STOCKTON -- The smile on Primo Orosco's face on a summer afternoon at Stribley Park is irrepressible with the sounds of América's pastime resonating for blocks around east Stockton.
The California-Mexican League of Baseball, which Orosco helped start, has survived for 55 years and is thriving again at Stribley Park. The crack of the bat and the cheers of the crowd are accompanied by a play-by-play announcer over loudspeakers and music of all kinds blaring from stereos and cars.
Every Sunday from April to September, hundreds of friends, family members and area residents enjoy a baseball fiesta featuring a sizzling grill and food carts around the park that provide delicious, lingering aromas. Fans can sit for free in the bleachers or picnic in the grass separating the East and West diamonds. There usually are two games on Saturday and six on Sunday, with players as young as 18 and as old as 50.
Even if Orosco didn't envision all of this when he co-founded the Cal-Mex League in 1955 with his brother, Sachus, he still takes great pride in its resiliency and success. The league has undergone many changes, but the love of the game shared by generations of San Joaquín County residents has endured.
"The history itself says it all," said Ralph Rodríguez, who played in the league for 21 years, including two with his son, Carlos, a 22-year veteran of the league. "Something that's good doesn't go away. It's been here for over 50 years and, obviously, has been a positive in the community.
"I've played, coached and been a spectator for my sons. It's been a wonderful 40-plus years for me."
City Councilwoman Susan Eggman said the league is woven into the fabric of the community.
"East Stockton is the perfect place for this," Eggman said. "It has a long history of baseball and Mexican-Americans and their interests. I think we need to support this thing however we can. It's history, and there are generations that come out here and watch ball."
The league's history never is far away because Orosco is a regular in the bleachers behind home plate every Sunday. The 82-year-old Stockton native wears his familiar Club México cap as he watches the action intently and beams when asked about the league's beginnings.
The Orosco brothers founded a traveling team in 1948 -- the Pan Americans -- and that led to the creation of the league that originally featured teams around Northern California that were owned by Mexicans. Orosco said finding integrated games was difficult, so the league gave Mexicans and first-generation Mexican-Americans in the area a place to play. It wasn't until 1994 that the league amended a rule that required each team to have a minimum of six Mexican players in the lineup.
Primo Orosco was the starting catcher for the Club México team that won the inaugural league championship. He recalls those early days fondly, especially the contributions of his brother, who was a part of the league for 47 years as a player, manager, announcer and commissioner until his death in 2004.
"(What I remember) was the friendship of the ballplayers," Orosco said. "We'd finish a ballgame after nine innings and after a couple of beers, you forgot what the score was. I (still) love it. The friendship of the players, the loyalty of the fans. They live and die for this."
The league's history is a major source of pride for longtime members. And two former participants -- Von Hayes and Eddie Guardado -- played in the major leagues and are held up as symbols of success to young players.
Still going and growing
This season, the league has expanded to 16 teams. Commissioner Anthony Owens has doubled the league's size since taking over in 2005 and is credited by longtime participants for cleaning up the league and restoring its luster.
While the park is city-owned, Owens and his 17-year-old son, Aaron, take care of the fields during the week. Owens, who played for the Lightning Bugs in the league in 1975-76, isn't paid, but he said that doesn't affect his dedication.
"It's a love for the game," Owens said. "I see these kids playing, and it might be keeping them off the streets and keeping them from making the wrong decision."
Owens said one of his priorities when he took over was to raise the level of play, and he has done that by eliminating the fights that plagued the league for many years, according to longtime umpire Enos Hunt. That has drawn more high school and college players into the league.
Vic Sánchez, who has played in the league for 24 years and is the varsity baseball coach at Stagg High, his alma mater, said the league now has a great mix of talent.
"It helps to develop young kids (as players) by letting them play with older guys, and it keeps the dream alive for the older guys, so they can go to work all week and come here on Sunday and still have some fun," said Sánchez, who plays for Club México.
Support for a tradition
While Club México is considered the Yankees of the league, the current dynasty belongs to the Aztecs. The team was created by Daniel Gutiérrez in 2003, and he has managed them to seven championship series appearances and four league titles. Gutiérrez said he did it to spend more time with his brother, José, and his son, Abraham, who graduated from Bear Creek High and went on to play baseball at UC Davis and San Francisco State. The 30-year-old now stars at Stribley Park for his father.
"For the community, it's big-time," Abraham Gutiérrez said. "People look forward to coming out on Sundays and watching good games. This is tradition for this community."
The Cal-Mex League's footprint is growing. Long-standing members in Ceres, Manteca and Stockton have been joined by teams from Lathrop and Lodi. Kenny McCarrell manages and plays for the Central Valley Rays, who joined the league this season after the Valley Baseball League folded. The 33-year-old said the Cal-Mex League has been a tremendous upgrade for his team.
"Some of the other leagues, you just get the teams and some family members out," McCarrell said. "Here, it's a great atmosphere with announcers, concession stands. It's a really well-rounded league."
Joe Valverde, 70, is the most excitable announcer you'll ever hear. Although he makes every base hit sound like a triple, he captures the mood of the league perfectly.
"I don't know how to announce," Valverde said with a laugh. "I just make some noise and play some music. Everyone here is enjoying themselves, and that's why I come out here."