Oasis With Bases

Los Angeles Times
April 24, 1991


Instead of Iowa cornfields, rangy Mojave Desert Joshua trees sway beyond the outfield fence of this field of dreams. Mayor Ed Dondelinger knows the answer, but he bends over the microphone and asks anyway: "What do you think of the place?"

From more than 3,500 joyful, thankful people comes a sound almost inconceivable 70 miles away in Los Angeles -- loud and lengthy cheers for a mayor and his City Council.

Minutes later, a new era in America's love for minor league baseball began at a most unlikely outpost, a spanking-new stadium that rises like a mirage on a wind-scoured corner of high desert at the tail end of the odd little city of Adelanto.

Adelanto -- 52 square miles of scrub brush and vacant home lots, with about 11,000 residents -- is best known for seeking other towns' nuisances. Prisons, big airports, legal gambling, even trash are welcome here. It is partly survival, partly civic pride.

On Monday night, Adelanto introduced its biggest prize yet -- the High Desert Mavericks, farm team of the San Diego Padres. Lured away from Riverside, the Mavericks' move to Adelanto is the first acknowledgment by organized baseball, or any professional sport, of California's high desert boom towns.

As fans began to fill the seats, grilling pork chops gave the stadium its first smells of baseball. Mavericks came out of the dugout to gawk, displaying their crisp white home uniforms for the first time. "I can't believe this happened so fast," said M. Val Shearer, a city councilman from nearby Hesperia, as he took in the scene.

Shearer meant the 3,500-seat stadium, built by the city of Adelanto in eight months, but he could have been talking about the area's transformation from a crossroads on a route to Las Vegas into California's fastest-growing new region. In 1980, the four high desert towns that sit at the top of Cajon Pass -- Adelanto, Hesperia, Victorville and Apple Valley -- shared a population of 53,000. Last year, the census found Hesperia alone had 50,418. Together, the four cities nearly tripled in population to 145,688. Town officials say thousands more were missed by the census in new suburban tracts. Another 187,000 people live less than an hour's drive across the desert, in Palmdale, Lancaster and Barstow.

"Ten years from now you won't believe how many more people are going to be up here," said Shearer, who subscribes to the prevailing ethic that growth is good.

An hour before game time Monday night, the line of fans waiting to get in snaked across a parking lot almost onto the raw desert, more than 1,000 strong. The game was sold out for weeks, and the Mavericks set a record for the California League by selling 1,200 season tickets at $175 a pop.

The Cal, a single-A league near the bottom of baseball's system of farm teams where young players learn their trade, has operated for 47 years. Only recently has the league begun to reflect the state's decades-long shift in population to Southern California, placing teams in Palm Springs, San Bernardino and Riverside.

San Bernardino has the league's most successful team ever, setting new attendance records every year since moving there in 1987. The Riverside team, the Red Wave, played there for three years but decided to move because of poor crowds and neighborhood objections to the sale of beer. Beer was no problem in Adelanto, said Mavericks President Bobby Brett, whose brother George plays for the Kansas City Royals and brother Ken is a former major league pitcher and TV announcer for the California Angels.

"No hearings, no judges," said Brett, whose brothers are co-owners of the Mavericks. "The business community here thinks we're very important. We're probably better off being a big fish in a small pond." By general acclamation, the hero of opening night was Mel Yarmat, an Apple Valley real estate agent who contacted the Bretts and enticed them to relocate in Adelanto. He is seen as the man who gave high desert residents something to do with their summer evenings.

"The city of Adelanto won't make any money on this, but what it does for the high desert community is immeasurable," Yarmat said. "It's really a big deal here. You have 225,000 people with really very little to do -- just two movie theaters and a shopping mall." After a cocktail celebration for several hundred invited guests, the stadium gates officially flew open a little after 6 p.m. "This is great. Get me a beer and play ball!" said Randy Drell, hurrying his family to the blue seats along third base, as rock oldies from the 1950s and '60s began to pour from huge outfield speakers.

Down one aisle, Fia Wallace, 17, stood shivering in a black mini-skirt and Mavericks jacket. A senior at Victor Valley High School, she plans to work the season for $12 a game as a "Maverick Girl," showing fans to their seats. This was her first taste of minor league baseball. "It's OK," she said, confessing she really just wants to meet people.

On the field, Mavericks pitcher Eddie Zinter -- whose nickname is "The Z Man" -- autographed baseballs for his new fans and complimented the freshly opened stadium. "This is fantastic, not even close to the other minor league stadiums I have seen," said Zinter, a Brigham Young University graduate assigned to Adelanto by the Padres.

The stadium is state-of-the-art, with large clubhouses and big dugouts not equaled by most California League parks. Being a pitcher, he took note of the wind blowing fiercely toward the right-field fence. Players have speculated that the evening winds here will sail many home runs out into the desert. But, being a pitcher, Zinter came up with a rationale for the wind reducing, rather than helping, home runs. "This will make us pitchers concentrate on getting the ball down," Zinter said.

Ed Keser is no baseball fan, but he came anyway to celebrate with his grandson and co-workers -- in ski hat, leather gloves and heavy coat. "The desert is always unpredictable," Keser said. "You have to come prepared." Keser is captain of the guard at Adelanto's city-run correctional facility, which opened April 15 under contract to the state prison system. Inmates from the prison will be brought every afternoon to prepare the stadium for that night's game.

Until baseball, the 300-bed facility was Adelanto's prize lure -- though the city is now negotiating with the federal Bureau of Prisons to place a 3,000-bed maximum-security prison here. "We don't look at a prison as being a stigma -- we look at it as an industry," said Patricia Chamberlaine, Adelanto's city administrator. "It would provide about 1,000 jobs."

Adelanto is the black sheep of the high desert cities, but not for its desire for prisons and the like. It wants to take over adjacent George Air Force Base when the Pentagon closes the base, and make it an international airport serving Southern California. The other cities also want the base to become an airport, but a more modest one that will not be as disruptive a neighbor to the new suburbs flourishing in the surrounding desert like tumbleweeds.

On Monday night, as the Mavericks romped to their first home triumph -- 12-1 over the Reno Silver Sox -- the rivalries were put aside.

"We've got the mayors of all the cities here, and at least for tonight we're going to sit and have a hot dog and beer together," said Yarmat. "It lets the high desert community know that not everything is done (by Adelanto) with dollar signs in the eyes."

© Los Angeles Times 1991