ORACLE PARK — Alex Vail, a right-handed pitcher for the Paradise High School baseball team, picked up his cell phone and called his parents as he jumped into his car to try and help a friend of his mother’s as a firestorm descended on his home town.
The road was jammed.
“The road I needed to get on to go to her house, there’s trees on fire everywhere,” he said. “I called my mom and said, ‘Hey I can’t get there. I’m just going to turn around.”
It wasn’t yet 10 a.m. but it already looked like dusk. Vail had driven his sister, Audrey, 14, home from Paradise High School when classes were cancelled earlier that morning. His parents were already with Audrey heading out of town when Vail turned around. They were three miles away by the time Alex called. He parked his car and began running, sucking in the smoke and ash. He ran past the stalled traffic, and at last, he found his family.
“We get in the car and start driving out, and we’re just all happy that we’re together,” Vail said.
The entire Vail family was in the stands at San Francisco’s Oracle Park last month as Alex stepped onto the mound. The Camp fire had displaced the Paradise team, and almost all the players had lost their homes. The school’s population has been cut in half, their town essentially destroyed. For one day, though, in the last game to really count before the San Francisco Giants opened their home schedule this weekend, the Bobcats got to feel like Major Leaguers.
“It doesn’t matter,” Vail said of the team’s 7-2 lose to Corning, during which he pitched from the same mound that’s hosted Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner. “I was just really excited that I was going to be able to come here with my team and play on the Giants’ field, where so many Major League players have been and played.”
Paradise High School’s campus remained relatively untouched by the fires, which displaced 26,000 residents, but the facility is still not useable because of the surrounding damage and pollutants. The baseball team practices at two different off-campus fields.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Paradise High School — and the town — may not exist in the near future. The day before the March 16 game at Oracle Park, athletic director Anne Stearns learned that it would be two years before there would even be running water.
Stearns was at the school the morning of Nov. 8, trying to arrange transportation for the cross country team when she heard what sounded like a jet engine as the fire blew over the mountains.
“You know that feeling you get in your chest when a jet goes by, that rumbling? That’s exactly what happened,” she said. “It was in your chest. You could feel it. Then, all the explosions started going off.”
With no natural gas piping in Paradise, the propane tanks in use at houses and motor homes began blowing up.
As she spoke with the head football coach about moving practice, ash began to fall.
“I’m in the middle of it with a bunch of high school kids, asking, ‘So, we’re not going to have practice?’” Stearns said. “You’re just in this weird mindset where you don’t think that things are going to happen to you. It’s so surreal now, thinking about it.”
Shortly after the fire swept through Paradise, Stearns, who lives in Chico with her husband Jared — Corning’s head baseball coach — and their two-year old daughter Davis, turned the family home into a refuge for Paradise student-athletes. Beyond warehousing the various donations, equipment and uniforms the school received, Stearns also hosted 10 of her student-athletes for several days after the fire.
“We had about five kids who stayed at my house for about two weeks, and then it turned into two, and we now have one girl who just has a key to my house and comes whenever she wants,” Stearns said.
Her garage, living room and office turned into a makeshift equipment room, and she stocked shoes and clothes for student-athletes who had lost everything.
“People would ask, ‘What do you need?’ Anything, everything,” Stearns said. “My kids came and they all had plastic bags. You’re like, ‘Oh, shit, they don’t even have backpacks.’ They needed duffle bags. Things you would totally take for granted. They were holding all their worldly possessions in a plastic bag.”
Vail and his family are now living just outside of Chico, renting a place after their house was destroyed. About half of the school’s 1,000 or so students are now elsewhere, many in the nearby towns, but some as far as Florida, staying with family or wherever else they can find a roof.
The school was relocated to a building across the street from the Chico airport, formerly owned by Facebook. Stearns and head baseball coach Bryson Baker share a makeshift office in a breezeway.
Soon after the fires, the aunt of one of the baseball players who has since had to leave the area, a junior varsity player named Cole Banning, sent an email to Bobby Baksa, the Giants’ Player and Community Relations Manager, asking if the organization could in some way help Paradise, either with equipment or donations. The next day, Baksa called Baker.
“We received hundreds of requests over those few months, and I just stayed in touch with him,” Baksa said. “We were planning on doing something nice for them during the season, bringing them out and showing them a good time, them and their families. Similar to what the Niners and Warriors did, as well, just really giving them a VIP experience.”
Then, the two began riffing.
“Coach and I just started talking, off topic,” Baksa said. “We were like, ‘We should have a game here.’”
The school was just hoping for an autographed bat and a few other items to auction off. They got much more.
“We were sitting next to each other, and he was like, ‘Oh, maybe we can make it happen,’” said Stearns, a lifelong Giants fan. They had a ready opponent, in Corning.
“At the same time as we were figuring out the date, my husband was also in my ear going, ‘You know [if it’s not us] you’re going to sleep on the couch, right?’” Stearns said.
With the amount of players who moved away, Baker couldn’t field a full junior varsity team, and lost five players who had to leave the area.
“I lost important pieces,” he said.
Baker held tryouts at West Side Little League in Chico, but still only had, at most, 11 junior varsity players. That soon dwindled to eight. So, he added the would-be JV players onto the varsity squad. In the middle of January, during a practice at Butte College with Houston Astros catcher and Yuba City native Max Stassi, the players were told that not only were they going to get new gloves, helmets and catcher’s gear from Stassi’s sponsors, but that there was an additional surprise.
Stassi held up an iPhone, and facetimed with Buster Posey. He said the Giants would get Paradise out to a game sometime. That’s when Baker told the team that there was even a possibility they’d be playing in a game at Oracle, but to not get their hopes up.
Within 24 hours, Baker told his 21 players that they would indeed be playing in a big league park.
“We were like, ‘Are you joking?’” said infielder Trevor LeRosignal.
The Giants would open the field, and the club’s preferred bus company, Compass Transportation, would provide transportation for both Corning and Paradise teams.
Before the game, Paradise gathered down the left field line to warm up, and their head coach gathered them into a group around an iPad, interrupting their warm-up to squint at another video message from Posey, taped in Scottsdale during spring training.
“You’ve been through a lot,” Posey said. “Just wanted to let you know that the players are with you, the Giants community are with you. Hope you guys have a great time.”
Then, behind home plate ahead of first pitch, the Dante Benedetti Foundation made a $10,000 donation to the school.
“Money is great, but it’s the experiences for the kids who have lost everything,” said Stearns. “They can take that hour to five hours to forget everything and just be in the moment. Getting to go to Giants stadium, pitch on the Giants’ field, take bullpens, just things that never would have happened in any other situation, so we’re trying to make negatives, positives.”
With Paradise down 7-1 in the bottom of the seventh, junior Noel Waegner sent a sinking line drive to left for a triple. The bench — and the 650 fans and family in attendance — cheered like it was a game-winner. When he trotted home one batter later, the cheers got louder.
Senior infielder Trent Branson slapped the home dugout railing as the final run came in. He had multiple pieces of baseball memorabilia in his house lost to the fire, including gloves, bats and signed balls.
The infielder’s glove he’d used up through high school, given to him by his recently-passed uncle Steve Napoli, also went up in flames. Like many families, his was not insured.
Trent’s twin brother Ryan — who drew a walk and scored a run at Oracle — was sleeping over at LeRosignal’s house the night of Nov. 7. The fire hit as Trent was getting ready for school the morning of Nov. 8, with his 14-year old brother Zach. Their father was away on business, and their mother at her job as a receptionist in Paradise.
“I heard a lot of broken trees,” Trent said. “I stepped outside, and I didn’t know what was going on. My mom pulled up from work, early, to warn us. She had no idea it was going to be this bad,” he said. “By the time she was leaving, she couldn’t get back in. She tried going back inside our driveway, and the fire went over our driveway. It was so fast.”
Trent gathered his brother and his dogs, and they made their way down a dirt road in Trent’s Volkswagen, going north on a deer trail, hoping his neighbor’s gate would be open so he could reach the main road. They got out, saving only some baby books. They’re now living in a trailer outside of Chico.
“Baseball, I’ve been playing ever since I can remember,” Trent Branson said. “Coming out here, just every day, actually, but here, today, being out here to play with this, playing with my team, I really love. It brings back some normalcy in my life. I just try focusing on that, and not the fire.”
When LeRosignal left his home, after Ryan Branson had helped him evacuate his grandfather, he knew it would burn. He had seen the fire come over the ridge.
“I was thinking about turning around and saving things from the house, but I couldn’t because of the traffic,” he said.
All LeRosignal had were the clothes on his back, and whatever was in his truck.
That included his baseball glove, the same glove he used to field three grounders at Oracle at both shortstop and third base. He’ll never get rid of that glove, he said: “It’s a bond.”
Although a lifelong A’s fan, getting to use that glove at Oracle was “amazing,” LeRosignal said. “Wouldn’t trade it for anything else. Everything that I expected, but 10 times better. Even to step in there, it was amazing.”