SAN BERNARDINO — It was rough going for the Ventura Gulls professional baseball team in its first season last year.
Without night lights or a license to sell beer at the Ventura Community College stadium where it played, the Class A team couldn't draw enough fans to pay expenses.
Now, a group of investors here has helped the minor-league franchise out of its misery by bringing it inland to San Bernardino, where officials have welcomed it with open arms and a promise to make $320,000 worth of improvements at a local field.
But it won't be called the Gulls anymore. The new owners sponsored a "name our team contest" in December and settled on the Spirit of San Bernardino, bypassing the other 3,500 entries, including the Smog Dogs, Gas Masks and Hit Men.
For officials who have yearned for something to hang their civic pride on--something to make outsiders forget what the officials contend is the city's undeserved reputation as a smog-enshrouded community of country rubes--the team's arrival is a dream come true.
"This will do wonders for San Bernardino," said Mayor Evelyn Wilcox. "We have to restore our own internal pride before we can make it understood to outsiders." The last professional baseball team to play in San Bernardino folded in 1951.
"We look for this team to produce a change in our image," agreed Sam Henley, executive vice president of the economic development council. "It will be used in promotional campaigns by the city."
The team, which is one of the California League's 10 Class A ballclubs, was purchased in October for $250,000, said Henry Stickney, Spirit president and part owner.
Class A is one of the lower steps in the minor-league system, just above rookie class. Above A are AA and AAA. Then it's the major leagues.
The Spirit already has a local rival--the Palm Springs Angels, which became Southern California's first minor-league team in decades when it arrived at the desert resort community in 1986.
Unlike the Palm Springs Angels, which is affiliated with the California Angels, the Spirit has yet to strike a "player development contract" with a major league team. Under terms of such a contract, a minor-league franchise is supplied with players, bats, baseballs and uniforms, among other things, by a major league team.
"We are shooting for a player development contract in 1988," said Bill Shanahan, Spirit general manager who ran an AAA club in Wichita, Kan., in 1984 that was affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds. "Major league teams," he said, "will be knocking at our door if we succeed in running a first-class operation."
The new owners and city officials are sparing few expenses to make that happen.
Planned improvements for the city's John A. Fiscalini Field will include a new clubhouse, a $100,000 scoreboard, night lights, and additional bleachers and box seats that will accommodate up to 3,000 people a game. Fans will be ushered to their seats by "Diamond Girls," who will dress in the same uniform as the players on the field "except they'll be wearing shorts," said Shanahan.
The face-lift will be completed before the season opener April 10 against the Reno Padres. Season tickets at $150 go on sale Saturday.
Now the team must prove itself on the field and build a following.
Spirit owners including Stickney and actor Mark Harmon do not think that will be a problem in the Inland Empire, one of the fastest growing regions in the nation.
"We expect the team to generate at least $3 million a year for the city," said Stickney, "and draw an average 100,000 fans a year during its 71 home games."
It has already sparked hundreds of inquiries from residents who hope to play on the team. Tryouts will be held Feb. 1 at Fiscalini Field. The lucky ones can expect to make between $600 and $1,200 a month.
Jim McCoy, 35, of San Bernardino, will be there.
"I am going to take my glove, a pack of chewing gum, sunshade for under the eyes and a big fat prayer," said McCoy, who works at a Riverside dictation company and dreams about playing professional ball. "Even though my chances are slim, I can tell my kids I tried."
Another will be Tyrone Waller, 26, who drove to Fiscalini Field on Tuesday, rolled down the window of his car and announced, "I can play center field!"
Spirit manager Rich Dauer, a resident of nearby Highland who recently retired after playing second base for the Baltimore Orioles for 11 years, smiled and shot back with a flurry of questions.
"Can you run? Can you hit? Can you steal a base?" asked Dauer, a local hero in San Bernardino.
"Sure, but what if you can't hit the fastball right away?" said Waller.
"It's going to be tough," Dauer said.