Is there hope for the California League's two worst franchises—and in particular their troubled ballparks—or has the time come to look outside the Golden State for a solution to a problem that has long plagued the league and its big league partners?
That's a question Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner says will be a hot topic at the Winter Meetings this week in San Diego. The answer, O'Conner says, could involve revisiting the idea of moving the Bakersfield Blaze and High Desert Mavericks to the Carolina League—a deal he first proposed seven years ago but saw fall apart due to disagreements over money and lack of locations.
Since then neither Bakersfield—which plays in a crumbling 73-year-old stadium where the sun sets beyond center field—nor High Desert—where steady 30-mph winds turn flyballs into home runs—have figured out where to build and how to pay for new ballparks within the California League.
For O’Conner, enough is enough.
"I have been very patient, very cooperative in allowing them to try and solve that situation themselves. It seems they failed," O'Conner said after Bakersfield owner D.G. Elmore announced in November that his plans to build a new ballpark in Salinas collapsed, all but guaranteeing the Blaze will remain at Sam Lynn Ballpark for at least two more years. "And we have to have an honest discussion of what they want do and how they can move forward . . .
"Obviously if they can't find suitable situations in California then we have to look to move those teams forward. But that's not something I can put into place unilaterally. I'm not necessarily blaming them because they have spent a lot of time, and in some cases a lot of money, but it's results we need now. Effort is nice, but results are what count."
Those efforts continue for Bakersfield and High Desert—in the California League. Neither Elmore nor High Desert owner Dave Heller is considering a move to the Carolina League, and each is working on a deal in a specific market. Elmore is optimistic that the team's future may still be in the Salinas area, even after his nearly year-long effort to build a ballpark there failed due to a disagreement over land. Elmore says there is still interest.
"I am discouraged, but we are going to keep pressing on," Elmore said. "We're keeping our eyes open for other sites in the area because we have received very positive feedback from the city of Salinas and from local investors who want to be involved in helping build a stadium. And we are hopeful that we may be able to figure out a way."
High Desert is also trying to find a way out of Mavericks Stadium, its 21-year-old stadium that may be structurally sound but is a nightmare for player development. The Mariners often skipped their top pitching prospects over High Desert to Double-A during their eight years in town before leaving for Bakersfield during the affiliation shuffle this past offseason. And the Rangers reluctantly agreed to replace Seattle in High Desert for the next two seasons only because they were left with no other options.
"It is what it is," Rangers farm director Mike Daly said earlier this offseason.
Heller declined to name where he is looking to move the team beyond "sites within and nearby the High Desert area."
The Carolina League is not one of his options.
"The High Desert club is working very hard to find a new permanent home within the California League. And that is our focus," Heller said. "We're not taking any options off the table, but our focus is to work within the California League as part of the California League."
While new ballparks continue to pop up around the minors—two are scheduled to open in 2015 after two debuted this past season—building in the California League is particularly challenging. Amid a state budget crisis, Gov. Jerry Brown froze communities' redevelopment agencies in 2011, essentially wiping out state funding for local construction projects—such as ballparks.
Brown's decision sunk a proposed new ballpark in the San Diego suburb of Escondido for the former Pacific Coast League franchise in Portland. (The team ultimately landed in El Paso this year after playing three seasons in Tucson.) It also derailed High Desert's plans to move to a proposed, publicly funded ballpark in Chico, Calif. Heller ended up signing a three-year lease extension in High Desert, that included the city investing roughly $225,000 in ballpark repairs and upgrades, which runs through 2015 followed by three one-year options for an extension.
Ideally, the Blaze would stay in Bakersfield, which Cal League president Charlie Blaney has often described as one of the premier markets in the league. However, that ship seemed to sail for good in 2013 when previous owners Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway raised just $18 million of the $30 million needed for a new ballpark that was to be part of a mixed-use development in Bakersfield. The local oil tycoons sold the team back to Elmore just one year after buying it from him, leaving him to come up with a solution.
One of those solutions, O'Conner says, should include considering a shift to the Carolina League or Florida State League. In 2008, O'Conner and former California League president Joe Gagliardi led the charge to relocate Bakersfield and High Desert to the Carolina League, with one of the franchises to land in Richmond, Va., a market left vacant by the Braves moving their Triple-A club to a new ballpark in Gwinnett, Ga. That proposal disintegrated due to disagreements over compensation to Cal League owners and the cost of joining the Carolina League, as well as where the second team would play within the Carolina League.
Cal League owners replaced Gagliardi as president one year later with former Dodgers farm director Charlie Blaney and charged him with resolving Bakersfield and High Desert's ballpark situations, a mission that still has not been accomplished.
"There is no public money (in California) and no appetite for a privately financed stadium in this environment," O'Conner said. "I'm not bashing California or the state government of California, or even the people involved in the two ballclubs. But the fact of the matter remains that we are playing in subpar facilities and no one has been able to do anything to remedy that."
The reality is that moving two teams across the country is not a simple task—the same problems that sunk the proposition in 2008 persist today—and O'Conner's bark is likely worse than his bite. Although he can fine teams whose ballparks no longer meet facility standards specified in the Professional Baseball Agreement, the president cannot force ownership to move. And even if he could, where they would play within the Carolina League (or Florida State League) footprint is not obvious.
Wilmington, N.C., seems like a prime market, but one that would require ownership to privately fund the ballpark after residents resoundingly rejected paying to build one for the Braves in 2013. Kinston, N.C., and its venerable Grainger Stadium is available after that franchise left town after the 2011 season, but Carolina League president John Hopkins has often said that the town is not a viable option due to its size.
A team will begin playing at a new ballpark in Columbia, S.C., for the start of the 2016 season. The Savannah Sand Gnats are the favorites to go there, and owner Jason Freier has said this season will be the team's last in Savannah unless the city agrees to build him a new ballpark. If Savannah does come through with a stadium, Freier said he has a deal in place to bring a different team to Columbia—which would fit as part of the Carolina League.
So, for now, Bakersfield and High Desert are staying put. Heller acknowledges that playing in High Desert can be a challenge, but he insists the stadium itself is no longer an issue. The city-funded improvements in 2012, in exchange for the team taking over stadium maintenance responsibilities as part of their $1 annual lease payments, included a new playing surface and lighting, renovated home and visitors clubhouses, a wind-blocking fence around the batting cage, a new outfield fence, and repaving the parking lot. Average attendance in High Desert last season increased 53 percent to 2,084, but the team still ranked just eighth in the 10-team league.
The ballpark is the problem in Bakersfield, though Elmore says he did not receive many complaints from the Cincinnati Reds during their four-year affiliation and has not heard from Major League Baseball.
"It's certainly not the Taj Mahal, but we didn't hear a lot of complaints (from teams)," Elmore said of Sam Lynn Ballpark. "But do I get the sense that MLB is happy with the situation? Absolutely not. I think they are probably not happy, and look, I am not happy either. If someone has a solution, I am all ears. What I or anyone else does not have is $20 million or $30 million in their pocket to build a brand new stadium somewhere."