Local Happenings Magazine: "Swinging Into Spring" feature on the Pacific Association

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By Nate Gartrell, originally published by Local Happenings Magazine here.

In a highly anticipated move, the Bay Area’s independent professional baseball league is expanding from four teams to six this year, with the additions of new clubs from Napa and Martinez.

The home openers for the Napa Silverados and Martinez Clippers is just weeks away. The teams will join the defending 2017 champion Vallejo Admirals, along with the Sonoma Stompers, San Rafael Pacifics, and Pittsburg Diamonds as part of the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs.

“The men and women who play in this league—they just love the game. They’re not willing to give up on it,” league Media Director Hayley Slye said. “They just love baseball, and they want to keep playing. I think that pure love of the game and that drive is super infectious.”

The Pacific Association, which morphed from a similar league that hosted teams in California and Hawaii, has been on steady footing since 2013, but has been longing for expansion. In the years the league has been around, it has made baseball history for a multitude of reasons, set new records for professional clubs, and brought live baseball to pockets of Northern California that haven’t seen anything like it in years. League executives still hope to grow into an eight-team league, and they’ve welcomed the Clippers and Silverados with open arms.

“I think the location of the two new teams is particularly important,” Vallejo Admirals Assistant GM Matthew Snyder said. “Napa and Martinez both have their own life, and I think there’s a great potential to build natural rivalries between the teams. Adding new faces makes it fun.”

California has a legendary baseball history that goes back way before the major leagues came here, and it includes some accomplishments to be proud of. Teams like the Sacramento Solons or the San Francisco Seals entertained large crowds from as early as the turn of the 20th century into the 1970s, as part of the independent Pacific Coast League, which has since morphed into a Triple-A affiliate of Major League Baseball. Back in the Pacific Coast league, players would spend their summers at the ballpark and the offseason working 9-to-5 jobs. Some were businessmen, others worked with their hands, and many went on to play in the majors on and off.

In Southern California, there existed an independent winter league that attracted major leaguers during the offseason, and it was racially integrated years before Jackie Robinson broke barriers in the majors as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the 21st century, the Pacific Association has been making history in a similar way, with the signing of Sean Conroy, the first openly gay professional player, who pitched a complete game shutout in his first start with the Sonoma Stompers in 2015, gaining national attention.

“We’ve had items requested from the National Baseball Hall of Fame three years in a row,” Hayley said. “We’re very proud of it.”

In the following year, Stompers teammates Anna Kimbrell and Kelsie Whitmore, became the first female battery (that means pitcher and catcher, for readers not in tune with baseball lingo) in the history of men’s professional sports.

‘These two women are playing for the Sonoma Stompers,” Hayley said. “It was amazing to hear that that was happening and know these women were doing it.”

Last year, the Stompers made history again, when pitcher Stacy Piagno became just the third woman in men’s baseball history to win a game.

“I was the one writing that game recap, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow. I can’t believe I get to witness this’,” Hayley said. “It was just really cool to watch.”

Those familiar with the league say the skill level is somewhere between Single-A and Double-A in the minor leagues. Its players have a special tie to their cities; not only are players often seen playing catch with youngsters or signing autographs before games, but also each year, every team makes its annual call for host families—folks in the community who are willing to house the players for the duration of the 80-game, three-month season.

The Pacific Association’s rosters are made up of former affiliate ball players who have been signed to big league clubs, and every season at least a few former major leaguers stop by to play. In recent years, the league has even brought former Oakland A’s slugger Jose Canseco out of retirement. On the flip side, locals are also given the chance to see if they’ve got what it takes to play; a tryout session for the league has been scheduled for 8 a.m. on April 21, at Albert Park in San Rafael.

The Pacific Association’s 80-game season kicks off May 31. For a full schedule, ticket prices, and other information, visit www.pacificsbaseball.com.