Over the past 24 years, Lancaster Municipal Stadium – or The Hangar, as it’s known locally – has provided an escape from the bleak realities of living in an isolated high desert city at the northern edge of Los Angeles County.
For at least 70 days every summer, the Single-A Lancaster JetHawks baseball team brings together a community that spans generations, social classes and races. This is a devoted group that includes characters like “Hot Rod” Will and “JetHawk” John.
Now, The Hangar is closed to help curtail the spread of the coronavirus. With Major League Baseball threatening to contract the franchise, baseball fans throughout the Antelope Valley are grappling with the fact that, after more than two decades of memories, the JetHawks might have already played their final game.
What makes this so difficult to stomach is that there’s probably nothing that will fill the void.
”You need things like that in the community to unify the community, so people identify with where they live,” Lancaster mayor R. Rex Parris said. “It’s not just a place they sleep.”
This past fall, under pressure to improve quality of life for minor-league players whose wages often fall below the poverty line, MLB owners engineered a plan to contract 42 minor-league teams. The JetHawks – the California League affiliate of the Colorado Rockies – are on that list, though the reasons behind their inclusion remain unclear.
The plan to cut minor-league teams is widely viewed as a way for billionaire MLB owners to reduce labor costs. Perhaps nowhere would the toll of such a decision be felt more than in communities like Lancaster, where the ballpark has become a point of civic pride, a safe space for disabled fans, and a key source of income for hundreds of seasonal workers and local vendors.
The Hangar, built in 1996 with $14.5 million of public money, is at the center of a remote sprawl at the tip of the Antelope Valley, 70 miles north of Los Angeles. Scrub brush, Joshua trees and strip malls dot Lancaster’s incongruous mix of one-story stucco tract houses, mansions with swooping driveways and weathered wooden shacks.
Over the past two-plus decades, as a small, predominantly white military town on the edge of the Mojave Desert blossomed into a diverse metropolis of more than 159,000, JetHawks games became a gathering place. This bond between team and community helped generate considerable revenue.
Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down competitive sports in mid-March, the JetHawks – named after the area’s strong ties to the aerospace industry – were on pace for their best sales year since current ownership took over in 2015. For a city that has nearly a fourth of its residents living below the federal poverty line, $10 JetHawks tickets offered an affordable, family-friendly way to pass a summer day.
Every year, the team partnered with the local Boys & Girls Club to host a free six-week Little League at The Hangar for underprivileged youth, with each of the 150-plus participants getting free meals and new mitts. Local summer camps made JetHawks games a staple on their annual calendars.
Though MLB listed aging facilities as one reason for contracting the minor-league teams, Lancaster has spent more than $430,000 on ballpark capital projects since 2017. The current ownership has spent more than $500,000 on The Hangar’s public spaces in just five years.
“It just gives the community a sense of pride,” said Curt Redecker, the four-term president of “the Flight Crew,” the JetHawks’ booster club. “You take a lot of pride in the team; the team takes a lot of pride in the city.”
Redecker, 77, has been on the Flight Crew’s board since its inception in the fall of 1996. A retired 25-year veteran of the Air Force, he moved from nearby Edwards Air Force Base to Lancaster in 1986, working for Northrop Grumman on the B-2 Spirit bomber, which still occasionally flies overhead.
In 2006, Redecker’s oldest daughter Jennifer was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 39. During the four months she convalesced at his home, Redecker and his wife, Ellen, received frequent visitors from the Flight Crew. When Ellen died three years ago, almost the entire club attended her funeral.
“They would help you do whatever you needed,” Redecker said. “Having people stop by and give you the moral support, it’s a big deal.”
In late April, Redecker helped organize a caravan of Flight Crew cars to visit the homes of four special-needs fans who, because of the coronavirus outbreak, have struggled with feelings of isolation. Around 1 p.m. on April 26, the string of more than 30 cars passed the home of “Hot Rod” Will Martin, a 31-year-old fan with cerebral palsy. He nearly jumped out of his motorized wheelchair with glee.
On a typical game night, Martin zooms around the concourse in his chair, decked out with racing decals, a NASA sticker (for nearby Armstrong Flight Research Center) and faux overhead dual exhaust FlowMaster pipes, high-fiving and fist-bumping hundreds of fans and workers.
Over nearly 450 home games, Martin has become as much a JetHawks fixture as the retired F/A-18 mounted at The Hangar’s front gate, even having his likeness printed on shirts sold at the team store.
“He’s like the Walmart greeter,” said Martin’s mother, Shirley Harbeson.
Martin, who speaks using his own sign language and through use of a computer, now fills his days by watching former JetHawks play on television in the Korean Baseball Organization League and sending out Facebook messages to two or three fellow fans per day: “Hi. You’re my best friend. Go JetHawks! I love you.” If baseball does return, Martin, who had a tracheostomy as an infant, would need to watch games isolated in a suite, as he’s at high risk to contract COVID-19.
MLB reportedly plans to start its season this summer, playing games with no fans to comply with social-distancing protocols. That’s not an option for minor-league teams. Without the sweetheart TV deals and global brands of their parent clubs, they rely almost entirely on attendance-related income to pay the bills. This is why the JetHawks —–and most other minor-league teams – couldn’t function as independents, one option suggested by the architects of MLB’s contraction plan.
“It would need to be an affiliated team for it to make sense for us,” executive vice president Tom Backemeyer said.
Though the JetHawks received enough money from the Paycheck Protection Program to temporarily keep their 11 full-time staffers employed, they can’t do anything for the 350 seasonal employees they hire every year.
John Lafferny was once one of those employees. In February 1996, the lanky former P.E. teacher from Texas stood in a 5½-hour line with 1,200 people outside a Best Western in his only suit for a five-minute interview with the nascent JetHawks. After working game days during the team’s first season, he was hired on full-time, and he is now the director of baseball and stadium operations.
Of the more than 1,100 emails that have been sent to Rep. Kevin McCarthy begging to forestall contraction, three are from Lafferny, known locally as “JetHawk” John. Lafferny, 62, was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2009, and can talk at length about such former JetHawks standouts as Jose Cruz Jr., Brandon Webb and Jose Altuve.Lafferny makes a point of knowing the name of everyone who walks through the turnstiles, and he’s seen several young fans grow up to become JetHawks employees. Two weeks ago, he unpacked a box of jerseys ordered before the pandemic hit, and hung them up in the clubhouse for players who may never wear them.
These days, Lafferny sometimes goes into his stadium office, packed with mementos and memorabilia, and makes calls to clients before heading home to care for his 96-year-old father and complete household projects. With no wife or children, Lafferny views baseball as his other family. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if the JetHawks are contracted.
“Baseball’s my life,” Lafferny said through tears. “Don’t let Major League Baseball take it away.”