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Opening Night Giveaway

California League: JetHawks make five errors and lose to San Bernardino, 9-4, in first game of season at Hangar.


LANCASTER — Welcome to California. Now go play a home opener.

The Lancaster JetHawks, all but five of whom hail from the Eastern U.S. or Latin America, were welcomed by a smallish but lively crowd of 3,538 baseball fans Wednesday night at the Hangar.

The Seattle Mariners' affiliate opened California League play last week with six road games, winning four. Maybe it was nerves, maybe just the vagaries of the low minor leagues, but the momentum didn't carry over in a 9-4 loss to the San Bernardino Stampede.

The JetHawks committed five errors that led to four unearned runs.

However, the sloppy play didn't stop the female ushers from dancing on top of the dugouts or a grinning three-year-old boy from racing feathery mascot KaBoom around the bases between innings.

And the quality of play (or lack of) shouldn't detract from the Famous Chicken's act at the game tonight, or the refrigerator magnets of JetHawks' schedules to be handed out Friday or the fireworks display Saturday.

"I think that if we lose, 10-0, our fans still leave happy," said Matt Ellis, the JetHawks' general manager. "You can't trust the team to win every night. But with promotions and a strong family atmosphere, everyone has a good time.

"That's what minor league baseball is all about."

Promotions are crucial because the players are far less recognizable than major leaguers. They come and go like hobos on trains. The JetHawks used 28 pitchers last season.

And just when a prospect gets really hot, he's called up to double-A.

"In our first couple of seasons we promoted certain guys on billboards, and as soon as we did, they were gone," Ellis said.

There is more continuity in the crowd. Sixty fans were honored in a pregame ceremony for accumulating "JetHawk Frequent Flyer Miles" by attending each home game last season.

The team's booster club, "The Flight Crew," numbers 250 members and nearly 100 made the pilgrimage to the Mariners' minor league camp in Peoria, Ariz., for spring training.

Nevertheless, home attendance dropped from 315,000 to 300,000 to 240,000 in the JetHawks' first three seasons, although Ellis attributes last year's slide to poor weather.

"We should consistently be at about 270,000," he said, a figure that translates into an average of nearly 4,000 per game.

Ellis emphasizes how low ticket prices are compared to a Dodger game. This crowd was able to view a Dodger affiliate, the Stampede, whose top prospect is center fielder Bubba Crosby, a first-round draft choice in 1998.

But from the first play, the action was purely minor league, an entertaining blend of ineptness and potential.

Jim Gonzalez hit a looper over first base and the ball was kicked around near the bullpen by right fielder Gerald Eady of the JetHawks, prompting the speedy Gonzalez to accelerate around second and head for third.

Once he was done treating the ball like a hacky-sack, Eady unleashed a laser-like throw that would have made Raul Mondesi proud, but Gonzalez was safe by a whisker.

The Stampede scored two unearned runs in the first and the JetHawks, who committed only two errors in their first six games, continued to unravel.

However, the errors didn't bother the 13- and 14-year-olds from the Palmdale Little League JetHawks, who took the field before the first inning alongside their Lancaster counterparts.

"That we got attention was great," said Tim Losee, the Little League first baseman.

"I've come to games every year. It's a great thing to do with your friends. It's almost like going to a [major league] game."

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