Right-hander Scott Harkin lobs a few easy balls to catcher Nicco Toni, and then ratchets up the velocity. The first player signed by the Napa Silverados, he’s about to pitch the first game of the team’s first season in the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, an independent minor league in northern California. Once a hopeful in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, Harkin, now 26, lives with his grandmother and still dreams of making it to the majors. The odds may be long, but his enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed. He wants to play professionally until he’s 40. And he wants to be a good example for kids. Since joining the Silverados in February, he’s been talking to local students about the importance of teamwork.
In the stands near first base, retired couple Cindy Irish and Vic Aissa await the start with the excitement of proud parents. They recently welcomed two of the Silverados into their home as part of the club’s host family program for nonlocal players. Irish has been taking videos of her Silverados “sons” so she can send them to their mothers.
Near the first-base dugout, Mark Ibanez, the sports director of Bay Area television station KTVU, stands ready to throw out the ceremonial first pitch alongside Rep. Mike Thompson and former baseball greats Vida Blue and Bill Buckner. Ibanez brought along a camera crew for a quick spot, but he’s here primarily as a fan and says he wouldn’t have missed the Silverados’ opener for anything—and that includes the Golden State Warriors hosting Game 1 of the NBA Finals. “I live in Napa and my wife was born and raised here,” he says later. “Being here is important.”
As the countdown to game time continues, Megan Castellucci takes the field and greets just about everyone by name, her heart thumping with a race-to-the-finish line feeling. The assistant general manager, who’s also an indefatigable multitasker, Castellucci is getting ready to hand a microphone to the team’s owner, Bruce Johnston, so he can give a welcome speech to the 450-plus fans and sponsors. But she could be forgiven if her mind is preoccupied. Castellucci presides over the team’s day-to-day business and has played a central role in everything from executing player contracts to planning in-game fan activities.
Elsewhere at the team’s home field at Napa Valley College, amid blaring country music and the ballpark perfume of sizzling hot dogs, players are warming up in uniforms that still bear creases from where they were folded. Business logo banners are flapping on the outfield fences beneath the American flag. Fathers are playing catch with their sons. And the metal bleachers are filling up.
The scene may seem like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but it’s actually the culmination of a painstaking, collective effort. After a year of preparation to launch the franchise, today’s May 31 contest kicks off an 80-game schedule for the Silverados (the season runs through August), one of two expansion teams joining the 5-year-old Pacific Association, the only independent pro baseball league based on the West Coast. With teams also in San Rafael, Pittsburg, Sonoma, Vallejo, and Martinez (the other new club), the league is one of eight pro baseball leagues in North America that are independent—meaning it has no ties to Major League Baseball or its minor league affiliates. For players, independent leagues like this can be the first or last stop in professional baseball.
But the players are only part of the picture. Creating a minor league organization from scratch, at this level, is a Herculean undertaking, from the personnel to the facilities to the finances and more. It’s imbued with the hope of second chances and weighted with risks. And it requires nothing less than the full commitment of an entire community.
“Come to a game and I think you’ll find out what Napa is all about,” Castellucci says.
And to think that none of this would have happened if not for a broken arm.