ADELANTO, Calif.—Down U.S. Route 395, as you begin a long stretch into the dry, brown nothingness of the Mojave Desert, with little more than desert shrubs and big rigs passing by on the bumpy two-lane road, sits a stadium dubbed “the Mirage.”
It is 12 miles off of the nearest freeway exit, surrounded by desert with few structures in sight. Five minutes northeast is a shuttered Air Force base. The largest building complex nearby is medium-security federal prison just to the east.
It is a stadium that has found itself at the center of relocation rumors time and again. It is at the center of a testy legal battle, as well as a debate within baseball about if it is a viable home for a minor league franchise any longer.
It is High Desert’s Heritage Field in Adelanto, Calif., one of the most isolated and poverty-stricken markets in all of minor league baseball, and one whose time as a minor league baseball city is in question.
“I would say it’s viable, but I think you have to make sure that you alert your players as to how to do things correctly,” said former Mariners farm director Chris Gwynn, who oversaw the Seattle system from 2012-14 when High Desert was its affiliate. “You can’t get caught up in all that can happen there.”
It wasn’t always this way.
At one point, not too long ago, the High Desert Mavericks were a banner minor league franchise in the western U.S.
The stadium opened in 1991 as one of the gems of the California League, built with $6.5 million in municipal redevelopment bonds.
With George Air Force Base nearby and the expectation that Adelanto’s population would explode as California residents sought cheaper land for housing, the hope was the stadium would serve as an anchor for a growing community, with a large group of young males at the military base to draw from as a steady fan base.
For the first few years, it worked. High Desert became the first Cal League team to ever draw 200,000 fans in a season, accomplishing the feat in its inaugural season of 1991.
By 1996, the Mavericks had drawn 1,000,000 fans, a remarkable pace for a minor league team at the time.
“It was the place to be,” said Pete Thuresson, who worked in High Desert’s front office from 1994-99, first as an account executive and eventually as co-general manager. “The stadium was brand new. It was gorgeous, one of the first of its kind on the West Coast. A lot of the things you see at minor league parks today, the whacky promotions—(a lot of that) started in High Desert. We felt like we were at the cutting edge of entertainment in minor league baseball.”
The early success of High Desert set up an explosion of stadiums across the Cal League in southern California. The cities of Lancaster, Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino and Lake Elsinore all opened new stadiums from 1993-96, laying the groundwork for the league’s Southern Division.
“When that stadium was built, it was the jewel of the league, and then everyone else came in to see it,” said longtime southern California sportswriter John Maffei, a former BA Padres correspondent who has covered the Cal League for more than 35 years. “It was the base all the other new stadiums had to outdo. Who knows? Without it, the rest of the Southern Division and the Cal League probably wouldn’t have become what it has.”
The Spiral Begins
That was as good as it would get, though.
George Air Force Base closed for good in 1993 with the end of the Cold War. While the city knew the base was scheduled to close as the stadium was being built, its closure still robbed the Mavericks of a core group of fans from their early years. The former base is now a private logistics airport.
While neighboring cities Victorville, Hesperia and Apple Valley all experienced the predicted population boom, Adelanto never did, in part because of its 12-mile distance from the I-15 freeway, the pipeline through the inland portion of southern California.
Adelanto’s estimated population was just 33,168 in 2015 according to the U.S Census Bureau. Victorville (pop. 122,225), Hesperia (93,295), and Apple Valley (72,174)—all of which can be directly accessed from I-15—have become the centers of commerce and family entertainment in the High Desert region, with most homes a 20-30 minute drive from the stadium.
“Even when we were doing well, we would say amongst ourselves (that) if the park was in a different location, with a different city, they’d have a much better chance,” said Thurreson, who is now the senior vice president of corporate partnerships for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.
“The population base was 20 miles away. It was a 20-30 minute trip for most people to get to the park. That’s a lot for a minor league franchise. I know there was a little bit of a buildup, but even when you drive by it now, it’s still out in the middle of the desert.”
With the Air Force base closed, Adelanto turned to another federal source of income: prisons.
The southern tip of the base is now a federal prison complex just east of the stadium. It holds nearly 3,000 inmates and is one of largest in southern California.
Additionally, the city is home to a county jail, one of the largest immigration detention centers in the country, and a privately-run prison that houses state inmates.
As the prison-related population has increased, so have Adelanto’s problems.
The poverty rate in Adelanto is 38 percent, more than two and a half times the national average, according to the Census Bureau. The city declared a fiscal crisis in 2014, from which it still has yet to emerge.
Isolated, crime-ridden and poverty stricken, the city has become an increasingly tough draw for families and local businesses, which make up the lifeblood of any minor league fanbase.
“Some cities are always going to be better than other cities, some fields are always going to be better than other fields,” Gwynn said. “(High Desert) is probably towards the bottom.”
An older stadium and inconvenient location are two main things the High Desert franchise has going against it. The third is the playing atmosphere.
Adelanto has an elevation of about 3,000 feet above sea level, and combined with the dry desert climate, it makes the stadium a launching pad for hitters. To make matters worse, Adelanto’s winds blow anywhere from 10-25 mph much of the year, and the stadium is pointed so that the winds blow out to the outfield.
The high elevation, low humidity and constant winds have made for an offensive environment that produced 63 percent more home runs in home games than in Mavericks road games, according to park factors calculated by Baseball America. For comparison’s sake, Coors Field in Denver saw 15 percent more home runs than in Rockies road games.
“I never used the stats that came out of High Desert,” said Royals catching coach Pedro Grifol, who was the Mariners’ farm director from 2009-11 and High Desert’s manger in 2012. “When I was a farm director, I used quality starts based on the subjective opinion of our coaches, and I used quality plate appearances based on the subjective opinions of our coaches. A guy could be hitting .300 and hitting a very soft High Desert home run, or a guy could be hitting .280 or .300 and hitting good pitches. I relied a lot on the staff and their evaluation of how guys were doing.”
In part because of the atmosphere making it difficult to evaluate players, High Desert has had eight different major league affiliates in its 25-year history, plus a season (1994) as an unaffiliated club.
In comparison, Lake Elsinore has had two affiliates in 22 years, and Rancho Cucamonga and Inland Empire have had three in 21 years. Lancaster, which plays in a similar offensive environment as High Desert, has had four affiliates in 20 years.
From both a pitching and hitting perspective, it’s not a place evaluators feel they can trust the results to measure a player’s development.
“For example, (Chris) Tillman went there and struggled a little bit (5.26 ERA in 2007) and we still promoted him, and he still was one of the better guys in our eyes in the league,” Grifol said. “You gotta trust your coaches. You gotta trust your staff. You gotta trust their opinions on whether guys are doing things the right way there.
“It is what it is,” Grifol said. “You go out there to perform and do your job and you work your way out of there.”
The structure of the stadium itself is one of the few items not an issue with High Desert.
Main Street Baseball LLC purchased the franchise in 2010 and has made numerous upgrades to the stadium under owner and managing partner Dave Heller.
The front office is now laid out with tile. The press box is now decorated with famous images and newspaper clippings of historic moments in franchise history. Outside concessionaires were brought in to upgrade the food quality tremendously. A banquet hall was opened along the left-field line to attract businesses and corporate gatherings. The playing surface is fresh, clean cut and well-maintained.
“It wasn’t a bad spot,” said Mariners outfielder Stefen Romero, who played for High Desert in 2012. “Going in, I heard a lot of negative things about the park and the field not being maintained well, but they revamped it a little bit and it was well-maintained.”
But still, the upgrades haven't been enough to overcome the desolate, isolated location that defines Heritage Field.
The Mavericks averaged 1,678 fans per game from 2011-15, ranking in the bottom three in the Cal League each season, according to official attendance reports released by the league. It’s only a bare improvement over the average of 1,669 per game from 2006-10, when the facility was in much worse shape under previous ownership.
“It’s kind of tough trying to get up, get your adrenaline going, just because there are no fans around,” Romero said. “The atmosphere is a little dead. It’s almost like a back-field-in-spring-training-type feeling.
“On fireworks nights it was always packed. Beyond that, if it was a Tuesday night or Wednesday day game, there were maybe 100 people. We had this thing, pass the hat, where if you hit a home run (fans put money into a hat for you). You always wished you hit a homer on the Fourth of July game or a fireworks night because that’s the only time there were so many people.”
And when the Mariners' player-development contract expired, they got out for Bakersfield. with the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers fighting over high Class A Carolina in Zebulon, N.C., for the last high A affiliate that was not High Desert. When the Mudcats chose Atlanta, that stuck the Rangers in High Desert, the last chair in this affiliate musical-chairs shuffle.
High Desert’s problems were largely atmospheric and socioeconomic until recent months, when they became political as well.
In January, the Adelanto City Council attempted to void the city’s lease with the franchise and lock the team out of the stadium.
At issue was a lease signed in 2012 that called for the team to pay only $1 in rent to the city in exchange for taking on the cost of most stadium maintenance. The lease was for three years, with three one-year options available for the franchise to exercise.
Importantly, the city also was to be responsible for one-time costs and improvements estimated at $250,000 at the time the agreement was signed.
“We have enough to cover those expenses,” then-Adelanto city manager Jim Hart said the night the deal was approved by the Council. “I wouldn’t have negotiated that if we didn’t have the money.”
The current City Council, which forced Hart to resign last year, instead claimed the city has spent $2 million on stadium maintenance during the course of the lease and voted unanimously to terminate it in January, saying the agreement “served no public purpose” and was a “gift of public funds” that violated the state constitution. They also attempted to evict the team from the stadium, leaving it potentially with nowhere to play.
The franchise sued the city in response. On April 4, just three days before the start of the 2016 season, San Bernardino County superior court judge Brian McCarville issued a preliminary injunction against the city to allow the Mavericks to play at Heritage Field this season. McCarville also ruled to force both sides into arbitration, and further court proceedings are scheduled.
The day after the ruling, Adelanto mayor Jake Kerr sent an emailed statement to local media making clear he intends to continue litigation against the franchise.
“With regard to yesterday’s court decision, the rulings rendered by the court yesterday are tentative, meaning that a final decision is still pending,” Kerr wrote.
“The court is the only place where this matter can be resolved. Not in the court of public opinion or through the media.”
An Uncertain Future
With looming legal proceedings, a limited fanbase and a city both financially strapped and crime-ridden, Adelanto’s viability as a minor league market remains unsettled at best. Heller has repeatedly insisted he has no plans to sell or relocate the franchise, telling the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise in May: “I have not had a single conversation with anybody, neither myself nor any of my representatives of any kind, with any other community inside or outside of California about moving the team. We have a lease in High Desert, the court has affirmed that lease, and we going to honor it. I can’t be any more clear than that.”
At the same time, minor league president Pat O’Conner indicated in an interview with Baseball America in May that relocating the franchise to Kinston, N.C., where it would join the Carolina League, was a possibility. It would be part of a larger plan that also could see the relocation of the Bakersfield franchise in the Cal League to the Carolina League, likely to Fayetteville, N.C.
It all has added to the confusion as to how much longer High Desert will remain home an affiliated minor league franchise. Until a formal decision is made, as far as those in the game are concerned, it’s a place teams just have to make the best of.
“It’s one of those scenarios where you have two choices,” Grifol said. “You can go in there and complain about it. Or you can go in there and do the best you have with what you have, and that’s what the Seattle Mariners decided to do when we went into that place.
“Are there better facilities out there? Of course. Are there places we would rather have been? Sure. But were we going to complain about it and hinder development? No. We were never going to do that.”