The Inland Empire 66ers are defeating the Visalia Rawhide on July 9, but the game is secondary to the real show.
That’s happening on top of the third-base dugout where 66er mascot Bernie shakes his backside to the Village People’s “YMCA” as children squeal.
Welcome to Low-A West minor league baseball where a furry creature banging on a frying pan with a spatula overshadows professional players. Bill Shanahan would approve.
Shanahan was the general manager of the San Bernardino Spirit (a precursor to the 66ers) in 1987. Creating what he called an “electric atmosphere” at the old Fiscalini Field, the Spirit drew 161,511 fans.
That broke a 40-year-old California League attendance record set in 1947 by the Stockton Ports.
Decades later, Bernie frolics on the dugout at San Manuel Stadium as a Lenny Kravitz tune pours through the speakers. Occasionally a dance troupe with green pompoms joins the mascot. Should things lull, there is the promise of a post-game fireworks show.
Seated along the third-base side wearing a red, white and blue cap was Kitty Rozzi, 83, of Highland. I asked what brought her out.
“The game and the team,” she said. “You’ve got to support them. It’s a beautiful evening and this is good, clean-cut fun. I wish more people would attend, but the ones here are enjoying it.”
Another of the faithful is Stephen Ruiz, 60, of Colton. He played football for the late, iconic coach Don Markham in 1978, helping the Yellowjackets to a section title.
“I love the game,” Ruiz said. “I’ve been rooting for the team since they were the Spirit. They’re the local team, and if you don’t support them, they’re going to go somewhere else.”
Ah, the Spirit. Those lovable boys of summer (1987 edition) captured the hearts of San Bernardino fans who spun the turnstiles at a record clip. The club was independent, meaning it did not have an affiliation with a major league team.
A 1997 San Bernardino Sun remembrance captured the squad’s essence:
“The 1987 San Bernardino Spirit was a collection of castoffs, characters and carousers … who went cow tipping at midnight in Bakersfield, frequented casinos in Reno and drank bourbon in the bullpen … they had a former male model center fielder, a legally deaf relief pitcher and a recovering drug addict at shortstop.”
That shortstop, Redlands resident Leon Baham, hit the first home run in Spirit history. He is now the baseball coach at Jurupa Hills High.
Minor league baseball has existed on and off in San Bernardino for more than 100 years. It dates to 1913 when the San Bernardino Kittens played in the Class D Southern California League. But nobody had seen anything like this zany 1987 Spirit team.
The team’s manager, Rich Dauer, witnessed the greatest meltdown in Spirit history on July 10, 1987. He lifted a starting pitcher named Vince Shinholster from a game, prompting Shinholster to chuck the baseball into the stands.
Ordered to the clubhouse, Shinholster rammed a folding chair through the door of Dauer’s office, and then hung his equipment and uniform on the chair.
“That’s one of the greatest stories of my baseball career,” Dauer told The Sun back in ’97. “I still laugh when I think about it.”
Thankfully, there was no temper tantrum last week as the 66ers vanquished the Rawhide 7-3. Fireworks exploded afterward and the fans cheered, then left peacefully into the warm summer night.
John Murphy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org