LISA, SHELLEY and Corey--no last names, please--sit at a patio table, shaded from the San Bernardino sun by a red-and-white Coors umbrella, sipping beer and taking in the show. On the baseball field a few feet in front of them, Mark Merchant, a young outfielder for the San Bernardino Spirit, pounds a pitch to the distant fence, runs to second base, and pauses to smooth out his uniform.
"The Merchant of Menace!" Lisa says.
"He's cute," Corey says.
The Spirit are thumping their archrivals, the Riverside Red Wave, but the baseball action almost seems a sideshow. The young women cheer as a voice blasts from giant speakers mounted above every section of seats at this old municipal ballpark, Fiscalini Field. "Make a considerably large amount of noise for Brrrryyyyyan Kingggg!" the voice screams as the Spirit shortstop walks up to bat.
Between innings the crowd sings along to high-volume comic Sam Kinison's version of "Wild Thing," while a mascot with a huge baseball for a head, a middle-age paunch and a Spirit jersey with his name and number--The Bug, 00--dances atop the third-base dugout. When the opposing manager meets with his team at the pitching mound, the fans hear muttering followed by one intelligible phrase--"Who had the cheeseburger?" Young women called Diamond Girls cool off spectators with huge squirt guns, bring drinks to the umpires and sweep dust off the bases. "Cleaning up after the boys," the speaker voice observes, " . . . simply irresistible."
It's Sunday afternoon in the California League, a link to the 1940s and '50s when creaky buses ferried young ballplayers and their illusions up and down Highway 99 through sweltering San Joaquin Valley summer nights. Then, as now, The Cal, as the league is called, sat near the bottom of America's many layers of minor leagues. It's a place where 19-year-old hotshots learn the niceties of professional baseball and 28-year-old has-beens come to grips with their lapsing talents.
This summer, in towns skipped over by the major leagues, 10 teams with names such as the Oaks, the Spurs and the Ports will play 142 games each. They will be accompanied by rock music (mostly old, mostly Motown), the best promotional gimmickry their small budgets will allow and a better-than-big-league vendor menu--mesquite-grilled chicken and ribs in San Jose, steaks barbecued to order in Stockton, Haagen-Dazs ice cream bars in Visalia.
But the crowds will be small and the impact minimal. All last summer, the Visalia Oaks barely sold as many tickets as the Dodgers sell on a good Thursday night. Sometimes no sportswriters show up. Of the 10 teams, only the Reno Silver Sox will air all their games on radio, and then on a Christian station that can be heard from one end of town to the other but no farther.
No one could confuse this with major league baseball. And it's not just that a mongrel puppy called Bully lives in the Riverside bullpen and darts into the outfield during games. Or that San Jose fans are entertained between innings by Smash for Cash, winning money and testing their arms trying to break the headlights of a panel truck parked in the outfield.
The distinction between California League teams and their big-city, big-league cousins is less obvious. In The Cal, winning isn't that important. Baseball here is less a team sport than an individual one. That's because most of the players are being paid by major league ballclubs that are cultivating talent, not looking for a minor league pennant.
The score is almost irrelevant. What counts is who got experience, who shone in the box scores, who performed.
This concept eludes most fans, including Lisa, Shelley and Corey, who look forward to seeing the Spirit in the playoffs in September. "Of course they're trying to win," Lisa says. "What do you mean?"
IT'S ABOUT 6 p.m., and the sun is falling behind the tall high oak trees that shade central Visalia, but the April air is still warm, close to 80 degrees. The thwack of ball against bat rings across Giddings Avenue, a quiet street near the center of town. Along the railroad tracks in front of Dollar K Check Cashing--"If we can't cash it, trash it," the sign says--two boys on bikes scan the sky to see if an errant baseball is falling their way.
Hidden behind a fence across the tracks, on the deep grass of Recreation Park, the 1989 Visalia Oaks prepare for their first game before the home folks. The team owner isn't coming, nor is the mayor. But 1,214 people will be there, the biggest opening-night crowd in Visalia in three years.
Visalia's place in minor league lore was established by a couple of lines of dialogue in last summer's hit movie "Bull Durham." Near the end of the film, the over-the-hill minor league catcher played by Kevin Costner tells his girlfriend, Susan Sarandon, that he wants to prolong his baseball life as the manager in Visalia, perhaps a stepping stone to a career as a manager in the majors.