Virginie Boone

With the Sonoma County Winegrowers forming a long-term partnership with the San Francisco Giants this year, it’s good to remember that our region has an interesting history with local baseball.

Back in 1995, the Sonoma County Crushers made their debut at the Rohnert Park Stadium as a member of the Independent Western Baseball League. The stadium was on the western side of the city along Highway 101, near where the Costco and Graton Resort & Casino are today.

Owners of the team were Bob and Susan Fletcher, who invested $500,000 of their own money to improve the stadium, which had sat idle for many years. Bob had worked for IBM. While it consisted of bleachers bought from the Oakland Coliseum, which had been used for both Raiders and A’s games, a new deck was built for barbecues while a sparkling wine bottle on the left-field fence blew out liquid after every Crushers home run.

Among other amenities unique to the park was the 16-foot-high Wine Sign in left field, called The Grape Monster, where local wineries rented space to tout their wines. At games, fans could also buy bottles of wine autographed by the players.

There was also a six-inch hole in the outfield fence; if a fan could throw a baseball through it from 120 feet, they would win $10,000.

The stadium originally sat 3,079 people (which was increased to 4,139 the following year). Opening night took place on May 19, 1995 against the Salinas Peppers at standing room only, so excited were locals for baseball’s return. Tickets cost between $4 and $10, and seasons consisted of 90 games.

In 1995, it had been 10 years since Sonoma County had some form of professional baseball, after the sale and departure of the Redwood Pioneers in 1985. The Pioneers had played at Rohnert Park Stadium from 1981-85.Well before the Pioneers, Sonoma County had been home to such teams as the Healdsburg Prune Packers, Santa Rosa Rosebuds and Petaluma Leghorns.

The Legend of Crusher

The Sonoma County Crushers, whose colors were red and purple in honor of Sonoma County’s wine industry, had a mascot called Crusher the Abominable Sonoman that sparked a legend. A story in the July 4, 1995 edition of The Press Democrat described it this way:

“It involves a furry creature being misunderstood by early settlers, who didn’t take kindly to him roaming their fields, who was forced to return to the Mayacamas Mountains from whence he came. According to the legend, Crusher grew tired of his lonely life, missed the freedom of the open fields and began to frequent the vineyards. When winemakers grew more grapes than they could handle, Crusher, working at night, traveled from vineyard to vineyard, picking and crushing all the grapes he could with his huge feet. The harvest was saved and when winemakers realized who had helped them, they honored Crusher, naming the harvest after him.”

The creature that was Crusher the Abominable Sonoman was hairy with enormous purple feet and claimed to be 126 years old.

Crusher (really the mysterious person who donned the costume) held the honor of being the first mascot in the Western Baseball League to be ejected from a game. When not being ejected during games, Crusher would high-five fans, squirt kids with water guns, race kids around the bases (and always lose), drive a three-wheel vehicle around very fast and pull women from the stands to dance.

The Crushers lasted until 2002, when the league disbanded, the only team to make it through the entirety of the league’s existence.

Along the way they had a few players go Major League – pitcher Chad Zerbe, who played for the Crushers in 1997, played with the San Francisco Giants, including in the 2002 World Series. Crushers manager/players Dick Dietz, Jeffrey Leonard and Kevin Mitchell had all played for the Giants, with Mitchell honored as the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1989.

Mitchell played for eight major league teams in 13 seasons and retired from playing in 1998, the same year the Crushers won a WBL Championship, with Mitchell, now on the Crushers roster, contributing seven homers and 34 RBIs in 45 games.

The stadium was torn down in 2005 and the city of Rohnert Park sold the property to commercial developers. For fans of local summertime baseball, the California Collegiate League today has teams in Healdsburg (Prune Packers), Petaluma (Leghorns) and the town of Sonoma (Stompers). Go support them this summer!