Normally I use the team moniker rather than its city but this title is just too good to pass up – sounds like an article from the Wine Spectator on the relative merits of the special vintages of the two best known California wine regions.
But it’s about as far from fine wine as you can get. Instead, it is the Sonoma Stompers vs. the Napa Silverados, two teams from the Pacific Association, an independent league (not affiliated with any major league organization). Independent leagues come and go, but there are currently six that are considered viable. The players get paid, so they are professional, but just barely. Many live with host families and most are either high school or college players who were not drafted or signed by any major league club or guys who have played pro ball for a while, maybe even made it to the Show, but are quite unlikely to get there again but just can’t give up the game. They figure it’s better than being a bagger at the local grocery in their home town.
The reason I came to Sonoma is that two baseball quants, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, wrote a book published in 2016 called The Only Rule Is It Has To Work, and I finally got around to reading it this winter. They convinced the owner of the Stompers that they could use baseball analytics to turn the Stompers into league champions, and the book chronicles their efforts over one season. Like many books, it is too long (one of my pet peeves), but it is pretty entertaining, so if you’re good at skimming, I recommend it. I won’t reveal how the experiment worked out.
The Stompers, and the Pacific Association are kind of scruffy, just barely getting by, or they were before the book (more on that shortly). Guys don’t get paid enough to have their own apartment, so host families are important, as are other economies the teams must take. The P.A. is considered one of the lesser independent leagues, so these players aren’t going to be headlining in the Bigs anytime soon. All you have to do to understand this is watch a game. Lots of errors, passed balls, brain cramps and so on. The contrast with even short season A ball is evident.
Sonoma is one of those precious towns where only senior citizens with substantial bank balances can enter (exceptions to the age requirement can be made if your bank account is big enough) and they can enjoy the trendy shops, wine bars, art galleries and the like. And the Stompers have incorporated that ambience by offering such delicacies as a bacon and Brie burger ($16), Caesar salad (unadorned – $10) and a basic hot dog for $12. Oh yes, and admission to the park costs $14, the highest I’ve paid for this level of baseball. Not even minor league baseball, but seriously major league prices!
Anyway, the Stompers play their games at Arnold Field, which is also used for high school football. It features a small grandstand surrounding home plate (the outfield corners are blocked from view by the cinderblock dugouts) and some table seating along the left field line. The grandstand crowd was not more than 100, but they all seemed to know each other and at any given time, there was more visiting than baseball spectating happening there.
It was also Bark in the Park night, my second such promotion on this tour. What’s with bringing dogs to a ball game? They don’t fit conveniently in the seats, they sometimes scuffle with each other, pee in inconvenient places and don’t seem to revel in the experience very much.
I haven’t mentioned outfield ads in a while and all I can say about those at Arnold Field is that they were mostly so small as to be unreadable. The ones I could read were neither interesting nor unusual.
The Stompers came into the game leading the league, but gave up nine runs in the first three innings. They did get one solo homer, shown here just before and just after, and later got three more, back-to-back-to-back. Another feature of independent ball – the local fans (everyone except me) pass the hat for contributions to the player who hits a home run. They were going broke at this one. The Stompers scored a few more runs, but ultimately lost 10-7.
It wasn’t a pretty game. Weak pitching, poor defense and baserunning and high prices. What’s not to dislike?