By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
The Palo Alto Oaks have been playing semipro baseball on the Peninsula for 65 years. It's very doubtful, however, that the team has ever made it through any season undefeated.
The Oaks came close in 2004 when they finished the regular season with a 23-1 record under first-year manager Steve Espinoza.
This season, however, may be the best ever for Palo Alto. The Oaks are 16-0 heading into this weekend's West Regional in Sacramento, where they could finish 21-0 by winning the title. However, that's where the historic season will end.
"The West Regional is the last tournament for us," said Espinoza, now the team's general manager. "We are boycotting the Stan Musial World Series this year as the cost to take the team to New York, after taking the team to Florida last year and Houston the previous two years, would bankrupt us."
The Oaks spent some $20,000 last summer to travel and play in the World Series in Port Lucie, Fla. Palo Alto finished in seventh place and ended its season with a 19-8 record.
"We're boycotting this year's World Series based on principle and cost," Espinoza said. "The AABC, the governing body of the sport, continues to have these World Series on the East Coast. If you're going to be partial to teams only on the East Coast, then we're not going to go."
In 2011, when the Oaks played in their first World Series in Houston, the hotel was paid for. Last year in Florida, the teams were given $1,000 credit toward their hotel bill that cost upwards of $4,000 according to Espinoza.
And, to make matters worse, Espinoza heard after last year's World Series that any team wanting to play in the 2012 tournament could have done just that without qualifying. The 2012 World Series was played at the New York Mets' spring training facility.
"Anyone could have bought their way in last year," he said. "I think it just comes down to money."
Or, in the Oaks' case, the lack thereof. Thus, the days of representing Palo Alto on the biggest stage for this level of baseball appears gone. At least for now.
"We would go to New York (Farmingdale) if we could just afford it," Espinoza said of his non-profit organization. "Either we find a corporate sponsor or we just stop going."
Palo Alto likely will finish with one of the best records in the country (if not the best). The World Series, then, is that in name only as it becomes sort of a private country club for the sport.
Espinoza says it's shame his current team faces this situation, given the makeup of the squad.
"I have a mix of youth and experience," Espinoza said. "It would have been a good year to go."
The Oaks have nine players age 25 or older. Most of the players have day jobs. Playing for the Oaks is a way to delay the inevitable an end to one's playing days.
Palo Alto continues to survive under the guidance of Espinoza, who began his playing career with the Oaks at age 15. He later managed the team for eight years following the death of the legendary Tony Makjavich in 2000 before turning that job over to Greg Matson. The former Gunn High standout, who doubles as the pitching coach at Menlo College, has scaled back his playing in order to concentrate on managing the Oaks.
The team pretty much survives on donations and its annual Tony Makjavich Memorial Golf Tournament, the 10th annual which is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 12 at Shoreline Golf Links in Mountain View. Proceeds from the event, which range from $5,000-$6,000, go directly to funding the team during the summer season.
"It's enough to get us through the season," Espinoza said.
Espinoza pointed out just the rental of the Oaks' home field at Baylands Athletic Center (from the City of Palo Alto) now runs in the vicinity of $1,500 a year.
"When I first took over the team, it was like $35 for the season (to rent Baylands)," Espinoza said. "Now it's like $35 per hour."
Expenditures could be higher, but the Oaks have played all 16 of their games eight doubleheaders at home this season. This weekend's trip to Sacramento will be the team's first road games.
The Oaks will open the five-team regional Friday against the Healdsburg Prune Packers at Sacramento State at 11 a.m. CJ Hillyer will get the starting assignment on the mound for Palo Alto.
Should Palo Alto win, it will get a bye into Saturday's round of games at Sacramento City College. The tournament wraps up Sunday.
While the season comes to a close this weekend for Palo Alto, Espinoza says it nonetheless will end on a positive.
"I think we do end on a high note," he said. "We just had to draw a line in the sand with the AABC. If they want the best teams in the West this year, they're going to have to foot some of the cost to get us there."