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Road Trip for Real Fans : Looking for the lost innocence of baseball? Try a stadium-to-stadium tour of the California League, where the seats are cheap, the players are up close and the barbecue is mouthwatering.

June 25, 1995|Robert Hilburn | Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

SAN JOSE — The fun begins long before the first pitch is thrown each night at Municipal Stadium, home to the city's California League baseball team ever since the proud old grandstand was built half a century ago for $80,000.

Driving up to the stadium, where such players as George Brett and Jose Canseco honed their skills before moving up to the big leagues, visitors see a colorful billboard that takes a swipe at last year's bitter major league strike.

The board is dominated by two drawings--one of a San Jose player proudly swinging a bat and the other of a major league player in a business suit, glumly heading to a negotiation session. To drive the point home, bold letters declare, "San Jose Giants Players Don't Carry Briefcases."

Last year's strike between ballplayers with million-dollar contracts and owners with fat bank accounts disillusioned so many fans that attendance is down about 25% in the majors this summer.

But there's a way baseball lovers can return to the purity and innocence of the game they fell in love with as kids . . . and enjoy a delightful vacation at the same time.

At San Jose's Municipal Stadium, or one of the more than 100 other minor league parks around the country, baseball is far more intimate, the players more approachable and the tickets cheaper than at major league stadiums.

The appeal goes beyond the compactness and relaxed atmosphere of fields such as San Jose's stadium--where the most distant seat from home plate would be considered breathtakingly close to the action in a major league ballpark--to the challenge of spotting future major league stars.

For about the same price as a box seat at Dodger Stadium, you can enjoy a smoky, down-home barbecue while watching the game from picnic-table benches in San Jose. Or for about half the price of parking alone at Anaheim Stadium you can sit under the stars in the cool Mojave Desert air and watch a game at Maverick Stadium, where hot dogs are $1 and a large beer is $2.50 (at Dodger Stadium, you'll pay $4.50).

Those are some of the reasons my wife, Kathi, and I have attended dozens of minor league games over the years, driving 90 miles from our home in Sherman Oaks to see the Bakersfield Blaze or High Desert Mavericks three or four times a season, sometimes even when the Dodgers are playing only 15 miles away.

But recently we decided to make a vacation out of our minor-league mania. In May, we set out on a tour of California League parks, attending five games in five days, starting at the rickety old parks in the north and ending in the newer, more ambitious, multimillion dollar complexes of the south.

Since we wanted to start in San Jose, our first step was phoning the California League office for a schedule so we could map our route. This is essential because only half of the 10 teams are at home any given week.

To add to the adventure, we decided to stay at the same motels as the teams, who travel by chartered bus--not private jet--from city to city during the season, which stretches from early April through Sept. 3.

Each park has its charms, but my advice is to try to include San Jose in any itinerary--that barbecue is worth the trip alone--and either of the league's flashy new Southern California showcases, Rancho Cucamonga or Lake Elsinore.

Try also to visit High Desert, the park with the loveliest natural setting, and Bakersfield, an especially cozy facility that holds the dubious distinction of being one of only two parks in America that was built in the wrong direction. Home plate faces the sun, which means the starting time of games over the years has often had to be delayed until umpires could look straight ahead without squinting.

Don't feel intimidated about talking to the coaches and scouts.

For most, including former major league player and manager Jim Davenport, baseball is more than a game of runs, hits and errors. It's also a game of memories, and they like sharing them with fans.

"The best player I ever saw . . .," Davenport, now a coach with the San Jose Giants, said as we started up a conversation with him after watching his players take batting practice. "I'd say Willie Mays. He could do everything. . . . There was one time in Philadelphia, where . . . "

Day One, San Jose

We arrived at Municipal Stadium in time to catch the end of batting practice for the evening game. The stadium gates were open, so we just walked in on this warm, quiet afternoon and had the grandstand pretty much to ourselves.

The minor leagues are training grounds for the majors, with the various leagues designated triple A (the most experienced players) to Class A (one step up from the rookie leagues). The California League is A, and the odds are that, at most, only one or two players per team will ever graduate to the majors.

But it's easy to spot the hot young prospects. They carry themselves with such confidence and poise that they look like they were born to play the game.

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