Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 12
Requiem for a teamAfter 65 years in Santa Maria, the Indians relocate to SLO County
BY JEREMY THOMAS
One baseball era in Santa Maria is over, while another, 50 miles up the highway, is just beginning.
The Indians, founded in 1944 and the oldest semipro franchise in California, are saying goodbye to Santa Maria, and hello to San Luis Obispo County, where they’ve been resurrected as the North County Indians.
The Indians announced the move on April 18, after getting preliminary approval from the Templeton school district to lease a baseball field near Vineyard Elementary School.
In announcing the relocation, Indians CEO Kevin Haughian said he was impressed with the enthusiasm the team received from the community during the negotiations, and said Templeton would be “a terrific market for good college summer baseball because of its location, demographics, and weather.”
“Although the Indians will no longer be calling Santa Maria home, this move will help to ensure the future success of the team,” Haughian said in a statement. “With the support of the North County community, it is our intent to remember and honor the Indians’ rich history, impressive statistics, and special ballplayers for many years to come.”
The North County Indians will play as an independent club, with 31 home games throughout June and July. Opening day on June 1, the tribe will take on the Oakland Expos at the team’s new home, Vineyard Athletic Park.
The club has hired Dan Marple, a former player at Cal Poly in SLO and former head coach at Cuesta College, as their manager, and is filling out their roster with college-level players. While about three-quarters of the team will be made up of local talent, according to Haughian, the Indians have also instituted a host family program to house student-athletes from out of town.
As a franchise, the Indians have been inactive since 2008. In March of 2009, Haughian announced that the club would cease operations temporarily due to financial constraints. At the time, Haughian blamed the economy and the rising cost of expenses at Elks Field, along with the establishment of other local semipro clubs, for the team’s money woes.
The club asked the public for donations to stay afloat, and Haughian was optimistic the Indians could return to Santa Maria with a new group of investors and a renovated Elks Field. The numbers didn’t work out.
In moving, the franchise leaves behind a rich tradition in Santa Maria. The club is one of only two California teams to win the National Baseball Congress championship. Tribe alumni include former Major League Baseball stars Ozzie Smith, Robin Ventura, Pete Incaviglia, and the San Francisco Giants’ Mike Aldrete.
Since the death of longtime manager Clarence “Scoop” Nunes in 2003, the franchise faced an uncertain future. After Haughian took over club operations in 2005, the Indians started losing money, despite increasing their attendance. In 2007, Indians coaches Scott Nickason, Bryn Smith, Terry Newby, and Jim Allen—who disagreed with Haughian’s idea of running the team for profit—all walked away and started their own summer ballclub, the Santa Maria Valley Packers.
After 65 years in Santa Maria, the Indians’ loss will be felt by generations who grew up watching or playing for the team. Former Indians coach Smith, who played in the major leagues for the 13 seasons, said he saw no tie with the team in Templeton and the Santa Maria Indians’ tradition. When Nunes died, Smith said, the Indians did, too.
“The history lies here in Santa Maria, and it will always be here,” Smith said. “We tried to do what we could here for a while, and then under different circumstances, it changed. Now it’s just a new team in a different city under a name the Indians. I don’t feel in any way that it’s the Santa Maria Indians moving to Templeton at all.”
Smith, currently the Packers’ pitching coach, said no team will ever replace the Indians in Santa Maria, but the fond memories will remain.
“There’s history, and there’s a lot of people in this community that still bleed the Big Red Machine,” Smith said. “That’s the beauty of history, and the beauty of the game of baseball, and what it’s brought to Santa Maria.”
As a kid, Eddie Navarro used to shag fly balls with Indians’ players, and he’s become something of a team historian, with his collection of news clippings and team memorabilia. Upon learning of the Indians’ relocation, Navarro, who’s coached Santa Maria Little Leaguers for more than 30 years, had mixed feelings.
“Hopefully, [Haughian will] continue saying it originated in Santa Maria and it will carry the name on, but eventually it will be lost for the kids here,” he said. “It will be sad to see them go on. To me, it wouldn’t be the Santa Maria Indians, but you can’t blame him for doing what he’s doing.”
Many former Indians still live locally. At a donut shop downtown, and a pizza place in Orcutt, former players still meet regularly to talk about the old days. Rodger Brown, now a Santa Maria planning commissioner, was brought in to play catcher for the Indians in 1958, and played for the team until 1966. He recalled going up against rivals like the San Luis Obispo Blues and L.A. Dodger rookie teams when the Indians were the only game in town.
“I can remember when Indians baseball here was a big deal,” Brown said. “Elks Field would be filled—but that was a long, long time ago. There are so many other interests people can do nowadays that’s kind of taken away from that.”
Brown explained that while he hated to see the franchise leave town, the Indians should benefit from the warmer weather in Templeton and the ability to play more comfortable night games.
“I wish it wasn’t happening, but Kevin had to do something,” Brown said. “Up there, they’ve got a nice hot summer climate, so maybe he can make a go of it up there.”
Brown’s former teammate Hal Rayburn was with the Indians almost from the start, beginning in 1944. He left to play professional ball in Texas for several years, and returned to the Central Coast, where he resumed his career with the Indians from 1950 to 1963.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said of the experience. “I felt I was lucky because I got to play with the old timers: Harry Goodchild and the older guys. They all quit and the new guys came in, so I got to play with both sides of the coin. We had some good ball clubs.”
After his retirement, Rayburn became the Indians’ secretary and treasurer. Once Nunes passed away, Rayburn said, the writing was on the wall. The birth of the Packers led the Indians to lose funding they used to receive from local farmers, he said, and Haughian wasn’t prepared for it.
“Kevin came to town thinking everybody would back the Indians, but he didn’t know the work Scoop put into it, collecting money all year long,” he explained.
Rayburn said with Haughian continuing the franchise in SLO County under the Indians’ banner, it would at least keep a piece of the tradition alive.
“Things change. You hate to see them go, but things happen,” Rayburn said. “It will keep the name going, and hopefully they’ll have good luck with it.”
Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas’ name is remembered in Arizona. Contact him at jthomas@santamariasun.
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