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THE TOWN THAT LOST ITS TEAM : Minor League Baseball Was a Major League Passion, But Now Fans are Stuck in Lodi with Nothing to Cheer

August 21, 1985|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

LODI, Calif. — Most nights this summer, Harold and Maggi Close have stayed at home.

"He sleeps," Maggi, 74, says of Harold, 77. "I knit."

Arnold and Mary Zimmerman spend most nights sitting in lawn chairs on their driveway.

"Watching the cars go by," says Mary, 68, who is three years younger than her husband.

Although they might get an argument from singer John Fogerty, who lamented being "stuck in Lodi" in a song 16 years ago, the Closes and Zimmermans say life wasn't always so boring in this sleepy bedroom community (pop. 38,000) 35 miles south of Sacramento and 12 miles north of Stockton.

For 19 years, beginning in 1966 when the Chicago Cubs' Class-A entry in the California League was known as the Lodi Crushers, minor league baseball was played here.

And the Closes and Zimmermans were at Lawrence Park, the team's cozy tree-lined stadium, whenever the team was playing at home.

Up to 70 nights each summer they were there, attending "about 99%" of the home games, in their estimation.

But the franchise, which was affiliated at various times with the Cubs, Dodgers, Oakland A's, San Diego Padres, Baltimore Orioles and Lotte (Japan) Orions, lost its player-development contract with the Cubs after last season.

When owner Michele Sprague couldn't reach an agreement with another major league team, she decided not to field a team this season. And then, last May, Sprague sold the franchise to Ventura County businessmen Ken McMullen, Jim Colborn and Jim Biby.

McMullen's group may have to field its team in Lodi next season if it can't get a stadium built in Ventura County, but its plans are to bring the team to Camarillo.

And baseball, it seems, may be gone from Lodi forever.

It will be missed, especially by people like the Harold Closes and the Arnold Zimmermans.

In 1979, the Closes celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at Lawrence Park. The game was stopped after the second inning and the boosters club served the beaming couple champagne and cake. They had their picture taken under crossed bats, which were held in place by a couple of players.

It was a grand time.

But, then, every night was like that for Harold and Maggi and Arnold and Mary.

Now the best of friends, the couples met at Lawrence Park.

The Zimmermans attended their first game when Arnold's boss gave him some tickets.

After two games, "we were hooked," Mary said.

It wasn't long before both couples bought season tickets.

Harold and Arnold were known far and wide, they say, for baiting umpires and opposing managers. Harold, in fact, did his baiting through a megaphone.

One year, they hung the umpires in effigy almost nightly.

"We attached a life-sized dummy to the end of a rope," Harold said, "and every time the umpire made a bad call, we pulled on the rope so that the dummy would dangle from the top of the stands. It really got on the umpires."

Starting in 1975, the Harold Close Award was given annually by the boosters club to the team's best fan. Harold was the first recipient. Arnold won in 1978.

Maggi Close brought a cowbell to the games, ringing it whenever a Lodi player got a hit. And she kept score of every game. The Closes bought a full box (four seats) so Maggi wouldn't be disturbed as she charted the action on the field. She even kept an open seat between Harold and herself.

What do they miss most?

"The people, the boys, the corn dogs and the hollerin'," Mary said.

Said Maggi: "When Harold was working, it was our vacation. . . .

"It was a place to go. It was exciting to watch the young men out there really trying. You know, when they're starting out like that, they really put out the effort. They're working for something.

"I really miss it. A lot of us do."

Not everybody misses the team, of course.

When the Lodi News-Sentinel published news of the team's sale on July 24, it had been more than two months since Sprague had sold the team.

Obviously, the news didn't rival the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, or the Raiders leaving Oakland.

Last season, the team sold only about 75 season tickets. The boosters club, even in its best years, included only about 40 members. Average attendance at Lawrence Park last season was 693, which ranked last in the 10-team league.

Lowell Flemmer, president of the Lodi District Chamber of Commerce, said merchants complained that they couldn't give tickets away.

Flemmer said he couldn't see any economic benefit to having a team in town.

"We're looking at economic development in Lodi," Flemmer said, "and anything that generates and puts dollars here in our community, I think we're in favor of."

But the chamber's plans, he said, do not include trying to bring another team to Lodi.

Ed DeBenedetti, who for 41 years has been the director of parks and recreation in Lodi, said Flemmer's comments are typical of what he described as a head-in-the-sand approach taken by the chamber toward the team over the years.

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