Not stuck in Lodi anymore | The Hardball Times

Not stuck in Lodi anymore

To most people, Lodi is best known either for the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Lodi,” (“Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again…”—though songwriter John Fogerty once admitted to having never been there when he wrote it), great zinfandel wine, and yes, a baseball town—a small but very passionate one.

Ed DiBenedetti, the former Lodi parks and recreation director told the Los Angeles Times in 1986: “Our city manager went to Florida one time for a meeting and said he was from Lodi, and they said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a ball club in Lodi.'”

From 1966 to 1984, Lodi had a Single-A team that at different times was affiliated with the Cubs, Padres, Lotte Orions, Seibu Lions, Athletics, Orioles and Dodgers. While they won championships in 1973 and 1978, the Lodi teams struggled more often than not, having winning seasons only six out of their 19 years of existence. They still had some fine players go through their system and had a small but very passionate fan base.

They played at Lawrence Park, now known as Tony Zupo Field, throughout their whole existence. Peter Schrag, of the Sacramento Bee, wrote, after attending a game at Lodi in 1982, “Lawrence Park is a classic of a little country ballpark—a little unpredictable on the infield dirt, as it should be, and tight enough in its dimensions to give players and fans the intimacy on which baseball grew great.”

Pre-Crushers era

Lodi had a professional baseball team in the independent California State League in 1904 and 1905. Little is known about the team or league, but the team did have a former major leaguer named George Hildebrand who played 46 games in the outfield for the Brooklyn Superbas in 1902. The best known big leaguer to play in the league was Stockton catcher Oscar Strange, who would go on to play thirteen years for the Detroit Tigers.

Cubs/Crushers era 1966-68
One thing about the Lodi team—it was always the same franchise. Many cities, like Salinas, had different teams and different franchises. The franchise that was the Lodi Crushers still exists in Rancho Cucamonga, a city in Riverside County, California. After the team left Lodi, they played one season in Ventura and one season in San Bernardino before settling in their current home.

The Lodi franchise was usually owned by different combinations of locals. A group of these investors joined the (at that time) five team California League after the 1965 season, along with a re-activated team in Modesto and another in Reno, Nevada. At that time, the other teams in the league were in San Jose, Fresno, Santa Barbara, Bakersfield and Stockton. The league was dominated by Northern and Central California teams, with only Santa Barbara and Bakersfield representing Southern California.

The first season, the Crushers (affiliated with the Cubs) were 59-81, seventh place in the standings. Among their top performers were future major-leaguer Gail Hopkins, who had a .358 average (leading the league) with 17 doubles and twelve home runs. Their top pitcher was Thomas Mandile, who went 8-6 with a 3.54 ERA in twenty starts. They were seventh in the league in batting average, slugging and on base percentage, and their pitching was inconsistent.
The next year their bats came to life more and they improved to a 63-77 record. Hank McGraw was their best overall hitter, hitting .297 with 22 home runs, while Thomas Simon hit .295 and stole 37 bases, second in the league in steals. Their best pitchers were Ron Law and Pat Jacquez, who both won in double figures and had 3.02 and 3.29 ERA’s, respectively.
The best Cubs season was a 75-65 finish, good for third place, five games behind the league-leading San Jose Bees. The top hitters were Greg Werdick, who had a .347 batting average, and Don Young, who hit twenty homers. The pitching got much stronger with Jophery Brown winning eighteen games with a 3.63 ERA. The staff also received good performances from Jim Colborn (12-6, 3.20) and Lloyd Kingfisher (14-14, 3.73).

The team would transfer to the A’s the following season, with the Cubs Single A team moving to Key West, FL (they had another in Quincy, IL). The top prospects to emerge from the Cubs era were Bill Stoneman and Jim Colborn. Stoneman, who didn’t stay long in Lodi, went on to throw two no-hitters for the Expos and had two ace-like seasons for them before arm trouble cut his career short. Colborn, who had two strong years at Lodi, won 20 games with the Brewers in 1973 and 18 with the Royals in 1977, playing 10 seasons overall. Stoneman also went on to be a very successful GM for the Angels, helping them win a world series in 2002, along with several playoff appearances. Colborn would go on to be a successful pitching coach and ironically be part of the ownership group that would move the franchise out of Lodi. Other Crushers moving on to long major league careers included Ken Rudolph, Joe Decker and Hopkins.

A’s Era 1969
In 1969, the Crushers had a one-year stint with the A’s. Most of the core players of the early 1970s championship teams were either in the bigs or the upper minors at this time, so they had a poor 57-83 record. While they had some power (finishing third in the league with 90 homers) they couldn’t hit for average, hitting only .230. The only regular to hit over .300 was 19-year-old George Hendrick, who hit .307. They had two strong starters, Darryl Thomas (9-8, 3.12) and John Major (10-8, 3.33), but the bottom pretty much fell out after that. The A’s packed up and moved their entire Single A operation to Burlington after that, with the Padres to take over in 1970.

Of the A’s/Crushers, Hendrick made the biggest splash, playing 18 seasons, with four appearances in all-star games. Pitcher Dave Hamilton was a reliable spot starter and middle reliever for those notorious A’s teams, while John Strohmayer played five seasons, mostly for the Expos.

Padres Era 1970-71
In 1970, the Padres were an expansion team in their second year of existence. They did not have an Class A minor league team before coming to Lodi, and waited until 1977 to have another Class A team, this time in Reno. They went 43-97 in their first year in Lodi, a long year despite whatever developmental team goals a team may have. No pitcher had more than five wins, and only one hurler that pitched over 40 innings had an ERA under 4.00 (Gregory Sinclair, 3.65 in 40 appearances). First baseman Grady Nichols was the best all-around hitter, hitting 13 home runs and hitting .291. The other most noteworthy performance was Guy Eargle, a first basemen/outfielder who hit .257 with 20 homers and 77 RBI’s.

1971 saw the Padres (they gave up the Crushers name in 1970) improve to a more respectable 65-74. The team batting average went from .242 to .266, spurred on by Johnny Grubb and 18-year-old Mike Ivie. Both would go on to long major league careers. The pitching improved, though not dramatically. Ralph Garcia anchored the rotation, going 11-12 with a 3.67 ERA, but no other starter had an ERA under 4.00.

Mike Port, who is now the Vice president for Umpiring in Major League Baseball, was the General Manager for the Lodi Padres. Port has also served in many front office capacities for the Red Sox, Padres and Angels. He is perhaps best known to be the Angels’ GM from 1984 to 1991.

In the long run, they helped produce three players who went on to have decent major league careers. Grubb went on to play 18 years, playing many years for the Padres and helping the Tigers win a world series in 1984. Ivie split time between the Padres, Giants and Tigers, with his best year coming as a Giant in 1979, when he hit 27 home runs with 89 RBI’s and a .906 OPS. Although he never quite lived up to his first-round draft pick potential, he did play 11 pretty strong seasons. Arguably, the most noteworthy player was workhorse starter Mike Caldwell, who won 22 games with the Brewers in 1978 (with 23 CG) with a 2.36 ERA. He won in double figures six years in a row (1978-83) and goes to the top of the list of fine players with long careers who never saw an all-star game.

The Orions/Lions/Orioles era.
In December 1971, the franchise was bought by Nagayoshi Nakamura, the owner of Nippon Pro Baseball’s Lotte Orions, who affiliated the team with the Baltimore Orioles. The team was a mix of Oriole prospects with a few players under contract to the Lotte Orions They went 67-73 that year, good for sixth place in the league. They were led offensively by Bob Bailor, who hit .290 and stole 63 bases, and Terry Clapp, who hit 20 home runs and batted .280. Rob Andrews hit .297 and stole 27 bases. This was a fast team, tying the Bakersfield Dodgers for the lead in stolen bases with 163, but were seventh in the league in hitting, managing a .255 average. The pitching staff was led by Donnell Goodman, who won 10 games, had a 2.95 ERA, and struck out 170 batters in 198 innings.

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The next year, Nakamura bought the Nishitetsu Lions, so his Lodi team became the Lions. Name change or whatever, they won their first California League Championship that year, tying with the Salinas Packers for a 77-63 record. Like the Orions, they had speed (147 SB) but hit better than the year before, at least compared to the rest of the league (their .251 average was worse than the year before, but was fifth in the league). Their pitching turned in a 3.57 ERA, third best in the league. The top offensive performers were outfielder Larry Harlow, who hit 20 home runs and hit .284, and first basemen Michael Satterlee,, who hit 19 home runs and hit .300. They had a great one-two punch in their rotation, with Larry McCall and Victor Agosto winning 14 games apiece with ERAs of 2.95 and 3.09, respectively.

Nakamura gave up his American adventure in 1974, and the team reverted to full control of the Orioles. It didn’t seem to inspire the team, which fell to sixth place with a 61-79 record. Satterlee led the Orioles (as they were now called) with a 14 HR and .327 average, and Ismael Oquendo pitched in with 16 HRs and a .297 average. Three pitchers, Duane Johnson, Michael Hile and Mike Parrott all finished the year with 11 victories each, and all had ERA’s well under 4.00 (Parrott’s was 2.94), but the staff had an overall WHIP of 1.503 and averaged four walks every nine innings, not keeping the other teams off base.

They did better in 1975, finishing in third with a 71-69 record. The team leaders were first baseman Craig Ryan, who hit 17 home runs and had 105 RBIs with a .308 average. He was helped by four guys who stole over 20 bases—Bobby Browne, James Bryan, Max Marple and Richard Cuoco. The pitching was weak. The top two starters had ERAs well over 4.00, and nobody else on the staff stood out in an especially positive way.

No all-stars came out of Baltimore’s stay in Lodi, but some of the fast guys went on to have good careers. The best known is probably Bailor, who played 11 seasons for four teams. His speed didn’t completely translate to the big leagues, but when combined with his solid contact hitting and versatility in the field, he became quite valuable. Bobby Brown played six seasons for four teams, with his best year being 1980, where as a Yankee he hit 14 HR’s, stole 27 bases and hit .260 in 146 games. Although he mostly played part-time roles, he still stole over 25 bases three times in his career.

Dodgers Era (1976-1983)
In 1976, Lodi began what would be its longest partnership, with the Dodgers. Their beginning was less than auspicious, finishing fifth out of six teams (Visalia and Bakersfield were lost after 1975.). they were fourth or worse in virtually all hitting categories, and while they were second in the league in ERA (4.09), it came during a very pitching-poor year where the overall league ERA was 4.66. It did however, signal the emergence of Jeffery Leonard, who hit .330 in 133 games that year. The top pitcher of a fairly mediocre staff was Greg Heydeman, who went 11-10 with a 3.46 ERA.

The Dodgers improved the next year to 81-59, two games behind the Fresno Giants. This was thanks to a couple of monster years. Kelly Snider, the king of the “what happened to him? list” slugged 36 home runs, batted in 139 runs and hit .345. Rudy Law hit .386 with 9 home runs and 37 bases. The pitching was not good, with the one of the three top starters having a 4.39 ERA, the second being over 5 and the third over 6. The weak pitching in the league may also explain the jacked-up hitting stats.

They did even better the next year, finishing first in the North division, going 83-55. There were no monster years, but there was a huge amount of consistency at the plate, with the team hitting .293 overall, and five regulars hitting over .300. Some credit must be given to the weak pitching in the league, but it was still a strong year. Max Venable hit 17 HR and .318, while Michael Zouras hit 20 HR’s and hit .305. The pitching, while weak, had its high points. Ubaldo Heredia won 13 games with a 3.67 ERA, while workhorse reliever Mickey Lashley pitched a team-high 49 games with a 2.49 ERA.

On July 25, 1978, when playing the Fresno Giants, the Dodgers made the record books by having two triple plays in one game. It started in the first inning. Fresno’s second baseman Tom Runnels, currently managing at Colorado Springs in the Pacific Coast League, led off the game with single before right fielder Tom Anthony reached first on an error. That brought Bob Brenly—who would later manage Arizona to a World Series crown in 2001—to the plate, and the Giants’ third baseman laid down a bunt.

What should have been a sacrifice turned into a hit and a bases-loaded situation as Anthony beat the throw to second. That set the stage for DH Jim Rothford, who proceeded to line a shot to short where Don Ruzek grabbed the ball off his shoe tops. Ruzek tossed the ball to second baseman John Shoemaker who in turn fired it to first baseman George Kaage before Brenly could scramble back to the bag, completing triple play No. 1. They weren’t done.

Fresno was leading 3-1 going into the fifth. The Giants appeared as if they would break the game open when Brenly led off with a walk and went to second as Rothford reached first on an error. Left Fielder Bill Young came up to bat and hit a line drive to third, where Lodi third baseman Harold Drake snagged it, then threw it around the horn to snag Brenly and Rothford for triple play #2.

“It was the perfect storm,” Drake told Kevin Czerwinski of “Everything got into line. The ball was hit perfectly over the bag to my back hand and I went around the horn just like in pre-game. It was a great experience. It was kind of neat to take it around the horn. It was something you dream about as a kid. We didn’t hesitate, and it happened as smooth as can be.”

In 1979, they took a step back and went 67-72, but it also saw the emergence of a 19-year old Mike Marshall, who hit .354 and had 27 home runs, and also the American professional debut of Fernando Valenzuela, who would become one of the top pitchers in the 1980’s. Valenzuela wasn’t there long enough to save the mediocre staff, where none of the top starters had an ERA under 4.50. One solid performer was Brian Holton, who had a 2.62 ERA in ten starts, and would go on to be one of the key middle relievers in the Dodgers’ 1988 world championship. Marshall would go on to be the co-MVP that year.

Some say that Single A baseball isn’t necessarily about wins and losses, but about player development. Many of these that say this are the apologists for the 1980 team. It was a horrible team that went 57-83, but saw some incredible stats. Second baseman Alan Wiggins stole 120 bases that year. Outfielder Candy Maldonado hit 27 home runs and had 102 RBI’s. Otherwise it was downhill. Only the independent Redwood Pioneers had a worse record in the league. The fact that no pitchers on the staff saw any major league time (except for catcher Dave Sax, who inexplicably pitched four innings that year) says everything you need to know. But like they say, it’s all about player development.

In 1981, they improved to 73-67, fifteen games behind the Kent Hrbek-led the Twins affiliate, the Visalia Oaks. It also marked the professional managerial debut of Terry Collins, who would spend many years as a manager in the Dodger organization before managing for the Astros and Angels, and now the Mets. Ed Santos led the team with 23 HR’s, 94 RBI’s and a .318 average, while outfielder Tony Brewer was second in the league in batting with a .371 average, with 16 HR’s and 85 RBI’s. Pitching again was a weak point, with the only pitcher pitching significant innings with a sub-4 ERA was David Daniel, who pitched 54 games in relief with a 3.58 average. When the whole league hit .275 and league ERA 4.50, this was certainly a batter-friendly league. The only player on the team to have a significant big league career was catcher Dann Bilardello, who played parts of eight seasons with four teams.

1982 was another long year, where they went 58-83. Their leading player was 3B Jon De Bus, who hit 16 home runs, batted in 94 and hit .325. The league had morphed into a more pitching-friendly league, and the team’s 4.19 ERA was eighth out of 10 teams. All of their principle starting pitchers had ERAs well over 4.00, and their best pitcher was Jeffery Moscaret, who pitched 50 games, had an ERA of 3.50 and 12 saves.

1983 was their final year at Lodi. They would move to Bakersfield after that, where they would stay until 1994. They went 60-78, and finished at the bottom of the California League North Division. There were some good performances, though. Pitcher Tim Meeks went 14-4 with a 2.35 ERA in 22 starts, including a no-hitter against Visalia on April 26. Their best offensive player that year was Greg Smith, who hit 19 HR’s, had 104 RBI’s, and hit .317. On that team was 19 year old Jeff Hamilton, who would go on to play a key role in the Dodgers championship in 1988.

According to Jerry Crowe of the Los Angeles Times, it was a bitter blow when the Dodgers left. Owner Michelle Sprague angrily told the Lodi News-Sentinel: “We’ve got to get all this Dodger crap out of here.” Which she did, as part of a promotion.

A couple of days after the 1983 season, Lodi had a “Boo Dodger Blue” night that attracted about 300 people. Everybody was given a Dodger souvenir to throw into a bonfire that was built at home plate in Lawrence Park.

Second Cubs/Crushers Era (1984)
They returned to the Cubs and became the Crushers once again, but would only last one year. It would be the last year for professional baseball in Lodi. Their team batting average didn’t inspire fear in many opponents, but their 3.56 ERA was fourth in the league, and their twelve shutouts were second behind the Redwood Pioneers, who were affiliated with the Angels at the time.

Owner Sprague, unable to find an affiliate for the 1985 season, de-activated the team and then decided to sell, and the only takers were a group led by former major leaguers Ken McMullen and Jim Colborn, who desired to have a minor league team in seaside Ventura County. They played one unsuccessful season in Ventura County, was sold again, played for a couple of years in San Bernardino, and eventually settled in Rancho Cucamonga where they still are today.

The Aftermath
Why did they lose a team, and why has not one come back?

A better question would be, how did they survive as long as they did? Lodi was a town of 38,000 (now 69,000), very small by California League standards, only 12 miles away from Stockton, a town of 290,000 that has played host to a California league team almost as long as Lodi has. They are also within reasonable driving distance from the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Modesto, all of whom have or have had teams in various levels of the professional baseball food chain. There are too many options, and besides the extremely loyal fan base in Lodi, not many others made it out to the games. While affiliated minor league franchises aren’t expected to stand on their own, their owners still hope to make a profit, and Lodi was—and is—a very small market in which to succeed.

Today the California league is quite a big business. All the teams except for Visalia play in markets populated by 200,000+. Many teams have moved into Southern California, particularly the Inland Empire, where there are legions of baseball fans loyal to the Angels, Padres and Dodgers, but are unwilling or unable to face the brutal one-to-four hour freeway trek to see their favorite teams. Most of the teams have built state-of-the-art stadiums (that seat 5,000+) in the last 20 years and have re-defined the minor league experience. One publication described Clear Channel Stadium (The Hangar), the home of the Lancaster Jet Hawks, in glowing terms:

“It is one of the premier facilities in minor league baseball. The $14.5 million facility offers luxury skyboxes, a state-of-the-art video message board, and an old-fashioned manual scoreboard. The stadium’s seating capacity is listed at 6,860, but can accommodate over 7,000 fans and features slightly over 4,600 permanent full chair stadium seats. Two expansive grass berm general admission areas are available when all seats are sold out to make a perfect setting for families to stretch out with a blanket and take in a ballgame.”

Lodi offers a small but loyal fanbase—but not much else. In their final season, 1984, they sold only 79 season tickets and average attendance in the last season, 1984, was only 693, which was last in the league. And even despite the small group of hardcore fans, most people in Lodi didn’t seem to get too emotional when the team left.

“There wasn’t a big hue and cry when the team left,” said Marty Weybret, the then-managing editor of the Lodi News-Sentinel. “But the people who really supported the team really miss it. They call us and say, ‘Even though we’re not in the Cal League anymore, we want to know what’s going on. Can’t you print the box scores of the other teams?’ “

The town as a whole, then, really doesn’t miss the team?

“There are about 400 to 500 hard-core fans who really miss the ballclub,” DeBenedetti said. “They miss it because they were pretty much constant goers to the ballgames. They were diehards.”

References & Resources
Los Angeles Times- Jerry Crowe

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Steve Treder
Steve Treder

Delightful read.