Fans Keep Gulls' Spirit Alive : But the Real Spirit Plays as a Class-A Team in San Bernardino

Times Staff Writer

"This is terrible to say, but I don't know anything about the Gulls."

--Chris Bradley, San Bernardino Spirit administrative assistant

Truth is, hardly anyone knows much about the Ventura County Gulls. Not even the people of Ventura County.

That's one of the reasons why the Gulls drew only 38,962 paying fans to 71 home games last year. That's why actor Mark Harmon gained part ownership of a baseball team. That's why Chris Bradley gained a job. And that's why Ventura lost the Gulls.

Sold for $250,000 in September to a group of investors headed by Harmon, moved to San Bernardino and renamed the Spirit, the Gulls, late of Toronto Blue Jays affiliation and the Class-A California League, are dead and gone after only one season in Ventura.

Or are they? Could it be that a Gulls' spirit--distinct from San Bernardino--lives on?

Maybe.

"I hate like hell to have to drive down to Dodger Stadium and Anaheim and fight the parking in and fight the parking out every time I want to see a professional baseball game now," said Ventura resident Mark "Binky" Bellamy, 68, a self-described "pretty rabid" Gulls' fan who estimates that he attended 15 to 20 of their home games. "The effects on me of the Gulls being gone are great.

"But in all probability, I don't think most people gave a damn about the Gulls. They wanted to see big-league teams."

With the Gulls nowhere in sight, Curtis Jenkins, 69, of Ventura, feels like he lost a good buddy.

"It's kind of lonesome without the team," he said. "We miss it. We really do miss it. I missed only two games all year."

Ventura's Dottie Pas, the ceremonial first-ball thrower for the Gulls' home opener in 1986, missed more than a couple games, but that didn't keep her from making her mark with the team--monetary contributions.

Pas, who says she's "a poor little widow who will be 52 my whole life," earned the first-pitch honor by donating a large sum of money, $10,000 by some accounts, to be used to improve the facilities at the baseball field at Ventura College, the Gulls' erstwhile roost. She also bought eight season tickets for $1,200, a hefty figure and an incredibly kind act, especially considering she had never seen a professional baseball game. But the Gulls grew on her from the first at-bat.

"I like these minor leagues," she said. "They mix it up. It's kind of interesting to see these kids try to put it all together."

Among the 37 players to wear a Gulls uniform, two--reliever Jeff Musselman and outfielder Rob Ducey--have played with the Blue Jays this season. Although Ducey was sent down to Syracuse of the Triple-A International League two weeks ago, Musselman, who made his major league debut last September, is still with the big club and has a 4-1 record, two saves and a 2.65 earned-run average through Friday.

Musselman's promotion to the majors excited Nancy Gregorius, a 53-year-old Ventura grandmother who let Gulls players Hugh Brinson, a pitcher, and Mike Jones, an outfielder, live with her family all season. Musselman often visited Brinson at the house.

"Now I can say I had a major leaguer in my house," Gregorius said.

Musselman has fond memories of his summer in Ventura.

"It's good to know that the people appreciate our profession," said Musselman, 23, the only current major leaguer with a degree (economics) from Harvard. "Not many people got to our games, but the ones who did were good fans. It was enjoyable playing in Ventura.

"It will always be a special place to me. It was a beautiful area, and it was the place that kind of got me started on my way."

The Summer of '86 would have gone on forever if Gregorius had her druthers.

"Hugh and Mike were marvelous young men," she said. "I'm a baseball junkie and that was the best summer that I'd had in a long time. This summer just doesn't cut the mustard without the Gulls. It just doesn't seem the same."

Gregorius would be lodging more Gulls this season if not for two things: beer and lights. Or lack, thereof. When the Gulls said "Gimme a light," Ventura College wouldn't budge. Neither beer nor lights was allowed at the baseball field.

And when you're a fledgling minor league team, that double negative turns off fans, according to Sarah McPherson, former administrative assistant for the Gulls.

"I'm not saying beer was the biggest thing in the Gulls' failure--the big thing was not playing at night--but it's real easy to get alcohol at a low price and sell it at a normal price," McPherson said. "That's profit and that's business."

The Gulls were unsuccessful in getting either Ventura College to put up lights at its baseball field or getting nearby Camarillo to agree to build a stadium with lights.

Camarillo officials reasoned that until enough money was raised for lights, stands and fencing, it would be irresponsible to spend public funds on a rudimentary field.

As Nancy Bush, a Camarillo park director, said last July: "No one has ever came forward with actual funds. There are promises and dreams, but nothing concrete."

Ken McMullen, a former major leaguer who co-owned the team with another former big leaguer, Jim Colborn, and Jim Biby, the Gulls' former general manager, didn't think it was that simple. "A lot of people here felt betrayed by the politics people," McMullen said. "I think they felt we were a Walter O'Malley who could build our own stadium."

At least the Gulls did not have to pay to use the stadium. The governing board of the Ventura County Community College District charged no rent with the understanding that the Gulls would make $28,000 worth of improvements in the grandstand, press box, dugouts, outfield fences, bathrooms and scoreboard.

By the end of the season, the Gulls had made the required renovations, but their won-lost record was dilapidated. After finishing the first half 45-26 and in second place in the league's Southern Division, the Gulls were 30-41 and third in the second half.

The Gulls ranked fourth among the league's 10 teams in overall record (75-67), team batting average (.272) and team earned-run average (4.03).

"We had a good product," Biby said, "but weren't able to showcase ourselves at the right time."

Late in the season, the Gulls' dismal attendance led to rumors of the team's imminent sale.

"It was a little frustrating toward the end in the second half, knowing that the team was going to be sold," said McPherson, 25, who lives in Camarillo and now works for American Airlines. "I really should have started looking for a new job then, but I figured I would give my all to the team. I just got a different job later."

In the end, most of the Gulls got new jobs, much to the dismay of the few who loved the team. As a result, the not-quite-eternal question--What happens when you take the Gulls out of the Gulls fan?--finally can be answered.

"I started umpiring instead," Jenkins said.

"I've just been fiddling around," said Les Herndon, the team's former official scorer.

"I sometimes sit around and watch a baseball game on TV with the sound off and listen to another on the radio," said Gregorius, who, in keeping with tradition, had Ventura College pitcher Kevin Wittke stay at her house from last September until May.

Life after the Gulls hasn't changed much for the team's hierarchy.

McMullen, 45, lives in Camarillo, works in the Dodgers Community Relations' Speakers Bureau, runs a baseball camp for youngsters in Ojai, makes appearances at adult baseball fantasy camps and does bookkeeping work for his father's rental agency--all functions he performed last year. His office is also the same. It's the garage adjoining his father's house in Ventura.

"He's basically doing the same thing, except he's playing a lot more golf," said McMullen's wife, Goldie.

Colborn, 42, a pitcher for four teams in 10 major league seasons, at least can say he got promoted. He was pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs Triple-A affiliate at Iowa City, Iowa, in addition to owning part of the Gulls last year. This season, Colborn, who lives in Ventura, is the Cubs' minor league pitching coordinator.

Things have been pretty laid back for Biby, 46, who has moved from Santa Paula to Big Bear Lake.

"I'm working on a couple of things--nothing urgent," said Biby, who failed in his attempt to regain partial ownership of the Gulls. "I'm trying to get back into professional baseball, but I don't have anything really solid right now."

Another ex-Gull on the move is the team's manager. Glenn Ezell, 42, is managing the Blue Jays' Double-A affiliate in Knoxville, Tenn. Some of Ezell's old Gulls are winging their way to the majors, following in the cleat-steps of Musselman and Ducey.

Of the 37 players who were on the Gulls' roster for at least part of the season, 23 still are playing in the Toronto organization. Four are with Toronto's Triple-A team in Syracuse, N.Y.--pitchers Dave Wells and Todd Stottlemyre, and catcher Greg Myers, in addition to Ducey. Eleven are in Class-A at Dunedin, Fla., and seven are with Ezell in Double-A.

Only five of the remaining 14 are in professional baseball, four as players and one as coach. Of the five, only second baseman Santiago Garcia--traded by the Blue Jays to San Diego--is in Triple-A.

But how about the Ventura County Gulls, The Year After? The San Bernardino Spirit is doing quite well, thank you, after solving a Gulls-like problem.

"We had some trouble getting our beer license earlier this season," said Chris Bradley, whose team has no major league affiliation. "We didn't get our license until May 18, and didn't really have our good attendance figures until the beer came in. A lot of people were waiting for it before they would come to the ballpark."

Lack of brew evidently didn't hamper Spirit attendance, however. Through Thursday the team had drawn 69,131 fans--the nation's second-best minor league total--in 30 home dates, or 30,169 more than the Gulls drew in 71 home games.

Playing most home games at night has helped make the Spirit of '87 popular. On the field they are faring so-so, but staying close to the leader; through Thursday, San Bernardino was 30-30, four games out of first place in the Southern Division of the California League.

"I am a little bit envious," said McMullen, who owns 1% of the Spirit, as does Colborn. "But the chances of any professional baseball team drawing a lot of people--in Ventura County or anywhere else--are slim and none unless a stadium with lights is in place."

Nine months after proving McMullen right, the Gulls are a memory, alive in the minds of those who care about things like minor league baseball teams, no matter what attendance figures say. Musselman is one of those who will remember.

"The people of Ventura County who supported us should know that most of the players are doing really well," he said. "That's what they should always remember about the Gulls."

The Blue Jays also consider the Gulls experiment a success. "Our mandate was to develop players, and Ventura was a pretty good place to do that," said Gord Ash, Toronto Blue Jays administrator of player personnel.

But to the majority of those once high on the Gulls, the team was a disappointment, a good thing that got going, then petered out.

As McPherson said, "On opening day, everybody was our buddy, but as the season wore on . . . "

Perhaps McMullen coined the perfect epitaph for the Gulls: "Maybe people just like to go to the beach."

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