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Wholesome Sport Can Throw a Curve

We got trouble, my friends.

Right here, I say right here in Ventura County--trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P, and that stands for “Play ball!”

Actually, the possibility of a minor league team called the Mudville Nine moving from Stockton to Ventura County isn’t so bad. It might even be fun, but only if the players aren’t dispatched to City Council meetings with begging bowls and promises to end youth violence. There’s only so much fun a fan can stand.

I liked the Pacific Suns, Ventura County’s most recent failed minor league venture. The Suns put on a good down-home show, complete with high school bands playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and local children racing rubber tires around the bases between innings.

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But with less than a year under their belt, the Suns got in trouble, friends; lawsuits, monstrous debt and management blunders got them booted out of their league and into the boneyard of broken minor league dreams.

In 1998, the Suns came to Oxnard from Palm Springs, where they staged outrageous promotions like “Nude Night” and “Drag Queen Night.” Once here, they underwent the kind of dramatic behavioral changes generally attributed to medication.

Players showed up in full uniform at school assemblies, sounding the alarm against dropping out, doing drugs, joining gangs. Outfielders who would have earned more as celery pickers were under orders from management to do 12 hours of community service each month.

The team’s pitch to prospective investors said it all: “Remember those days as a child, when a hot dog, a bag of peanuts, and a baseball game made everything that was wrong with the world right for at least three hours? Do you want those days back again for today’s kids?”

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Trouble! A baseball team that endorses psychotic fantasy--for children!--can come to no good end.

The Mudville Nine, though, is a different, more professional breed of club. It’s owned by members of the O’Malley family, until recently the longtime owners of a team called the Dodgers. Aggressively nostalgic, the Mudville Nine is named, of course, for the ill-starred team in “Casey at the Bat”; “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day . . . “

Being a kind of writer-like guy, I am inclined to root for a team built around a poem, even if the players have to dress in those ridiculous old-timey uniforms. And I applaud the O’Malleys for naming their squad after a baseball poem, rather than drawing a name from a more high-falutin’ work, like, for instance, the Stockton “Paradise Lost.”

So I would like to see the Mudville Nine sink their roots here and go on to enjoy many prosperous seasons, all without a dime of public money funneled toward building a stadium.

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Team officials have said they hope to find 25 acres for a $20-million, 5,000-seat ballpark. May the ghosts of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb be with them, not to mention the gods of environmental regulation.

But as local officials wring their hands over crumbling streets and polluted beaches and the homeless, throwing money at a minor league team would be . . . trouble, friends.

In 1997, car dealers planning a minor league stadium near the Ventura auto mall made a pitch for the public’s pocket, and were rightly derailed.

The deeper problem, though, is that just as medicinal wine from a teaspoon leads to beer from a bottle, so too does the minor league lead to The Bigs.

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Do we want the major leagues right here in Ventura County, with John Rocker making cruel remarks about the people on the SCAT bus, and brawls between players and fans, a la the Dodgers? Do we want to shed the cherished notion of Ventura County as a collection of oil-pumpin’, strawberry-pickin’, gene-manipulatin’, big ‘ol small towns?

Do we want to be a metropolitan area, right up there with, you’ll pardon the expression, Anaheim?

Trouble, friends!

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Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at steve.chawkins@latimes.com.


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