The warmth at dusk last Saturday would have made for a delightful evening of baseball at Laguna Park, but the only ballpark in downtown Santa Barbara — built in 1938 as a New Deal project — exists only in fading photos and souvenirs. It was demolished in late 1970, the site turned into a city storage yard.
Jeff Nelson recalled that 1970 was the year Joni Mitchell sang, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Nelson cherished his memories of playing at Laguna Park with the San Marcos Royals. Realizing that an aging cohort of ballplayers and fans had memories of their own, Nelson had an idea: Bring them together in a reunion. “I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t do this,” he said.
He did it, and they came. They engaged in nine innings of nostalgia at Mulligans restaurant, decorated by posters, pictures, and an original LAGUNA PARK sign — with empty light sockets — that David Shelton had kept in his design studio.
BATBOYS: Numerous city clubs played at Laguna Park in the early days. During World War II, it was home to a U.S. Marine Corps team. “I used to live on Cota Street, and I sneaked under the fence and became the batboy for the Marines,” Peter Jordano said. That led to his becoming batboy for the Brooklyn Dodgers farm club that played there from 1946 to 1953. “People still say they were jealous of me being a batboy,” Jordano, a community business leader, said with a chuckle. During that time, two future Hall of Fame managers, Dick Williams and Sparky Anderson, made their professional baseball debuts at Laguna Park.
The New York Mets had a Santa Barbara farm club, the Rancheros, in 1962-63. Laird Hayes, now a retired NFL official, was their batboy. “They were way ahead in the top of the ninth one day, and I started putting bats away in the bin,” he said. “[General manager] Al Gionfriddo went absolutely crazy. I was 12 or 13 and didn’t know any better.”
THE PLAYERS: John Osborne landed a job as batboy for the visiting minor-league teams in 1949. He later was on the diamond with the Santa Barbara Dons. “We played the 1952 CIF championship game against San Diego High at Laguna Park,” he said. Osborne was one of many homegrown ballplayers — Fred Warrecker, Vaughn Wipf, Jake and Roger Schmandt among them — who played on the Santa Barbara Foresters semipro team in the late ’50s.
“We had a wonderful group of guys from college and high school,” pitcher Bill Oakley said. “We had a great time. We’d play Friday, Saturday nights, go to the restaurant afterwards.” Adjacent to the park were two Cota Street eateries: Mom’s and Arnoldi’s.
“It was a cool ballpark,” sad Wiggins Lambert, a Dons pitcher who lived on Cota. “I walked past it every day on my way to school. I watched Neill Wright [a catcher who became a prominent umpire].”
Both Osborne and Oakley had a cup of coffee with the Rancheros. The outstanding player on the Mets’ farm club was Paul Blair, later an All-Star with the Orioles.
“Laguna Park was my home field for 12 years,” said Ron Shelton, “starting with pee-wee and midget league all-star games.” Shelton played shortstop for Santa Barbara High and Westmont College. As a minor-leaguer with the Stockton Ports, he returned to Laguna Park when they visited the L.A. Dodgers farm club, who were tenants from 1964 to 1967.
“It was intimate,” he said of the ballpark. “You could hear the umps call strikes, the players cursing, the sound of the bat hitting the ball, the ball hitting the glove.” He remembered the advertisements splayed across outfield fences. In a small space on the right-field line was a sign that admonished: “Go to church.”
“It was like a public-service announcement,” he said. “I realized that I was in church.”
Shelton drew on his experiences when he wrote and directed the 1988 movie Bull Durham. His choice of the stadium in Durham, N.C., was inspired by Laguna Park. “It was in a neighborhood; people walked to the games,” he said. The grandstands were blue, and Shelton had them repainted green to match the Santa Barbara park.
Solvang resident Mick Kelleher, who had a 42-year career as a major-league player and coach, showed up at Saturday’s reunion. “This is the greatest gathering of baseball people in Santa Barbara,” marveled Walt Rehm, who was a UCSB pitcher during the final years of Laguna Park. He could never forget the night a Gaucho assistant coach was angry with the umpires and took it out on the door to their dressing room, pounding on it with a bat.
DEMOLITION: Laguna Park was reduced to rubble early one December morning. City leaders counted on the apathy of the public — the Dodgers had fled in the wake of diminishing attendance — to obviate any outcry. Losing out were the youth leagues and school teams who could play in a genuine ballpark, as well as the revived Santa Barbara Foresters, who are now making do at Pershing Park. “For a city so interested in preservation, it’s puzzling,” Shelton observed.
Laguna Park came alive Saturday in stories that were told and in the invocation of names that are no longer with us: Tim Badillo, the expert groundskeeper; Caesar Uyesaka; Stubby Herman; Steve Moore; Bob Hardy; and many more.
CALLING ALL KIDS: Another historic sports venue is UCSB’s Events Center, a k a the Thunderdome, which is 40 years old this fall. Coach Joe Pasternack would like to see some throwback crowds — large and loud — at Gaucho men’s basketball games. “We have the most talent and most experience in my three years here,” said Pasternack, whose first two teams compiled a 45-19 record. Children 12 and under can help fill the seats if people take advantage of a special offer: For every men’s or women’s basketball season ticket purchased by September 20, three GKids shirts will be included, entitling three children to free admission to all UCSB sports in the coming year. The promo code for an online ticket order is KIDSGOFREE. Visit ucsbgauchos.com.