Sports Corner

Down but not out in Fresno

Candlestick looked warmer from a distance photo: amehdiza / flickr

If watching a mid-summer baseball game at Candlestick Park was an arctic experience, watching a few miles north at the ballpark at McCovey Cove is as often subarctic. It’s a few degrees warmer than Candlestick; the down of one’s coat needn’t be as thick. Teeth chattering, we turn to our neighbor and ask, “Isn’t this great?!”

Going across the bay to watch a game in Oakland is warmer. Being discomfited by a square mile of parking lot bordered by a freeway and BART, and then going inside where an agglomeration of concrete to rival the Hoover Dam surrounds the sublime expanse of green grass, is a hard-core baseball experience. Fog is replaced by grit. But relaxed, it isn’t.

Last week, feeling the frazzle of big city life, I pointed my car south on the road to check out the Giants’ highest-level minor-league team, the Fresno Grizzlies of the Pacific Coast League. Driving along, the gauge that samples the outside temperature jumped ten degrees every half hour; 61-degree San Francisco became 92-degree Gilroy with farm stands on each side of the road and flat cropland reaching the horizon.

Heading east on Highway 152, billboards decrying high-speed rail, water policy, and Nancy Pelosi, sometimes all three together, shouted the subtext: “You’re Not In San Francisco Anymore!” Good enough! On to Fresno!

Donning shorts in the hot evening, I headed to the Grizzlies’ ballpark. Named after a nearby casino, Chukchansi Park was completed in 2002 as part of a revitalization plan for downtown Fresno. Strolling through the gate, taking in the field and the open skies, the park has the feel of the newer spring training ballparks in Arizona. The lack of a crush of humanity was welcome.

Seeking out local fare, the Grizzly website had mentioned Ballpark BBQ and a taco stand. A sufferer of the kale invasion, I was eager to dive into a mess of barbeque. Out beyond right field I was halted by the sight of a barrel barbeque smoker, shut, chained, locked, and unsmoking. I touched it: warmed by the sun but not charcoals. I turned and ambled along the concourse, watching the Grizzlies warm up, including former Giants Nick Noonan, Travis Ishikawa (part of the 2010 World Championship team), and George Kontos. Up from third base, the taco stand was actually a taco truck parked on the concourse — what brilliance, driving an excellent little restaurant right into the ballpark. The tacos emerging from the truck window looked wonderful, but the stalled line was about seven long, and the game was about to start, so I decided to take my seat and come back later.

The park sparkled. Twenty dollars bought a ticket for a second-row seat behind the Grizzlies’ dugout. I watched as former Giant Mike Kickham cut down the Salt Lake Bees. I watched former first-round draft pick/minor league underachiever Gary Brown whack singles and hustle like Pete Rose. I watched as the daylight faded on the white face of the Luftenburgs store across the street beyond left field.

With Mike Kickham mowing down the Salt Lake Bees, and the Grizzlies piling up a 7-0 lead in the third inning, I obeyed my grumbling stomach and zipped up to the taco truck. But the line now extended two-thirds of the way across the concourse. Clusters of folks on both sides of the truck waited for their orders of tacos. Finding no line at a regular food stand, I settled for a hot dog, and fries blanketed by a blizzard of grated garlic — the more garlic the better!

As I watched Mike Kickham toss curves and fastballs with precision, I imagined how bummed a Giant must feel when he’s told by manager Bruce Bochy, “We’re going to send you down to Fresno. ….” Ishikawa, Kickham, Guillermo Quiroz, George Kontos, and Brett Pill have all driven out of Nancy Pelosi-land, headed for Fresno. If it were me, I’d require Sigmund Freud riding shotgun to talk me out of dropping into a bottomless chasm of depression. If the drive didn’t do it, showing up for work with the Luftenburgs store looming might send me over the edge.

And what about the other Grizzlies, such as Jose de Paula, Erik Cordier, Jason Berken, Mark Minicozzi, Mitch Lively — guys who made it to the highest level of the minor leagues but might never play a game inside a Major League ballpark? At what point do you shrug your shoulders and go away?

The clouds turned a deep pink, night settled in. Fans piled up impressive arrays of empty Tecate cans, and sleeveless summer shirts allowed the world to view elaborate, colorful, permanent tattoos. Mike Kickham let up one hit in 8-⅓ innings. The relief let up another harmless hit, and that was that. It took four minutes to go from seat to car.

The next day, checking Google for the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science’s opening time, I learned that in 2010 the museum defaulted on renovation loans and closed. How does a museum close forever? But another attraction caught my eye: the Forestiere Underground Gardens — a home built underground — and it’s close to Highway 99 and thus the escape from Fresno. Before departing Fresno, I had to check out something not in a strip mall other than the ballpark.

Baldastare Forestiere was a citrus grower from Sicily who in 1905 at the age of 26 bought 100 acres outside of Fresno. Problem was that a few feet under the topsoil he encountered hardpan — a hard-packed, almost rocklike soil — through which citrus tree roots would not grow. What to do? He hired himself out as a ditch digger and endured the 100-plus degree summer.

At home he daydreamed about how to beat the heat. He grabbed his pick and shovel. He dug out a room and a courtyard and a kitchen and eventually had a living space of below-ground-level courtyards and passageways and rooms that stayed cool in the summer, some of which he heated with fireplaces in the winter. He made all the walls and archways out of chunks of hardpan, giving his home a classic Roman feel.

It took me a while below ground level to appreciate Forestiere’s masterly way of letting in plentiful light, of slanting the dirt floors of the courtyards and passageways so rain falls into cisterns, of the way eaves are slanted so water falls into meticulously constructed planters still containing his grafted fruit trees 70 years after he died.

He died in 1946, not too long after actual grizzly bears lorded over the area, and 12 years before the Giants moved to San Francisco. Like the Jason Berkens and Mark Minicozzis of this world, very few of us achieve a solid, glamorous Major League career. Baldastare Forestiere understood that. And he figured out a way to make it beautiful.

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Steve Hermanos is the author of Orange Waves of Giants! The 2012 Championship Season. E-mail: [email protected]