Lake Elsinore Article for “Play Ball” Magazine

September 15, 2000: Angels farm director Darrell Miller signs a two-year Player Development Contract with Quakes owner Hank Stickney (left) and general manager Pat Filippone.

I’ve mentioned in earlier entries that I’ve been writing a series of articles for the Quakes’ Play Ball magazine distributed during homestands. The below article was featured in the July 7-9 issue during the series with the Lake Elsinore Storm.

The next article is about the 2007 Arkansas Travelers and should be distributed during the upcoming homestand starting July 17.

by Stephen C. Smith

They were once us.  We were once them.

The histories of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes and the Lake Elsinore Storm have entwined for fourteen seasons, and there’s no reason to think that will change.

The Quakes were once the San Bernardino Spirit, a wildly successful Inland Empire franchise affiliated with the Seattle Mariners.  In 1993, the Spirit moved from historic yet quaint Fiscalini Field in San Bernardino to The Epicenter in Rancho Cucamonga.    The franchise renamed itself the Quakes and changed its parent club affiilation to the San Diego Padres.

The Storm were once the Palm Springs Angels, playing in another historic ballpark once known as the Polo Grounds.  It was renamed Angels Stadium after the American League team that played its spring training games there from 1961 through 1992.  The Palm Springs franchise was awarded in 1986 as an Angels affiliate, and saw many famous Angels of the 1990s pass through during their minor league development.

The Palm Springs franchise relocated to Lake Elsinore for the 1994 season, where the city had built its own new ballpark known simply as the Lake Elsinore Diamond.

Those moves narrowed the distance between the two franchises from about 55 miles to less than 40, but the proximity of both parks to the Interstate 15 combined with residential and commercial growth along that corridor to jump-start a natural rivalry.

Another Inland Empire team, the Riverside Pilots, relocated to Lancaster in 1996 and became the Jethawks.  San Bernardino received another franchise in 1994 which also called itself the Spirit; they eventually affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers and later the Seattle Mariners before rejoining the Dodgers for 2007.

The Quakes won the California League pennant in 1994.  The Storm went to the playoffs in 1995.  The Storm eliminated the Quakes from the playoffs in 1996 and went on to win the pennant.

And so the foundation was laid for the good-natured yet permanent animosity between the fans of the two franchises.

In the fall of 2000, as the California League season ended, that foundation was shaken like a 8.3 tremor (pun intended) on the Richter Scale.

Every two years, minor league teams and their parent clubs are given a brief window in which to seek new partners.  The procedure, codified in the Basic Agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, requires the partner seeking a breakup to file a document announcing their intent to find a new affiliation.  On a certain date, the lists of teams seeking new partners are announced, and they have a few weeks to renew vows or find someone else.

The Angels, believing Lake Elsinore was going to file, did so themselves only to learn that the Storm hadn’t filed at all.  The Quakes decided to see if a better opportunity was out there and filed to terminate their affiliation with the Padres.

Generally recognized as the most successful operation in the California League, the Quakes were courted by many major league teams.  Meanwhile, rumors had the Angels exploring a relationship with San Bernardino (who eventually signed with the Mariners).

Angels farm director Darrell Miller and Quakes general manager Pat Filippone quietly began discussions to create what was once considered impossible — an Angels/Quakes affiliation.

On September 15, 2000, while the Storm and Padres held a press conference in San Diego to announce their affiliation, the Angels came to The Epicenter to announce they would affiliate with Rancho Cucamonga for the next two years.

The I-15 Rivalry suddenly looked like a DNA helix.

Hardcore fans on both sides were shocked, dazed, confused.  We were now them.  They were now us.

In retrospect, the switch made all the sense in the world.

The Quakes got a parent club just 45 miles down the road with plenty of fans living nearby.  Fans started showing up at The Epicenter wearing Angels gear.  The Angels’ world championship season of 2002 seemed to bring out more and more people wearing red.  Thunderstix giveaway nights at The Epicenter were common after Angels fans started the craze.

The Storm got a parent club that was a bit further away, but more than happy to be lots closer to their Cal League affiliate than before.  Both shared a mutual interest in expanding their potential markets into northern San Diego County.

Several players have worn both Storm and Quakes jerseys.

The most famous is Francisco Rodriguez, who is now the Angels’ closer.  In 2000, long before he was known as "K-Rod," he was just known as "Frankie" to Storm fans.  Rodriguez was an 18-year old who spoke little English but featured a fastball that often reached the high 90s.

June 2, 2000: Francisco Rodriguez pitches for Lake Elsinore at Rancho Cucamonga and scores 96 MPH on the scoreboard radar.

Rodriguez was a starter back then.  A photo I shot on June 2, 2000 shows Frankie on the mound pitching for Lake Elsinore at The Epicenter.  The radar number on the scoreboard shows he’d just thrown a pitch at 96 MPH.  The official record shows that Rodriguez pitched five innings that night, allowing three runs on four hits in five innings, striking out four and walking three.  He got the win.

In 2001, Frankie returned to The Epicenter.  He started 20 games that year for the Quakes, finishing with a 5-7 record and a 5.38 ERA.  In 113.2 innings, he struck out 147 and walked 55.  The next year, the Angels promoted Rodriguez to Double-A Arkansas and made him a reliever.  He arrived in the big leagues with Anaheim on September 15, and was a World Series champion by the end of October.

Another top prospect who played for both the Storm and Quakes was Brian Specht, a 19-year old shortstop who made his professional debut with Lake Elsinore in May 2000.  Brian started his career with a 12-game hitting streak, batting .444 over that period.  Baseball America ranked Specht the Angels’ #3 prospect the next spring, just before he reported to Rancho Cucamonga.  Although he reached Triple-A and was named the top rookie in major league camp during the spring of 2004, too many injuries took their toll and Brian retired in May 2006, one step away from the majors.

Outfielder Nathan Haynes was only 19 when he reported to Lake Elsinore on July 29, 1999.  The Oakland A’s had just traded him to the Angels with Jeff DaVanon and Elvin Nina for Randy Velarde and Omar Olivares.  Nathan hit .327 in 26 games for the Storm before a late-season promotion to Double-A Erie.  Injuries befell Nathan too, and in 2002 he was sent to Rancho Cucamonga in June on an informal rehab assignment.  Haynes played in 11 games for the Quakes before he was sent to Triple-A Salt Lake.  Years later, he finally made his major league debut this season with the Angels.

One man has connections to Palm Springs, Lake Elsinore and Rancho Cucamonga.  Ty Boykin was an outfielder in the Angels system during the 1990s.  He hit .325 in 77 games for Palm Springs in 1993.  He retired to become the Storm hitting coach in 1997.  In 2005, he returned to the California League as the Quakes’ manager.

Almost seven years have passed since they became us, and we became them.  Both teams have many new fans who weren’t around before 2000, but they’re still part of a fierce and proud rivalry.  At least they can agree on one thing — beat Inland Empire!


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