Greg Lauchenauer spends more hours than he can count at Albert Park.
When the San Rafael Pacifics are at home, he sits with his family in the first row above Box A, and one evening per week, he plays center field. Not for the Pacifics, of course, but in a men’s softball league that uses the dirt diamond sitting just under the 370-foot marker for games on Sunday nights.
There has been at least one family member in attendance at every game for the past three years, Lauchenauer said. The family’s dedication is so steadfast that planning a summer camping trip has been quite the challenge; the Lauchenauer daughters, Emma and Brianna, refuse to miss a game.
They’re part of a core contingent of die-hard fans of the Pacific Association team, a key component in this one-of-a-kind baseball experience in the North Bay.
The swath of dirt in center field, impossibly cramped clubhouses, and the Lauchenauers — Greg’s foot-long orange beard and all — are just blips on the radar screen of endearing, small-town, independent-league quirks at this 65-year-old ballpark.
“We like to start with the premise that when you walk into the ballpark, you’ve entered a simpler age of baseball,” said Mike Shapiro, the club’s general manager and minority owner. “This is the purest form of the game.”
There’s the manually operated wood scoreboard in left field, which was built by a friend of Shapiro in exchange for rights to a little nook in the grandstand’s third-base side. There’s a couch there now, and it’s not the only one in the ballpark.
That’s because the best seats in the house aren’t seats at all, ever since a family bought the box in the first row behind home plate and the members had some ideas of their own as to where and how they’d sit. So out went the folding chairs and in came a davenport adorned with tie-dye pillows fashioned from Pacifics T-shirts.
That’s the way things are at the spruced-up downtown San Rafael grandstand, which hosted the likes of Satchel Paige, Frank Robinson and Billy Martin in its early days.
Fans who frequented the park during Paige’s barnstorming career probably wouldn’t recognize the menu.
Concessions offerings include tri-tip, “reverse-engineered” Cincinnati-style Skyline Chili and a gluten-free snack platter.
The baseball experience certainly checks off all the boxes of ballgames from a bygone age: There are lights, beer and hot dogs — hot dogs are overlooked at the MLB level, Shapiro said — and a family atmosphere in every sense.
Shapiro’s oldest son, Harry, tends bar down the third-base line. His younger son, Jackson, works in the PA booth. And Shapiro’s wife, Jane, runs concessions. She’s the creator of the tri-tip and the chili, and makes her in-game home at “Jane’s 1st Base Cafe,” a refurbished green-and-red trailer feet from the home bullpen.
The family vibe extends far past the owners’ box. Diany Lomeli Banda, the fiancee of fan-favorite right fielder Maikel Jova, often passes their 7-month-old son to the Lauchenauer family. Greg, wife Liv and their daughters entertain him until she gets back. It’s not the only time they get put to work.
“Sometimes I get here and I’m handed a bag of ice to bring somewhere, and my daughters are working the gates,” Greg Lauchenauer said. “That’s what makes this so great. These players are so down to earth. They’ll play for a good meal and a spot to stay.”
Though it’s pervasive, the intimate vibe doesn’t create itself. That’s where Shapiro comes in, along with Vinnie Longo, the team’s public-relations director, assistant GM and play-by-play radio broadcaster, among other roles. The two, and other Pacifics staffers, frequently work 15-hour days during the season, arriving at the club’s offices around 9 a.m. and staying well past the final out.
Starting a club from scratch is nothing new to Shapiro, one of two people ever to be employed by the Tampa Bay Giants back when a China Basin ballpark was a pipe dream and San Francisco’s team had all but packed its bags for Florida.
His first stint as a baseball executive included a lengthy tenure as the vice president and general counsel to the San Francisco Giants, along with similar roles with the Nationals’ and Braves’ organizations. His experience with MLB venues gave him a few ideas for the vibe he wanted to create in San Rafael.
“Candlestick Park taught me a lot about what not to do,” Shapiro said.
Starting a career
Longo, meanwhile, “talked his way into an internship” with the Pacifics after his freshman year of college.
“I was on the Larkspur Ferry headed to a Giants game and I saw a Pacifics ad,” Longo said of his inspiration for pursuing employment with the team.
It snowballed from there — first a summer internship, during which Longo was allowed to call an inning of play-by-play on radio broadcasts, then a full-time job after he graduated from Ithaca College in December.
One of Longo’s prized duties is driving “The Tank,” a 15-year-old Chevy Malibu that transports gear and anywhere from three to six players to road games — the Pacific Association also includes teams in Sonoma, Vallejo and Pittsburg. Other players are responsible for their own transportation.
But if drivers carpool with two or more teammates, they get their mileage reimbursed, a treat for players playing for a bit of spending money while they spend the summer with host families — that is, when the clubs can find enough people willing to open their doors to athletes. Some teams have been forced to put players in dorms at nearby colleges, and the Vallejo Admirals have converted a former firehouse into a sort of in-season baseball commune.
That type of financial detail occupies a healthy chunk of Shapiro’s and Longo’s time. Game-day mornings are spent in the office, tying up loose ends, as was the case Wednesday, when the first frantic phone call had to do with a staffing problem preventing the ballpark from getting cleaned.
“We’re pretty much screwed,” a staffer relayed to Shapiro and Longo via speakerphone. An intern found a way to deal with the issue. So attentions turned to a player expected to arrive from the Dominican Republic, via Texas, in the coming days, another player who needed to buy health insurance, and a bill for medical supplies being presented to Shapiro.
“This is off my credit card?” he asked, examining the receipt. Shapiro explained: “There’s no company credit card to use. So sometimes I’m the company credit card.”
And that was just in the office.
Meeting the challenges
Upon arriving at the ballpark, Shapiro found that the blue-and-white, circular “42” sign the club had ordered for a Jackie Robinson number-retirement ceremony the next night wasn’t 60 inches in diameter, as ordered, but closer to 30.
Then the batting cage had to be adjusted to prevent foul balls from straying close to a children’s park just beyond a fence in foul territory, not far from the high-end mobile restrooms the team installs during home games.
The Pacifics spend roughly $15,000 per season on those bathrooms, which is no small share of their operating budget. The annual budget hovers around $700,000. The Pacifics take in roughly $250,000 from corporate sponsorships, another $250,000 from ticket sales and $200,000 comes from concessions and merchandise sales.
The team has not yet turned a profit, but ownership is cautiously optimistic that attendance will reach the break-even level of 550 fans per game needed to change the bottom line from red to black.
“My wife looks at is as an involuntarily nonprofit organization,” Shapiro said.
That hardship reaches down to the players, most of whom make less than $1,000 a month. A Pacific Association player without batting gloves is not proving his toughness, he‘s doing it out of financial necessity.
“You buy a pair once a month, and that’s $45,” Pacifics manager Matt Kavanaugh said. “Do that four times a year and that could be a quarter of a paycheck. More.”
That’s the one constant in this league: It’s about anything except the money.