After a two-year hiatus, the Pacific Coast League is set to return to Tucson—though it hopes the move is temporary.
The ownership group headed by Padres owner Jeff Moorad is planning to move the Portland Beavers to Tucson when its purchase of the franchise is completed in early December, several sources said. The team would play in Tucson for at least one season before moving to what it hopes will be a permanent home in suburban San Diego. Moorad’s North County Baseball group is negotiating a ballpark project with officials in the suburb of Escondido now.
“We are processing the transfer application of the ownership (of the Portland Beavers) to the Moorad group,” Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner said. “Once that transfer occurs, then they will have standing to file a relocation application. Until then, they don’t.”
O’Conner declined to elaborate on the team’s plans.
Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey III said the move is not yet set in stone.
"The discussions and negotiations are focusing on Tucson," Rickey said, "but I think to define that as a resolved issue is premature."
Tucson was home to a PCL franchise for 40 years before the team moved to a new ballpark in Reno for the 2009 season. The Beavers will fill that void in 2011, a move necessitated when they were left without a home in Portland.
Beavers owner Merritt Paulson agreed last year to convert PGE Park into a soccer-only facility for his Major League Soccer team. He had counted on building a new ballpark in Portland for the Beavers, but his three proposals for a new facility were rejected by voters or local officials, forcing the team out of town and leading to his decision to put it up for sale.
Moorad’s group is on the cusp of purchasing the team, and representatives have said they are confident the deal for a new stadium and retail complex roughly 45 miles north of Petco Park will go through. The proximity of the two ballparks will be a boost for player development and will create cross-promotional opportunities, one Padres official said.
But the Portland team needs a place to play in the meantime. North County Baseball had been leaning toward sharing a ballpark with the Lake Elsinore Storm (California), but that proposal fell apart as the two sides struggled to settle both business and player development logistics, two sources said.
Also complicating a move to Lake Elsinore was that Minor League Baseball officials were willing to approve the deal for only one year. The time could stretch longer than that because a location for the Beavers’ permanent home has not been settled. The Escondido city council recently postponed a vote on whether to spend $50 million for a new ballpark as the city and Moorad’s group continued negotiations and awaited the results of an environmental study. The Padres official said the team is still aiming to move in time for the 2012 season.
With Lake Elsinore no longer an option, Moorad’s group has turned its focus to Tucson. Where the team will play in Tucson remains to be determined, though the city has plenty of options. Tucson has two Triple-A-ready facilities: Hi Corbett Field, which opened in 1937, was the home for the city’s minor league teams until Tucson Electric Park opened across town in 1998. Both parks had served as spring training bases but are now vacant because the Rockies and Diamondbacks are moving to a new complex near Phoenix.
Former Sidewinders owner Jay Zucker runs the Tucson Toros of the independent Golden League at Hi Corbett Field and said he is interested in operating the Beavers. and has discussed doing so with North County Baseball. Zucker said his group “would take a hiatus” from operating the independent team to take over operations of the Triple-A club—even if just temporarily.
The Toros drew around 3,000 fans a game last season, Zucker said, a number comparable to the 3,558 fans the Sidewinders attracted in their final season in Tucson in 2008. Asked if he thought fans would turn out to see the team knowing it was only temporary, Zucker replied simply: “It’s baseball.”
“It’s nice to have the prospect of Triple-A baseball in our community,” said Zucker, adding that he would like a guarantee that the team does not leave in midseason. “What would be unfortunate is if we had the team into a second season, and into that second season the stadium was completed and the team didn’t finish the season in Tucson.”