BY CAROLYN LaWELL
ADELANTO, California | The clerk looked at Eric Jensen’s young face and the beer he set on the counter and said “No.”
“I buy it at the stadium all the time,” Jensen says he remembers pleading. “It’s for the baseball team.”
Jensen had always bought beer at the stadium, but it only sold Coors. So when one of the other Pacific Coast League teams came and asked for a different type of beer, Jensen went to the grocery store like he did for every request. It never crossed his mind that at 17, even though he was managing the visitors’ clubhouse for the Triple-A Salt Lake City Gulls, he couldn’t buy beer. Naturally, he solved the problem by hiring a 21-year-old from the neighborhood to buy beer and cigarettes for players and coaches.
He could do everything else himself, namely cooking meals, folding laundry and, most important, removing stains.
“I like to take that chaos after the games and get it organized,” he says. “For some reason, stains on pants … I get mad sometimes when the third base coach says, ‘Stand up, stand up,’ and the guy slides. I’m like ‘What in the world, man? You didn’t need to slide. I’m not washing your pants now. I will gladly wash your pants if you need to slide. But if you slide in unnecessarily, you’re on your own.’”
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Jensen is in his second season as the general manager of the High Desert Mavericks, a position he says he landed by default. He started as a clubby in high school nearly three decades ago thanks to a mix of timing and hard work. Nothing has changed since 1984, when Jensen was hired for that job.
He was a batboy first, but only picked up bats and foul balls for about a week before he was asked to work in the visitors’ clubhouse as an assistant, then run the place the next season. Until that point, he hadn’t thought about being in the clubhouse. He wanted to become a batboy to learn how to get on the field as an umpire.
Before Jensen knew anything about algebra or biology, he at least knew he didn’t have the skills needed to play baseball. “I played some little league, and at 8 or 9 my coach said, ‘You can be our backup rightfielder. You go out and play in back of the rightfielder. If the ball goes behind the rightfielder, then pick it up and throw it to him as quickly as you can.’
“I hit a foul ball once and that was just awesome. I started to jump up and down.” He flails his arms and screams as if he just hit a game-winning home run, “I swung! I made contact!” Every once in a while, he walked or was hit by a pitch.
“I played some little league, and at 8 or 9 my coach said, ‘You can be our backup rightfielder. You go out and play in back of the rightfielder. If the ball goes behind the rightfielder, then pick it up and throw it to him as quickly as you can.’" — High Desert general manager Eric Jensen
“I was fascinated with baseball. I knew I wanted to be on the field. So I said, ‘OK, I can umpire.’”
That hope of becoming an umpire is what took Jensen to the Gulls’ batboy tryouts. He walked up to the stadium and felt dejected immediately when he saw a line of nearly 400 boys with only six spots available.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I’m never going to get picked. Let me fill this out and I’ll go do the interview, maybe they’ll give us a pair of tickets or something,” he says.
He was called in and asked why he wanted to be a batboy.
“‘To be truthful, I really want to be an umpire,’” he told the interviewer. “‘I don’t know how to be an umpire, so if I’m a batboy, I can talk to umpires and find out how to be an umpire.’”
Cue the laughter. The interviewer, a member of the team staff and an umpire himself, thought Jensen was joking.
“‘What do you mean?’” he remembers asking. “‘Since I was 2, I’ve really wanted to be an umpire.’”
He got the job.
The Gulls ended up moving from Salt Lake City to Calgary a few seasons later and Jensen lost his job. He graduated from high school and went to Brigham Young University to study recreation management and sports administration. He interned with the Utah Jazz as a clubby, then waited for them to offer him a full-time position. He couldn’t wait any longer, so he went to work for a city rec department in California. The Jazz did offer him the position, just too late.
He got married and the life of an umpire or a clubby didn’t seem to match family life. He had children. He got divorced. He lost his job. He moved in with a roommate who waived rent in exchange for aide.
A few years ago, the roommate mentioned the High Desert Mavericks were looking for people to work game days and wanted to see if he could find some work. Jensen took him.
“Someone said, ‘Don’t you want to work, too?” Jensen says. He told them yes, but only if there was an open position where he could work and watch the game. They put him in the press box, manning the music.
“I could play it, but my problem was I honestly thought music stopped after the ’80s,” he says. “They were getting frustrated with me. I wasn’t really being paid, so they were between a rock and a hard place, ‘Gosh, do we fire him? He’s a nice guy. He works hard.’”
Around the same time, the Mavericks needed a new clubhouse manager and, knowing Jensen worked in a clubhouse once – however long ago it might have been – asked if he would take the position.
After two years in the clubhouse and two years in the front office, Jensen was named the Mavericks general manager last year. “The general manager is a default type of thing,” he says. “I’ve been here long enough that everyone else has left, so I’ve just kind of been stuck with it.”
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The Mavericks are a bit of a misfit in the High-A California League. Their stadium is outdated and on the edge of a small town in the Mojave Desert. Winds swirl and inflate offensive statistics like balloons. Scouts refuse to go there because their reports will be meaningless. The sound system goes out periodically. The visiting players have to walk through the concourse and down the berm to get to the field. The team has been rumored to be on its way out for five seasons.
Adelanto owns and operates the stadium, and the Mavericks are still trying to reach an agreement with the city for the 2013 season.
“Bless their hearts,” Jensen says. “We’re only a town of 40,000 with very little tax money. They just don’t have the tax base.”
Every year, Minor League Baseball sends Jensen a list of upgrades that need to be made to the stadium. There’s no money for them, though, and the city can’t be forced to make the changes because the stadium is grandfathered in under old rules.
Jensen suspects the team will move to a new stadium, maybe a new city, some time in the future. When or where, he has no idea.
For now, he’s happy in Adelanto. He runs the show outside the lines of the field and tries to have some fun in the process. Sometimes, he covers himself in a black cloak and an oversized mask and runs around the backstop as the Rally Wizard. He casts magical spells from the tops of the dugouts. He makes people laugh. Finally, he’s making calls in the world of baseball.
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