IF YOU BUILD IT: We live in the age now of “zombie glaciers.” “Heat domes” have now replaced “heat waves.”
Thank God for baseball. It’s a sport that miraculously jacks you up and calms you down all at the same time. More to the point, thank god for the Santa Barbara Foresters and their manager Bill Pintard.
Over the past 27 years, Pintard and the Foresters have won with such relentless regularity that the thesaurus ran out of superlatives when describing how good they are. This season, the Foresters won the National Baseball Congress World Series, held every year in Wichita, Kansas. Out of the 12 times the Foresters made it to the series, they’ve won 10. No other team in the league comes close. Having swept the last three, Pintard and the Foresters can now lay claim to the most holy of sports accolades, the sacrosanct three-peat.
The Foresters have become a bona fide sports dynasty. What sets them apart is they’re a dynasty that’s fun. They play with a disciplined abandon, in which calculated — and sometimes even stupid — risk-taking is encouraged. There’s a kamikaze joy in how the Foresters run the bases, coming at opponents from all directions. They steal all the time. It’s not as much about being fast as it is about studying the tendencies of the other side and pushing things. It’s about forcing errors, jumping when you know an off-speed pitch is on the way, stretching singles into doubles, and running out drag bunts.
Pintard, a classic Catholic school survivor, was forced the hard way to learn the difference between sins of omission and commission. So, too, have his players, but without all the downer theological overtones. They’re encouraged to take wild-ass chances. Better that than play it safe. “You don’t fear failure,” Pintard said, “because you’re absolutely going to fail in this game. You learn to deal with it and move on.” It’s also about knowing when to take “dumb” chances. You do it early in the game. Early in the season. Guys who find themselves getting tossed out in June, Pintard says, have a way of making it safely on base by the time July rolls around.
Shrewd, smart, and funny, Pintard knows how to build chemistry. He talks to players; he learns their dogs’ names. He’s a storyteller; he’s a teacher. And he has a keen eye for baseball talent. Over the years, 65 of his players got drafted into the big leagues. The New York Yankees pay Pintard to scout local talent. The Angels wanted to hire him as an advance scout, which would have put him on the road eight months out of the year. What sets Pintard apart is enthusiasm. His is not merely the infectious kind; it’s more like a pandemic. “I don’t have to create it,” Pintard says with a shrug. “It’s how I was born.”
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That’s a good thing. Pintard has to hustle to keep the team financially afloat (it’s a six-figure-a-year operation), find host families for players (during the pandemic, that was far from easy), and keep the mound and the plate up to snuff. On occasion, Pintard has found himself having to clean up the Pershing Park bathrooms after a game. “Ten championships and a three-peat,” Pintard said, “and I get to clean up the bathroom.”
The success of the Foresters turns the age-old koan — “If you build it, will they come?” — on its head. (That was stolen, by the way, from Field of Dreams, one of Kevin Costner’s two great baseball movies.) The Foresters, it turns out, are already here; now they need a better place to play. It’s the equivalent of having the New York Philharmonic Orchestra here in town, but we make them play in a church basement. I like Pershing Park as much as the next guy, but the Foresters have to share the field with City College baseball players, flag-football players, soccer players, and City League softball players. Throw in the squirrels and gophers and all their holes, and it’s a full-employment act for orthopedic surgeons.
After the sun goes down and the lights go on, admittedly, there’s no place more magical than Pershing Park, sandwiched snugly between the mountains and the sea. Under the klieg lights, you can see every molecule of rosin squeezed out of the pitcher’s bag; the light is so sweepingly cinematic that Sergio Leone would weep. But before the sun goes down, it’s a whole other story. Sightlines are obliterated by a slicing solar glare that renders about a third of the play all but invisible. And the best you can say about the field’s seating capacity is not much, because there’s not much of it. The San Luis Obispo Blues — the Foresters’ rival — typically draw 500 to 1,000 fans. If the Foresters get 200 at a game, that’s a lot. Why the difference? Because the Blues have a place where that many fans can come.
Once upon a time — for about 30 years — Santa Barbara boasted a minor league baseball park over on Laguna Street. That field was done in by neglect, age, and the elements, but mostly by the advent of televised sports. That’s not coming back. But maybe Pershing could be reconfigured with a horseshoe structure of stands to allow more seating. “Don’t say ‘stadium,’” Pintard cautions with a laugh. “It’s a ballpark.” With Santa Barbara’s movers and shakers now intent on saving downtown by injecting more “experiential” elements into it, I’d say the Foresters easily qualify as a great experience. It would anchor that part of the waterfront as a great place to go. And when the Foresters are not using the field, there’s no shortage of other teams that could.
It was great that Mayor Randy Rowse saw fit to honor the Foresters and Pintard this Tuesday. But in addition to a proclamation, City Hall should think seriously about Pintard’s dream of fixing up Pershing Park. Just remember his mantra: “It’s a ballpark, not a stadium.”