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Shaking Things Up in the Minors

April 11, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — At the junction where Rochester Avenue runs into Jack Benny Drive--no, really --there is love in bloom. The new ballpark is a real beauty. The Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of Class A's minor leagues are about to play their very first baseball game. A life-sized bronze sculpture of Jack Benny stands in the lobby. A current Hollywood star who owns a piece of the team is in his luxury box. A marimba band is giving everybody good vibes.

And "Mister Trash" is patrolling the aisles.

Ryan Thornburg is enjoying his new identity as Mister Trash. He is wearing a tuxedo. He is strolling around the ballpark with a plastic trash bag, begging everybody to keep the new stadium clean. Don't crumple those soda cups and drop them on the ground. Don't throw those Quake Dog wrappers any old place. So far, Ryan likes this job--janitor in a tux. Now that he's finishing up at Upland High and thinking about college, he says, "I was looking for something besides flipping burgers."

Minor league baseball. Sometimes you forget how wonderful it can be. The general warmth. The lack of pretension. The charm. Where else can you find the quilt-work of advertising billboards from one corner of the outfield fence to the other?

"Vision Problems?" asks the one near the right-field foul pole. "Dr. Jerry Rosenstein, Optometrist, 989-1791. Serving Rancho Cucamonga For 15 Years." It's right beside the one for ZAP Adhesives and Sealants. And at the farthest point from home plate, raised slightly above the wall in center field, is a round target. That's for you batters up there. Hit a homer off this target and win a new car from Romero Buick.

Everything is perfect. The weather is perfect. Desert-dry with a breeze. The backdrop is perfect. Barely a building visible for miles and miles. Tiny lights from the city of Rancho Cucamonga, population 119,000, off in the distance. Mountains beyond. The setting is perfect. Fifteen miles outside San Bernardino, off the 15 freeway toward Vegas, maybe an hour and a half due east on the 10 from downtown L.A., another nice reminder that right outside Los Angeles there's a place called California.

"Pro Baseball Back in Town" read the banner Page 1 headline in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin on Thursday. Not since 1947 and the old Ontario entry of the Sunset League has professional baseball been played on these particular green acres, we are told. San Bernardino has had a team, and so has the nearby High Desert, but not right here, not for nearly half a century. Vineyards and groves have been tilled and turned into an industrial park. They cleared it out like Kevin Costner in an Iowa cornfield.

Cost estimates of the stadium have ranged from $9.5 million--what the major leaguers "spend on Barry Bonds for one year," the builders' publicity releases point out--to $11 million. "If you build it," the release from Bernard Bros. continues, "they will come."

They do. Season-ticket sales had to be capped at 2,428, a California League record and an almost unheard-of figure for a Class-A club. The Quakes are a lower-level farm team for the San Diego Padres. They are owned by Hank Stickney, who has cornered some of the market in minor league sports. He used to own the San Bernardino team. His son, Ken, owns the Palm Springs Angels. Together they own the Las Vegas Stars as well as an IHL hockey team.

"You might say the Stickneys are the majors of the minors," says Dan Spellens, director of franchise development.

It is nearly game time, 7:05, and Hank Stickney couldn't be more excited. Everything is working out as well as could be expected. For a while, it looked as though there was no way the stadium--the Epicenter, it's called--would be ready in time. Heavy rains resulted in delays. But among the other things the Bernard Bros. have built is the "Colossus" roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain, "the longest, fastest wooden roller coaster on Earth," so you know they're good at doing things at high speed. The 4,500-seat park had an April deadline to meet.

Said Scott Shaid, project manager for the construction company: "The local paper called the completion a miracle."

And tonight, it's a reality. Cops wearing shorts patrol the parking lot on bicycles. The parking lot isn't completed, so there's a shuttle service carrying fans a mile and a half from City Hall. The ushers wear madras short-sleeved shirts. Near the front gate, Janet Holmes and her six-piece Caliente Marimba band, ages 7 to 15, are playing "La Bamba" and the theme from "Sesame Street" on their xylophone-like instruments. On the field, the award-winning Marching Eagle Regiment from nearby Etiwanda High is entertaining.

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