Chasing the Dream

Budget baseball is still a narrow path
to big league glory.

Story Kelli Anderson  
Photos Steven Krause & David Bolling

It’s 10 p.m. on a mid-June evening at Arnold Field, about 20 minutes after the end of a Sonoma Stompers 3-2 comeback win over the San Rafael
Pacifics. The PA system, that earlier had been playing walk-up songs, sponsor ads, sound effects, ’60s TV clips and batting and pitching announcements, has shut down for the night, and most of the fans, who had been happily chanting “We will, we will STOMP you!” hours earlier, have gone home. The only sounds that float across the balmy night air are of players talking and laughing in the dugout and the growl of a small tractor making circuits around the infield. In the tractor’s seat sits Stompers first-year manager Zack Pace.

“Now that’s something you’ll never see in affiliated ball—a manager dragging the field after a game,” says Stompers catcher Daniel Comstock, a veteran of two years of rookie ball with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. Pace, who also serves as de facto team bus driver and equipment manager, spends an inordinate amount of time at this other unofficial duty, groundskeeping. Earlier this week, he and Comstock, along with Sonoma State Assistant Coach Dolf Hes, spent most of their off day trying to coax the ragged and well-used field—which notably features a football goalpost in right field—into something resembling manicured. “We’re trying to give this more of a professional feel, make it look nice,” says Comstock.

Quirky and hop-prone though it is, Arnold Field is Sonoma Valley’s true Field of Dreams. It is where squads of baseball players on the far margin of the professional ranks have gathered since 2014 to build their résumés, work on their flaws and hope for a hot streak that will attract the notice of a higher league. And almost every league is a higher league. The Stompers are part of the Pacific Association, the fifth lowest of six independent league rungs, which means anyone playing in it is 10 promotions from the major leagues. The hours are long and the pay is low—the average monthly player salary is around $400—but optimism runs high. “I think for everyone here the main goal is to get a chance in affiliated ball,” says pitcher Dominic Topoozian. “The big leagues is obviously the dream.”

While a few former big leaguers have played in the Pacific Association—J.P. Howells, who won a World Series ring with St. Louis in 2006, is pitching for San Rafael this year—a player from the Pacific has yet to reach the majors or even AAA. Sonoma native Jayce Ray, who made it to AA with Boston just two years after playing for the Stompers, is the rare player who even makes it to affiliated ball. Yet every player in a Stompers uniform thinks he could be the exception.

Second-year Stompers pitcher Ty’Relle Harris, a 19th-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves in 2009, made it as far as AAA, pitching for the Iowa Cubs in 2011 and 2012, before making a tour of unaffiliated baseball’s more exotic outposts, from Australia, to Venezuela to Grand Prairie, Texas. “It’s still my goal to get to the majors,” says Harris, who at 31 is the Stompers’ oldest player by nearly four years. “If that’s not your goal, you wouldn’t come out here six days a week, beginning at noon for a six o’clock game, getting paid nothing. We’re all one season away from going to the next level. And then the next level. If you keep putting it together, you’ll be where you need to be. If you can’t get it done here, you can’t get it done in the majors. Obviously, we all have the quote-unquote stuff. I can throw 90, 91 like in the majors. The question is, can you execute consistently at that level?”

To help finance his ongoing baseball development, Harris worked last offseason as a substitute teacher in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he played for the University of Tennessee. His side gigs during the season are many: private instructor for local kids, coach for traveling youth teams, bouncer at Steiner’s.

Second-baseman Eddie Mora-Loera, now in his fourth season as a Stomper, was a salesman for team owner Jon Sebastiani’s Smash Mallow line of snacks in the offseason, working from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. and spending the rest of the day training. “It’s really about how diligent you are saving your money, because at this point, you’ll be losing money for the next three or four months,” says Mora-Loera, pausing his devouring of a post-game burger supplied by Steiner’s. “It’s a loss in terms of food alone. I look skinny but I eat a lot. Most of these guys eat a lot.”

Pace, a former leadoff hitter and outfielder at Sonoma State, knows well the hunger of the indy-league player. After the 2006 draft passed him by, he signed with the Sioux City Explorers of the American Association, a relatively lofty independent league, thereby beginning a 10-year indy odyssey that included four seasons with the San Rafael Pacifics, Sonoma’s rival. He spent a lot of time in the Midwest, where the crowds were relatively large—he played one game against the St. Paul Saints that drew over 8,000—but the nights could be sticky and buggy and the post-game fare abysmal. After one game in Kalamazoo, Michigan, his team was given 18 hot dogs for 24 players. “We had to go drink beer for the calories,” he says. When he realized the big leagues weren’t in the cards for him, Pace set his sights on coaching. “I’ve always loved the game and how it reflects life,” he says. “Things don’t always go your way. It’s tough, there are ups and downs. I just try to build good relationships with people. I think that’s a big part of the game that I love.”

Pace says he is making enough to live on as the Stompers manager, but this is largely a labor of love, for him and everyone else involved with the team, including owner Sebastiani. “You can’t make money doing this,” says league commissioner Jonathan Stone. “But you can control losing money. It’s a big effort to break even.”

The Pacific Association expanded to six teams this year by adding Napa and Martinez, but Sonoma remains its smallest market by far.Yet the Stompers, who average over 200 fans a night, are consistently in the league’s top three in attendance. “Sonoma has a population of 10,000 people, and in the summer it swells to about 14,000 people,” says Stone. “If you do the math of what it takes to be a successful minor league baseball team at this level, 14,000 people isn’t enough. Yet Sonoma thrives because it has the most loyal fans. They travel well. I’ve been to games where the Stompers’ fans outnumber the home team’s.”

Players appreciate the support. “We’re like the New York Yankees of the Pacific Association,” says Harris. “Everyone wants to play for Sonoma.”

There are other draws. The Stompers have been successful, making three championship game appearances in the last three years, winning the title in 2016. Also, they’re kind of famous. Theo Fightmaster, the team’s general manager between 2014 and 2017, built the Stompers brand nationally through groundbreaking moves: In 2015, he let two sabermetrics-obsessed baseball writers take over operations to try out their theories, leading to a New York Times bestselling book, The Only Rule Is It Has to Work. That same year, Stompers pitcher Sean Conroy became the first openly gay player in pro baseball when he started on Pride Night. The lineup card from his 7-0 shutout victory over Vallejo is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. So is a bunch of memorabilia from the 2016 game in which three women, pitcher Stacy Piagno, catcher Anna Kimbrell and leftfielder Kelsie Whitmore, started for the Stompers, becoming the first group of women to play for a professional men’s team since the ’50s. In 2017, Piagno made Cooperstown again when she pitched seven innings of one-run ball against the Pittsburgh Diamonds, becoming just the third woman since the ’50s to win a men’s professional game.

Fightmaster’s replacement, first-year GM Brett Creamer—a veteran of the Warriors and A’s events and ticketing operations—says getting into Coopers-town for a fourth straight year isn’t on his agenda. “My main goal this year is to make sure we run a smooth operation and improve the overall fan experience,” he says. Among the improvements are a new ticketing system, an easily navigable website and a new concessionaire, the Kenwood gastropub Palooza, whose menu of lobster rolls, wood-fired oysters and truffle fries would represent an enormous upgrade in fare at most major league venues, let alone Arnold Field. Palooza, which also bought the naming rights to the field for the season, is just one of nearly 40 local businesses whose sponsorships are critical to keeping the team afloat.

Another crucial pillar of support is the network of host families who lodge the players for the summer in exchange for season tickets. Host families are only asked to provide a bed and access to a bathroom, but most provide much more, such as home-cooked meals, some transportation, loyal support from the stands and bonds that last long after a player has left town. Laura Bosshard, who is hosting for the fourth year, is still in touch with Sean Conroy and Gregory Paulhino, the players she and her husband, Barry, hosted three years ago. “I love knowing we’re helping these boys fulfill their dreams,” says Bosshard, who owns Off-Broadway Cleaners. “And I think it’s good for the community, especially on the weekends, when you get a lot of families and kids. It’s better than sitting in a bar or going to a restaurant, and the whole family can do it.”

Host families, sponsorships and revenues from tickets that are priced from $10 to $24, help offset a slew of expenses that Creamer, who is 25 (no one in the Stompers’ three-person front office is older than 26), has to manage. Plane tickets for an out-of-state player is a budget-breaking extravagance, so most of the Stompers are from California, and many are from the Bay Area. The league has a salary cap of around $27,000, but there are also coaches and staff salaries, uniform and gear costs, field rental fees, alcohol license fees, insurance fees, umpire fees and some transportation expenses. Before each game, the home team has to provide pregame peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and a postgame spread for both teams. Sponsors such as Steiner’s, Palooza, Palms Grill, Sonoma Hills, Mary’s Slice Shack and Chicago Pizzeria in Petaluma take care of most post-game meals.

A significant chunk of the budget goes to baseballs, at $4.25 each. Creamer has made one order of 720 balls, will likely make a second and is trying to avoid a third. When a foul ball goes flying into the parking lot, PA announcer Trey Dunia cues up the sound of breaking glass followed by a sponsor spot— “For quick and easy dent repair, call Body Best Collision Center in Sonoma!”— and Creamer sighs a bit. “The baseball fan in me wants to give a kid the ball,” he says, “but the general manager in me says, ‘There goes five dollars…’”

Although they’d rather keep a grip on their baseballs, the Stompers do give back to the community in multiple ways. They host different charity events throughout the season, such as Autism Awareness Night, benefiting Sweetwater Spectrum (July 18) and Hispanic Heritage Night, benefiting La Luz (July 20). Later in the summer they will put on two three-day baseball camps for kids aged 8 to 13 (July 17-19 and August 7-9).

When he bought the team from Sonoma attorney Eric Gullotta last year, Sebastiani, the entrepreneur behind Krave Jerky and Sonoma Brands, wanted to provide a community resource and didn’t intend to make a profit. But he also doesn’t want to go deep in the red. “This is very much a community effort,” he says. “That’s the only way it works. There are no TV rights to sell. We don’t draw 20,000 fans a game. It’s important for the team to give back and create this kind of mutually beneficial relationship. Because the team itself relies on the community in a big way.”

It’s no small irony that the whole point of all this devoted community effort is to score the players a ticket out of Sonoma. “Our goal is to promote our ballplayers,” says Stone. “We can be in the middle of a pennant race, and if somebody wants our best pitcher, we send them. This is what brings players to our league—our commitment to sending them forward.”

In the meantime, says Creamer, a Petaluman, “There are worse places to play baseball than Sonoma County.”

And there are worse places to watch baseball than Palooza Park at Arnold Field. The baseball is high-quality—“The same stuff you’d see in affiliated ball—maybe a little less clean, a few more errors,” says Harris—and the atmosphere is convivial, even toward the visitors. When a Napa player caught a soaring Comstock bomb in center during the home opener, more than one Sonoma fan blurted out, “Nice catch!” Dunia’s orchestration of the game’s background sounds is masterful and amusing, especially after one has had a few premium beers or glasses of wine, and it’s fun to cheer when a pack of kids race a Stompers player or Rawhide, the cartoonish bull mascot, around the bases between innings.

The priciest ticket, $24, will get you a seat with table service along the left field line. But the intimate and mercifully sun-shaded grandstand is where the die-hards sit. When a Stomper hits a home run, a hat gets passed around and is stuffed with bills. At the end of the game, the cash is divvied up among all the players who hit a four-bagger that night. A night’s total take ranges from about $60 to $260, according to Lindsay MacDonald, who started passing the hat a few years ago. “Now that players know we do this, it’s incentive,” she says. “One year Daniel Baptiste needed new tires; he hit two home runs and the hat paid for his tires.”

MacDonald and her mother, Liz, attend most home games and as many away games as they can. But their devotion to the team doesn’t end there. As Pace smooths the infield dirt after the San Rafael game, the two women sit patiently at the edge of the grandstand, waiting for the players to hand over their grubby uniforms so they can be hauled over to the 24-hour laundromat near CVS. The MacDonalds had happily hosted Stompers players in their adjoining apartments for four seasons in exchange for season tickets—last year they hosted five players between them—but this year their landlord wouldn’t allow it. “I was devastated,” says Liz. “Everyone was scrambling trying to figure out a way to get us back in the fold.” An otherwise unfortunate situation—the Stompers aren’t using their clubhouse this season because of a mold problem and thus have no need for a clubbie—turned into a lifeline of sorts for the MacDonalds. Creamer offered them a deal: Would they wash the Stompers uniforms after every game in exchange for $2 per uniform and the same grandstand seats they’ve had every year? They were thrilled. They now spend six late evenings a week doing the team’s laundry, sometimes until 1 a.m., but “we’re good,” says Liz. “I love this team so much, I don’t know that anyone would ever understand. This is my extended family. By doing the laundry, we’re still part of their community.”

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