In Bellingham, Walker Builds Field Of Dreams

BELLINGHAM - Jerry Walker rakes the infield, paints the fences and owns the franchise.

"I'm living a dream," he said. "There's no doubt about it."

Four years ago, Walker sold his real-estate business in Everett and with a partner he'd met at the Mickey Mantle-Whitey Ford Fantasy Baseball Camp in Florida, decided to buy a minor-league baseball team.

"I had a chance to sign with either the Pirates or the Royals coming out of high school," said Walker, 38, an Everett native. "I went to college instead, but I always wondered, `What if I'd have made baseball my life's work?' "

Sixteen years later, he found out.

Walker wouldn't say how much they paid for the Bellingham Mariners in 1989, but last year the Yakima Bears of the Northwest League were sold for $700,000.

For his money, Walker got a few bats and balls, a team bus and a working agreement with the Seattle Mariners that wasn't working.

Bellingham is the only city to be affiliated with the Mariners through the Seattle team's 16 seasons. Dave Henderson, Ivan Calderon, Phil Bradley, Mark Langston, Matt Young, Mike Schooler, Edgar Martinez, Darnell Coles, Greg Briley and Ken Griffey Jr. - all began their pro careers in Bellingham.

But by the end of the 1988 season, Bellingham was averaging 429 fans a game - third worst in minor-league baseball - and the Mariners wanted their young talent to be appreciated, even if their major-league talent wasn't.

"We went to Seattle and asked the Mariners if they'd give us a chance," Walker said, "and they were more than gracious about it."

Last season, the Baby M's - as they're called in Bellingham - averaged 1,634; and after three home dates this year, they are drawing more than 3,000 a game.

"We're baseball's best-kept secret in the Northwest," Walker said.

Down the road, the Everett Giants have made a career of promoting sunshine, grass, creative concessions and Bob and Margaret Bavasi's mom-and-pop management style.

The truth be known, the Bellingham park - Joe Martin Field - is a nicer place to watch a game than is the Giants' park in Everett, the one you can see from Interstate 5.

"God, it's beautiful here," said Mark Calvi, a backup catcher from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who a year ago was working in a bar. "The weather is so nice and the scenery is so beautiful. Just look around."

The mountain backdrop was there before the stadium. But much of what makes the park work is because of Jerry Walker. He added a $120,000 scoreboard, 1,100 seats, an expanded press box on the roof of the grandstand with "sky box" viewing for special patrons, freshly painted billboards in the outfield and a simply delightful barbecue area in foul territory near left field.

The stadium isn't perfect, which makes it nice. Left field, in fact, slopes up toward the fence, as it used to at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. A guy who can play left for the Baby M's - Craig Griffey, brother of Ken Jr., plays there now - can play anywhere.

Young kids roam everywhere, the ticket price cheap enough ($2) and the environment safe enough in which to let them loose.

"In the three years before this," Walker said, "we didn't have a marquee player, and we didn't have a winning team. We tried to create an atmosphere that made it fun to come to the ballpark no matter what happened on the field."

This year, there are marquee names: Griffey; James Clifford, the University of Washington linebacker; and back for a second season, Shawn Estes, the left-handed pitcher the Mariners made their No. 1 pick in the draft in 1991.

The Mariners start their best college and high-school talent in Bellingham.

"It is close to Seattle, and we can get up there to see them," said Jim Beattie, the former pitcher who heads the Mariner farm system. "The weather is good when that league gets going, it's nice country, and we think it helps our players get a feeling for the Northwest and Seattle."

All the Baby M's - except Craig Griffey - live in private homes in Bellingham, the result of an adopt-a-player program started by Walker.

"The Mariners pay the salaries of the players, but we have to provide for their housing and their travel," Walker said. "We're more independent than people think."

There were years, when Walker was in his 20s, that he couldn't even go to a ballpark for fear of being heartbroken about his decision to pass up a chance to play.

Now his passion is an obsession. He works day and night, summer and winter, trying to make his field of dreams a reality for the people in Bellingham.

"Do we make money?" he said, repeating the question. "No, but we're not losing any either. I know we're doing well enough that I can keep doing this as long as I want . . . which will be forever."