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Pitching pro baseball for Sonoma

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Here’s one thing Sonomans seem to agree on: A pro baseball team in town, with Arnold Field as its stadium, would be really cool.

That was the impression Wednesday night following a City Council presentation by Redwood Sports and Entertainment, a company planning to bring professional minor league baseball back to the county with its Sonoma Stompers.

The Stompers are the sixth team in the Pacific Association League, which also includes the San Rafael Pacifics, BayCal Lumberjacks, Vallejo Admirals and two Hawaiian teams. The independent league – described as A to AA in caliber – is owned and managed by Redwood Sports and has played two seasons so far.

“Many years ago in the U.S. and California, minor league baseball was the backbone of many kinds of towns, including Sonoma,” said Redwood Sports owner Brian Sobel in remarks to council members.

Sobel proposed a one-year trial period for the Stompers, but was confident locals would want to keep the franchise around due to its entertainment value, economic benefits, community benefits and “minimal adverse impacts.”

Advocates said the community outreach provided by a local ball club is invaluable. Don Lyons, varsity baseball coach and English teacher at Sonoma Valley High School, addressed this when he told council members of his time as a minor leaguer in El Paso. Back then, he said, “I read a lot of stories” to schoolchildren there, and they would later approach him at the ballpark to say, “Remember when you read that story to me?”

“When the heroes are here, and the heroes are real … all of a sudden you feel a little more proud about your community,” he said.

The Stompers would also provide jobs, Sobel said, particularly to local youth through the league’s “hire-first policy.”

“You see them grow through the year as they get more and more responsibility,” Sobel said.

Meanwhile, updates to Sonoma’s decades-old ballpark would be made “at our cost,” he said, although it was not immediately clear if this meant leveling the field or improving the lighting, as many say Arnold Field needs.

Tickets would cost $5 to $10, with deductions for fans walking or biking to the game.

All were hopeful that the new franchise would be in Sonoma in time for the 2014 season, although, some particulars still needed hammering out, such as traffic, parking, noise and accommodating other uses for the field. The council was only scheduled to receive a presentation Wednesday, and though council members asked several questions of Sobel and his colleagues, they took no vote on the matter.

Company leaders said a “traffic diversion plan” would be created for downtown Sonoma, and that no music would be allowed after 9 p.m. But with only 300 to 400 fans expected on game days, traffic and noise issues were not thought to be insurmountable.

Home games for the Stompers would be in July and August only, due to other uses of Arnold Field. Of the season’s 78 games, “We have a plan to do about 25 games” in Sonoma, said company president Mike Shapiro. “Usually it’s a three-game series.”

He said most games would start at 7 p.m., although weekend games could be earlier.

“We need to work through all of the issues that the community may have,” Sobel said, adding that as a former Petaluma council member, he’s “particularly sensitive to this.”

But he noted that, despite a few initial worries, San Rafael – which also has a ballpark in the middle of town, right next to a “long-established neighborhood” – has experienced no problems since the Pacifics started playing there.

“I think this is one of the most exciting things to happen in Sonoma,” said city resident Regina Baker during public comment.

That sentiment was echoed by other community and council members, including Councilmember Steve Barbose, who said, “I think it’s a fantastic idea and I look forward to seeing it when it comes forward” for a vote.

The last professional ball club in Sonoma County was the Crushers, who played in Rohnert Park until 2002. That team featured former San Francisco Giants Jeffrey Leonard and Kevin Mitchell.

But local baseball goes back at least a century, and the semi-pro Sonoma Merchants played from the 1930s into the 1950s.

Also Wednesday, the City Council heard arguments regarding a proposal to ban bicycle riding on sidewalks near the Plaza. However, council members opted to not vote on the matter until language in the ordinance could be modified.