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Gallery : Not Quite : Prime Time

March 07, 1993|Times Staff Photographer Tammy Lechner has spent four years following the fans, fortunes and foibles of the single-A California League, whose 10 teams stretch from Palm Springs to San Jose. This is the second of two photo essays.

For players, life in the California League often seems like one long bus ride--with a little baseball squeezed in between. For five months, starting each April, teams criss-cross the desert and central valleys, stopping in Stockton, Bakersfield and other bastions of the grass-roots game. Single-A bus travel offers few luxuries. Like most teams, the Visalia Twins load their own gear and bring their own pillows, blankets and junk food to get through the hours of rolling highway.

Many like to pass time by dreaming--often aloud--about their big break: getting called up to the next level of the minors. Most single-A players are expected to make the majors within four years. Jose Conseco and Reggie Jackson are among the big-leaguers who started in the Cal.

While major-league salaries can soar to seven figures, most Cal athletes make $1,200 a month during the season. Many hold second jobs. Money's so tight that fans often buy players lunch after a game and offer them cheap rates on room and board--a new meaning, perhaps, for team spirit.

After four seasons, the stadiums of the Cal were old friends to Lechner, seen here in Reno in 1989, her first year following the league.

"Reno, in all honesty, had a pretty rundown stadium," she says. It also was known for nasty winds that could turn pop flies into homers. But everyone loved to play there because of the night life and the fact a steak dinner cost $3. (The team moved to Riverside this season.)

Lechner says Bakersfield's quaint, wooden park has an architectural faux pas : the sun sets over the centerfield fence.

She favors the more picturesque and less pesky sunset in Modesto, above. But her favorite sky views come in Palm Springs, especially early in the season, when the desert stadium is rimmed with snow-capped mountains.

"No matter how far I had to travel to get to a game . . . one of these stadiums always made me forget how far from home I was," she says.

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