THE TOWN THAT LOST ITS TEAM : Minor League Baseball Was a Major League Passion, But Now Fans are Stuck in Lodi with Nothing to Cheer

Times Staff Writer

Most nights this summer, Harold and Maggi Close have stayed at home.

"He sleeps," Maggi, 74, says of Harold, 77. "I knit."

Arnold and Mary Zimmerman spend most nights sitting in lawn chairs on their driveway.

"Watching the cars go by," says Mary, 68, who is three years younger than her husband.

Although they might get an argument from singer John Fogerty, who lamented being "stuck in Lodi" in a song 16 years ago, the Closes and Zimmermans say life wasn't always so boring in this sleepy bedroom community (pop. 38,000) 35 miles south of Sacramento and 12 miles north of Stockton.

For 19 years, beginning in 1966 when the Chicago Cubs' Class-A entry in the California League was known as the Lodi Crushers, minor league baseball was played here.

And the Closes and Zimmermans were at Lawrence Park, the team's cozy tree-lined stadium, whenever the team was playing at home.

Up to 70 nights each summer they were there, attending "about 99%" of the home games, in their estimation.

But the franchise, which was affiliated at various times with the Cubs, Dodgers, Oakland A's, San Diego Padres, Baltimore Orioles and Lotte (Japan) Orions, lost its player-development contract with the Cubs after last season.

When owner Michele Sprague couldn't reach an agreement with another major league team, she decided not to field a team this season. And then, last May, Sprague sold the franchise to Ventura County businessmen Ken McMullen, Jim Colborn and Jim Biby.

McMullen's group may have to field its team in Lodi next season if it can't get a stadium built in Ventura County, but its plans are to bring the team to Camarillo.

And baseball, it seems, may be gone from Lodi forever.

It will be missed, especially by people like the Harold Closes and the Arnold Zimmermans.

In 1979, the Closes celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at Lawrence Park. The game was stopped after the second inning and the boosters club served the beaming couple champagne and cake. They had their picture taken under crossed bats, which were held in place by a couple of players.

It was a grand time.

But, then, every night was like that for Harold and Maggi and Arnold and Mary.

Now the best of friends, the couples met at Lawrence Park.

The Zimmermans attended their first game when Arnold's boss gave him some tickets.

After two games, "we were hooked," Mary said.

It wasn't long before both couples bought season tickets.

Harold and Arnold were known far and wide, they say, for baiting umpires and opposing managers. Harold, in fact, did his baiting through a megaphone.

One year, they hung the umpires in effigy almost nightly.

"We attached a life-sized dummy to the end of a rope," Harold said, "and every time the umpire made a bad call, we pulled on the rope so that the dummy would dangle from the top of the stands. It really got on the umpires."

Starting in 1975, the Harold Close Award was given annually by the boosters club to the team's best fan. Harold was the first recipient. Arnold won in 1978.

Maggi Close brought a cowbell to the games, ringing it whenever a Lodi player got a hit. And she kept score of every game. The Closes bought a full box (four seats) so Maggi wouldn't be disturbed as she charted the action on the field. She even kept an open seat between Harold and herself.

What do they miss most?

"The people, the boys, the corn dogs and the hollerin'," Mary said.

Said Maggi: "When Harold was working, it was our vacation. . . .

"It was a place to go. It was exciting to watch the young men out there really trying. You know, when they're starting out like that, they really put out the effort. They're working for something.

"I really miss it. A lot of us do."

Not everybody misses the team, of course.

When the Lodi News-Sentinel published news of the team's sale on July 24, it had been more than two months since Sprague had sold the team.

Obviously, the news didn't rival the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, or the Raiders leaving Oakland.

Last season, the team sold only about 75 season tickets. The boosters club, even in its best years, included only about 40 members. Average attendance at Lawrence Park last season was 693, which ranked last in the 10-team league.

Lowell Flemmer, president of the Lodi District Chamber of Commerce, said merchants complained that they couldn't give tickets away.

Flemmer said he couldn't see any economic benefit to having a team in town.

"We're looking at economic development in Lodi," Flemmer said, "and anything that generates and puts dollars here in our community, I think we're in favor of."

But the chamber's plans, he said, do not include trying to bring another team to Lodi.

Ed DeBenedetti, who for 41 years has been the director of parks and recreation in Lodi, said Flemmer's comments are typical of what he described as a head-in-the-sand approach taken by the chamber toward the team over the years.

"How in the hell can he say those things," DeBenedetti, who was instrumental in bringing baseball to Lodi, said of Flemmer. "I think that's a very--I don't want to say stupid, but a very unknowledgeable statement."

Pointing out that the salaries of minor league players and coaches are paid by the major league clubs that own their contracts, DeBenedetti said the salaries of the players alone brought more than $20,000 into the town each month.

And that total, he added, was augmented by the salaries of the manager, coaches and front-office personnel. And several scouts, he said, spent the last two months of the season in and around town.

"Tell him to show me a business downtown that dumps that much in salaries into the town," DeBenedetti said. "The kids are here. They've got to rent apartments, they've got to eat, they've got to do things. They're going to spend the money in town.

"Mr. Flemmer doesn't know what he's talking about. . . .

"I'll tell this to Mr. Flemmer: Baseball has done a hell of a lot more to advertise Lodi than the Chamber of Commerce has ever done."

DeBenedetti said the team gave Lodi far-reaching name recognition and a source of pride.

"Just the fact that Lodi was in the California League and a part of professional baseball was important," he said. "Our city manager went to Florida one time for a meeting and said he was from Lodi, and they said, 'Oh, you've got a ballclub in Lodi.'

"I've had that happen to me a number of times. At least people know where Lodi is.

"Our fame used to be from that song ("Lodi," written by Fogerty and a hit for Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969)."

Still, there wasn't a big commotion in town when it became known that the team had been sold.

"There wasn't a big hue and cry when the team left," said Marty Weybret, managing editor of the Lodi News-Sentinel. "But the people who really supported the team really miss it. They call us and say, 'Even though we're not in the Cal League anymore, we want to know what's going on. Can't you print the box scores of the other teams?' "

The town as a whole, then, really doesn't miss the team?

"There are about 400 to 500 hard-core fans who really miss the ballclub," DeBenedetti said. "They miss it because they were pretty much constant goers to the ballgames. They were diehards."

Ah, the diehards:

--Wendell Wagers, 69, worked in some capacity for the team every season--as an announcer, usher or public relations man. He led the boosters every night in singing, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

And with his tall, skinny frame and white beard and moustache, he was a natural to dress up as Uncle Sam for the Independence Day fireworks shows.

--Gus Karabetsos, 72, moved to Lodi from Chicago 11 years ago. He led the "charge" cheer.

"He's a little fella with a voice you could hear all over town," said Maggi Close, smiling in admiration.

Karabetsos, who regularly attended Cub and White Sox games when he lived in Chicago, said he preferred the games in Lodi because "we could talk to the fellas and talk about their hometowns. That was very good."

--Marge Stewart, 47, was president of the boosters club for one year, and served as sort of an unofficial seamstress for the team, patching the uniforms.

Of former Lodi outfielder Rudy Law, who stole 37 bases in 1978, she once said: "Rudy was a fantastic base stealer and his cheeks were always on the ground. I sewed up his pants quite a bit."

--Susie Melish, 45, is also a past president of the club, as is her husband, Marty, 48.

Her youngest son, she said, was reluctant to wear braces on his teeth until former Lodi player Rick Cuocco, a regular dinner guest in the family's home, told him that he had worn braces when he was a youngster.

"That turned the tide," Susie said. "It was OK to wear braces after that."

--Frank Johnson, 63, was a fixture at Lawrence Park for all 19 Lodi seasons.

He was a season-ticket holder when newlywed Lee Meyers pitched Lodi to an 8-1 win over the Reno Silver Sox on July 17, 1966. It was an overflow crowd, attracted mostly by Meyers' wife, actress Mamie Van Doren.

And he was a season-ticket holder when Fernando Valenzuela made three appearances for Lodi in 1979, compiling a 1-2 record and 1.13 earned run average.

Johnson said he enjoyed the informality and casualness of minor league baseball, as compared to the major league variety.

Out-of-town visitors agreed.

Wrote Peter Schrag, associate editor of the Sacramento Bee, after attending a game at Lodi in 1982: "Lawrence Park is a classic of a little country ballpark--a little unpredictable on the infield dirt, as it should be, and tight enough in its dimensions to give players and fans the intimacy on which baseball grew great."

And besides, Johnson said, Lawrence Park is a lot more accessible than the major league parks in San Francisco and Oakland, which are more than 70 miles away.

"You can drive to San Francisco," Johnson said, "but it really gets to be a drag. It's a day's work, in a sense. Here, we could go out to the ballgame at 7:30 and walk 50 feet and get ourselves a beer and a hot dog and be into the game."

And it was a family affair.

"We were all part of it," Johnson said. "We had barbecues for the players, we collected money so they could have a hot dog and a drink between games of a doubleheader."

Said Susie Melish: "What was nice about it was, you got to know the boys. They really became like little adopted waifs because most of them were far away from home. We really loved them, even when they were little stinkers."

Dodger first baseman Greg Brock, who hit 29 home runs for Lodi in 1980, described the townspeople as "exceptionally nice."

"I really enjoyed my stay in that town," he said. " . . . I liked the atmosphere."

Watching the development of future major leaguers such as Brock, of course, was half the fun for the diehards.

Mike Marshall hit 24 home runs for Lodi in 1979. Alan Wiggins stole 120 bases in 1980.

"I've seen an awful lot of young ballplayers learn their trade and become vastly improved in a two-year period," Johnson said. "It's very interesting to see a kid throw to the wrong base. The fans give him hell, but he learns."

Melish said the sale of the team to an out-of-town group was "traumatic" for the hard-core fans.

"Especially the older people," she said. "Their whole summer was built around the ballgames. It was like a social thing. You'd see old friends and you'd make new friends."

Actually, the diehards can still get their fill of minor league baseball if they're willing to travel a little bit. It's only a 14-mile drive between Lawrence Park and Stockton's Billy Hebert Field, home of the Stockton Ports.

But it's not the same, they said.

"It's just not as friendly down there," said Susie Melish.

Michele Sprague, 38, bought the Lodi team before the 1981 season for less than $30,000, but the deal was almost vetoed by the National Assn. of Professional Baseball Leagues. Reason: She is married to Ed Sprague, the owner at Stockton.

The association argued that dual ownership would be a conflict of interest.

But Michele, who married Ed in 1980, argued that she bought the Lodi team with her own money and that she had no financial interest in the Stockton team.

Eventually, the association dropped its objection.

Sprague said her franchise showed a profit in three of her four seasons as owner.

But it was a bitter blow when the Dodgers severed ties with Sprague and Lodi after the 1983 season, affiliating themselves with a Bakersfield group.

At the time, an angry Sprague told the Lodi News-Sentinel: "We've got to get all this Dodger crap out of here."

Which she did, as part of a promotion.

A couple of days after the 1983 season, Lodi had a "Boo Dodger Blue" night that attracted about 300 people. Everybody was given a Dodger souvenir to throw into a bonfire that was built at home plate in Lawrence Park.

But the Dodgers were soon forgotten, it seems, when Sprague signed a one-year agreement with the Cubs.

Sprague said the Cubs told her they planned to stay in Lodi for several years. But she said she found out later that, even before they arrived in Lodi, the Cubs had planned to move their Class-A team to Winston-Salem, N.C., which they did this season.

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