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GONE WITH THE WIND
A Requiem For LA's Last MiLB Team
BILL WOOD | MARCH 8, 2021
Spring is in the air, which can only mean one thing: Time to stock up on peanuts and Cracker Jack, pre-order this year's edition of The Show, and start binging a certain Ken Burns doc.
Baseball is still tremendously popular in the United States and abroad, even if it is no longer The National Pastime. If our pastime can be encapsulated by a single sport, then that sport is American football, and it has been for decades. With an ever-increasing number of real-life issues, not to mention the widespread popularity of relatively newer obsessions (video games, the Internet, etc.), one can argue whether any sport will ever codify a national passion as baseball once did. However, that doesn't mean that it is without merit, and it certainly doesn't mean that it is no longer relevant. Baseball has survived a civil war, two world wars, a great depression, numerous recessions, and when Covid-19 is finally in our rear view mirror, it will survive that as well. Well, most of it will anyway.
My wife and I are huge baseball enthusiasts. We've been to every MLB stadium on the West Coast—Seattle to San Diego—multiple times over. We've attended games in Arizona and Texas, as well as minor league games all over the country, from Tacoma, WA to Frisco, TX to Charlotte, NC. Every new season ushers in rekindled hope and passion for the teams we root for, but this year there will be a gaping void in our baseball calendar. Sadly, after 25 years in the Antelope Valley, LA County's sole minor league team, the Lancaster JetHawks, will cease to exist. Along with the High Desert Mavericks and Bakersfield Blaze, they are the third California League team in five years to meet their untimely demise. The final nail in the coffin was driven when the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies accepted a massive demotion to supplant the JetHawks in Class-A's 80-year-old California League (recently rebranded as Low-A West... ugh). As of this writing, the team store closes in three days. And that's it.
You might assume that this was a Covid-related decision, but the JetHawks were scheduled for termination long before the pandemic hit. As part of Major League Baseball's farm league restructuring process (which, in all fairness, was long overdue and will serve to boost the salaries of minor league players), the league opted to axe dozens of minor league teams across the country. My local team happened to be one of them. An unfortunate roll of the dice? Maybe. But why the JetHawks in particular? You might assume that poor attendance had something to do with this, but from all reports their games were well attended. You might assume that their facilities were outdated, but The Hangar is actually one of the nicer ballparks in Class-A baseball, it underwent renovations just a few years ago.
The real reason the JetHawks are being booted from baseball? The wind. No, seriously. The wind.
It is true that Antelope Valley gales can be treacherous. On more than one occasion I've seen a strong breeze lift the ball directly over the right field fence. Hats are chased, tarpaulins upended, tiny animals swept away. The JetHawks' Spanish nickname is El Viento, or "the wind." If you're not accustomed, it can become something of a nuisance after an hour or two (the wind, not the nickname). Now, I've been to games at Candlestick Park where the bay breeze was so bitterly frigid that I could barely think straight. Of course, the Giants have long since relocated to Pac Bell- -AT&T-Oracle Park partially due to this inconvenience, although I can assure you it gets chilly and windy in that venue as well. Strong wind in a minor league stadium presents a different challenge. Apparently, these devilish desert gusts make it impossible for managers and scouts to adequately assess talent levels. In a league where scouting and talent assessment are the key indicators of success (as opposed to say, winning), this is a pretty big deal.
The most important function of a minor league team is to educate and elevate its players, so that they might one day achieve their dream of making it to a Major League Baseball roster. After all, before they were banging on garbage cans to win a World Series, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa were both members of a Class-A JetHawks roster under contract to the Houston Astros. But there are other functions as well, some of which may have a longer lasting impact than discovering MLB's next All-Star second baseman. The sense of togetherness and community spirit that the JetHawks provided to the city of Lancaster and its outlying towns cannot be overstated. There is an unbridled joy in buying a cheap ticket at the box office, grabbing a hot dog and a soda, seat-hopping from the blistering summer sun to the cool shade, watching kids chase down fouls in the grass, and seeing friendly and familiar faces relishing every moment of what is at times a lengthy and slack-paced entertainment experience. Yes, there is a functional business model attached, not to mention a sport to be played, games to be won. But at the same time, there is so much more.
I've been to so many JetHawks games over the years that I've honestly lost count. The team and its park have created some very fond memories. During their inaugural season in 1996, there was a hot tub next to left field where fans could watch the game while soaking (and drinking, usually). I'm sure that county health officials informed the team this might not be a solid idea, as the hot tub was removed in short order. I once sat next to the Modesto Nuts dugout for an entire game, taunting them for their unfortunate nickname (all very PG, I assure you). I waited in line an hour and a half to meet Giants legend Will Clark, who stayed past far his scheduled time to greet every last fan. I saw a combined no-hitter, I also saw a pitcher with a wicked submarine delivery yet zero control walk the bases loaded on 12 pitches. I ate a lengua (tongue) taco while watching fans devour two-foot hot dogs. From the best possible vantage point, I watched fireworks illuminating the deep desert sky on the 4th of July. I introduced friends, family and co-workers to the ballpark, every single one of them said it was the best time they'd had in awhile. Some even came back.
Countless were the times when my wife and I would leave the JetHawks' ballpark early. Either it was getting dark, or it was getting cold, or it was getting late, or the score was out of hand, or we had somewhere more important to be. I now realize that there was nowhere more important to be, I want every one of those lost innings back. In the cruelest twist of all for JetHawks fans, Covid has wiped out any chance of a farewell tour, one final season-long hurrah. Instead, they're just... gone. Take my advice: If you've got a minor league baseball team in your area, go see them play. Even if you don't enjoy baseball, buy a ticket in the cheap seats and lose yourself for an hour or two. You never know when a sharp gust of wind might come along and blow it all away. - BW