For some, the hardest thing to do in baseball takes place on the diamond, like hitting a Jose Fernandez curveball or winning a staring contest with Grant Balfour. But in reality, there may be no bigger challenge in the sport these days than building a minor league ballpark in California.
The Bakersfield Blaze became the latest team to strike out in their effort to land a new California home, as the team's owners called off their plans to build a new ballpark due to a lack of private financing. Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway, the local oilmen who purchased the struggling California League franchise in March 2012, announced yesterday in a press release that their fundraising efforts had fallen "substantially short of the goal required to build a stadium that would be successful."
"Bakersfield should be one of the best Minor League Baseball markets in the country," Voiland and Hathaway wrote in the press release, "and the stadium would have been transformational for the city and region."
The owners raised just $18 million of the $30 million needed for a new ballpark that was to be part of a mixed-use development, California League president Charlie Blaney said. Blaney says the deal is not dead—"The patient is on life support," he said in an interview this afternoon—and that Voiland and Hathaway hope yesterday's announcement will stir up some new investors.
But that's a longshot, as are any efforts to build a new ballpark in California without private financing since the state's budget woes eliminated funding for local construction projects in late 2011. The lack of public dollars killed the High Desert Mavericks' (California) hopes of moving to a new ballpark in Chico. It also ended former Padres chief executive Jeff Moorad's attempts to build a stadium in the San Diego suburb of Escondido for the former Portland Pacific Coast League franchise, which spent the last three seasons in Tucson and is headed to a new home in El Paso, Texas, for 2014.
Finding new ballparks for Bakersfield and High Desert have been Blaney's primary goals since he took office prior to the 2010 season. While High Desert has made do with minor improvements to bring Mavericks Stadium up to Minor League Baseball's facility standards, the planned new Bakersfield stadium has been considered the last option to save the franchise.
While Blaney admits that there are few other options for Bakersfield in California, he says he is not currently reconsidering a previously discussed plan of shifting two franchises from the California League to the Carolina League.
"We haven't focused on any other options or opportunities at this moment because we have been focusing on Plan A, which is to get a new stadium in Bakersfield because we value the city and market so much," Blaney said.
In 2008, Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner and former Cal League president Joe Gagliardi led an effort to bring two franchises east, but money issues between the two leagues and securing two new markets ultimately killed the deal.
Former Bakersfield owner D.G. Elmore could exercise an option to buy back the team at the original sales price since the new owners had not secured a new ballpark for the team by a specified date. Elmore told the Bakersfield Californian that he had not made a decision yet, and that "there is no Plan B for a ballpark and professional baseball in Bakersfield. Gene and Chad's plan was the only plan."
Remaining at Sam Lynn Ballpark "is not an option anymore," Blaney said. "We all realize that. (Minor League Baseball) has been patient because we were making progress, but this is a big stumbling block that we need to get past somehow."