Sports

SLO Blues: Not Major League Baseball — far from it — but plenty going for it

ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

I’ve had two very different baseball experiences the past two weekends.

About this time a week ago, I was fighting through Sunday afternoon traffic headed up to San Francisco, admittedly to see my beloved Chicago Cubs at AT&T Park, where the Giants also happen to play.

This past Friday night, I left the office a little earlier than usual, drove about five minutes to Sinsheimer Stadium for opening night of the San Luis Obispo Blues’ season.

Two experiences that are — obviously — very different. Couldn’t be more different, really, aside from the fact that the grass is green and the base paths are 90 feet apart at both venues.

First, let me just say, baseball is baseball, and it’s a game I’ve loved since I can remember. So if you’re at a ballpark — watching little leaguers or Game 7 of the World Series — you’re doing something right, in my opinion.

But after first-time experiences at both the Blues and Giants homes now under my belt, I have to say the former has a lot going for it.

It’s in our backyard, for one. And like Cal Poly did this spring, it plays a very important role of providing high-level baseball to the town. The Blues, in their 70th season here, play in the California Collegiate League, a summer wood-bat league for college players, and they’ll be at it until early August.

To see the Giants, or the Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland A’s, etc., it requires at the bare minimum an entire day’s travel. Hit traffic, and you’re in for a long haul.

I was in a world-class city watching world-class athletes in San Francisco last weekend, sure, and I’ll say it right now that no Blues game will ever top seeing my Cubs. That’s me. But after the long car ride, you’re then smacked in the face with the reality of San Francisco’s sobering homeless problem. If that doesn’t take some luster off what should be a carefree day of watching baseball, you’ll have to explain to me when and how you lost your empathy.

Walking up the Blues game on a perfect Friday evening, I was met with picnickers at Sinsheimer Park, a few tennis players and children romping around on a swing set. Get a ticket — $8 for adults, children under 12 are free (except on fireworks nights) — and you’re in.

Families are spread out on blankets and in lawn chairs on the natural-grass amphitheater-type seating that hugs the infield. Kids play catch and tear around the concourses. Reserve seats are available closer in for the hard-core fans. You’ve got all the smells, hot dogs grilling, classic Central Coast BBQ smoking, green grass and dirt.

That’s just what general manager Adam Stowe is selling.

“What I’m trying to create is a moving backyard BBQ that just happens to have a baseball game going on,” Stowe told me from a balcony (or luxury suite, if you will) overlooking home plate. “Most people don’t remember if we win or lose, they just come for the good time.”

And, oh, the people are most definitely coming. The place was jam-packed Friday. It was opening night, so I don’t expect the crowds to be that thick all summer, but it reinforces Stowe’s numbers that have signified an impressive turnaround in his seven years in the front office.

He said they drew 9,000 fans in the 27 home games in his first season with the team. Last year, that number increased to 30,000 in just a handful more games. Upon first impression, it’s easy to see that making the Blues a hit for San Luis Obispo is a passion of his.

That’s confirmed when he tells me he grew up here going to Blues and Cal Poly games with his dad — a memory I can relate to going to minor league games in Portland, mixed in with family trips to Chicago and Wrigley Field — with my father, as well.

“My first baseball memories are going to Blues games and Cal Poly games with my dad,” Stowe said. “So to be able to now come back and run the same team and make it solid and give something to the community, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

Bottom line, there were more than 1,000 people who joined me in sitting in the grass to watch a ballgame Friday night who would tend to agree. As for the comparison to a game in San Francisco, or any big-league game for that matter, I may not be quite ready to give higher ratings to the Blues.

But, if I’m honest, I walked away less stressed, with my pocketbook a whole, whole lot heavier, and got to see some pretty good baseball, too. Blues won in a rout, 12-0 over the Santa Maria Packers, with a handful of locals from Cuesta College playing a role.

But Buster Posey — or in my case Anthony Rizzo — isn’t walking out onto that field. Although Stowe did provide me with another stat, saying 26 percent of the players in his previous six seasons with the team have gone on to play some sort of professional ball. And current Chicago Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks is one of five current major leaguers who are Blues alumni.

So let’s just say that a summer spent at Sinsheimer Stadium watching the Blues has its merits — and far, far less negatives. I sure could think of worse places to be on a warm, summer evening.

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