Sports

Palo Alto Oaks secure baseball future, will play a 66th seasson

When Steve Espinoza finally decided before this past season began to step away as the general manager of the Palo Alto Oaks, it was a decision he agonized over.

"My fear was that when I stepped away, no one would care," Espinoza said. "It would have left a large hole in my heart."

The 55-year-old Espinoza, after all, played 10 years with the Oaks and was GM for 11 more after keeping the program alive following the 2003 passing of its longtime manager Tony Makjavich, who kept the team running for nearly a half century.

With current manager Greg Matson also retiring at the end of 2014, there was a possibility the Oaks would hang up their spikes for good after playing ball in the community for 65 years.

Well, count on the Palo Alto Oaks playing into their 66th season next summer as Greg Fanara has stepped up to the plate and will be the team's new general manager.

"I've known of the Oaks since I was a kid," said the 29-year-old Fanara, a resident of Santa Clara. "This is one of the most relevant teams in California history. The Oaks were here before the A's and Giants."

Fanara is banking on the Oaks' history as a selling point to potential sponsors while attempting to make the team more visible to the community.

"If you go asking for sponsorss, they laugh if they don't know who you are," said Fanara. "But, the Palo Alto Oaks have a 65-year history. It's not going to be easy; it's going to take some work."

And Fanara is more than willing for the challenge.

"Absolutely," he said. "My dad always said, 'Aim for the stars, even if you only hit the street light.' So, we're going to aim for the stars with the Oaks. That's my dream."

Fanara works in sales for Robert Half, a multi-billion dollar international recruiting and placement firm specializing in accounting, financial and information systems positions. When he's not wearing a suit and tie, it's all baseball with Fanara.

"I love baseball," Fanara said. "I love running teams."

Fanara has successfully run the Santa Clara Dynasty of the Adult Men's Baseball League (AMBL) for the past nine years -- winning eight division titles and three league titles. He designed a professional web site with professional photos -- Fanara is adept with social media -- and created four different uniforms for his team.

"Teams absolutely hated us," said Fanara. "But they didn't know I made the uniforms on our kitchen table and our photographer was my wife (Rebecca). Some guys play golf, I do baseball."

"He's willing to do the leg work," said Espinoza. "He has an enterprising kind of attitude. He's got his plans."

Fanara would like to make the Oaks a viable part of the community, where fans can enjoy a professional-type atmosphere at Baylands Athletic Center. Fanara envisions some night games, having a PA announcer, music and special family-oriented events.

"I want to make playing for the Oaks as attractive as possible," Fanara said.

That's the easy part.

"My biggest concern would be to canvas the community and not get a good response," said Fanara. "For the ideas I have, I would need that backing."

As well as financial support.

"It takes about $6,000 to run a season," explained Espinoza. "But, that doesn't include playoffs or traveling. That's bare bones."

The Oaks spent $2,000 on hotel rooms in Sacramento while competing in the 2013 AABC West Regional and spent considerably more while taking third in the 2010 AABC World Series, fourth in the 2011 event and seventh in 2012.

The annual Tony Makjavich Memorial golf tournament has provided needed funds, but having fewer golfers in recent years has hurt.

"Fortunately, we had some parents help out," Espinoza said. "But, it (raising funds) has gotten harder over the years."

That, along with Espinoza and Matson leaving

the team this season, provided the nails for one local paper to all but hammer the Oaks' coffin shut following their loss in an elimination game of the AABC West Regional this July at Baylands.

Espinoza, however, was not ready for a memorial service at that time.

Fanara, meanwhile, was trying to bring a professional Independent League baseball team to Palo Alto. He didn't even know how close the Oaks were taking a third strike. While his efforts were not realized, he met longtime Palo Alto Babe Ruth coach Andrew Shenk.

Shenk was not only supportive of Fanara's pro baseball idea, but mentioned to Fanara that he should meet with Espinoza.

"He (Shenk) sent me the article on the Oaks possibly folding," Fanara said. "I said 'Do you think I could meet Steve?' "

While Fanara figured he'd have to wait in a long line of prospective new GMs, that wasn't the case. He was the lone candidate.

That's good enough for Oaks' veteran Bryan Beres, 30, who joined the team when it was 18.

"Beautiful," Beres said, when told of the Oaks' future. "It's always been home for me. It was a good place to show up and play good baseball. I didn't think it was going to go away. There's too much history for it not to happen. I''m glad to see it (the team) stay alive."

Depending on Fanara's plans with the roster, Beres would like to be a part-time player next season. His solar company is taking off and there's less time to play.

But, Beres said he'll help out any way he can. Once an Oak, always an Oak.

Fanara, shouldn't have any problem putting together a roster.

"There's enough talent in the area," he said, noting he wouldn't be opposed to contacting all the college baseball coaches in the Bay Area while seeking the best players. A few summers ago, Stanford two-sport standout Tyler Gaffney played for the Oaks and helped them reach the World Series.

There are all kinds of possibilities to explore and Fanara is willing to do just that.

"I guess, more than anything, I'm happy (and relieved) that someone like Greg is taking the Oaks over," said Espinoza, who coached the Oaks to 10 Western Baseball Association titles, four NorCal and three West Regional championships. "Greg is young, enthusiastic and has ideas that exceed the ideas I had when I took over the team. Like I told Greg, when I took over the team, I did what I thought was in the best interest of the team at that time. We went to the playoffs for the first time. We reached the World Series in 2010 for the first time. We beat the host Houston Wildcats, a team stacked with former professional players in our first game 1-0. We were broadcast on the radio and the Makjavich family got to hear how the Oaks were doing.

"The Oaks were recognized on the national level! That was enough for me. But, to listen to Greg talk about what he wants to do with the Oaks, I get excited. He has a different vision and wants to capitalize on the history we have paved on the diamond in Palo Alto. I will do what I can to make the transition as smooth as possible."

And somewhere, Tony Makjavich is smiling.

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