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Saturday, Sep 30, 2023

JetHawks’ Last Out

The JetHawks have flown from their longtime home in Lancaster. The Antelope Valley minor league baseball team was not picked as one of the teams in the new Professional Development League announced by Major League Baseball in February. And an attempt to replace the JetHawks with a non-MLB team apparently has faltered. The loss of baseball means a loss of identity for Lancaster – and a blow to the business community.In Lancaster, an exurban town without a wealth of recreational opportunities, the baseball games were an important place where local leaders could gather and enjoy a fun time. “The JetHawks were a big part of the recreation aspect for a lot of people,” saidMark Hemstreet, the chief executive of the Antelope Valley Chambers of Commerce.What’s more, the demise of the team also means loss of the tenant at the city-owned baseball stadium, the Hangar. “We lost an entertainment opportunity for our community and then we lost the use of a very valuable facility (in the Hangar),” said Lancaster City Manager Jason Caudle. The 7,000-seat stadium just off the 14 Freeway at Avenue I opened in 1996. It hosted its last game on Aug. 29, 2019 – a JetHawks loss to the Inland Empire 66ers. There was no baseball last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.The stadium is a public asset for which the city will have to identify a use. The city has hired an architectural firm to identify possible opportunities, Caudle said. “We are going to evaluate what it can be used for from a community perspective, but it doesn’t look as though it’s going to be baseball,” Caudle added. In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, which published an article on the JetHawks early this month, MLB said it “remains committed” to working toward keeping baseball in Lancaster. “However, should the local community make the determination that it wishes to use the stadium for another purpose, we will of course respect that decision,” the league statement said. “We have been in contact with ownership and elected officials. To date, we have not had willing partners for a solution in Lancaster.”In an email to the Business Journal, Tom Backemeyer, the former executive vice president who handled daily operations for the JetHawks, said the team had “no comment for you at this time.” The JetHawks, the only minor league team playing in Los Angeles County, had played in the Class A California League and were affiliated with the Colorado Rockies. The team was a victim of MLB’s decision to shrink to 140 minor league teams from 160, with most of the losses coming in the lower, Class A roster. No independent teamThe Pecos League, an independent baseball league with teams stretching across the Western United States from Kansas and Texas to California stands ready to come to Lancaster. Andrew Dunn, owner and commissioner of the league, said in an interview with the Business Journal that he had been in contact with city officials about using the Hangar and offered to pay the same rate as the JetHawks.   “The city of Lancaster was not interested in having Pecos League baseball or summer baseball is what they told me,” Dunn said. “They never indicated they had interest. They asked for a proposal. I sent them a proposal. There were no negotiations. That’s their choice and that’s the end of it.” But the independent league still came up with a name for a Lancaster team – the Sound Breakers – and a logo of a red jet plane with blue mountains in the background. It has an active website for the team that says it is “a proposed expansion team” in the league for this year’s season.In the Antelope Valley, the Pecos League had representation with the California City Whiptails, but the team does not seem to be active this year. It and the other seven California teams did not play last year due to the pandemic. In 2019, the last season the Whiptails played, the team brought in an average 75 people per game at Balsitis Park, in California City, according to Number Tamer, a market research company in Flushing, N.Y. The JetHawks, in comparison, attracted an average game attendance of 2,342 in 2019, according to the firm.The attendance numbers were a big reason why the city “respectfully declined” the offer of the Pecos League to bring in a new baseball team, Caudle said. “We are not going to maintain a facility for the small handful of people that generally attend,” Caudle added. Still, Dunn said, many JetHawks fans reached out to the Pecos League office to show support for bringing baseball back to the city.College games?Bruce Gillies, director of the sports management programs and co-faculty athletic representative at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, said there were two ways of looking at the elimination of the JetHawks.One is that there are now discretionary funds freed up for other purposes in the Antelope Valley, he said.The other is that the demise of the team creates a vacuum as a sense of identity is lost along with the team, Gillies added.“I am hopeful there is going to be a new entity that will be able to take over,” he continued. “Somehow somebody should be able to pick up and do something with an independent league or something. That would be the best way of doing it.” As for the use of the Hangar, Gillies said that college baseball tournaments could play there. The Cal Lutheran baseball team is always looking for tournaments to play in, he said. Lancaster’s Caudle said the city would be interested in hosting college baseball tournaments but the maintenance on the stadium wouldn’t be worth it. “It’s a costly venture to maintain a ball diamond for one tournament a year,” Caudle said. Business supportHemstreet of the Antelope Valley Chambers said that the business community was very much a part of promoting the ball team and the stadium.In a community such as Lancaster, you want to have culture, arts, recreation and entertainment opportunities, Hemstreet said, and the JetHawks offered a meaningful portion of recreation and entertainment.At the Hangar, local businesses advertised on the billboards on the outfield wall. Others sponsored events, such as what Antelope Valley Harley-Davidson did with its every Monday Bark & Brews, in which dogs were allowed into the park; and Kaiser Permanente sponsoring kids running the bases after Sunday home games. Others put their name on parts of the stadium, like Hunter Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram and its party deck and Edwards Federal Credit Union sponsoring a party suite. Even the chambers have used the ballpark for mixers that have brought in more than 100 of its members, Hemstreet said.“We used to do a barbecue night at the JetHawks where our members would come to do a barbecue at one end the stadium and then watch the ballgame,” he added. The team as well used to do a lot of industry nights for aerospace workers from Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. in Palmdale; for hospital workers and schoolteachers and especially for veterans and members of the active military, Hemstreet said. “They did a real cool one for servicemen out at Edwards Air Force Base,” he continued. “Young service men and women and their families would come into the game. My Rotary Club bought beers for the airmen.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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