The return of the season on April 7 provides relief for baseball-starved fans in addition to the opportunity for everyone to start fresh. In the Inland Empire, we feel almost centrally located amongst three major league teams, the San Diego Padres, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Many local fans will find time to make it to one of these beautiful parks as the season progresses, often lured by the promise of expanding their bobble-head collection. In the meantime, there is plenty for the casual or avid baseball fan to enjoy here in the region at a Minor League baseball game. Take an opportunity to expand your baseball IQ, support your local organizations and avoid the traffic and the pain of high gas prices.
Baseball is America’s pastime, a title earned not only by the significance of the the great clubs, players or moments but also because baseball finds its way into nearly every community in both historical and organizational influence. Here in the Inland Empire we have our own vivid baseball identity, one that provides plenty of opportunity to appreciate the local history and experience baseball firsthand.
If you are at least slightly familiar with professional baseball, you know that each team has an organization of affiliated teams in other parts of the country that is known casually as the “farm system” that provides a structure for prospective players to gain experience and demonstrate pro-level skills. These teams are made of drafted and undrafted prospects and each competes on varying levels that are based on skills and promotion. Familiarity with how the minor league system works is nice but not needed, so I won’t go in depth. The California League, which is home to three local affiliated teams is a Class A-Advanced or “Hi A” league, which means that the kids you see have college experience or have played well enough to be moved up by a team from a couple other lower level leagues. The point is that in the I.E. we have an easy opportunity to see some real talent and competitive baseball. The three I.E. teams are the Lake Elsinore Storm, the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes and the Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino. These club names may not be recognizable, but they are each affiliated with a local MLB team; Lake Elsinore for the Padres, Rancho for the Dodgers and Inland Empire for the Angels.
Minor league rosters can be kind of fluid based on mid-season promotions/demotions to other levels in addition to transactions like trades in addition to rehab stints for major leaguers who catch a few innings with the minor league clubs in order to get back to form after an injury before heading back to their teams. In 2009 the Inland Empire 66ers (at the time a Dodger affiliate) made waves by having Manny Ramirez on the roster after his big 50 game suspension. He played in San Bernardino and away at Lake Elsinore to a full house each time. The big draw of minor league games is to catch those star prospects and to get a look at the major league stars of tomorrow. Last season the 66ers had the nation’s top prospect Mike Trout on the roster. The biggest local Minor League player was Future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. who played for the San Bernardino Spirit (an organization that became the 66ers). The Kid played here for 58 games, where he reportedly hit home runs that reached the “C” when facing the Riverside Red Wave at the Sports Complex.
The best seats are very affordable at about ten bucks, but these lower-capacity parks provide plenty of great views no matter where you sit. In the past I have not paid more than 5 dollars for parking, and the beer does not exceed that amount either (a fraction of the major league counterparts). Soon we will give you a full review of the details at one of the parks this season, but your best bet is to check out the website of the club you intend to check out and pick a night that might have a great food or beer promotion, or a cool giveaway (yeah they do bobble-heads too).
Even if you are a casual baseball fan, there is plenty of fun to be had at a Minor League game, particular on one of those perfect summer nights when staying inside for a movie or other entertainment option is kind of a betrayal of the good fortune we have in the form of prime baseball weather in Southern California. Minor League clubs are famous for promotions aimed at luring you to the ballpark above and beyond the game itself, and the Lake Elsinore Storm have garnered notice already this year by promoting a Charlie Sheen themed evening, which invited him to “rehab” at the stadium for Sheen-co de Mayo. So come out for your celebrity fix or for any other reason starting this weekend. Check the team schedules for home openers and exact times.
Finally, a little bit about the Inland Empire’s baseball identity. The biggest claim to fame in terms of birthplace is also a particularly notorious one. While he is currently the defendant in a perjury trial and the face of the “Steroid Era,” Riverside’s Barry Bonds is the record holder for both career and single-season home runs. Bonds also has plenty of other accolades that include multiple MVP and All Star seasons that were built on incredible Hall of Fame stats. Barry’s father Bobby was also born in Riverside, playing ball at Riverside Poly and going on to be a great major league player, among the many notable records and statistics he held himself included being the second player to record 300 home runs/300 stolen bases in his career. A park on University Ave. in Riverside is named in his honor.
Many local fans will likely vividly remember the 2002 World Series, memorable because the Angels won their sole World Championship that year by defeating the San Francisco Giants in 7 games. What is even more notable are all of the Inland connections to one of history’s best Fall Classics. Barry Bond’s only World Series, in which he was playing for a Giants team managed by current Cincinnati Reds manager and fellow Riverside native, Dusty Baker. The Angels won those games through plenty of big game offense from sluggers like Tim Salmon and Troy Glaus, but the key (as it often is in post-season baseball) was the pitching, notably the three saves from Fontana’s Troy Percival, a four-time All Star and UCR graduate. Additionally, behind Percival in the Angel’s infield was a third Riverside born player, North High School alumnus Adam Kennedy. The last Angels fact is that before moving on to Arizona, the Angels’ home for Spring Training was here in the Inland Empire in the city of Palm Springs.
Kennedy is still active in the Seattle Mariners system, but look for a few other IE ballplayers in the league like Mark Teahen of the Chicago White Sox and Marc Rzepcynski of the Toronto Blue Jays. Speaking of the South Siders, there is a Redwood Tree in Low Park off Magnolia in Riverside that was planted in 1914 by a visiting White Sox team (and if you are wondering, Shoeless Joe was still in Cleveland in 1914).