May 2009

Coast to Coast: El Paso to Kerrville

We’re deep in the heart of Texas.

Yesterday began at a motel in El Paso, a tortilla’s fling from the Mexican border. I’m usually pretty good at picking motels online, but this one was in a bad neighborhood. Oh well, even Ozzie Smith booted one once in a while.

The upside was a truly Mexican restaurant next door. For those raised on SoCal chains such as Chevy’s and El Torito, you have no idea what you’re missing.

Trying to eat light and healthy is truly a battle on the road. We’re skipping breakfasts, and I’m trying to order as many salads as I can, but trying to average 400 miles a day leaves little time for running or any other kind of exercise.

There is a whole lot of nothin’ in west Texas. Now I can understand why the Arkansas Travelers loathed those long bus trips to El Paso when the Diablos were still in the Texas League. It took two days to cross the state.

We stopped for lunch in a small town called Van Horn. It reminded me of the town in the Pixar movie Cars — one main road and a few shops, at least those that haven’t burned down. (I’m not joking; the local automotive museum burned down recently.) My wife wanted to mail a letter; I guaranteed her we’d find a post office on the main drag in a small town because there would be nowhere else for it. And sure enough, there it was.

We had lunch at a restaurant called Chuy’s, which has been around since 1959. It’s main claim to fame is that football coach/analyst/game promoter John Madden stops here on his cross-country RV journeys.

Right now we’re in Kerrville, Texas, about 90 miles from San Antonio. It turns out the Travs are in San Antonio for a series, but our schedule doesn’t permit a game. We’re having lunch today with a friend of my wife’s, then we’re spending the night at the home of Paul Mosley, one of the original “future Angels” who played for the Statesville Owls in 1961. Click Here to listen to an April 2007 interview with Paul Mosley. Windows Media Player required.

Tomorrow it’s on to New Orleans. We’ll be staying in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb where my mother has relatives. We’re still on schedule to reach Cape Canaveral by Wednesday afternoon.

Coast to Coast: Return to Casa Grande

We awoke this morning in the guest tower at the Francisco Grande Hotel and Golf Resort in Casa Grande, Arizona. This complex was the longtime spring training home of the San Francisco Giants. The Angels were here for 1982-1984 in late February before returning to Palm Springs for their March exhibition games.

As with so many other subjects of that era, my go-to guy for Casa Grande history is Jack Hiatt, who recently retired as the Giants’ farm director. Jack began his playing career in the Angels’ farm system in 1961. He was traded to the Giants in November 1964 for Jose Cardenal, so he spent many springs at Casa Grande. Hiatt returned to the Angels organization for 1982 as the manager of the Double-A Holyoke Millers. 1982 happened to be the year the Angels moved from Holtville to Casa Grande.

The Angels used Holtville and later Casa Grande as a facility for players to work into shape before moving on to Palm Springs. Once the big leaguers left, the minor leaguers would report.

Jack told me that Giants owner Horace Stoneham and singer Pat Boone built the hotel in 1960, believing it was strategically placed for future highways to pass nearby. That never happened, so it was a big money loser. The facility isn’t really in Casa Grande, but several miles to the west. Quite simply, there was nothing else nearby then, and nothing nearby now.

The complex has a hotel tower, which is where we stayed last night. Jack said that was reserved for paying guests and team executives. The players stayed in dorm rooms to the east, near a clubhouse. Beyond the dorms and clubhouse to the east was a stadium used by the Giants to play exhibition games before the locals.

To the north of the clubhouse is a concrete slab. I asked Jack if he knew what it was. He said it was built by the Angels in 1982 as an outdoor weightlifting facility. He said the players loved it.

To the northwest of the clubhouse, and to the northeast of the hotel tower, was an observation tower and three practice fields. The fields are long gone, but the tower remains.

Tractors are grading where the fields and the stadium used to be, for a new complex that will include soccer fields, tennis courts and a facility for the United Football League. The clubhouse and the dorms still exist. In the hotel itself, a commissary has been converted into a restaurant. The bar is still a bar, called Duke’s after John Wayne who was a frequent guest.

Here are some photos I shot this morning:


The top deck of the hotel tower was intended to simulate the bill of a cap, according to hotel lore.


Looking east from the hotel tower towards the clubhouse. A spring training stadium used to stand beyond the clubhouse. Note the concrete slab north of the clubhouse; that was installed by the Angels in 1982 as an outdoor weightlifting facility.


A closeup look at the old clubhouse, now used as a storage facility by the hotel.


The clubhouse with the hotel tower in the background to the west.


These dorms were used by the big leaguers until they moved on to spring training exhibition games in Phoenix. The minor leaguers then moved in.


The observation deck is all that remains from the three-leaf clover configuration once used for practice fields. It’s being graded to build tennis courts and soccer fields.


Most of the memorabilia on display in the hotel is from the Giants days, but this plaque shows baseball cards of Angels players who were at Casa Grande in 1982.


It’s kinda hard to see due to the reflection, but this framed photo looks west past the spring training stadium towards the cloverleaf practice fields and the hotel tower.


We left Casa Grande around 9 AM local time and ended the day in El Paso, Texas. Tomorrow is the longest drive of the journey, about 485 miles until we reach a small town in west Texas called Kerrville.

Coast to Coast: Return to Holtville

We left Irvine this morning for the drive to Florida. We made it to the Imperial Valley at lunch time, then headed over to the Pioneers Park Museum in Imperial near Holtville.

After spending their early years scrambling for a proper minor league complex, the Angels moved into a four-field cloverleaf complex in Holtville. The Angels used it as a training facility for the major leaguers; when they reported to Palm Springs to play their exhibition games, the minor leaguers would move in. The Angels were in Holtville from 1966 through 1981, moving to Casa Grande, Arizona in 1982.

The goal of this visit was to see what they have in their archives and to establish a working relationship. We were given a tour of the museum by Ed Rodriguez, a lifelong Imperial Valley resident with his own amazing life story to tell.

Ed worked for Bob Andrews of Sam Andrews’ Sons, one of the major growers in the Valley. Bob was one of three brothers. He was a pitcher in the Milwaukee Braves’ system in the 1950s. When his father died, he returned to Imperial to take over the family business with his brothers.

Although I’ve yet to talk to Mr. Andrews, I suspect his Angels connection was Roland Hemond, who was their first farm and scouting director. Fred Haney, the Angels’ first general manager, brought Roland with him from the Milwaukee front office.

Ed told me that it was Mr. Andrews who influenced the Angels to come to Holtville. It didn’t cost the Angels a penny, according to Ed. Local farmers donated the land and built the facility, all to lure a major league baseball presence to their town.

Ed told me that he worked for Mr. Andrews’ farming business. He helped move turf from the local golf course to one of the four practice fields, which was used for games. The other three fields were grass grown from seed. Ed said the turf was planted about a week before the games began, so the players slipped a lot on the grass.

Some of you may be aware that the Angels recently signed veteran reliever Rudy Seanez as a free agent. Rudy, it turns out, is from El Centro and owns a local Cold Stone Creamery. The sports gallery in the museum has photos and clippings about Rudy.

I was looking, of course, for any memorabilia from that era. The sports gallery had a few items, including two photos I’ve never seen before of Nolan Ryan. They were photos staged on the Holtville field. I’m told that the former owner of the local paper donated his entire photo archive to the museum; it’s not catalogued, so I’ll have to come back sometime to dig through it on my own.

Lynn Housouer, the Director of Operations and Archivist, produced a box with programs from the local Carrot Carnival held in Holtville each February. (Holtville is the self-proclaimed “Carrot Capital of the World.”) We found several from the 1960s and 1970s that referred to the Angels. The 1967 issue in particular had a lengthy article and photos. Here’s an excerpt.

The “city boy” stood on the outskirts of Holtville looking at fields of cotton and alfalfa.

He wasn’t impressed, he admits today.

“My imagination just failed to draw pictures of four baseball diamonds, central tower, clubhouse, sprinkler system, batting cages, and all that would comprise, twleve months hence, the finest baseball camp I know,” said the city boy, Roland Hemond, this month.

Hemond is director of farm team training for the California Angels, and the man in that organization who has most to do with the training program of California Angels farm teams at the Holtville complex.

The complex was built in 1965-66 from those very cotton and alfalfa fields that left Hemond initially unimpressed.

But he wasn’t unimpressed long. The first season saw many promising young players develop, due to playing conditions, climate and the instructional program conducted at Holtville.

“I feel strongly that Seattle would not have started the season so well, nor continued its consistently good brand of ball and gone on to win the western division pennant, and finally emerge as champions of the Pacific Coast League had it not been for our Holtville training,” Hemond says.

The program also has a photo of the crowd at an Angels-Cubs exhibition game with an estimated attendance of 4,000. And there’s a photo of Gene Autry riding a horse in the 1966 Carrot Carnival parade.

There’s much more to the museum than just baseball. I learned a lot about the history of the Imperial Valley, a history that most of us raised in Southern California don’t know. It’s well worth your time if you’re down that way, and costs only $4.00 per person.

It was also a personal reminiscence for me. I was born in Brawley, raised my first year in El Centro, and then my family relocated to the Pomona Valley. I remember nothing of El Centro, of course, but my father was born here in 1933 and lived here until he graduated high school in 1951 and joined the Air Force.

Ed led us into a room where the museum displayed poster-size reprints from the yearbooks of local high schools, showing the graduating classes. I found the Central Union High School Class of 1951 and, sure enough, there was my father staring back at me.

I hope to return this winter to spend a week going through the newspaper and photo archives, to see what gems we can uncover.

Right now, we’re in the Francisco Grande Hotel & Golf Resort in Casa Grande, Arizona. When the Angels left Holtville, they came to this complex for the 1982-1984 seasons. Originally built by and for the San Francisco Giants, the Angels moved in when the Giants left for Scottsdale. The practice fields were literally just outside the hotel’s windows; looking out the balcony, I can see where the fields were. The observation tower is all that remains.

But that story is for tomorrow. And then a long drive to El Paso, Texas, another former Angels farm town.

Casa Grande

Francisco Grande Hotel
The Francisco Grande Hotel during its Giant years. (Original photo source Francisco Grande Hotel, as posted on the Phoenix Magazine web site.)


The two legendary minor league complexes in Angels history are Holtville and Mesa. The Angels were in Holtville from 1966 through 1981. They were in Mesa from 1985 through 2005.

Inbetween, there was Casa Grande.

The March 2009 issue of Phoenix Magazine tells you all you need to know, so no reason for me to regurgitate it here. It’s mostly about the Giants years, but it does briefly mention that the Angels camped there from 1982 through 1984.

The Angels’ major league camp was in Palm Springs where Gene Autry lived, but the park formerly known as the Polo Grounds had little room to handle so many players, major and minor. Palm Springs also had many temptations for young hormonally raging ballplayers. That was why they started a separate camp in Holtville in 1966; the major leaguers reported there in late February, then when they moved to Palm Springs in early March for exhibition games the minor leaguers would move in.

Just why they left Holtville, I’ve yet to discover, but I’ll be researching more in coming days. In any case, they moved on to Casa Grande, which was just as isolated as Holtville but had a hotel on the grounds called Francisco Grande.

Click Here to visit the hotel’s web site. There’s a nice 3½ minute video on the home page that reviews its history and shows how it looks today.

When we leave for Florida on Thursday, we’re going to stop in Holtville at lunch to tour the museum and determine what’s available in their archives. Then it’s on to Casa Grande, another 200 miles down the road on the I-8, to spend the night at the Francisco Grande hotel. I’ll try to shoot photos and/or video at both.

Saunders vs. Kazmir, Part II

On May 10, I wrote an entry revisiting an old argument on fan sites that the Angels supposedly erred by drafting Joe Saunders over Scott Kazmir.

I wrote:

In the long run, Saunders has proven to be the more durable pitcher. Kazmir has found himself on the disabled list from time to time with various injuries, although nothing so far that’s career-threatening. Saunders has yet to go on the D.L. in the big leagues.

The Rays announced today that Kazmir is once again on the disabled list:

Left-hander Scott Kazmir will be shut down for a bit because of a right quad strain he said was caused from bad mechanics in his delivery. Kazmir will continue to throw off flat ground and said it shouldn’t keep him out long.

Bad mechanics was reportedly the reason why the Mets, who originally drafted Kazmir, traded him to Tampa Bay. Looks like his habits are starting to catch up to him.

The Carrot Capital of the World

As mentioned earlier today, I’m starting to research the Angels’ history at Holtville in Imperial County, the self-proclaimed Carrot Capital of the World.

I made a couple phone calls this afternoon and found some promising leads.

The Pioneers Museum in Imperial has archives of the Holtville Tribune on microfilm. I also have the name and phone number for the paper’s owner back then; one source said he may still have original photos from the era.

I also spoke with Ed Rodriguez, who worked on building the complex. He said he was employed by a local farming business called Sam Andrews’ Sons. Bob Andrews, one of the sons, worked with the Angels to bring their operation to Holtville. The big leaguers would come to Holtville for two weeks, then go to Palm Springs, leaving the complex for the minor leaguers. This is a pattern that was repeated when the Angels moved to Mesa, Arizona in 1984.

Mr. Rodriguez said that Bob Andrews later bought a California League team, possibly the Salinas Packers, which was an Angels affiliate in the 1970s. He said he has a number for Mr. Andrews and I’ll track him down.

He also said that his son located an old 8mm film shot in the 1960s of Gene Autry acting as grand marshal of the Carrot Festival in Holtville. I’m asking for a copy that I can transfer to a video file and post online.

When we head out to Florida next week, I’m hoping to stop mid-day in Imperial and meet Mr. Rodriguez for a museum tour.

Coast to Coast

If you’ve been following this blog over the years, you know that my wife Carol and I have plans to move to Florida.

We’re down to the end days. The movers arrive on May 26, and we’re going to drive cross-country to Cape Canaveral starting on May 28.

Many friends and family have asked us to keep everyone apprised of events, so I thought this blog might be a good way to do it.

Along the way, I’ll shoot photos and maybe film a little video. The game plan is to average about 400 miles a day, which should put us in Cape Canaveral around June 3 or 4. The idea is to post the photos and video online each night in the motel, although I suspect we’ll tire out pretty fast after a few days on the road.

We’ll try to have some baseball serendipity along the way.

Those of you who know your Angels history will recall that they had a minor league complex in Holtville in the 1960s. Holtville, in the Imperial Valley, is the self-proclaimed Carrot Capital of the World. The Angels’ spring training facility in Palm Springs was too small to accommodate a growing organization. As I’ve previously written about, in 1961 the Angels’ Triple-A team was at Riverside, and in 1962-64 they had a minor league camp at La Palma Park in Anaheim. According to the Angels Media Guide, there was a camp in El Centro in 1965, then they moved into the Holtville complex in 1966.

The Holtville cloverleaf is long gone, replaced by a housing tract. I’ve made a couple calls to the local paper looking for who might have archives. I have one lead, which I hope to check out on our drive east.

So we’ll start out by passing through the Imperial Valley, ending up somewhere around Tucson by the end of Day 1.

The Interstate 10 goes all the way from Santa Monica to Florida, so we’ll pick up the I-10 in Tucson and head east. We’ll stop in El Paso, another longtime Angels minor league affiliate.

When we reach Houston, I hope to see Paul Mosley, an original Angels minor leaguer from 1961. Mosley grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He was signed in the spring of 1961 and sent to Statesville, North Carolina, where the Angels had a Class D team. Mosley went on to San Jose in 1962, along with Statesville teammates Jack Hiatt and Dick Simpson, both of whom went on to the majors.

Click Here to listen to an April 2007 interview with Paul. You need Windows Media Player to listen.

We’ll pass through New Orleans, my mother’s home town, then keep heading east until we arrive in the Space Coast.

We’ve rented a condo in Cape Canaveral on the ocean for a month or two until we buy a house. We’re dabbling with the possibility of buying a condo, but that will really compromise our lifestyle.

The next Shuttle launch STS-127 is scheduled for Saturday June 13 at 7:19 AM EDT. The condo is about ten miles down the coast line from the launch pad, but we have “connections” and might get closer. I’ll try to get video of the launch; what you see on TV doesn’t do a launch justice. You really need to see it in person.

The next few days are going to be very hectic, so online time will be minimal at best. I will try to update each morning before we hit the road again, but please be patient if updates are sporadic.

Earthquake Strikes Southern California

A moderate earthquake just struck Southern California at 8:40 PM PDT.  The initial report is a magnitude 5.0 with an epicenter near South Los Angeles.  Details will be posted if significant.

Burlington Hawk Eye on “Sugar”

Back on April 3, I wrote about Sugar, a remarkable film about the minor league career of a Dominican pitcher.

It was a delight for those of us who know Iowa baseball locations, and today’s Burlington Hawk Eye has an article about Burlington locations used in the film along with a general overview of the story. I’m glad they didn’t give away the ending, because it’s not what you expect.

Click Here for the official movie web site.

Better Living Through Chemistry

Much of the baseball world has been obsessed with the revelation that Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez tested positive for the drug human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) which is banned by Major League Baseball.

This followed on the heels of the revelation last February that Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez tested positive for anabolic steroids in 2003.

I may be in the minority, but I really couldn’t care less.

Not that I advocate the use of body-altering substances. When it comes to that sort of stuff, I’m a pretty vanilla personality. When I was in college in the mid-1970s, I was one of only two guys on my dorm floor who didn’t smoke pot. I just couldn’t see the point.

Perhaps my apathy stems from my generally cynical view of a certain segment of people who call themselves fans yet are more interested in being entertained than having an emotional dedication to a team or a player.

Los Angeles Times sportswriter Kurt Streeter suggested in a recent column that “All will be forgiven, as long as No. 99 comes back swinging a fat bat.”

I think he’s right.

Not that everyone who follows the Dodgers feels that way, but I think a lot of people do. It’s all about results, it’s all about entertainment, and so long as Manny hits dingers they’ll look the other way.

It was the same in 2001 when Barry Bonds hit 73 homers. There were rumors of steroid use, but the mainstream looked the other way as they enjoyed watching Bonds hit monster home runs. The outrage came later, when the novelty had worn off. For some people, there’s nothing they enjoy more than seeing someone more successful than them knocked off a pedestal.

It’ll be the same with Ramirez one day, when he’s no longer productive and therefore no longer entertaining.

Angels fans can smirk at Dodgers fans, but what if it had been Vlad Guerrero who tested positive?

Owner Arte Moreno showed little tolerance for Gary Matthews Jr. in 2007 when Sports Illustrated reported that Matthews had ordered human growth hormone in 2004. But if it were Vladi who tested positive and was suspended for 50 games, would the Angels fan react any differently than the Dodgers fan?

If Guerrero returned and went on a hitting tear that took the Angels to a world championship, I suspect a lot of Angels fans would suddenly come down with short-term memory loss.

Because there’s so much money at stake in professional baseball, and therefore the pressures are so great to entertain by winning, I’m really not surprised that so many ballplayers are resorting to chemicals that protect and enhance their physiques. If an actress gets a facelift or a tummy tuck to look youthful so she can keep playing roles that might go to a younger actress, are theater goers going to complain? I’ve yet to hear one movie patron walk out in disgust and demand a refund because an on-screen performer had his or her body enhanced.

The most extreme example of where sports and entertainment cross is professional wrestling, where athletes subject their bodies to a grueling schedule and nightly physical abuse to tell a story. Wrestlers are just as athletic, if not more so, than the typical ballplayer, but they’re under pressure to entertain too or they’re out of a job. It’s really not a surprise, then, that so many wrestlers have died young from steroids, alcoholism, or painkillers. But most fans still go to wrestling events, just as attendance at baseball games is still strong and enthusiastic despite all the embarrassing headlines about drug use.

I suppose it could be argued that, in wrestling parlance, A-Rod and Manny and their ilk have “turned heel,” i.e. they’re now a bad guy whose job is to get booed by the crowd. “Heel” or “face” (bad guy or good guy), the bottom line is the take at the front door, and isn’t that the same with professional baseball? You can fill Angels Stadium with 40,000 screaming and obnoxious Yankees fans, and Arte will gladly take their money, because it’s a business.

Besides, the notion of athletes altering their bodies with chemicals is nothing new. Troy Percival was infamous for chugging coffee before a relief appearance to get a caffeine high. Ball Four author Jim Bouton told ESPN that “In the 1970s, half of the guys in the big leagues were taking greenies, and if we had steroids, we would have taken those, too. I said in Ball Four, if there was a pill that could guarantee you would win 20 games but would take five years off of your life, players would take it. The only thing I didn’t know at the time was the name.”

There were also athletes whose performance diminished from chemical abuse. Mickey Mantle’s career suffered from his alcoholism. Babe Ruth was frequently out of shape, and his carousing caught up with him during spring training in 1925 when he underwent surgery for what was billed as an intestinal abscess, although it was rumored he was suffering from gonorrhea. What might their career numbers have been if they’d taken care of themselves. Yet no one ever questions that, it’s just considered “colorful” and a part of baseball lore.

With so much at stake, with fans demanding so much, with all that money on the table, I can understand why athletes succumb to temptation. They are mentally geared to compete at everything in life. Part of that is competing against their own bodies. It’s that mindset that wins titles, and if that’s the end then how many people will quibble about the means? Maybe later, but not while they’re winning.

On the rare occasion that I hear about a ballplayer I know testing positive for a banned substance, I feel disappointed but I tend to be forgiving — not because I want to be entertained by them, but because I understand the pressures that led to the decision.

And many times, you’re dealing with someone who isn’t exactly the Stephen Hawking of pro sports. I don’t think you’ll see Manny Ramirez joining Mensa any time soon. Players from impoverished Third World countries long ago forgot about ethics because simply feeding your extended family back home is more important.

I’m glad MLB continues to rigorously pursue drug testing, and more importantly is actually enforcing the rules. But I’m not sanguine about the notion that paying customers will walk away from the game any time soon because of positive drug tests. It’s all about entertainment, and so long as they’re entertained, they’ll be back.