A short history of the Ventura County Gulls

Old baseball guys Ken McMullen and Jim Colborn had a great idea in 1986: Bring minor league baseball to Ventura County. The area just north of Los Angeles would be a natural fit. Many major leaguers had come out of the area, and many would also in the future. There were two successful major league franchises in the Los Angeles area, plus the San Bernardino/Riverside County area to the east had a good history with minor league baseball. The love of baseball and the coastal climate of Ventura would be a perfect match.

They bought the defunct Lodi franchise, secured a working agreement with the Toronto Blue Jays, and managed to put together a temporary stadium deal with Ventura College in hopes of getting a permanent deal with Camarillo, a city 10 miles south, or other Ventura County cities Simi Valley or Oxnard.

It failed. It lasted barely a year and went down with other Ventura County minor league failures like the Pacific Suns of Oxnard. The stadium had no lights, so no night games, and had many quirks, including a small hill in the outfield, short fences and a rocky infield. The owners were not able to secure a permanent stadium deal, and the Jays were intent on moving their High-A franchise to Florida. So what happened?

McMullen and Colborn were two local heroes who had made good in baseball. McMullen was a star at Oxnard high school who got drafted by the Dodgers right out of high school in 1960. He ended up playing 16 seasons for the Dodgers, Senators, Angels, A’s and Brewers. While he was never a world beater stat-wise, he was a starter most of those years, and he was a member of two Dodgers World Series teams in 1963 and 1974.

Colborn’s story was similar. He starred for Santa Paula high school, a few miles east of Ventura. He came up in 1969 with the Cubs and played 10 seasons. His highlights were a 20-win season with a mediocre Brewers team in 1973 where he started 36 games, relieved in seven, and pitched 314 innings overall. In 1977, he won 18 games with a strong Royals team. Throughout his career he was known as a solid top-of-the rotation guy. He went on to be a pitching coach with the Dodgers and Pirates and is currently a bullpen coach for the Phillies.

They and partner Jim Biby secured a player development deal with the Blue Jays, who under the direction of Pat Gillick and Gord Ash, had an excellent young organization who made the most of their small-to-mid-market capabilities. The list of their players who came up through their system is staggering. They usually had a few A-List stars like Jack Morris and Joe Carter, but would round it out with players like Robbie Alomar, who was given up on by the Padres, some brilliant Rule 5 signees like Kelly Gruber and George Bell, however, the bulk of their teams were the young players who came up through their system.

Some of these players included Pat Borders, John Olerud, David Wells, Derrick Bell, Ed Sprague, Jesse Barfield, Tony Fernandez, Pat Hentgen, Mike Timlin, Jimmy Key, Jeff Musselman and Dave Stieb. Most would play key roles in their back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993.

Ventura County was an area that was rife with major league talent. Besides Colborn and McMullen, many major leaguers in the 1970s and 1980s came from the area. Among them are Brook Jacoby, Chris Cordiroli, Jerry Willard, Eric King, Mike Parrott and Scott Holman.

The Gulls, like most of the Jays affiliates at the time, were strong, at least on paper. They had a strong core of pitchers, led by top prospects Todd Stottlemyre, Jose Mesa and Jeff Musselman. In the field, they featured first-round draft pick Eric Yelding and budding power guy Geronimo Berroa. Ultimately, 14 members of this team would play in the major leagues, nearly half having long, productive careers.

The team’s record was 75-67 (Pythagorean 74-68). They started off very strong with a 45-26 record, but took a dive in the second half, going 30-41 after the midpoint. They still had a chance to make the playoffs, but they lost a tiebreaker to the Visalia Oaks (a team who had only two future major leaguers, as opposed to the Gulls’ 14). Overall, for a team this loaded up with talent, it was an underachieving record, but probably not enough, in and of itself, to force the team to go elsewhere.
Their pitching was solid. Stottlemyre was the ace, compiling a 9-4 record with a 2.43 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. He was backed up ably by Musselman and Mesa, who both had 24 starts and ERAs of 3.03 and 3.86, respectively. Rounding out the rotation was Hugh Brimson, who despite a 1.45 WHIP, won 11 games and had a 3.49 ERA, with half those games in a very hitter-friendly park. The Achilles heel was their bullpen. Willie Shanks had a 3.51 ERA in 51 appearances, but no other regular bullpen guy had an ERA under 4.05, and some had ERAs in the 6.00s.

Their offense was anchored by the triple-headed power threat of Berroa (21 HR), Greg Myers (20 HR) and Darryl Landrum (18 HR). Santiago Garcia hit .305, leading the regulars, while Berroa and Myers hit just under .300 (.298 and .295, respectively). They had speed, leading the California League in stolen bases, with much of that credit certainly going to Yelding. The Gulls were second in homers, and while you could credit that to the hitter–friendly Ventura College Stadium, remember also that Berroa continued to hit homers throughout his career, and while Myers didn’t exactly tear up the planet, his power numbers were decent for a catcher. While they led the league in homers and were fourth in batting average, they were tenth in on-base percentage and worst in sacrifices. This was a team that hit homers but seemed to have trouble getting on base and moving runners from station to station.

While fielding stats of this period are sketchy, it is known that the Gulls committed the third-most errors (266) in the league. They were last in double plays (87—the next up were the Modesto A’s with 110). One can fairly assume that fielding was not this team’s strong suit.

They had the lowest attendance in the league. The lack of lighting insured that all games played in Ventura would be day games, which certainly kept many fans away. Perhaps also the fact that the Jays were a Canadian team and there were no local prospects playing on the team might have hurt it also. Perhaps Dodger Stadium being an hour away played some role. There was little to recommend the team to the casual fan.

The field was a travesty. Even for a community college, it was sub-par. David Wells, who made a few appearances with the Gulls on his way up through the Jays’ systems, summarized it.

“Yankee Stadium, this wasn’t. With fences short enough for even me to clock a homer or two, the park was oddly shaped, with a rocky, perpetually dusty infield, with an outfield that boasted a mountain in deep right. I’m not talking about a gradual incline, or a bump, I’m talking about an actual hill, rising maybe three and a half feet above the ground level at first base. Anytime there would be a fly ball hit deep to right, Rob Ducey, who played right field for us, would inevitably turn, run like hell, and wind up facedown on the grass. Seconds later, he’d be swearing up a storm while a benchful of us dugout degenerates would be laughing our asses off at his painful, but always entertaining crash landings.”

Next you have the Blue Jays. According to them, they were up front with Gulls management that they wanted to move their High-A team to Florida, despite professing satisfaction with Ventura’s efforts.”From a major league perspective, the Gulls are a satisfactory arrangement. The field is in good shape and the players are housed in a good setting” Gord Ash, Toronto’s then-administrator for player personnel told Steve Henson of the Los Angeles Times. “The only drawback is that it is not in geographic alignment with the rest of our system.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

There were attempts with local cities to set up a stadium deal, and the cities were willing to lease the land and help in the building of a stadium, but the owners would need to come up with funds for things like lights, stands and fencing. Camarillo officials reasoned that until the Community Stadium Association raised money for lights, stands and fencing, it would be irresponsible to spend public funds on a rudimentary field.

No one ever came forward with actual funds,” said Nancy Bush, a park district director. “There were promises and dreams, but nothing concrete.”

With no stadium deal, facing the loss of their affiliate franchise and little fan support, the owners sold the franchise to San Bernardino, where it played as the spirit for a few seasons before relocating to Rancho Cucamonga, where along with a state-of-the-art stadium, the Epicenter, is now a model and stable franchise.

So it looked like McMullen, Colburn and Biby had a great idea in bringing a minor league franchise to Ventura County. It looked like a great fit, but with no stadium deal, little fan support, limited government support, and no guarantee of a new affiliate, they got in over their heads. Despite a good team (at least potentially), and passionate owners, professional baseball was not yet meant to be in Ventura County.

McMullen was asked if he and Colborn would be interested in buying another minor league franchise. “Sure,” McMullen said. “The only thing is, next time a stadium would have to be in place before I bought the team. We went out on a limb. I had hoped local politicians would say, ‘They are doing well. It’s good for the community. Let’s support them.’ That didn’t happen. I’m not saying that in a bitter way. We’re not political people. We’re baseball people. I’m just disappointed they haven’t visualized how good it could be. It’s a lost opportunity.”

References & Resources
Perfect I’m Not: Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches and Baseball By David Wells and Chris Kreski
Los Angeles Times
Baseball in Ventura County: Images of BaseballBy Jeffery Wayne Maulhardt

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Steven Booth
12 years ago

Point taken. I do remember some eyebrows being raised when the Padres traded Alomar. I was living in San Diego in the early 1990’s, and the loss of Alomar was bemoaned down there.

I agree about McGriff/Carter. McGriff helped the Padres tremendously, probably evening out the deal in the long run.

Jonathan Sher
12 years ago

Nice historical read. Just one quibble: “Robbie Alomar, who was given up on by the Padres”

While the trade worked out well for the Blue Jays, I don’t think too many people at the time viewed it as the Padres having given up on Alomar. In exchange for Alomar and Joe Carter, the Padres received Fred McGriff, who was and continued to be a better player than Carter, World Series dynamics notwithstanding, and Tony Fernandez, who in the four seasons before the trade had won four gold gloves at shortstop and three times had been selected an all-star.

In hindsight the Blue Jays got the better end of the deal because Fernandez, who was 28, regressed faster than typical and because Alomar turned out to be the best of the foursome. But at the time it was seen as a fairly even trade and not the result of the Padres giving up on Alomar,

12 years ago

I’m from Thousand Oaks. I would LOVE to get some MiLB in Ventura County.

Darren Trapauley
12 years ago

One other point of clarification. I don’t know where the idea of Toronto as “small to mid-market” comes from. The “Greater Toronto Area” (Toronto and suburbs) has a population of well over 5 million which makes it the fourth largest market in major league baseball. And, unlike the teams in the three larger markets of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the Blue Jays don’t have to share their market with another team. (Which makes the pitiful attendance for an exciting Blue Jays team this year all the more difficult to explain.)

Jonathan Sher
12 years ago

If you define the size of a market simply by the size of the population you render that term meaningless. When someone speaks of a market for goods and services, the measure is demand, not population.

Take hockey for example. The population of Los Angeles is two and half times greater than that of the Greater Toronto Area and that gap is even more if one counts the heavily-populated area just to the south of the metropolitan area of L.A. By your logic, that make Los Angeles a mega-hockey market that two or three times that of Toronto. That’s absurd logic as we know the Maple Leafs generate twice as much revenue and have a market valuation that’s more than double the Kings.

And if you think there is a bigger soccer market in New York (my hometown) than Rome or Milan you haven’t had a section all to yourself in Giants Stadium to watch the Red Bulls play.

Think about it. The reason we talk of market in sports is as a proxy for how much a team can afford to pay its players and organization.  For the past 15 years the Blue Jays have not had the revenue to compete in salary with mid-market teams much less large market teams. They’re not going to land Carl Crawford this winter because of Toronto’s population—the team that lands him will do so based on salary that is a product of its revenue, actual and potential.  Alex Anthopoulos isn’t going to say, “Carl, I know we’ve offered less than most teams but that shouldn’t matter because we have a big population. Just think of all the millions of people around Toronto who don’t go to Blue Jay games.”

As for the “huge base of knowledgeable fans”, the issue is how that base compares to the base in other cities. I’ve lived 12 years in Ontario. I have also lived in or near New York, Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Atlanta and have visited countless other baseball markets. My sense is that the base of fans for the Blue Jays is smaller than most baseball cities I’ve been in. What cities have you lived in? What has been your experience?

When you write that Toronto has a baseball history that goes back to the 19th-century, what does that have to do with 21st century revenue and market potential? If history was so closely linked to the size of the market than surely we would have a major league team in Cooperstown, which claims to be the birthplace of the sport even if the claim is dubious.

And It’s not that attendance for the Blue Jays is currently small — revenue had been in the league’s bottom half for 14 years while the team has been very close to league average and playing in stadium that’s neither new nor old by current standards.

Don’t get me wrong: People who are passionate and knowledgeable fans of the Blue Jays are as passionate and as knowledgeable as fans of any other MLB franchise. There’s just not enough of them. I hope that changes for the better over time.

Jonathan Sher
12 years ago

Darren –

Toronto is a small to mid market when it comes to revenue generated by the Blue Jays, at least in the last 15 years. I looked at revenue figures from 1990 to 2005 and here’s what I found:

(1) From 1990 to 1995, revenue was high, ranking between 2nd and 6th among MLB teams.

(2) Since 1996 to 2005 revenue was middling to poor, Only once did the Jays break the top 15 (11th in 1996), only one addition time were they in the top 18 (1997) and the last eight years ranked 19, 19, 21, 24, 26, 27, 26 and 23.

The question for me is which period better represents the marketplace revenue and the clear answer to me is the second period.

In 1990 the Blue Jays were coming off seven strong seasons in-a-row in which they on the division twice and averaged 91 wins. They also had just opened the Skydome the previous year and it was initially a huge draw. That combination — seven prior years of success and a new , unique stadium, are factors that are rarely present, and the Jays then added to that by an even more dominant four year stretch winning the world series twice.

From 1996 to 2005 the Jays played in a stadium that wasn’t new (or old) and were very much a middle-of-the road team, with winning records five times, averaged 79.5 wins and had only one season in which they lost more than 74 games or won more than 86. If they were an average market team, I’d expect their revenue in this period to be near the league median, if they were a big market team, I’d expect revenue to be above average, but in fact revenue was way below average.

So absent a brand new stadium and 11 straight years of string teams, the Jays have produced revenue in line with the smallest markets in MLB.

It is true that Toronto’s population is relatively large, ranking about 9th among the metropolitan areas of MLB teams. But the Jays don’t produce revenue in normal times remotely like those large population cities.

I don’t know why that’s the case, though as an American living in Ontario a couple of hours from Toronto, I have some educated guess.

A smaller percentage of Ontarians are passionate about baseball and the Jays then what I have found in American cities. They live and die for the Maple Leafs (or the Red Wings as you get closer to Windsor) but the diehard core is smaller than what I observed in American cities. The huge crowd the Jays attracted during their heyday was largely the product of casual fans excited about the Skydome and a world series contender. Once the novelty of the former and ebbing of the latter were established, many of those fan gave up interest. while such a phenomena happens in American cities too, it generally doesn’t happen to that extent.

I also suspect Canadian corporations are less generous with sponsorship but that is just a sense.

Out of curiosity, are you Canadian?

Steven Booth
12 years ago

Toronto’s fanbase has always been that way. There are alot of people in the area, but even when they’re good, they draw the crowds of a small to mid-market team, and as a result, they spend like one. That was what I used as a point of reference. There just aren’t alot of baseball fans up there. So in that regard, they are a small-to-mid market team. Be happy they wern’t completely sold out like the expos.

Darren Trapauley
12 years ago

To me the term “small market” means a small population base. It doesn’t have anything to do with the newness of the stadium or the interest in baseball. If the Yankees’ attendance went down for some reason – high crime rates near the stadium, an economic depression, anger with team management, whatever – would New York City suddenly be a small market? Of course not. Toronto isn’t either. It’s a very large market that currently has poor attendance for baseball. You seem to be using “small market” in the sense of a small number of people interested in the sport. In that sense, New York is a smaller market for soccer than Rome even though New York has a larger population. But Toronto isn’t a small baseball market. It has a professional baseball history going back to the beginnings of the game in the 19th century and a huge base of knowledgeable fans who supported the team even when it was playing in a superannuated football stadium. There may be a long list of reasons why attendance is currently so poor but the size of the market is not one of them.

Darren Trapauley
12 years ago

A few final points:

1. I was using the word “market” in the sense of “a region or area.” It is common usage, and perfectly correct, to say “New York is a large market,” meaning it’s a helluva big town. But according to you, that sentence is unacceptable. One would have to say instead, “New York is a large market for pizza” or whatever.

2. New York is a larger market than Rome. Rome is a larger market than New York for soccer. That is what I wrote in my previous post.

3. It is absurd to state that Toronto, a city that achieved 4 million attendance three times, is a small baseball market. Maybe it could happen once in a small market but not three times. Regardless of the excellence of the team or the novelty of the stadium, three seasons of 4 million attendance could only happen in a big market.

4. The existence of a baseball tradition is critically important to the success of a professional baseball franchise. The point is that baseball is a Canadian sport just as it is a Cuban sport or a Japanese sport. Most Canadians grew up knowing at least the rudiments of the game and most have played it, even if it was just a softball game at school. So there is at least the possibility they would attend a professional game whereas they would not attend a cricket match because they do not understand that game.

5. The size of the population base is also critically important. If your “sense” that Canadians are less interested is correct, only a large population base can overcome that just as only a large population base can overcome the more credible threat to sports attendance of population aging. With a schedule of 81 games, baseball can’t fill stadiums with season ticket holders . It depends on getting large numbers of people to come to two or three games a season. A large urban area has more of those casual fans than a small one.

4. Suppose there were a candy monopoly in a big city but the product was tasteless and overpriced and hardly anyone bought candy. Would that mean that, although a big city, it must be a small candy market? Obviously not, yet that’s the false conclusion you have reached regarding the baseball situation in Toronto. In fact, it’s a large baseball market but for the past 17 years many consumers have found the product unpalatable. 

5. After the Blue Jays won the World Series twice, the team, because of a corporate takeover, wound up being owned by a Belgian brewery that didn’t want it and didn’t care about it and wouldn’t invest in it. Then it was bought by the local cable TV monopoly which was committed to upgrading the franchise but made an unfortunate choice when it hired a general manager. As a result, the team, until this year, has been poorly managed for the better part of two decades, alienating much of the fan base. And while management of the baseball side is now improved and the team finally has a sensible long-term plan, the business side is still clueless. Just as one example, it raised ticket prices by as much as 50% just when Roy Halladay went to Philadelphia and when the economy was still struggling. There are other reasons why attendance is weak but “small to mid market” certainly isn’t one of them.

Robert Dudek
12 years ago

Classifying baseball cities according to market size is a tricky thing.

I do not believe these things are static over time. Having been a rabid baseball fan based mostly in Toronto since the mid-70s, I think there is generally less interest in baseball here than there was in the 80s. After all, the Jays posted one of the highest attendances in the majors in 1987, playing in probably the worst park in the majors.

Part of that is the lack of success, but there are also other factors, such as the availability of all the games on television, and the increase in competition for the sports entertainment dollar (most particularly, the arrival of the Raptors).

That said, I do not think it would be fair to classify the Jays as a small-to-mid market team. They are currently punching a mid-market weight, but the potential is there for increasing revenue (which really means that a lot of the market remains untapped):

1) One playoff appearance will ignite a huge portion of the lapsed baseball fan-base, since there is currently a perception that the Jays can’t really compete with the Yankees and Red Sox.

2) The Jays TV reach is effectively all of Canada, a population of over 30 million. Not many major league teams have easy T.V. access to that many people.

3) The Greater Toronto Area (and Canada) itself is still growing rapidly. The economy remains relatively vibrant.

4) For a long time, the Canadian dollar was worth less that 75 cents US, which depressed revenue when stated in US dollars. Now that it has been consistently between 90 cents and 1.02 for over a year, and looks set to continue in this range, revenue as stated in US terms will be boosted.