was about $20 million, a veritable bargain by today’s standards, but at the time, unheard of for a Single-A ballpark. It has become the center of huge development in the area, with the Citizens Business Bank Arena opening nearby in 2007, and a huge shopping mall known as Victoria Gardens opening in 2004. Certainly Jeff Moorad and the leaders of Escondido see this as a blueprint for their own plans in the near future.

It started a wave of new ballparks. The Lake Elsinore Diamond was opened the next year in Lake Elsinore, about a 45-minute drive south from Rancho Cucamonga. In 1996, Clear Channel Stadium opened in Lancaster. Eventually similar state-of-the art ballparks opened in San Bernardino and Stockton. These new ballparks sought to raise the bar of minor league baseball, hoping the new facilities would draw interest outside the hardcore baseball fans. Stickney laid out his vision in a Fortune magazine article in 2006.

“It’s very simple: You can’t depend on the baseball to sell your tickets,” he said. He gave up on things like ticket giveaways and attempted to draw fans with carnival rides, half-inning skits, promotions and fireworks. Tremor the mascot was hatched out of an egg at the first game.

Whatever he did or didn’t do, it worked. Probably spurred on by the 1994 baseball strike, disgruntled fans flocked to minor league games. Overall, minor league attendance went from 33 million in 1994 to 41 million in 1995. Stickney’s Quakes were representative of this. They set a California League attendance record in their first year of existence. They had better attendance than any Double-A team and ranked fourth among Single-A teams nationwide. Since then, they have led the California League in attendance in virtually every year since their existence. In 1999, they were named by Baseball America as the Single A recipient of the Bob Freitas award for franchise excellence, in honor of the minor league baseball ambassador.

“Owning the Quakes is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done,” says Stickney, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former health care CEO. “And I’ve done a lot of exciting things.” Stickney sold the club recently to an ownership group led by Hall of Famer George Brett, and it’s now affiliated with the Dodgers.

The Quakes also have been successful in developing major league talent, especially for the Angels, whose current roster is full of players who played at RC. Now, the club is affiliated with the Dodgers.

The Padres were the first team to work with Rancho Cucamonga, and while they had some good seasons, including a California League Championship in 1994, they did not have many successful major leaguers in their ranks. The most successful player to come out of RC in the Padres era was Derrek Lee, who ended up lighting things up for the Marlins and Cubs after his 22 game stint with the Padres. Joey Hamilton played a key role as a starter for their 1995 National League Champion team; Brian Lawrence had a good early career, winning 15 games in 2004, but has been up and down since. He recently signed a minor league contract with the Giants.

They also had their share of busts. Ben Davis was the second overall pick in the 1995 draft who never reached his potential in the bigs. His biggest claim to fame was in 2001, when he hit a drag bunt single off Curt Schilling in the eighth inning of a potential perfect game, drawing the ire of the Diamondbacks for violating an “unwritten rule.” Also on the list of supposed unrealized potential was 1998 first-rounder Sean Burroughs, who went from being “the next big thing” in 2001 to being out of baseball in 2006. Another noted player to go through Rancho Cucamonga was Mike Darr, who looked on pace to have a fine major league career until he died in a car accident in 2002.

Rancho Cucamonga became affiliated with the Angels in 2001, with the Padres moving their high Single-A farm team to Lake Elsinore. While Arte Moreno was lowering beer prices, buying huge Angels billboards on I-110 near Dodger Stadium, and signing big name free agents like Vladimir Guerrero, he was quietly developing a quality team of major leaguers, most of whom went through RC.

Five of the eight presumptive starters in the 2011 Angels lineup came up through the system and also played significant time at RC. Catcher Jeff Mathis played on the 2003 squad, as did future All-Star Ervin Santana and Rich Thompson. First baseman Kendry Morales and second baseman Howie Kendrick made stops at RC on their way up the ladder in the 2005 season. That year also saw a cameo appearance by future ace Jered Weaver during his rapid ascent toward the big league roster.

Erick Aybar was on the 2004 squad, along with backup outfielder Reggie Willits. Center fielder Peter Bourjos played on the Quakes in 2008, along with highly regarded prospects Mark Trumbo and Trevor Bell. Presumptive starting third baseman Maicer Izturis came up in the Indians organization, while outfield bookends Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter came up with other teams. Starters Weaver and Santana came up through the Angels organization, along with key reliever Kevin Jepsen.

There is quite a list of ex-Angels who played at Rancho Cucamonga. Mike Napoli and Francisco Rodriguez played on the 2001 team, and although he never played for the Angels, former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks played in the Angels system, appearing at RC in 2002. Casey Kotchman and Dallas McPherson played on the 2003 team, and Joe Saunders pitched for the Quakes in 2004. The late Nick Adenhart played on the 2006 squad.

So while this speaks more to the Angels’ player development system than it does to anything the Quakes were doing, it does show them being instrumental in developing good players, and also creates an environment in which fans of the Angels (or now the Dodgers) can easily see the young players developing with a drive down the freeway.

While the Epicenter is no longer the “state of the art” that it once was, its comfortable atmosphere, easy freeway access, cheap tickets, view of Mt. San Antonio, and opportunity to see future Dodgers and other major leaguers will continue to make minor league baseball a popular and viable sports and entertainment option in Southern California.

References & Resources
Fortune, “A league of your own,” by Eugenia Levinson, July 19, 2006

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