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They Still Have Some Spirit in San Bernardino : Original Franchise Skipped Town and Most Fans Haven’t Forgotten

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You do what you must to keep the fans happy, but isn’t this going overboard a bit?

Greg Williams and Sal Mendoza paid for general admission, yet here they are settling back in comfy La-Z-Boys while sodas and pizza are served.

Their location, overlooking Fiscalini Field in San Bernardino, is the minor league equivalent of a luxury box--a spacious wooden platform complete with table, floor lamp, recliners and food service.

Williams, 14, is “Fan of the Game,” so he and his grandfather may enjoy their relatively ostentatious perch for a California League game between the hometown Spirit and the Modesto A’s.

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“Thes ith how I lich to wash a bawgame,” Mendoza says, cheese and tomato sauce spilling down his chin.

Were it possible, fiscally and physically, Spirit management might lavish all of its fans in a similar manner. Maybe then more would come back.

As it is, the people of San Bernardino have been jilted, their trust broken.

The city’s honeymoon with minor league baseball lasted five years. From 1987-91, San Bernardino led the league in attendance. That streak didn’t end until last season, after the previous club announced it was bolting town.

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Its new address: an $11-million showplace in a suburban sprawl called Rancho Cucamonga, 20 miles to the southwest.

The move made shrewd business sense. Rancho Cucamonga is on pace to become the first franchise in league history to draw more than 300,000 fans.

All of which is absolutely no consolation to legions of faithful in San Bernardino. They have a new team, one which relocated from Salinas, but the sting from being dumped lingers.

“It was a surprise,” Mendoza said, reaching for another slice of pizza. “You expect the players to move around, not the teams.”

But they do. Especially in the lower minor league levels, where franchises skip from place to place with all the predictability of a bad-hop grounder.

Just within the California League, Reno was abandoned for Riverside, San Bernardino was left for Rancho Cucamonga and Salinas was discarded in favor of San Bernardino within the past year.

Add to that changes in major league affiliation--the San Diego Padres switched from High Desert to Rancho Cucamonga, the Seattle Mariners have left San Bernardino/Rancho Cucamonga in favor of Riverside, the Colorado Rockies replaced the Minnesota Twins in Central Valley (which used to be known as Visalia), the Florida Marlins are now at High Desert--and small wonder some fans are bewildered.

In San Bernardino, the situation is further complicated because the Spirit is the only team in the league operating without a player development contract.

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Instead of one major league affiliate, the club has players from the New York Mets, New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, Montreal Expos and Colorado Rockies.

The Spirit also has four of its own players under contract as free agents.

That the team started the season with an eight-game losing streak should have come as no surprise. “We were still getting to know each other’s names,” said Greg Mahlberg, the club’s manager.

Few San Bernardino players seem overjoyed about launching their professional careers in the smog belt.

“San Berdoo is, uh . . . original,” said John Sutherland, a pitcher who is interrupted as he reads a book near the bullpen before the game. “When I think of minor league ball, I think of small towns. Here, there’s a lot of people, it’s congested and there’s a lot of crime. It’s just not what I pictured.”

He must be referring to the city itself. At the ballpark, only the air is congested.

Fiscalini Field is located just north of the downtown area and adjacent to a noisy and busy street that runs parallel to the left-field line. The mountains are a short distance away, but only a faint trace of their outline can be seen through a thick, brown blanket of smog.

The fans have stayed away even though the Spirit has rebounded from its slow start to play break-even baseball. San Bernardino is averaging 1,267 in attendance, eighth in the 10-team circuit.

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“We know it’s going to take some time to bring people back,” said Pat Brown, the club’s general manager. “Some of them still have hard feelings.”

If the new franchise continues to falter, it will not be for lack of effort. The 3,600-seat stadium is clean, the food is served hot, and a full slate of promotions fills lulls between innings.

San Bernardino also has The Bug, one of the league’s most energetic mascots.

The Bug’s costume is that of a ballplayer except for his baseball-shaped, foam-and-rubber head. Inside is Chuck Sanders, a big-rig truck driver who works the graveyard shift for a local supermarket chain.

Sanders, 34, became The Bug four years ago because he happened to be standing in the club’s offices when the team’s previous mascot called in sick.

“I was a season ticket-holder, but I volunteered,” he said. Like Lou Gehrig, he has not been out of the lineup since.

Though he lacks any formal training--"unless you count 27 episodes of American Bandstand,” he says--The Bug survives on instinct.

As a mascot with a 22-pound baseball for a head, Sanders does his best to avoid the hit and run. Certain promotions he fears more than others.

“Mini-bat night is kind of a frightening experience,” he said. “The Whiffle ball bat giveaway is another.”

Mahlberg, whose coaching resume is deep in Class-A experience, also works to spread the Spirit. He attends as many school career days, Rotary club meetings and autograph sessions as possible.

“Just the other day, some of the players solicited donations over the phone for muscular dystrophy,” Mahlberg said while taking a breather in his cramped office. “We’re as active in the community as we can be at this level and still play.”

The Spirit has a hard-core nucleus of fans, including a San Diego man named Jerry who drives more than three hours round trip to attend games at Fiscalini Field.

“I asked him once if he ever went to Padre games,” Brown said. “He said, ‘No, I can’t stand to go there anymore.’

“These kids here are still busting their butts trying to get to a higher level. You don’t see guys jogging out a ground ball.”

Their hustle seems only logical in the low minors, where there is no such thing as a routine play.

Brown recalls a game early in the season in which the Spirit led “by a couple of runs” with two out in the ninth inning.

“I was standing up there in an aisle way and a guy hit a little fly ball to center field,” Brown said. “I remember turning around to move out of the walkway because I thought the game was over. Then I heard an ‘Oh, and ooohhh’ from the crowd. I turned back around and our guy had dropped the ball.

“That doesn’t happen in the major leagues. Everything is so predictable. Everybody knows that on a base hit, Cecil Fielder always goes from first to second. He never goes from first to third. So many situations are repeated over and over. Here, you take nothing for granted.”

Especially with a roster of castoffs. While all but the four free agents are under contract with major league teams, players assigned to “co-op” franchises such as San Bernardino arrive with a stigma attached.

“Some of these guys feel like their organizations have kicked them out,” Mahlberg said. “What we tell them is, (the clubs) must have some interest. Otherwise, they would have been released.”

One such player is Carlos Perez, a left-handed pitcher from the Montreal organization. Perez, 22, has two older brothers, Pascual and Melido, who have pitched in the major leagues.

The Perez brothers are known for being high-strung, fiery and animated performers. Carlos fits the description. He is perpetual motion on the mound, primping the dirt with his hands, pumping his arms after recording an out and talking to himself loud enough for everyone to hear.

The Expo organizational guide has this to say about Perez: ". . . Spent most of 1992 on the team’s suspended list. . . .”

Sounds like Perez might be among the players sent to San Bernardino because, as Mahlberg puts it, “their organizations feel they could use a change of scenery.”

The Spirit also has Sean Twitty, an outfielder whom the Yankees valued so much that they traded a major league pitcher to get him. Twitty came to the Yankee chain from Seattle in exchange for Tim Leary, who won 17 games for the Dodgers and was National League comeback player of the year in 1988. The Yankees even threw in some cash.

After a slow start, Twitty, 22, is batting .302.

There are a few legitimate prospects on the roster. Infielder Tim Cooper, outfielder Manny Martinez, catcher Mike Figga and pitcher Steve Shoemaker were California League all-stars.

But in San Bernardino, as in most minor league cities, fans don’t necessarily attend games to watch individual players.

They come to watch baseball.

Lee Robb, 85, rarely misses a Spirit game, even through radiation treatments for prostate cancer.

Though he can’t tell the players without a program, Robb is at the field almost every night, sitting a row below the stadium’s press box with his wife, Goldie, and friends.

“If we weren’t here, we’d be at home, watching baseball on television,” he said.

Robb would rather come out to the park to see his team, whichever one it happens to be.

“The team shouldn’t make a difference,” he said. “As long as baseball is played here, what does it matter?”


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