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Minor League Baseball Blooms in Desert

WASHINGTON POST

A drive west across the Mojave Desert from Nevada can give a sense of the earth’s vastness and power. One feels it possible to be swallowed by an empty land or lost forever in daunting mountains. A freight train passes on a horizon so huge one sees the whole train, engine to end. Road signs point to the Calico Early Man Site, and toward Death Valley. There is no sign of baseball, only an implication in the slow climb to 4,000 feet that the franchise located up ahead is aptly named: the High Desert Mavericks.

The Mavericks play in the Class A California League in a place no other baseball pioneers imagined settling. After dark, the lights of brand-new Maverick Stadium blaze across a landscape of cactus plants and sagebrush. Yet people come from miles around to pack the place. Watching a recent sold-out game with his wife and two daughters from the back of a red ’76 Chevy pickup truck parked on a berm behind center field, Santa Fe Railway conductor John Gibbons pointed toward nothingness and said he lived in Phelan, “a flyspeck in the road.”

High Desert, third among Class A teams nationwide in attendance, is a different kind of testimony to the resurgence of minor-league baseball. Last season, minor-league games attracted more than 25 million spectators, the largest total since 1951. This season, crowds across the country are up another 11 percent. But while the minors are known to be growing gloriously once more in the heartland, High Desert suggests that baseball has burrowed so deep into the American psyche it can take root even in desolate areas never supposed fertile.

The barrenness that stretches from Maverick Stadium in all directions is stunning, a panorama of sand and tumbleweed. When Leanne Pagliai, the Mavs’ general manager, came to see the site of the proposed park last year, she exclaimed, “But there are no people, Bobby.”

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Bobby is one of the Brett brothers -- George being the most famous, Ken and John being the others -- who were lured into moving the club they own out of Riverside, down in the San Bernardino Valley, by Adelanto government officials who promised to build a state-of-the-art, $6 million park. Bobby said this to them: “Build it and we’ll come.”

Fans followed. For the sold-out game with the San Bernardino Spirit on a recent Sunday evening, 3,800-seat Maverick Stadium was filled and the crowd of 5,016 spilled onto a grassy knoll along the right-field foul line. The heart of Adelanto (pop. 10,402) is only a crossroads with a vacant lot on one corner and the City of Adelanto Governmental Center, the Adelanto Hi-Desert Casino and a K Food Store on the others. But more than 300,000 people live within 50 miles and still more are moving up from around Los Angeles because the air is clear, housing is cheaper and, as Gibbons put it, “The dirt is running out down that way.”

To Pagliai, the Mavericks’ crowds seem “to be drawn by the green of the field. It’s the only green within miles.” That, and a modern stadium with a distinctive turquoise roof and comfortable red and dark-blue chairback seats, and a Hard Ball Cafe. Pagliai, 32, is a fashion-conscious general manager; she wears pastels and earth tones, and glorious hats.

While living in Peoria, Ill., near where she was born, she fell in love with a ballplayer who came to play for what was then a California Angels farm team. He was shifted to Redwood, then in the California League, and she spent part of that summer of ’85 helping out at the ballpark there.

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The next year she gave up her job as an account executive with IBM -- she has a marketing degree from the University of Illinois -- to become sales manager for the Midland, Texas, team, where the player-boyfriend seemed headed.

“But he was released out of spring training,” she said, “and I stayed in the game.” With the relationship ended, she moved in 1987 to San Bernardino as assistant GM and in 1988 to Riverside as GM, relocating this spring with the team in the high desert.

“It was kind of a culture shock,” she said. “Then I realized this area is like going back to the Midwest. People don’t put on any airs. They just want to come out to the ballpark and have fun.”

“Leanne does a real great job of keeping a lot of life here at the ballpark,” said Mavs Manager Bruce Bochy, 36, former catcher with Houston, the New York Mets and San Diego. A tall, trim man with a mustache, Bochy enjoys taking opportunities to point out that he owns a lifetime World Series batting average of 1.000. In 1984 with the Padres, he went one for one, a pinch-hit single.

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The easygoing Bochy didn’t mind at all that a confection called “Fantasy Week” would put a 69-year-old woman in the Mavericks first-base coach’s box for the first inning that Saturday night. That was the “fantasy” of Doris Davies, who grew up near Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and has been coaching Little League and T-ball teams in the desert for years.

In the deep minor leagues, the reality is that Class A ball, for the players and even managers and coaches, can be an uneasy time of passage. Of hopes for promotion. Or fears of rejection. Of loneliness. Camaraderie is crucial.

The mood among the fans around Maverick Stadium is light. Kids sit atop one of the signboard fences before they are shooed. A mechanical bull in right field is sponsored by The Cocky Bull Rib House and Opry Hall down the road.

As night falls, the air cools; people have jackets, some even blankets. During a Mavericks rally, the wave begins; a local man calls it “the Adelanto ripple.”

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Ken Brett, a George Brett lookalike who last pitched in the majors in 1981 for Kansas City, brings his wife, Teresa, and 4-year-old twins, Casey -- for Stengel -- and Sheridan from home in Manhattan Beach; he allowed the children ice-cream sandwiches and, on top of that, Thelma’s Old Fashioned pink lemonade.

Right fielder Matt Mieske, batting .330, hopes to move up to Class AA Wichita. He was a 16th-round draft choice by the parent San Diego Padres out of Western Michigan, where he got a degree in accounting. “I don’t want to make a minor-league career of my life,” said Mieske. “I’ll re-evaluate after about four years.”

Recently, he traveled down to San Diego because his fiancee and her brother-in-law wanted to go to a Padres game. “The last thing a ballplayer wants to do on his off day is go to a baseball game,” he said. “But I knew they wanted to go.”

Mark Verstandig is more of a long shot. From Delmar, N.Y., and Division III St. Lawrence University, Verstandig is a left-handed hitting catcher who signed as a free agent with the Padres in 1987. He remains on the lowest rung of professional baseball, a reserve at that. Like Mieske, he could become an accountant. “I’m just waiting for an opportunity to go somewhere as a starter and play every day,” he said.

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In contrast, a prize rookie wears the gray uniform of the San Bernardino Spirit. His name is Marc Newfield, an 18-year-old first-round draft choice of the Seattle Mariners. He’s from Marina High School in Huntington Beach, Calif., a hothouse for young athletes and touted as the most impressive prospect to pass through San Bernardino since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1988. At 6 feet 4 Newfield looks the part of a future major-leaguer: long legs accentuated by a snug-fitting uniform, a blue number 28 that looks just right on his back, a quick, right-handed swing, the saunter of a player years older.

Over in Victorville there’s the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum. Blaine Scissel, who works there, said he’s been to one Mavericks game. He said he sees Roy on weekday mornings. Roy lives in Apple Valley and is 79.

Scissel cautions a reporter asking where to find Trigger. “Don’t use the word stuffed. It’s a common word that Roy doesn’t care for. Use mounted.”

By game time, every seat filled, kids swarming on the grassy knoll. People on blankets beyond the fences squinting into the late sun at the game. In the next couple of hours, three children are lost and found, a lot of “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” is played, fans hold up “K” signs celebrating strikeouts and the Mavericks win, 2-0. A shared satisfaction settles over a lonesome corner of the earth.

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Late into the night, the stadium’s lights shine like a beacon above this unlikely baseball outpost.


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