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California

Bernie Sanders is going to bat for minor league baseball. Will California go to bat for him?

Bernie Sanders
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks during a campaign stop on Nov. 24 in Hillsboro, N.H.
(Mary Schwalm / Associated Press)

Any politician who goes to bat for minor league baseball against billionaire big club owners deserves an all-star vote.

Maybe not a presidential vote necessarily, but an honorary spot on any baseball all-star team.

By standing up for bush league teams all over the country — including the Lancaster JetHawks of the California League — Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is showing wholesome small-town values and priorities not always seen on the presidential campaign trail.

As reported Saturday by Times sportswriter Bill Shaikin, Major League Baseball owners have targeted 42 teams — roughly a quarter of the minor league total — for elimination. The owners say they want to streamline player development, improve ballplayer life and pay higher salaries. We’ve heard that one before in other industries.

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Sanders, who grew up a Dodgers fan in Brooklyn before the team moved to Los Angeles, was the mayor of Burlington, Vt., in 1984 when the town landed the Vermont Lake Monsters. Now they’re on the MLB strike list. The senator is on a crusade about it and has more than 100 members of Congress with him, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the House minority leader.

That’s a unique political alliance between a self-described democratic socialist and an unwavering supporter of President Trump.

In Burlington, Sanders told Shaikin, “What I saw with my own eyes is what minor league baseball does to a community. It is especially gratifying to see kids go out to the ballgames, families able to afford the relatively low price of tickets, and kids get autographs from players. There’s just a huge amount of excitement and community spirit….

“Major league owners have got to understand that this is not just a profit-making business. This is something that millions and millions of people, and kids, think about, pay attention to and feel strongly about.”

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I certainly can testify to the pleasure of minor league baseball. Growing up in Ojai, my dad each season took his two excited sons to several games of the Ventura Yankees — later the Braves — in the California League.

I still vividly remember my brother and I standing mesmerized in the bullpen one day while watching future big league Yankee pitcher Tom Morgan warm up. And I recall pint-sized Ventura center fielder Frank Lucchesi routinely making unbelievable diving catches. He later managed the Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs. The visiting teams’ buses were a marvel of color and mascot emblems.

Sanders’ fight to preserve minor league ball shows a connection to local people — little people — that is one of his strengths. It’s one reason he keeps hanging in the top tier of the race for the Democratic nomination even when most experts believe he and his leftist politics could never be elected president.

They may be right, but he shouldn’t be discounted in the delegate-rich, March 3 California primary.

“He has one of the most viable grass-roots networks,” says veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who’s not involved in the race. “He gives great stump speeches. He’s very thoughtful and substantive. Stays on message. He has anti-establishment credibility.”

Sanders is the only current Democratic candidate who competed in 2016 against eventual nominee Hillary Clinton. He ran well in California, collecting 46% of the vote. But Clinton won with 53%.

Sanders carried 27 of the 58 counties. Some — Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, Yolo — have large university presences where he enjoyed passionate support. But most were in rural farm valleys and northern mountains, where independents and the few Democrats lean left.

The senator still has much of his 2016 infrastructure in place.

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Campaign spokeswoman Anna Bahr says Sanders has “by far the biggest” California operation of any candidate. There are five offices open now and there’ll be 15 by the first of the year, she says. There are 85 paid employees — “no small thing.” More than 730,000 Californians have participated in the campaign, she says, by donating small amounts of money or volunteering.

The latest California poll of likely voters by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies shows Sanders with a slight lead over Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 24% to 22%. Former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg trail with 14% and 12%, respectively.

The 78-year-old Sanders also continues to be highly popular among young people — a paradox. One major reason: He advocates tuition-free public college and student loan forgiveness.

In the poll, Sanders was favored by 46% of voters under 30 and by 36% of those between 30 and 40. No other candidate was close.

He was also supported by 32% of Latinos. No other candidate came near that, either.

“When I fight for anyone, I want to know they’re fighting for me,” says Mariam Cuesta, 20, president of the Pasadena City College for Bernie Club. “When I look at his record, I can see he was fighting for me even before I was born….

“Bernie is amazing on immigration issues. He knows about immigrants. His father was an immigrant. Even if it’s a different immigrant background, he unites immigrants. And we know Bernie’s not changing his stance on immigration just to get our vote.”

State Board of Equalization member Tony Vasquez, a former Santa Monica mayor, endorsed Sanders after the senator — unlike some other candidates — spoke to the Latino caucus at a California Democratic Party convention. Other candidates who showed up “couched their responses on immigration,” Vasquez says.

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Does he think Sanders’ age is a problem? “I know some very young people who think older than he does,” Vasquez replied. “That, to me, is scarier.”

At the least, Sanders should be invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at every minor league season opener next spring


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