Organizers reflect on Pelé's 1988 visit to Bakersfield

Jan. 24—The crowd chanted for "The King" with a fervor that mounted as his helicopter first became visible, then began its descent from the skies. As if to whip the gathered masses into an even greater frenzy, he drew tantalizingly close and circled them a few times. Finally, the honored guest landed and emerged onto the grass, with the mayor, congressman and state senator waiting close by on the dais.

The Brazilian soccer legend Pelé — "O Rei," "The King," widely considered the greatest soccer player of all time — had arrived in northeast Bakersfield to consecrate the newly opened Kern County Soccer Park. It was Oct. 29, 1988.

"It was absolutely amazing," said Dr. William Baker, the former Kern County Soccer Foundation president. "All the politicians said, 'That's the grandest entrance we've ever seen, and we're in politics.'"

The grandeur was simply too much for at least one attendee, after the crowd had been chanting 'Pelé, Pelé, Pelé' for an hour: "One of the ladies in the front told me later that the guy next to her literally broke down and cried," recalled Dan Imes, the local soccer supporter who was on the microphone that day keeping the crowd at bay.

"Pelé, his time in sports was so long ago, a lot of the younger generation now, they don't even know who he was," Imes added. "But back then, he was king. He was known all over the world."

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, nicknamed Pelé, has had his story retold innumerable times in innumerable languages, but suffice it to say that the young forward rose to prominence for Santos FC in his native Brazil in the late 1950s, quickly became an unstoppable force for the national team and went on to win three World Cups with 77 international goals. By the end of his club career in 1977 with the New York Cosmos, his all-time, all-competition goal total numbered in the 1,200s.

Around the same time Pelé retired, a group of soccer enthusiasts in Bakersfield, led by produce packer John Trino, began the process of constructing an expansive soccer complex to support the community's extracurricular athletic pursuits, now that the local high schools had their own boys and girls soccer teams.

When it finally came time to open the park, Trino had an idea.

"John had met Pelé's brother at an AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) event," Baker said. "And so we talked and a series of phone calls began that John conducted with Pelé's brother, and eventually over a period of many months, we got to Pelé."

The climactic phone call with the man himself arrived when Trino and Baker were at lunch at Luigi's — "You know how Luigi's is at lunch, a crazy, raucous place." When a call came in from New York, Baker said, "I stood up and told everyone to hush — we had Pelé on the phone."

They had plenty of logistics to work out. They needed to fly Pelé and an eight-person party including his doctor, chiropractor and family from New York to Los Angeles to Bakersfield, then put him up in the presidential suite at the Red Lion Hotel. Imes said Occidental Petroleum donated its jet to pick up Pelé from LAX, one of many community contributions for which he was grateful.

"An amazing three days unfolded," Baker said.

It began with a formal reception in the ballroom at the Red Lion, but the real centerpiece of the event was his visit to the site the following morning. Baker said Pelé had never been in a helicopter before.

The crowded masses waiting for Pelé's arrival also contained a throng of media personnel. Cindy Pollard was in the early stages of her public relations career at the time and had worked on building publicity for the visit.

"I did not realize the full importance of it until I saw what could only be described as 'Pelémania' with the people who attended," she said.

Pollard recalled trying to get Pelé "off the helicopter safely with the rotors still going around, trying to keep people out of the way with the rotors still going around, with dust flying," all in the midst of what she called a "sea of humanity."

Mary Helen Barro, who operated the Spanish-language radio station KAFY, said that at the time Spanish media in Bakersfield was considered "second-class." She and Raul Camacho Sr. of the El Popular newspaper saw Pelé's visit as an opportunity to assert their presence.

"Don Raul and I decided, 'To heck with that noise! Pelé's coming to town, and the guy's primary languages are Portuguese and Spanish,'" Barro said.

So when Pelé presented himself to the media, Barro wove her way through the crowd and called out "in a nice loud voice, 'Bienvenido Pelé à Bakersfield!'" She remembered that he came over immediately and gave his first interview to her and Camacho for 20 minutes, so surprised and delighted that Bakersfield had a Spanish-language media presence.

"He was so gracious and so nice to Don Raul and myself, and he was so excited that Bakersfield had established this soccer park, he was thrilled to death," Barro said.

Pelé's capacity for individual attention became even more apparent when he began his tour of the park.

Baker estimated that there were 100 soccer teams in attendance that day; games were in progress on each of its 15 fields.

"We took him to each field, the game stopped, the referee stopped the game, the kids came over, they got pictures taken with him," Imes said. "I would almost swear that he touched every child out there, patted them on the head, on the shoulder, shook their hand. He loved kids, he loved soccer, and he just spent the whole day out there."

He even managed to make a lasting impact on some of the organizers. Pollard snagged some autographed soccer balls for her kids, knowing that "a man of his stature, revered so deeply and so widely, doesn't always pass through Bakersfield."

Baker shared a Facebook post with The Californian that his daughter, Ali Baker Avalos, wrote after learning the news of Pelé's death on Dec. 29. At breakfast on the final day of his visit, Avalos wrote, she asked him if he should play soccer or basketball, and after a 10-minute conversation, he said basketball.

"I did what the legend said and never regretted it," Avalos wrote. "He could easily have brushed me off and given the expected 'play futbol!' suggestion. But he didn't. He was engaged and carried the responsibilities that came with being an icon, naturally."

"That was Pelé," Baker added. "He was just a wonderful, wonderful, magnanimous presence with us for those three days."

Pelé went off to Disneyland, then back to New York. One of the fields at the park is still named for him.

The key to the city that then-Mayor Tom Payne presented him sold at auction in 2016, and the lot came with a plaque that read, in part: "The citizens of Kern County and Bakersfield are honored by your presence and we salute you for your sportsmanship. May all your days be blessed with health and happiness."

Reporter Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.