There is, indeed, a sliver of truth to that derisive adage about there being little else to do in Bakersfield but watch the sun go down.
In fact, when qualified, the statement can be made entirely accurate.
Let’s put it this way: Out at Sam Lynn Ballpark, for a short time on each summer evening between 7:30 and 8, there is little else to do but watch the sun go down.
Playing baseball is downright dangerous.
The home of the Class-A Bakersfield Dodgers is believed to be the only park in professional baseball where the sun routinely causes a five- or six-minute delay as it settles into the horizon beyond center field.
Why situate a field this way? A logical question with a logical answer. It seems as if Sam Lynn Ballpark, a California League original built in 1941, has been around longer than daylight savings time.
“Back then, they started the games at eight o’clock and it was dark,” said Sam Barton, a Dodger fan who has been attending games since the ballpark opened. “This is a modern problem.”
And one not easily solved.
Attempting to provide a suitable hitting background, the club spent $60,000 to erect a 50-foot high by 120-foot wide steel and aluminum screen behind the fence in left-center field.
The Sun Screen, as the Dodgers call it, is the largest wall in professional baseball, dwarfing Fenway Park’s Green Monster, which is a mere 37 by 70.
But while the Green Monster is a historical landmark in Boston, Bakersfield got burned by its Sun Screen. The structure, which went up in May, was placed too far to the left, allowing the sun to peek around its right edge.
Not only does the sun rage in a batter’s eyes, it also can distract a pitcher. The window that encloses the stadium’s press box bounces light back toward the field and the sun’s reflection can be seen on a pitcher’s face and uniform.
Club officials once hoped that a tanning lotion company might be courted as sponsor for a wall. Now, forget it. Not for a Sun Screen that almost works.
The controversial screen reminds Barton, a retired high school teacher and coach, of a day in 1948 when Vince DiMaggio and the Stockton Ports came to Bakersfield to play a doubleheader.
The scheduled starting time was 6 p.m., but DiMaggio, the Ports’ player-manager, believed batting was too perilous with the sun setting over the pitcher’s shoulder.
The umpires remained unconvinced and ordered the first game to begin on time. In protest, DiMaggio approached the plate for his first at-bat in full catcher’s gear--shin guards, chest protector and mask.
“The umpire was not amused,” Barton recalled.
Sam Lynn Ballpark uniquely blends sheer ugliness with a historic and traditional feel. The plywood bleachers are covered with pecky cedar, a profusely knotted and dark-veined wood with a rigid texture. The floors are painted brown and trimmed in a darker brown, the supporting posts are yellow, and the permanent seats behind home plate are orange plastic. The roof of the grandstand is an old hayloft.
The playing surface is adequate, according to an informal and unscientific poll of about a dozen of the league’s players, but the rest of the facility’s amenities are considered antiquated.
Players abhor the park’s dugouts, which are small and located a short hike down each baseline, and find little to like about the visiting clubhouse, which is only slightly larger than a broom closet.
However, those same traits make the field a great venue for fans.
Visiting players are conveniently available for autographs, small talk and an occasional snide remark because they are unable to fit in their locker room.
The ballpark, which is located in an older section of north Bakersfield, shares a parking lot with a public batting cage and is adjacent to a municipal park bustling with amateur baseball games.
Rick Dempsey, the Dodgers rookie manager, claims that he occasionally has been tempted to scout the city fields for a “couple of infielders and a hitter or two.” Bakersfield has the worst record in professional baseball.
By mid-June the Dodgers had played 36 one-run games. They had won eight of them. Pulling a clipboard out from the desk in his cramped office, Dempsey rattles off a couple of revealing statistics:
A Dodgers shortstop, since demoted, made 30 errors in the first eight weeks of the season. In one stretch of 31 at-bats with a man at third and fewer than two out, the Dodgers scored two runs. “We never got a base hit,” Dempsey added. “We scored the runs on groundouts.” At one point, 16 of 17 Dodgers struck out with a runner at third and fewer than two out.
Perhaps the sun was in their eyes.
Fortunately, Dempsey’s competitive desires are matched by his quick wit. He keeps a running conversation going with season ticket-holders seated within a few feet of his perch in the third base dugout.
“Tee-air-able call,” Dempsey shrieked when one of his players is called out on a close play at second base. Then, turning to his partisan faithful, he added, “That’s just typical, isn’t it? We just can’t get a break.”
Dempsey, a 24-year major league veteran who spent three seasons with the Dodgers, remains popular despite his club’s 33-83 record and last-place standing.
His team is young, his approach fresh and occasionally comical.
Dempsey spares no opportunity to teach. In the third inning against Palm Springs, Orlando Munoz, the Angels’ second baseman, sustains an injury to his groin while diving to his right trying to smother a ground ball.
Luis Raven, a teammate, sits up Munoz, lifts him from under his shoulders and begins to gently bounce him on the ground in an effort to comfort him.
Watching from the third base coach’s box, Dempsey winces as if somebody punched him below the belt. “Ouch!” he yelps in a graveled half-whisper, turning toward the dugout. “Don’t ever do that. Whatever you do, don’t do that!”
A few innings later, from a spot near his usual seat behind home plate, Barton, 64, explained why he will miss the old field if the club persuades local officials to build a new stadium.
“I like the proximity of this field,” he said. “You have more of a feel for the game. You hear players say things and do things. The sounds of baseball . . . “
Just then, the crack of a wood bat launching a single into right-center field echoes around the park. “Like that,” Barton continued. “At Dodger Stadium, you don’t hear that. And Anaheim is even worse. You’re so damn far away, all you hear is some guy hawking ice cream and hot dogs.”
Though he yearns to maintain the intimacy of Bakersfield’s current stadium, Barton is not entirely against the idea of the park receiving a face lift.
Barton, who played in the California League in the late 1940s, mentions a game in early June when a foul ball landed on the grandstand roof, kicking loose a nail that fell and hit his sister-in-law in the head.
“The roof is old, the nails are old, the whole thing is old,” Barton says.
But the tradition here is rich.
The stadium’s charm is lost on many of today’s young players, but Joel Wolfe, an outfielder for Modesto who played at Chatsworth High and UCLA, is not among them.
Wolfe, whose .350 batting average was second-best in the league when he was promoted to double A a few weeks ago, compared the feel of Bakersfield’s field to the comfort of a worn leather glove.
“I love playing in old-time ballparks because there is more of a sense of playing the game,” Wolfe said. “There is a sense of history and I think that’s real important for guys to remember. We’re in the minor leagues and everyone knows we’re trying to make the big leagues, but we’re also here for the fans.”
Bakersfield accentuates its place in California League lore. Visitors to the stadium are greeted just inside the main entrance by larger-than-life likenesses of Don Drysdale, Ron Cey, Bill Russell and Johnny Callison on colorful murals painted on the back of grandstand.
Drysdale, a three-time Cy Young Award-winner, made his professional debut with Bakersfield in 1954. Cey and Russell, who played Class-A ball in the late 1960s, went on to star in the same big league infield for 14 seasons with the Dodgers. Callison, a local boy who played for Bakersfield in 1957, played 16 seasons in the majors and was most valuable player of the 1964 All-Star game.
Also near the entrance is a chart listing former Bakersfield Dodgers currently in the big leagues. Among them are Dodger catchers Mike Piazza and Carlos Hernandez, first baseman Eric Karros, shortstop Jose Offerman, third baseman Dave Hansen and pitcher Ramon Martinez.
Bakersfield’s close tie to its major league affiliate looms large in the club’s marketing plan.
“The Dodger name means everything in this town,” said Rick Smith, who is in his ninth season as the club’s general manager. “We tell the fans, ‘This is where you’re going to see the L.A. Dodger stars of the future.’ ”
It appears that few among this particular contingent of prospects are mural material. Bakersfield’s best player is center fielder Michael Moore, the club’s second draft choice a year ago. Moore, who played baseball and football at UCLA, is batting .288 with 13 home runs and 58 runs batted in.
Patience, it seems, is a required trait among faithful Bakersfield Dodger fans. Anyway, given a choice, they seem to prefer hustle over skill.
“Sometimes the most entertaining thing about these games is the unpredictability,” Barton said as he headed back to his seat. “You just never know what’s going to happen next.”
Well, sometimes you do.
With one out and a man on third in the 10th inning of a scoreless tie, Dodger outfielder Matt Filson strikes out. The Angels get out of the inning and win in 11, 1-0.
Dempsey makes another little notch on his clipboard.