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Warriors Find Home on Road

Baseball: Western League team from Grays Harbor endures sport's longest trip--62 consecutive away games.

August 27, 1998| From Staff and Wire Reports

Like a phantom locomotive, the team bus rolls on and on--through Oregon hills and Nevada flatlands, from eastern Washington to the Oxnard plains.

The Western Warriors of baseball's independent Western League have been on the road since June 13--back when they still were the Grays Harbor Gulls, based in the southwest Washington community.

The franchise folded in late June after three seasons, a casualty of empty seats and a sour local economy. Team owners phoned Manager Charley Kerfeld during a California road trip June 25 and told him to bring the players home.

But when Kerfeld called league officials, they told him to stick to the schedule.

So the team rolled on--en route to professional baseball's longest road trip of the century. By the time their trek ends Sept. 2, the Warriors will have played 62 consecutive away games.

The Oxnard-based Pacific Suns swept a three-game series against the Warriors last week. The teams are 6-6 head-to-head this season. The Warriors swept the Suns in a three-game series Aug. 4-6, the last games the Suns played under former owner Don DiCarlo.

Despite having no place to call home, the Warriors are in first place in the Western League Northern Division with a second-half record of 18-17, 2 1/2 games ahead of second-place Reno.

"I gave my word to these guys that they were going to be playing baseball," says Kerfeld, a former Houston Astros pitcher.

"So I said, 'I'm going to continue this road trip.' "

Host teams picked up the Warriors' expenses for a while "because they didn't want to see those games unplayed," said league executive director Tom Kowitz in Portland, Ore., where the league is based.

"That bought us some time."

Arrangements for the rest of the season were made in mid-July. Expenses will eventually be covered by the New York-based group that is buying the franchise, though league officials declined to identify the group or the city the players will call home next year.

For now, their home is the road.

"Western is the name of the league, so we decided what the hell, you know? We'll call them the Western Warriors," Kowitz said.

The Warriors show no sign of road sickness so far, but the odyssey can get lonesome.

"We don't have fans cheering for us," said pitcher Keith Barnes after a late July game in Bend, Ore. "The last two nights, we've won the game in the bottom of the ninth.

"At home, the crowd goes wild. Here, everybody is dead silent. The only people cheering are us."

Beth Howe, the Warriors' booster club president, recently flew to Reno, Nev., with 25 others to see the team play--and let the team see them.

"The grins on their faces were worth the money we paid to go," she said.

The Western League, formed in 1995, has franchises in Pasco, Wash.; Bend, Ore.; Reno; and Mission Viejo, Oxnard, Sonoma County and Chico in California. It plays a 90-game May-September schedule.

Extended road trips in professional sports usually are caused by Olympic Games, political conventions or stadium repairs.

Before the Gulls-Warriors began their wanderings, the longest modern-day pro baseball road trip was in 1992, when the GOP convention pushed the Astros out of town for 28 days.

But officials at the Society for American Baseball Research can't find anything this century to beat the Warriors' trip.

Only the National League's Cleveland Spiders racked up more road play with a 114-game trip in 1899, according to J. Thomas Hetrick, a Clifton, Va.-based author who wrote a book on that long-disbanded team.

Like the Spiders, the Gulls were done in by poor attendance.

Without big-league subsidies, a good turnout for home games is imperative. Healthy teams like the Chico Heat and the Pasco Posse draw more than 2,000 people per game.

The Grays Harbor club "had a solid core of about 500 fans" in the league's smallest market, said the franchise's former vice president, Steve Meyers. Just 369 season tickets were sold this year.

It's not that the community didn't care. These are hard times in Grays Harbor County, which had a June jobless rate of 9%--more than double the state's 4.4%.

"Timber's down, fishing's down," says Bob Paylor, a county commissioner and season-ticket holder. "All of the natural resource-based industries have struggled in the past 10 years."

Standing outside the team bus on a warm, still night in Bend, Warrior catcher Jon Fuller laughs about his Western League career. When he played for Sonoma last year, he pined to join the Gulls, just 90 minutes from his family home near Tacoma.

But things have gotten worse since he was traded.

"My daughter keeps wondering where I'm at," Fuller said as the bus sounded its horn. "She keeps saying, 'Are you going to be home in four days?' I just agree with her. She's only 4."

Son Matthew, 9, knows better.

"He just wants me home when he starts school," Fuller said as he boarded the bus.

The Warriors were back on the road.


John M. Hubbell of the Associated Press and staff writer Steve Henson contributed to this report.

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