Bakersfield Blaze

Sunday, Apr 24 2011 06:00 AM

Setting sun delays? Only in Bakersfield -- but that's OK

BY JEFF EVANS, Californian staff writer jevans@bakersfield.com

Sam Lynn Ball Park opened in 1941 and in the early days -- when nine-inning baseball games typically were played in less than 21/2 hours -- game times would be at 8 p.m. so the setting sun was below the horizon and didn't blind the batters.

But longer games prompted organized baseball to move game times earlier, and that's when the setting sun became a problem. Sam Lynn's relationship with the setting sun is arguably its most unique feature: The park is laid out so the sun shines right into the batters' eyes, making it impossible to pick up pitches.

Setting sun delays? Only in Bakersfield.

In the 1993-94 off-season, the Blaze owner at the time, the late Lowell Patton, constructed a sun screen that towered over the center field wall and cost $60,000.

It helped, but the glare was a problem then and continues to this day, which is why the mid-June to early-July game times are never earlier than 7:45 p.m.

Pro baseball began at Sam Lynn in 1941, took three years off because of World War II in 1943-45, left Bakersfield from 1976-77 and returned with an independent team in 1978-79. Pro baseball again left for two seasons, then returned in 1982 and has been hosted at Sam Lynn ever since. Here are some memories from one beat writer who spent several several seasons covering the Bakersfield Mariners, Dodgers and Blaze, starting in 1982.

Water, and then fire

It was 1982 or 1983, the second game of a doubleheader between the B'Mariners and Visalia Oaks that had already had a setting-sun delay.

Shortly after 11:30 p.m., the sprinklers automatically came on. The maintenance people had left, so there was no one to turn the water off.

Then Salty The Mariner, Bakersfield's mascot, got involved. He stood on the sprinkler head on the dirt just to the left of home plate. The water bubbled up and started pooling.

Eventually it stretched nearly halfway to third base before the sprinklers finally were turned off. The result was standing water in the basepath between third and home, making the field unplayable.

With Visalia manager Phil Roof (the former big-league catcher with Kansas City and the Oakland A's) muttering obscenities about how "bush league" Bakersfield was, someone got the idea to burn the water off. So gasoline was poured on the water and lit. It seemed like flames shot 15 to 20 feet in the air.

When the flames died out a few minutes later, the water was gone, but the area reeked of gasoline. The Visalia catcher and home plate umpire were nearly overcome by the fumes.

But the game was completed. And for the rest of the summer, the grass along the third base line was singed yellow, reminding everyone about the water-fire game.

Boy curses Bob Feller

In 1995, Bob Feller, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, came to Sam Lynn to sign autographs and visit with fans.

About 30 minutes after the game ended, Feller was talking with B'Dodgers general manager Rick Smith and me when a boy about 9 years old came up and asked for an autograph.

"Why didn't you get it earlier?" Feller asked.

"I was watching the game," the boy replied.

"Well, let that be a lesson to you," Feller said. "Sometimes you need to make tough choices." And Feller refused to sign.

The boy stood there for a moment, then shouted, "You bastard!" as Feller walked away.

An all-time great being cursed by a youngster from Bakersfield.

Only at Sam Lynn Ball Park.

The scary mascot

Salty The Mariner, the culprit in the water-fire game, was unique: His plaster-of-Paris head had a frown and pimply face.

Mascots are usually lovable, so that the children shout with joy at the sight of them. Not Salty. He was scary, and oftentimes children would scream or begin crying when he approached.

In 1984, the Mariners left Bakersfield and were replaced by the B'Dodgers. The mascot became Rodger The Dodger.

One day late that season, Jose Canseco (yes, that Jose Canseco), who was playing with the Modesto A's, teamed up with another Modesto player and stole Rodger The Dodger's head. They took it back to Modesto and it didn't return to Bakersfield until the following season.

Animal planet

I couldn't tell you the year, but during one game, a gopher popped out of the ground just behind the pitchers mound.

The B'Dodger batboy went out to get it, picked it up and was immediately bitten. The gopher went flying.

The hardy batboy returned, this time using a glove. The gopher was carried from the field, and play resumed.

The batboy's father wound up taking his son to the hospital to check for rabies.

There was also a series of games one summer when thousands of tiny toads invaded Sam Lynn, presumably from the Kern River bed behind the ballpark. They were all over the field and in the stands. You couldn't walk without stepping on them.

Then, after about a week, they were gone.

Visitor gets an eyeful

In 1995, I got a call from Kathy Freeman, then the Bakersfield College journalism adviser and a former colleague of mine when she was a reporter at The Californian.

She said she had a journalism student who was interested in sports and asked if the girl could tag along with me to see how I covered the team. No problem. I've always been happy to help out with young reporters.

Bakersfield manager Greg Mahlberg was ejected from this particular game. After the game, I asked the young lady if she wanted to accompany me to the locker room to interview Mahlberg and the players.

She was apprehensive about going into a locker room, so she chose to wait in the walkway underneath the concrete stands that led from the playing field to the clubhouse.

Mahlberg was still irate about the ejection. After I left his office, he came racing after me, following me into the walkway spewing obscenities in an ever- increasing tirade against the umpire.

And he was stark naked.

The girl, needless to say, was mortified. Mahlberg didn't even notice her.

I never knew if the young lady ever got into sportswriting after that experience.

The Hershiser visit

In 1991, L.A. Dodgers ace Orel Hershiser came to Bakersfield for a rehab start as he recovered from a torn rotator cuff to his pitching shoulder.

More than 4,000 fans came out to see him. Hershiser pitched well and got the win. Rick Smith, then the team's general manager, recalled Hershiser signing autographs after the game and then buying dinner for the B'Dodgers.

His catcher in Bakersfield that night? Mike Piazza.

Nomo's American debut

Before the 1995 season, the L.A. Dodgers signed pitcher Hideo Nomo, a superstar from the Japanese leagues.

Nomo would be an All-Star that year, win the National League Rookie of the Year award and place fourth in the Cy Young voting. He went 13-6, ranked second in the NL in earned run average and first in strikeouts.

But his American debut in a regular season game wasn't in Dodger Stadium. It was in Rancho Cucamonga as a member of the Blaze.

And as good as he was in the majors that year, he was the losing pitcher for Bakersfield that night.

The Dodgers had moved their Cal League team to San Bernardino after the 1994 season and the Blaze became a co-op team -- that is, a team consisting of players from various organizations.

Nomo was penciled in as L.A.'s No. 5 starter, but because of off-days early in the season, he was going to have a lengthy delay after spring training ended before he could make his major league debut.

He needed a minor league game to get some work in. San Bernardino was idle the day the Dodgers wanted Nomo to pitch, so they called Bakersfield and asked if he could start for the Blaze.

It took about two seconds for the Blaze to say yes.

Japanese media swarmed into Rancho Cucamonga, along with L.A. beat writers.

Nomo had his picture taken in a Blaze uniform, and he was part of the team's trading card collection distributed to Blaze fans later that season.

And right there, in Nomo's official records in Who's Who In Baseball or the Baseball Register that published in those days, he's 0-1 in 51/3 innings for Bakersfield in 1995.

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