The Fresno Bee had bad news for baseball fans on Thanksgiving. Major League Baseball has given the ownership and city of Fresno an ultimatum: Agree to be demoted to Low-A in the California League (as the entire league is being demoted from High-A to Low-A), or to not have affiliated baseball in 2021 and beyond.
The demand is not a surprise. Some of the earliest leaks about MLB’s proposal back in 2019 had indicated this change was proposed, as teams have not been interested in Fresno as an affiliate in recent years, and baseball wanted to remove the Lancaster JetHawks from the California League, as its high desert environment and wind gives games there an extreme offensive environment which is not considered great for player development.
The Monday demand includes a release from future legal action by the Grizzlies, and although the the Grizzlies team ownership or leadership remained without comment, Fresno’s current and future mayor have released a joint statement to “maintain our Triple-A legacy of success.”
While the San Francisco Giants have not been affiliated with the Fresno Grizzlies for a long time, this drama is still close to many longtime Giants fans hearts. So let’s take a look back at Fresno’s minor league history.
Fresno’s professional baseball legacy dates back to the original California League in 1898, and had various teams come into and out of existence over the next five decades, including the colorfully named Fresno Raisin Eaters.
In 1941, the modern iteration of the California League was founded (then as a Class-C League), and the Fresno Cardinals were a charter member of the league. The team was named the Cardinals based on their affiliation from 1941 though 1956 (except for the years that the United States was in World War II). In 1957, the team went independent and renamed itself the Fresno Sun Sox.
In 1958, the team affiliated itself with the newly-moved San Francisco Giants, and were renamed the Fresno Giants. It would keep that name and affiliation through 1987, including the league’s rebranding as a Class-A league in 1963. By 1987, the 30-year affiliation was the longest continuous working agreement in all of minor league baseball. However, Fresno’s ballpark was not adequate, as John Euless Park had been built in the 1940s and intended to be a temporary structure, and yet the wooden grandstand lasted its entire life. The outfield fence blew down in 1984, followed shortly thereafter by a transformer blowing out in the middle of a game. Though repairs happened, the team could not get a new park or substantially upgrade John Euless Park.
Because of that, in 1988, the SF Giants moved their Class-A affiliation to the team in San Jose. Fresno played as the independent Suns in 1988, but the team was purchased and moved to Salinas in 1989.
That would be the end of affiliated baseball in Fresno for a decade, but when it returned, the city would receive a promotion to Triple-A.
Phoenix had been the home of the Giants’ Triple-A team since 1966, known as the Phoenix Giants and later the Phoenix Firebirds. But in 1998, they were forced out of Phoenix, with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks coming into town.
This led to an unusual shuffle. The Firebirds moved to Tucson, becoming the Tucson Sidewinders and affiliating with the Diamondbacks. But there was already a Triple-A team in Tucson, the Tucson Toros. The Toros moved out, and went to Fresno, where they became the Grizzlies, and began an affiliation with the San Francisco Giants.
The Grizzlies debuted in 1998, and played their first few seasons at Pete Beiden Field at CSU Fresno. In 2002, the Grizzlies opened their new park, Grizzlies Stadium, which was later renamed as Chukchansi Park, after the local Chukchansi tribe and their Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.
Fresno’s first Triple-A affiliation was a 17-year relationship with the San Francisco Giants. While the affiliation was notably not successful in the Pacific Coast League standings, as the team made just a single playoff appearance, winning their division in their first year, the team became an incubator for the Giants’ future stars. Most of the team’s biggest names for its three World Series Championships from 2010 through 2014 played in Fresno, including Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Pablo Sandoval, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner.
The team also became known for its wild promotions, include a K-Fed night, and a Totally Rad 80’s night featuring Billy Zabka from The Karate Kid, a decade before the TV show Cobra Kai was built around him. The Grizzlies also made a Hollywood appearance in the 2012 movie Parental Guidance which starred Billy Crystal as the Grizzlies play-by-play announcer, along with Bette Midler, and Marisa Tomei.
However, there were dark clouds over the Grizzlies, particularly in regards to the team’s ownership. The team went through several owners from 1998 through 2005, when they were bought by a management team led by Chris Cummings, who also bought the Fresno Falcons minor league hockey team. In 2014, the team was struggling to make rent payments and for sale. During that time the Giants were courted by the Sacramento River Cats, who wanted to change based on fan feedback and preference for the Giants over their former affiliate.
The change led to the Grizzlies affiliating the Houston Astros, and did lead to an immediate change for the team’s on-field fortunes. The Grizzlies not only won their first division title since 1998, but won their first league title and the Triple-A title, playing with the stars that would later win* the Astros a World Series championship.
But ownership struggles would continue with Cummings and his team. His Fresno Falcons team had folded in 2008, and his relationship with the city of Fresno became strained. The Grizzlies’ future in Fresno was in question, despite a lease agreement that ran through 2031.
In 2018, the Fresno Grizzlies were sold to their current owners, with the city agreeing to new lease terms, extending the team’s lease in exchange for leniency and helping fund stadium upgrades. But Fresno was not wanted by most MLB teams, and in the Triple-A game of musical chairs, Fresno was paired with the Washington Nationals, who themselves would soon win a World Series championship.
Despite being a seeming good luck charm, with each of their three affiliates in history winning World Series while being affiliated with them, here in 2020 no team is interested in affiliating with the Fresno Grizzlies.
In MLB’s letter to the team, they indicated that the Nationals are not interested in being an affiliate of the Grizzlies. And, in fact, no MLB team seems to be. MLB had been assigning teams, especially west coast teams, based on geographical significance. However, all the west coast MLB teams had solid or happy affiliates. Seattle and Tacoma, San Francisco and Sacramento, Oakland and Las Vegas, the Angels and Salt Lake, the Dodgers and Oklahoma City (whom they own and can not leave), San Diego and El Paso, Arizona and Reno, and the Rockies and Albuquerque.
And so, here we are. Major League Baseball is forcing an impossible choice onto Fresno. Be demoted to Low-A, with a stadium that needs improvements and payments but might not be feasible with a Low-A attendance. Or losing affiliation entirely, leaving the city likely without baseball and another loss for the sport in the country.
MLB has given then one last weekend. What will the future hold for the Grizzlies?
Whatever it is…unfortunately, it won’t be Triple-A.