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A brief history of the Riverside Pilots

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What’s baseball without a hot dog and beer?

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The contents of a minor league concession stand can often tell you everything you need to know about the staying power of its franchise. No matter how choice the location or how prime the prospects, the ingredient needed to keep crowds in the stands is often far easier to find: a sudsy plastic cup of beer.

Granted, much more goes into building a successful enterprise than alcohol, but it is generally acknowledged that a park without suds holds limited appeal to its visitors. Such was the case for the defunct Riverside Red Wave, one of the first High-A affiliates of the San Diego Padres in the late 1980s.

When the Brett brothers first brought baseball to Riverside, California, they ran into trouble with a group of outspoken residents living adjacent to the team’s ballpark. Among their complaints of the potential noise, lights, and traffic that a professional baseball club would bring to the area was the concern that alcohol sales would hurt the surrounding community.

According to Press-Enterprise columnist Jim Alexander, the concerns mounted into 22 full-fledged protests, made to the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control before they could approve a liquor license to the newly-minted Red Wave. The protests culminated in several days of public hearings, during which the residents of Riverside finally got their dry ballpark. The Red Wave, meanwhile, lost out on an estimated $80,000 of profit -- and the opportunity to turn their fledgling club into a community establishment.

After three years of empty, beer-less stands and plummeting sales, the club packed up and moved out of Riverside. It would be three long years before another ownership group attempted to take on the challenges of rooting a successful minor league team in the city.

That group of plucky businessmen turned out to be the owners of the unaffiliated California League Reno Silver Sox; among them, renowned actor and comedian Billy Crystal. They picked up a contract with the Seattle Mariners and headed for Southern California, where, perhaps predictably, they came head-to-head with the same roadblocks their predecessors had been unable to surmount.

Despite the two-year reprieve from professional baseball, Riverside residents were no softer-hearted toward the prospect of beer-chugging fans in their midst. An alcohol license was again denied the club, now called the Riverside Pilots, and it would again prove a fatal move for the young franchise.

At the outset, it looked like the Pilots had the potential to reverse the fortunes of Riverside sports. They drew 3,419 spectators on Opening Day, nearly as many as had shown up during the Red Wave’s last playoff appearance in September 1988. It wouldn’t last. Two nights later, only 629 fans populated the stands.

On the field, the story wasn't much better. Top draft pick Ron Villone was unable to locate the strike zone in the team’s debut, reaching 85 pitches through 3 2/3 innings and allowing the Palm Springs Angels to tie the game on six hits, four walks, and four runs. Derek Lowe rescued the 23-year-old with several innings of one-hit ball, preserving the Pilots’ 8-7 win with one run, three walks, and two strikeouts.

By June, Villone had settled into a comfortable rhythm with the Pilots. The southpaw delivered 57 hits, 43 walks, and 62 strikeouts in his first 60 1/3 innings with the club, good for a 5-2 record and 3.58 ERA. Control would continue to plague the young pitcher, however, resulting in some spectacularly out-of-control performances -- for instance, walking eight batters in three innings during a 15-5 defeat by the High Desert Mavericks. In mid-July, Villone was promoted to Double-A.

His wasn’t the only notable name on the roster. Second baseman Arquimedez Pozo drove steaming line drives right and left for the Pilots, concluding his first 29 games with a .429 average, 25 extra bases, and 21 RBI. One month later, Pozo was crowned an All-Star and Rookie of the Year among his California League competitors.

"He deserves both," Riverside skipper Dave Myers told the Seattle Times’ Rich Johnson. "He also was a strong contender for MVP."

The Pilots touted their acclaimed infielder and dominant pitching staff all the way to the postseason, where they collapsed against the High Desert Mavericks in the Cal League semifinals. Like the Red Wave before them, however, on-field success did not translate to the surrounding area. Fans continued to trickle through the gates, and at the end of the 1993 season, the Pilots suffered the lowest home attendance of any California League team, averaging crowds of 1,004 per night.

The 1994 season brought a slight change of fortune to the Pilots and their crew. In May, Riverside saw the team’s first complete game against the Modesto A’s, a four-hit, no-walk, 10-strikeout gem by right-hander Matt Apana. At the plate, the Pilots boasted one of the Cal League’s finest hitters in shortstop Desi Relaford, who was demoted to High-A after a brief stint with the Double-A Jacksonville Suns. As the team approached the conclusion of the first half of the season, Relaford drove their offense with a .374 average and 24 RBI in his first 24 games.

As a whole, the Pilots pushed hard for the first-half title and a second consecutive playoff berth. May saw them lay out a 22-6 record; in June, they put up 20 wins to six losses. The accolades continued to roll in, not only granting Riverside their first-half championship but naming Randy Jorgensen the best defensive first baseman in the league, and right-hander Jackie Nickell the pitcher with the best control. Desi Relaford and outfielder Charles Gipson were both selected as Cal League All-Stars, while Matt Apana was widely regarded as the best Cal League pitcher of the year.

After clinching the second-half title, the only thing left was to go for the league championship. The Pilots found themselves foiled again in the semifinals, though, this time by the Padres’ Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in a 3-1 split. And, while Riverside increased their attendance by over 15,000 fans in 1994, they still placed dead last among every other Cal League club.

In the interim between the ’94 and ’95 seasons, manager Dave Myers moved on to a higher calling: a managerial position with the Double-A Port City Roosters. Although he had no prior experience managing a pro ball squad, 30-year-old Dave Brundage felt he was up to the task of filling in for Myers in Riverside.

Unfortunately for Brundage and his roster, it would be one of the most difficult and unsuccessful seasons for the Pilots. In May and June, the Pilots sustained two lengthy losing streaks, helped only by the consistent efforts of first baseman Randy Jorgensen. It didn’t help that the team was plagued by continual injuries, from shortstop Giomar Guevera’s broken wrist to broken fingers for outfielder Mike Barger and catcher Jose Cuellar, a bone spur in RHP Robin Cope’s elbow, and a shoulder strain for RHP Ryan Smith.

Amid those neither aching nor ailing on Riverside’s roster was a fresh-faced Raul Ibanez. The 23-year-old backstop accumulated 29 extra base hits, 52 RBI, and a .353 batting average in his first 55 games, going on to earn a spot on the Cal League All-Star team and the Minor League Player of the Year title in the Mariners’ farm system.

"He’s about as hot as you’ll see," Brundage told the Times. "He has a tremendous amount of power."

Fueled by Ibanez’s sizzling statistics, the Pilots grabbed a wild card and headed for their third and final trip to the postseason. Even with Ibanez, the team was not equipped to make a run for the title, and was knocked out by the Angels’ Lake Elsinore Storm in the first round.

To add insult to injury, attendance records had dipped under 60,000, averaging just 814 tickets a night and cementing the Pilots’ fate in Riverside. By the spring of 1996, the Riverside Sports Complex was quiet once more, and the Pilots had merged their affiliation with the Lancaster JetHawks -- and a new, beer-friendly facility.

Riverside trivia

  • Notable Pilots: Jose Cruz, Craig Griffey, Raul Ibanez, and Derek Lowe.
  • Not all Riverside fans jelled with the no-alcohol policy instituted at the park. On the night the 1988 Red Wave clinched their first league title, a few attendees brandished "Beer Next Year" signs. Unbeknownst to them, it was a request that would never be fulfilled as long as professional baseball existed in the city.
  • During a 21-inning battle against the San Jose Giants, 38-year-old Riverside pitching coach Ron Oglesby earned a rare moment in the spotlight when he pitched the 20th and 21st innings. Following the 8-5 loss, Oglesby said he was thinking about the big picture, rather than the chance to win the contest: "You might lose a game, but you save an arm or a career."
  • One summer night during the Pilots’ inaugural season, they found themselves knotted 4-4 with the Palm Spring Angels in the ninth inning. Riverside infielder Raul Rodarte singled in the bottom of the frame, then reached second base on a bunt. As the Angels’ closer attempted to walk hot-hitting second baseman Arquimedez Pozo, he lobbed a wild pitch over the head of his backstop, then let a second wild pitch dribble to home plate in front of the catcher. Rodarte, meanwhile, had advanced to third and came in to score the winning run. The final ruling? An intentional walk, two wild pitches, and a 5-4 victory for the Pilots.