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FAN OF THE HOUSE

Lancaster JetHawks offer an enjoyable option for a baseball fan

The Class-A team in the California League is a good escape from the trappings of Major League Baseball, and especially all of the Dodgers' nonsense.

August 20, 2010|Chris Erskine

We follow baseball the way coyotes follow a full moon, up Highway 14 to one of those rocky little 'burbs on the edge of civilization, out to where the Flintstones keep a condo.

Lancaster's the place, and here we find a plucky little Class-A team, the JetHawks. Best of all, we find baseball devoid of ego and excess and all the other trappings that sometimes churn your Cheerios.

I broke up with the Dodgers the other day, did I mention that? Oh, sure, I'll take them back, probably in a day or two. But for now I've had my fill of Major League Baseball prices, sorrowful endings and Matt Kemp's agent. At some point, fans need to go on strike. Seriously, do I always have to be the voice of treason?

Until that moment, I've left the Dodgers for a younger team. Folks, I want you to meet my latest love, the Lancaster Jethawks.

That's right, Lancaster — last gas before Nevada. Basically, you drive until you start seeing trailer parks and mules. When the L.A. radio stations get all fuzzy, hang a left. That's Clear Channel Stadium, ironically enough. Locals also call it the Hangar.

It's a gem of a little stadium too, as many of these minor league parks are. For 13 bucks, you get the very best ticket and all the slices of Americana you could ever devour.

In fact, carve 40 bucks out of your late-August budget and here's what you'll get during an evening for two in the California League:

Parking

2 tickets behind the plate

Chicken sandwich

•Corndog

•Fries

•Large soft drink

•2 game programs

•A free comic book for the kid

Plenty, right? But that doesn't even begin to capture the experience. The F-18 flyover to start the game, so low you could almost high-five the pilot. The grassy areas along left field and right field, where you can spread a blanket and watch the foothills turn purple as a good bruise.

Want to chat with the bullpen players along the first base line? Go ahead. And of course there's the corny/wonderful minor league promotions — mascot race, tug-of-war, frozen T-shirt contest.

This is the Class-A experience, in the famed California League (San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, etc.). In baseball's Byzantine minor league system, triple A is at the top, of course, Class A the bottom.

What you maybe didn't know is all the sub-basements of Class A: rookie, rookie-advanced, short-season A, advanced A, low A.

So, yeah, you've got to climb the ladder to even get to Lancaster. The average age of the JetHawks: 23, and most are a few years out of college — or if they came directly out of high school, several years past their senior prom.

As with all MLB farm teams, the parent club (in this case, the Houston Astros) pays for the coaches, players, trainers. The stuff outside the foul lines belongs to the minor league franchise itself — concessions, tickets, foam fingers. Despite the allure, it's a hard-scrabble business. At Saturday's game, boosters held a bake sale to raise money for the team (plate of brownies $1.50).

"From the fan's perspective, minor league baseball can't be beat," says L.A. attorney Rob Owens, who once owned a minor league team in the Angels system. "But from every other aspect, there are nooks and crannies of minor league baseball as a business that provide loads of challenges."

JetHawks Chief Executive Peter Carfagna, who purchased the team in 2006, says the Lancaster team is making a go of it, partly because of a new stadium lease agreement with the city.

"The most important part is the corporate sponsorships," says Carfagna, a Harvard-educated lawyer and Rhodes scholar from Cleveland who somehow ended up owning a team in the California desert.

Even in depressed times, attendance in Lancaster has jumped: 124,934 in 2008 (Baseball America); 141,000 this year (the team's website).

That averages to about 2,245 per game in what will be a season of 70 home games.

Such is the world of minor league ball, deep-pocket mercenaries answering their love for the game by subsidizing these "Bull Durham" franchises for as long as they can swing it.

But forget the numbers. You? All you care about is value, in a safe setting, where the kids can romp around between innings and it doesn't take you 45 minutes to exit the parking lot.

Family experiences? You can barely find that at the movies anymore. And don't get me started about all the crud you see on TV.

"We're a baseball venue, but we're selling family entertainment," JetHawks play-by-play guy Jeff Lasky says.

At least someone still is.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

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