75 years of history at Sam Lynn Ballpark but the sun finally sets on professional baseball

Posted at 5:45 PM, Sep 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-13 20:45:14-04

Bakersfield residents have heard the same threat for years. If you don't build a new park, the team will move. Three weeks ago that axe finally fell and while we've known this would be the final season, it didn't make the final game any easier.

HIGHLIGHTS: Blaze fall 6-3 ending 75 years of professional baseball in Bakersfield

What do you say after 75 years? Maybe try that famous line from Field of Dreams, "The one constant through all the years has been baseball." For years Sam Lynn Ballpark has been the home to that consistency and the definition of unique.

Take Jeff MacDonald, the director of stadium operations, who has to climb on the top of an ATV to hang a bright orange sign letting those driving through Oildale there's a "game today." 

"It's just going to be sad when there's no more games," he said as he put up the sign for one of the last times.

There will be no more #SamLynnSunsets. 

The unique "quirk" found only at a stadium built before World War II and the prevalence of night games, fans have spent many a summer shielding their eyes from the setting sun in center field before games can finally start. 

"We have various hats," said long time fan Debbie Duffel on how she deals with not looking straight into the sun. It's the field where Hall of Famers Don Drysdale, Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza got their start. Now just memories for fans to tell the next generation.  

Fans, like Mark Duffel who has turned into quite the amateur photographer though insists he isn't any good.

He says the access found by standing just feet players on a nightly basis is the minor league experience he'll miss most. "You make a real connection here," he said. Gesturing to players sitting in an on deck chair just feet away he said, "Look at how close we are."

While many fans have their own personal connections, perhaps no one is as close to the team as Dennis Gallion, or "Froggy" as he's affectionately known by everyone at the park. "These people are like my family," he said. For the last 19 seasons he's been the guy selling team programs and is as much a part of the team as any player or staffer. He even had his commitment ceremony on the field in 2012.

So perhaps it was fitting that on the final regular season home game at Sam Lynn, Froggy got to throw out his "first" first pitch. 

Rumors of a team move have been a dark cloud swirling over the team since Dan Besbris was hired  in 2011. Besbris is the team's play by play announcer, assistant general manager and often everything in between. Things were so bad when he started that it was a legitimate goal to try and get just 100 bodies through the gates and into the stands to watch a game every night. When that was done go to 150, then 200 and so on.

It's a laughable problem for a professional sports team but one that he says came with the territory at Sam Lynn. "Anything good that happens at this place, we did it. Nothing good happens out here unless somebody made it happen because that's Sam Lynn Ballpark. It's going to be teetering on the brink of disaster on a nightly basis and our job is to keep that from happening and make it fun," he said. 

The true irony of the team leaving is that this past year was one of the best attended in a decade. Promotions were good (especially this year with their "Throwback Thursday Jersey" night) and the on field entertainment was hard to beat.

But it's the outreach in the community that will be hard to replace. This year players made frequent appearances to the Mission of Kern County, YMCA or local elementary schools. All that thanks to Emily Hintz, the director of media operations, who moved from Nebraska for a shot at getting into baseball. 

"Even though it's my first year here I've seen the community and talked with people who have been out here for years and years and years," she said. "It's just really sad to see that they'll no longer have this to come to."

It hurts the fans, but it might hurt Tim Wheeler even more. Wheeler has been the team's official scorer each of the last 22 seasons keeping every score sheet during that time in his "man cave." The cave is a monument to the Blaze with the team's different jerseys hanging on the walls, 22 baseballs signed by every team that's come through and newspaper clippings from his streak. 

Yes his streak of games, 1,439 to be exact, where Wheeler kept score before finally missing out to have surgery to remove a cancer. He says without question the Blaze and the front office staff are what got him through those treatments, "they were great support and I'll never forget them for it."

There was never going to be a happy ending to this story. Never that season to look forward to next season. But there was hope that the team could ride off into the sunset with a Cal League title. The 2016 team had the best second half record and made the playoffs and twice staved off elimination to move on to the second round. But winning it all just wasn't Sam Lynn's style.

To steal again from Field of Dreams, "if you build it, they will come." We'll have to wait and see if Bakersfield cares enough about baseball to make that happen but for now the sun has finally set on Sam Lynn.