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Inside a Giants affiliate’s fight against contraction, and everything that would be lost

Salem-Keizer/David Green

Baseball will return to the Bay Area. One day, perhaps this year, perhaps next, Brandon Crawford will be chasing balls deep in the shortstop hole. Buster Posey will be picking splitters in the dirt. Pablo Sandoval will be stepping to the plate to cheers that had been marinating for months, at the least.

Baseball will be returning everywhere, except perhaps for a few pockets of the country whose teams may not see the other side of the coronavirus pandemic. The little towns and cities that dot the map that Major League Baseball has targeted in its quest to consolidate the minor leagues, ostensibly to ensure the viability of the game and its prospects.

The slated victims curiously include a little operation based in Keizer, Oregon, where a 550-foot home run to right field would bound onto Interstate 5, where Crawford, Posey and Sandoval all spent time growing before they graduated into the majors, where Hunter Bishop dressed for 25 games last year aiming for that highway.

The Salem-Keizer Volcanoes have been a short-season Giants affiliate for 25 years, but the marriage — and the community — is being threatened by the team’s inclusion on a list of clubs that MLB may contract, seeking ways to save money and ensure wellness of minor leaguers. Salem-Keizer ownership was informed at an October Northwest League meeting it was in danger. A few weeks later, the New York Times published the 42 teams on the proposed chopping block. A major league source said the list is inaccurate, but would not cite the inaccuracies. The same source said there is no formal list at this point, with so much MLB and MiLB negotiating to come.

As the big leagues navigate through COVID-19 realities and try to isolate themselves into an uncertain season, there is more pessimism minor league seasons — particularly further down the hierarchy — will take place. With each nondescript day that bleeds into the next, the chances that Sept. 5, 2019, was the last game in Volcanoes history grow.

For Salem-Keizer, the months that have followed have been impassioned, the second- and 13-largest cities in Oregon rallying to “Save Our Volcanoes,” team owner Jerry Walker traveling to Washington to appeal to Congress, Keizer mayor Cathy Clark joining a coalition of mayors to fight for their teams’ survival, club CEO Mickey Walker seeking clarity, seeking a tangible reason, that a family-run organization that has called Salem-Keizer home since 1997 is facing its untimely end. The search still has not yielded a result.

That might be the biggest frustration: There is nothing to fix up, no repair to be made, no patch of grass to smooth to ensure survival. How they arrived within the distance of Major League Baseball’s ax is “one of those mysteries that is yet to be solved,” Jerry Walker said.

MLB, in its original October statement, wanted to “reorganize” the amorphous minor league systems citing, in particular, travel times that didn’t put prospects in the best positions to succeed and facilities that did not meet the league’s standards.

The stated rationale is a cruel bit of irony for Jerry Walker. After all, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes were born out of a need to ensure Major League Baseball approved.

Salem-Keizer/David Green

This isn’t the first time Jerry Walker’s team has been threatened with extinction.

Walker bought the Bellingham (Wash.) Mariners in 1989 and watched as they became the Bellingham Giants in 1995.

The majors and minors began cracking down on the more ramshackle facilities and Bellingham’s stadium, which was publicly owned, was not going to make the cut. The 1996 season was the franchise’s last in Washington.

“I went to the city and asked them if they would make the improvements that were required so we could retain baseball in the city. And they just did not have the funding or the desire, either one really, to do it,” Walker said on a recent phone call. “So we really didn’t have a choice. It was either we fix up the city facility with our own money or find a different or better situation, and we ended up deciding to build a brand-new stadium in Keizer.”

In Keizer, Walker found a city that was eager for entertainment and a gathering spot; the Trail Blazers, about an hour north in Portland, are the closest pro sports club in a state that doesn’t have an MLB or NHL team. The city and Walker struck a deal in which Keizer purchased the land for Volcano Stadium and brought in the infrastructure — the power lines, sewer, water — while Walker handled the construction of the park and facilities, ensuring they would meet major and minor leagues’ standards.

“These are people who invested in Keizer because they believed that this was an asset that would be appropriate both financially and also a benefit to the community,” said Clark, Keizer’s mayor.

In 1997 the team took its first breath, Joe Nathan helping lead the club to a 40-36 summer. Thousands more have come up the pipeline, from Tim Lincecum to Joe Panik, becoming a trusted feeder at a time when so many organizations have flip-flopped minor league affiliations. Only San Jose, which has been owned by the big club since 1988, has outlasted Salem-Keizer among Giants affiliates.

What the Giants have found in the small franchise located about 500 miles north, with a stadium that seats about 4,300, is not state of the art but is adaptable. Over the past five years, the Giants and Volcanoes worked together to add a weight room and 5,000 square-foot hitting facility, as well as expanding the clubhouse and adding a cafeteria and additional coaching quarters. The Giants asked for improvements, so Walker’s crew improved.

“We’ve done everything that’s been asked of us and more in our opinion,” said Mickey Walker, Jerry’s son and the club CEO.

“We are willing to do anything possible to keep the team around and for there to be more games at Volcano Stadium,” Jerry said.

The fight they have found themselves in does not have a clear origin. Of the 42 clubs on the original list from The Times, only Salem-Keizer and the Tri-City Dust Devils, a Padres affiliate, were cut out of existence from the Northwest League. The predominant belief is they are the casualties of “a numbers game,” multiple people around the Volcanoes and Minor League Baseball said, in which MLB simply needed to find teams to cut to condense the operations. It is not just the Volcanoes scratching their heads.

“That one’s a tough one to figure,” a source within Minor League Baseball said. “And Major League Baseball hasn’t really given us any reasons why certain teams are on the list and why certain ones aren’t. I can very much understand Jerry Walker’s confusion and lack of understanding.”

After last season, the lone improvement the Giants asked of the Volcanoes was to fix a lip of grass, which the grounds crew is doing during the COVID-19 freeze. Major League Baseball’s goal of shorter bus trips and commute times, while understandable and commendable for the viability and wellness of minor leaguers in at-times remote cities, “just don’t hold any water” with the Volcanoes, Jerry Walker said. In the eight-team league, Salem-Keizer is well-positioned geographically, smack in the middle, their longest drives to Eugene and Hillsboro, each about an hour away.

Major League Baseball has not explained the list, whose very existence it disputes, and has bigger plates on its table at the moment. The Professional Baseball Agreement, which binds the minors and majors, expires after September — whether baseball is played this season or not. If minor league seasons are played, executives hope that, at a minimum, MLB allows the pact to be extended a month.

“In time, we look forward to resuming discussions about a new PBA and keeping baseball in communities where it is currently being played,” Major League Baseball said in a statement to KNBR. “Our immediate focus is on the health and safety of our players, fans and all of those who depend on baseball for a living across the U.S, goals we share with Minor League Baseball.”

For those around Salem and Keizer, there are more than just players and front-office members who depend on baseball for both a living and a life.

Salem-Keizer/David Green

While there are six full-time Volcanoes employees, there are hundreds in the summer, from grounds crew to concessions to stadium workers. For the first time last year, the team opened its doors to outside restaurants.

“It became a go-to not just for coming to see a baseball game but for dinner. ‘OK, well, I want this for dinner. Oh, they’re at the Volcanoes, I’ll go to the game,'” Clark said.

Five eateries set up shop in Volcano Stadium, and while one has since closed, the other four were expected to return this season. Chris Reese, a retired colonel in the Army and lifelong baseball lover, poured about $10,000 into his latest food venture, SouthPaw’s Pizza, plus invested three seasons worth of advertising in the park. His short-term goal was to impress the fans enough to justify constructing a bigger store outside the stadium. So he put money into decking out his concession stand: living-edge, black walnut countertops, new sinks, ovens, stands, tables, prep tables.

“Those are just a waste [if the Volcanoes shut down],” Reese said. “I used them for one season — those are good for the next 20 years. … And all this equipment, you get pennies on the dollar trying to sell that type of equipment.”

Between lost advertising and funds and wasted equipment, he estimated he would be out “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in the next five years without Volcanoes home games.

He also would be out from his long-term goal.

“We were the No. 1 seller [in the park],” said Reese, whose father lives in Palo Alto and is a Giants fan. “My goal was to eventually make it into the Giants’ stadium. I was hoping that people would love to eat my pizza, they’re players, and they’d be like, ‘We need SouthPaws down here,’ and then get my foot in the door and go to San Francisco.”

And he would be out about 12 employees, predominantly high-schoolers, who manned SouthPaw’s at Volcano Stadium during the season. It is impossible to measure how many arms of the organization would be knocked down with MLB’s ax.

There are numbers, and then there are feelings. Just like there are teams, and then there are communities.

“Our concourse behind home plate has been described as Main Street Keizer,” Jerry Walker said. “That’s where you go to meet and greet people. I mean, everyone’s there, including our mayor. She hosts players during the summer and is very supportive of what we do.”

If a goal is bringing families together, creating families is an acceptable alternative.

Salem-Keizer/David Green

For three years, Clark and her husband, Kevin, whose children are grown, have welcomed Volcanoes into their lives and their house.

“And we’re looking forward to a fourth season and hopefully many to come,” she said.

Last year it was outfielder Franklin Labour, infielder Yorlis Rodriguez and pitcher Prelander Berroa. The summer before it was pitchers Alejandro De La Rosa and Trevor Horn who called the mayor their family.

Two bedrooms, one bath in a section of the home. Labour, from the Dominican Republic and bilingual, serving as translator and pestering Rodriguez about his English in the happy household.

“They’re like parents to me over there. They always made sure that we didn’t miss anything,” said Labour, who launched 14 home runs in 41 Salem-Keizer games last season. “It was actually very good. They took us to the stadium. They took us out to have dinner. They were just fantastic with us.”

They toured Keizer, Cathy driving them around and showing the sights of a city just short of 40,000 people deep, with fans “that were amazing with us,” Labour said.

In the six months since she was informed the team was in danger, Clark joined the mayors’ coalition “to help lobby for and work toward the retention of our teams.” So many letters have been sent from city council. Jerry Walker went to DC in early December to talk in front of Congress about the teams’ plight; he didn’t actually get a chance to speak, as the Congressmen who felt passionately about the minors took up the time on his behalf., nearing 5,000 signatures, was introduced.

If Clark sounds passionate about the team, it’s because she and the community would not just be losing entertainment.

“This is a money game. It’s a numbers game. It’s a negotiation. So I’m perhaps jaded on that,” Clark said. “But it’s a hard reality that you always see in business and it’s disappointing that they’re dragging 42 cities through this incredible gyration, especially now that we’re dealing with life and death situations on top of it, that they don’t just say, ‘You know what, we’re going to do right thing, pay the players appropriately and stop this nonsense.'”

She also was set to host the “Save Our Volcanoes” rally at the stadium on April 9. A month ahead of the event there were more than 300 who committed online to attending, before the team had begun promoting it. It was bright and sunny, perhaps the most beautiful day of the year in Oregon. The stadium was empty, another gathering erased by the coronavirus.

As Salem-Keizer and 41 other teams try to hold their ground, it is easy to see how Major League Baseball moves forward.

As part of a COVID-19-related agreement, this year’s draft has been cut from 40 rounds to as few as five. Next year’s, too, will be minimized, to as few as 20. It would not be a surprise to see that number become permanent, as there will be far fewer clubs to fill, especially at the lower levels.

The consolation prize, MLB had stated, would be a “Dream League,” essentially turning the formerly affiliated clubs into independent ones that play one another, prospects first needing to set sights on affiliated ball before taking aim at the big leagues.

For Salem-Keizer, the notion is nearly laughable. There is only one other affected team in their region, and they can’t play Tri-City 60 times per summer.

So the team fights.

“Tossing minor league baseball the idea of a Dream League was kind of just a pipe dream by MLB to try to make the minor league teams that were getting kicked out feel a little bit better,” Mickey Walker said. “But it was never, ever a possibility for most of these teams.”

For Salem-Keizer, and the people of Salem and Keizer, it’s all been a nightmare.


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