"Play ball!"--two words shouted time and again within the confines of Ventura County. Two words synonymous with baseball.
True, there are no professional teams in the county. And the last minor league team that did play in the area, the Ventura Gulls, stayed only a year. But folks around here aren't exactly out of touch with baseball.
Consider the following:
* About 11,500 boys and a few girls play organized baseball in the county.
* Eleven boys who grew up playing baseball in Ventura County are now playing in the major leagues.
* More than a few ex-major leaguers also grew up in the county. The list includes Ventura's Fred Snodgrass who, sadly, will forever be remembered for dropping a 10th-inning fly ball that cost the New York Giants the 1912 World Series. On the plus side, fellow Venturan Charley Hall was on the Boston Red Sox, the beneficiary of that infamous error.
* The nation's No. 1 high school prospect to become a major league player is a student at Rio Mesa High in Oxnard.
* Dean McMillin, a pitcher for Ventura College, was drafted by the Houston Astros, and his brother Darryl, the third baseman on the Ventura College team, may end up going pro too. Then there's their nephew Tony, who at age 12 is already throwing a tricky knuckle-ball as a pitcher for the Cubs in the Saticoy Little League.
Hold it. Time out. Take a seventh-inning stretch. Let's start from the beginning--which, as it happens, would be around 1873.
That was the year, according to Ventura County Historical Society records, that the first official baseball team was formed in the county. Facing a shortage of competition teams, the Ventura Baseball Club's first game was against local citizens and, not surprisingly, the team won, 56-17.
From that point on, the county was afflicted with baseball fever. It would be 74 years before a professional team came to the county, but semipro (adult baseball) leagues held strong.
"There were a lot of good ballplayers around here," said Dalt Clements, a first baseman on the Zander's Clothiers team from the mid- to late '30s. "In those days we took it very seriously. It was not only your recreation, it was pretty much your way of life."
In 1947 the New York Yankees placed a minor league team in Ventura--the first California League Team in the county. The Ventura Yankees played at Seaside Park until 1949. After they folded, the Ventura Braves were here from 1950-1951, the Ventura Oilers played in 1952 and the Channel Cities Oilers from 1953 to 1955.
It would be 31 years before another professional baseball team took the field in the county. In 1986 three local men--two former big-league players and a businessman--tried to make a go of it with the Gulls, a minor league affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The team used the baseball field at Ventura College. There were no lights and no beer sales and thus not too many fans. So in 1987 the team moved to San Bernardino.
But the Gulls had attracted some true fans during their short stay.
"We went all the time. We'd sit out there and yell and scream and drink soda pop," said Dottie Pas, a major financial supporter of the Gulls who paid for a dugout that was referred to as Dottie's Dugout.
"It was a whole lot better than Little League. I don't know much about baseball, but the part I liked is that they did make mistakes. They were human, funny things happened. When you get to the pros, they don't screw up so often," she said. "I don't think we'll get another team here unless they get their own field. I think there's a place for it, but you know, this town can't even support a good restaurant."
That's where professional baseball in Ventura County stands today--not even on the menu. For now, most people seem quite content with the amateur version. And there's plenty of that.
Take a leisurely drive around the county some Saturday afternoon and try to avoid baseball entirely. It's not easy.
From one end of the county to the other, children are playing some form of organized baseball. A vast majority of those kids are involved with Little League. Others are involved in Pony League baseball programs, the American Legion program, or baseball camps, like the new peewee league in Port Hueneme for children ages 4 to 7. There's also an annual Oxnard Sports Festival and an annual Seabee Tournament.
Little League is divided into various age groups, from the T-ball division for 6- to 7-year-olds, to the big-league division for 16- to 18-year-olds. Conejo Valley's Little League program is the largest in the area with 835 kids, the most allowed under Little League rules.
And Conejo Valley, like elsewhere in the county, is reporting an upsurge in interest over the last few years.
"Generally the leagues have been reporting 2, 3, 4, 5% increases," said Roy DeFisher, assistant district administrator for the leagues north of the Santa Clara River. "Let's face it, baseball is a big game."