Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Baseball's Future and Watching the Long Ball

Portland is hosting the 2009 Triple AAA All Star Game this week at PGE Park, and it's really started a lot of discussion about the current stadium issue facing the Portland Beavers. With MLS coming to town in 2011, the Beavers are looking for a new home in the Portland area, one that works better for them than the cavernous stadium that is PGE Park. And while the stadium looked good last night with a crowd of 9,200 watching the events, the crowd looked a bit sparse in the nearly 19,000 seat stadium. As I looked about to the crowd, I did see a couple of Beavers jerseys and more than a few caps, but I saw more Red Sox, Yankees, Astros, Cubs, and Mariners gear than anything else.

In an editorial piece in today's Oregonian, Ralph Nelson talks about the Beavers and their history and who is standing up for them in this whole stadium issue. He talks a lot about the old Beavers and Vaughn Stadium, and the old days when baseball was more of an event in town, and now baseball struggles with becoming irrelevant. And in today's busy sports world with more choices out there, it seems like baseball struggles to keep an audience with some of the younger fans. I remember spending a lot of days in my childhood playing baseball with neighborhood kids for hours, and it was played because it was fun. Now in the current world, it seems that youth sports is more of an outlet to filter the better talented kids into other programs so that they can follow the path to success. You see less and less chances for kids to play sports because they want to have fun, everything is more about competition and tournaments, and parents paying a lot of costs. There's a lot of lessons to be learned about changing youth sports away from being fun, but for the purposes here, what also is apparent is that Portland is a baseball town, but not a Beavers town.

I recall following this team back in the 1980s and early 1990 when they were affiliated with the Twins, and the crowds came out about the same as they do now. But I also recall seeing some players stay with the team for quite a while, like Chip Hale and Bernardo Brito, and the media coverage was pretty good as you could read about the team, see box scores, and see highlights on the sports reports. The team was run on a shoestring budget, but it was still somewhat successful until Salt Lake lured the Beavers away with promises of a new stadium. The Rockies came to town, bringing Single A ball to town, and the city ate it up, as Jack Cain really marketed the team and players well. And when the Beavers finally returned in 2001, it seemed like things might be different with a refurbished stadium and a commitment to winning. But in being affiliated with San Diego, the Beavers have seen players come and go quite a bit, and the crowds, while they still come, only show up on big event nights, like opening night, fireworks nights, and the All-Star Game. Baseball is struggling to remain relevant here, and I can say that it's tough to market baseball here.

Triple AAA baseball by virtue is fill of players that are either on the career decline and still want to play baseball and have talent, or young kids with a wish to be playing in San Diego. If you really had a choice as a baseball player, nobody is really wanting to play in Portland and make it a long term career here. We also have the Mariners and their marketing influence that have gained them a lot of fans willing to travel 3 hours to watch games. We also watch a lot of baseball, having some of the best television ratings for baseball where there isn't an MLB team. Part of that is people moving here that keep their allegiance to an MLB team they've followed in a previous location, another part is Mariner fans, but another part is people that remain convinced that Portland could support MLB and want to watch to help the cause. As has been noted here, Portland lacks the corporate support necessary to support MLB, and I think the price tag of an MLB stadium would make opponents of the MLS stadium deal completely go nuts if the city even thought of spending that much to bring baseball here. MLB came calling a while back when the Expos were looking for a home, but honestly, I'm not sure we were ever being seriously considered. It was a ploy to get Washington DC to step up and get a stadium, which they did.

I get that people want MLB baseball here badly, and it's never been proven that support from a Triple AAA team correlates to successfully support MLB, but what I'm frustrated by in terms of baseball fans is not even remotely supporting what we do have here. Instead of actually going to games or investing time in learning about players, it appears that some baseball fans would prefer to show up only when there is an event. Instead of investing in what we have, we pine for something that may or may not come. I understand that it's tough to follow a team where guys move around all the time, but the experience is very similar, the ticket prices are a bit less than MLB, and you can actually get up close and personal with these guys if you want to. And usually, the Beavers have some other entertainment or promotion if you have kids or other people that need more than baseball to just show up. I wished that baseball was enough for people to come and support this team, but it seems like it's not enough. Last night was a good crowd, and it was great to see the park full of people, but the crowds should be appearing more often.

And now baseball fans feel railroaded by the MLS efforts, as if it's a tragedy that baseball is being forced out over soccer. I wish their voices would have been part of the conversations about PGE Park, but instead, most baseball fans remained silent while a lot of MLS fans voiced their thoughts. And with PGE Park's set up with an L shape, it made more sense to complete the horseshoe and find baseball a new home. Now with the decoupling of the efforts, baseball has been left to flounder on its own while MLS moves forward. For someone like myself who loves soccer and has always been a baseball fan, it's tough for me to watch this because I feel that baseball deserves a stadium that works for the team in Portland. I know that baseball has a market here, but I wished that baseball fans stood up and let the City Council know that baseball matters here.

What is interesting is with the stadium talks, some different ideas are being bantered around while one idea that was on the table but pulled off is getting some attention back. Steve Duin is stating today that the Memorial Coliseum is the right place to put a baseball stadium, and of the ideas that have been thrown out there, this one has always made the most sense. The Trail Blazers and some architectural folks cried foul about the MC being pulled down, and soon after, we watched the Lents Park fiasco play out in the media. If the building is going to lie there and not be refurbished or the limitations addressed of the MC, it makes sense to explore other uses. And the last thing this city needs is an entertainment complex near the RG that may or may not draw people there with shops and restaurants that are available at a lot of other places around town. Now that the talk is looking that it might cost a whole lot of money to get the MC upgraded to stay relevant or even more money to build a mall complex there, it makes sense to explore the idea of putting the baseball park there. It just makes sense, and what I'm often remembering about this place is that sometimes the more things change, the things stay the same and ideas have a way of reappearing when you least expect it.

And it also seems like some of the more vocal opponents of the stadium deal are being shown for the flaws in their argument. One of the more vocal opponents, Jack Bog, has been found to have some faulty parts to his arguments against the MLS deal. Bog has also been talking about crowd sizes in the USL (which can be scary), weather issues in Portland affecting baseball (What? You just moved here), and why MLB will work, yet MLS won't. Being someone that has watched the facts from the beginning, it's nice to see a lot of the facts of the case being fleshed out, and shown to the public. Granted, if you aren't a sports fan, I don't think there's anything that could be said to convince you that investing in MLS would work for the city except for one. Sports are one of the things that help make a larger city more livable by providing entertainment options, and as long as cities own facilities, they will be asked to help invest in those buildings. And if I'm going to have a big project to refurbish stadiums, I'm going to pull in as many experts as I can to help the cause, especially if they have experience in a project like this. And while I can find fault in the arguments presented, a unexpected consequence of this is causing more talk about baseball, and making sure it has a future here. It's a welcome discussion, and one that I hope provides fruitful results to keep baseball in the Rose City. And nice work, Chad Huffman, not only did you represent Portland well, but it was good to see you win the home run derby in your own home park.

Post script - the Room is getting more attention. Be afraid, be very afraid.

No comments: