BY CAROLYN LaWELL
VISALIA, California – Dan Hargey stopped at the intersection of Acres and Mineral King and waited for the crosswalk signal to give him the go ahead to continue his run back from the gym. He got his signal. He took three steps. Boom. The next thing he knew, he rolled onto the hood of a car and broke the windshield with his body.
“I thought I was dead at one point in time,” says Hargey, the groundskeeper for the Visalia Rawhide.
The day started with a sprinkler valve break in centerfield that kept Hargey back in Visalia and not on a Rawhide front office trip to Bakersfield to see the team open the season against the Blaze. After missing the trip and dealing with water spewing all over his outfield, he decided to run to the gym to blow off steam.
The collision dislocated his left shoulder, broke four of his ribs, gave him a hairline fracture in his hip and gave him a concussion.
Somehow, he didn’t miss a day of work.
“We had a bunch of rain the first week, and so I was doing a lot of extra work,” Hargey says. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in enough pain that it would actually make you throw up. I don’t recommend it.”
Rawhide Ballpark’s field can handle about half an inch of rain. When the Rawhide returned for the home opener, Visalia received about two and a half inches in less than 48 hours. Because the field’s highest point is in short centerfield – a normal field’s highest point is the pitcher’s mound – and the soil is clay-based, the field doesn’t drain properly. That created all sorts of extra work for the broken and battered Hargey and his four-man crew, all of whom needed to drain the puddles in the outfield.
Hargey tried to take it easy when he could and when the pain just got too unbearable. When his crew would make adjustments to the field, he would try to restrain himself and remain in his office – the red barn in centerfield – sit in a recliner and play on his iPad.
Hargey was used to broken bones and pulled muscles. Growing up as an avid snowboarder in Connecticut, he had previously broken ribs, cracked his sternum, fractured his forearm, even broke his heel. An ACL and MCL tear while a shortstop at the University of Massachusetts ended his baseball career as a junior. Now, recovering from the car collision, various body parts took from six to eight weeks to recover.
“I don’t like to not do,” says Hargey, who started with the Rawhide as the operations manager. “Being a groundskeeper, it’s all manual labor.”
The most frustrating part for Hargey was not being able to head to home plate at the end of games and tamp the dirt smooth.
“You almost feel helpless sometimes, and I think that’s the hard thing to get over,” he says. “You’re so used to doing, doing, doing and then you have to delegate.”
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A multimillion dollar makeover to Rawhide Ballpark between 2007 and 2009 – and a name change from the Oaks to the Rawhide – helped attract fans back to the park after years of struggling to draw anywhere close to average attendance. The renovations allowed the team to display Rawhide memorabilia from past decades. Digging even deeper into the archives, Rawhides director of broadcasting Donny Baarns wrote a book, “Goshen & Giddings – 65 Years of Visalia Professional Baseball,” on the team’s history.
It took Baarns about two and a half years to sort through old photos, programs, newspaper clippings and former ballplayers’ stories to write the 136-page book. “Goshen & Giddings” starts with Thomas Fowler, an Irish immigrant who established the Empire Club of Visalia, the city’s first team, back in 1879, and goes forward to today, the new stadium and the first players and managers and umpires to be inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame – Kirby Puckett, Vada Pinson, Harry “Bud” Heslet, Tom Kelly, Bob Talbot and Doug Harvey.
We sat in the stadium’s Hall of Fame Club, which was built during the renovation, and spoke with Baarns, who has a history degree from Occidental College, about documenting the Rawhide.
“History is a very validating thing for people. It makes them feel like they were there for it, or somewhere around that time of the photo you’re showing. It makes them feel that their experience counted for something. It’s helped us reconnect with a lot of older fans that used to go and haven’t gone in a long time.
“You have to understand, a few years ago when this wasn’t here, and there wasn’t the grandstand, and there wasn’t much shade at all, nobody came to games, nobody cared about the team here. They had, back in the ’70s and ’80s, and especially in the ’40s and ’50s, but for 20 or 30 years, the place had essentially sat dormant. Even though there was a team playing here, there was no community interest, practically. We lost an entire generation of fans that didn’t go to baseball games and didn’t realize that Hall of Famers had come through here. A lot of great names that they would recognize played right here in their backyard, and people had no idea.”
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Time for minor league trivia. The Empire Club of Visalia never held a formal practice before playing its first game, a 31-6 loss to the Two Orphans of Bakersfield. In a rematch later that summer, the two teams scored a combined 65 runs. Guess the score. (You probably won’t get it, but take a stab anyway. Keep reading for the answer.)
Shortstop Chris Owings hit a triple to start the eighth inning and then flied out for the last out of the inning, as the Rawhide batted around and scored six runs to cinch an 8-3 win over the San Jose Giants. The game was tied 2-2 going into the bottom of the eighth. Righty Anthony Meo pitched seven innings, giving up a pair of runs on four hits and striking out seven.
Want the answer? The Empire Club of Visalia lost the second game in team history, also against the Two Orphans of Bakersfield, 44-21. Empire was scoreless into the fifth inning, while the Two Orphans scored three or more runs in every inning. Perhaps part of the reason for the loss was Empire’s long drive through the night. Today, the drive from Visalia to Bakersfield is about an hour and a half. In 1879, Empire left at 1 a.m. for Bakersfield and arrived at 5 a.m.
And in random statistical news, the game started one minute later than scheduled, the first pitch was a strike and the first batter was hit by a pitch. (Really? C’mon, pitchers.) For the second night in a row, the recording of the “Star-Spangled Banner” lasted 1 minute and 16 seconds. And for dinner we ate massive burritos from the concession stands behind the Saloon.
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