The Death of Baseball in Portland

Portland BeaversIt wasn’t supposed to end like this. In 2000, Portland came on the scene as a possible relocation candidate for the Montreal Expos. But, on Monday, the Triple-A Portland Beavers played their last game at PGE Park, pushed out, not by MLB, but Major League Soccer. With the departure, Minor League Baseball’s largest market is now empty, a victim of MLS wanting a soccer-only facility, and a city that, like most of the nation, has placed education and services above stretching a double into a triple.

Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Beavers, also owns the USL Portland Timbers soccer club. Paulson made the successful bid for an MLS franchise in March of 2009, with MLS Commissioner Don Garber adding the caveat that he and the city retrofit PGE Park and make it a baseball-less facility (college football would be allowed), removing dugouts, adding bleacher seating where the dugouts and ivy covered outfield walls are now at the expense of the Beavers.

Paulson and the city now had not one, but two stadium funding issues on their hands.

Paulson was willing to pitch in money for a new stadium, but only so much given the amount he was going to pour into changing PGE Park over to an MLS facility. The city tried several times to gain funding for a new ballpark for the Beavers, first at Memorial Coliseum site – the “Glass Palace” the Trail Blazers used to call home – but war veterans and architects that saw the Coliseum as historically significant became vocal roadblocks in tearing it down for a minor league ballpark. With the Rose Garden Arena so close by, the Blazers were quietly opposed, as well.

With the Coliseum off the site list, the Lent’s District on the far Southeast outskirts of Portland was targeted, and then later in the suburb of Beaverton. Both had issues.

For Lents, it was a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) contingent worried about traffic and noise, while Beaverton’s issue surrounded land use, namely the need for eminent domain seizure of property; a nasty proposition.

But, the reality was, those issues paled when compared to how to fund the project. The MLS retrofit to PGE Park came in at approx. $31 million, while the new minor league ballpark was projected at $55.1 million. Finding over $86 million for the two projects came down to a matter of triage.

Paulson, a smart businessman, understood that when push came to shove, soccer made better business sense than minor league baseball. With MLS successfully expanding into Seattle, and Vancouver, BC on-tap for 2011, as well, a regional “I-5”rivalry is sure to occur.

So, what happens to the Beavers and Portland?

Paulson has reportedly sold the club for $20 million to the Padres, the MLB affiliate of the Beavers, and is locating them Lake Elsinore as a temporary home. Relocating doesn’t get the club away from stadium funding issues, however. The Padres clearly want their Triple-A operations closer to San Diego, and those efforts are underway.

“I would say that there are elements of this that are still formative, and we’re hoping to hear more definitive information soon,” PCL president Branch Rickey III said in mid-Aug. “But insofar as a North (San Diego) County relocation… certainly San Diego County is very large as a favorable option.”

As for Portland, this isn’t the first time that the city has been without pro ball. The Beavers have come and gone in various incarnations since 1903, first at Vaughn Street Park, and later Civic Stadium, which has been rechristened PGE Park. In 1973, the Portland Mavericks of Class A Northwest League called Civic home after the Beavers moved to Spokane. Owned by TV actor Bing Russell, son (and actor) Kurt Russell played during the club’s inaugural season, and Jim Bouton played with the team, as well, after retiring from MLB in 1970. From 1995 to 2000, Jack Cain’s Single-A Portland Rockies called Civic home. Cain, a master at marketing, made Single-A ball hip. The hot tub in center field didn’t hurt.

Which leads up to the current Beavers club, which arrived in 2001 after the city invested in sprucing up Civic with things like luxury boxes, threw in a naming rights deal with Portland General Electric, and PGE Park was christened.

But, that all changed yesterday. A sellout crowd of 15,639 took in the game, the largest crowd of the season.  I was one of the many, as was ESPN’s Rob Neyer, city leaders, and a group called “Friends of Baseball” that will carry the torch for the Beavers in their absence. After the game, home plate was dug up and given to “Friends” to hold on to when professional baseball returns to Portland. And then, kids and grownups alike were given the chance to all run the bases.

Baseball could return, but this time is different. The common thread through teams coming and going in the past was a facility – the now PGE Park – waiting for a team to come back in and use. With MLS taking over, that option is now gone.

With Paulson and the city having to scrap for the $31 million to retrofit PGE Park for soccer, the chances of coming up for funds for a minor league ballpark after the Beavers leave seem exceptionally remote at this stage. Civic groups, such as the Oregon Sports Authority, worked not only with Paulson at one point on attempts at a new minor league ballpark for the Beavers, but also the MLB to Portland effort in the early 2000s.

“There’s no doubt we have a major challenge in front of us,” said Drew Mahalic, CEO of the Oregon Sports Authority.  “It will require active community support and visionary political leadership to put together a viable plan for a new ballpark.”

Still, there are those that see baseball returning sooner, rather than later.

“For now, Portland will be better off with a fun and cozy 4200-seat park somewhere near the center of the city,” said Rob Nelson, former Portland Maverick who started Big League Chew bubblegum in 1980 with Jim Bouton . “This park would be a great spot for a June-through-August Single-A team and for so many other cool activities that Portland is known for: the blues festival, jazz in the park, Shakespeare, films under the stars, high school sports, other music concerts (bluegrass, rock, classical, etc.). The ballpark would be just ten or twelve rows high. A real park for the people.”

It’s an idea, but if Portland wants a chance to do more, there has to be forward thinking for the long-term.

There is a level of bias within me on this. Living in the market, and working with the Oregon Stadium Campaign (the MLB to Portland effort’s consortium), looking beyond minor league options has always been something that I have thought made the most sense for the long-term in the Portland market.

Ballparks cost money, no matter the size. If public dollars are to be spent, the city has to place itself in a position to leverage whatever is built for possible MLB purposes in the future. It could be that the site has enough space for an MLB stadium footprint. It could be that, and a design that allows minor league ballpark to transform into MLB ballpark. Future needs to be weighed against the rush to fill the market now.

Whatever the case may be, Portland is likely years from gaining pro baseball back. Fans in need of a fix will continue their 3+ hour trek to Seattle to see the Mariners, or head 45 min. south to see the Keizer Volcanoes, the Single-A affiliate of the Giants.

On Monday, after the game was played, a special ceremony was conducted as a salute to the fans, nearly all of which stayed. Beavers manager Terry Kennedy helped dig up home plate and presented it to the Friends of Baseball organization as well as a group of youth baseball players, who will serve as guardians of the artifact until baseball one day returns to Portland.

In a religious nod, there will need to be a resurrection. Turn off the lights, baseball has died in Portland.

Beavers home plate dug up
There’s no place like home. The Portland Beavers’ home
plate was dug up and given to a group that will watch it until
pro baseball returns to the market
. The club is moving after
MLS asked for a soccer only facility, and funding for a new
minor league ballpark failed.

Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for freelance and looks forward to your comments.

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13 years ago

At the very least, I guarantee that the Golden Baseball League is simultaneously licking their chops and scouting all college and high school ballparks in the area.