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Beavers dam up operation

By Paul Buker

PORTLAND, Ore.–On the night of April 30, 2001, Portland welcomed back Pacific Coast League baseball with open arms.

A group of local investors, headed by fast-talking former NBA executive Marshall Glickman, had swung a controversial $33 million deal with the city to give 75-year-old Civic Stadium a facelift.

A rotting corpse of a park that was originally built in 1926–a park many thought should have been torn down–was transformed into a beautiful retro facility that harkened back to the sport’s glory days.

The hand-operated scoreboard was right out of Comiskey Park and the 1930s. MAX trains (the city’s public transportation trolleys) scooted up and down 18th Avenue beyond the left-field wall. The smell of peanuts and popcorn wafted through the concourse.

The parent Padres loved it. Baseball fans in Portland–starved for Triple-A ball since Joe Buzas moved his Pacific Coast League franchise to Salt Lake City in 1993–were also impressed.

A crowd of 18,616 showed up for the first home game, long delayed because workers were applying the finishing touches to PGE Park while Padres top prospect Sean Burroughs and his Portland Beavers teammates were warming up to play the Fresno Grizzlies.

There were glitches. Concessionaires ran out of hot dogs, and some patrons literally fell out of their seats, but Opening Night was the equivalent of a 500-foot home run. The city’s mayor, Vera Katz, gave a thumbs-up. Glickman said it was only the beginning–but his words would come back to haunt him.

In a baseball sense, this was a success story. Led by Burroughs (.322-9-55 in 394 at-bats), the Beavers won seven of their last nine games under manager Rick Sweet and finished 71-73, eighth-best in the 16-team league.

Portland drew an average of 6,193 fans, finished sixth in the PCL in overall attendance and set an all-time Portland baseball attendance record at 439,686.

Those numbers were subject to question because of a flap over free tickets, but no one questioned the city’s affection for baseball. Indeed, two different groups have been working to bring a major league team to the nation’s 22nd-largest market.

But off the field, it was an unholy mess–a baseball version of Enron. Three months after the dizzying Opening Night, the flush of success gave way to red faces in the mayor’s office. Through miscalculation and mismanagement, Glickman’s Portland Family Entertainment Group lost as much as $8 million. The well-heeled limited partners who backed Glickman–a group that included professional golfer Peter Jacobsen and multimillionaire car dealer Scott Thomason–were furious. So was the city, which had been promised a first-year return of nearly $800,000 and instead found itself $372,000 in the hole.

Glickman and Mark Gardiner, his chief financial officer, were forced to resign. It wasn’t the most scandalous saga in Portland history, but it attracted attention simply because it involved Glickman, the one-time president of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. A young dynamo who could sell refrigerators to eskimos, Glickman had been the driving force behind PFE’s purchase of the Albuquerque Dukes and the A-League soccer Portland Timbers.

Without Glickman, there would be no PGE Park. On the darker side, his free spending will hang over the franchise for years. When the limited partners put out the distress call, it was answered by the Goldklang Group, a management and consulting firm that owns seven other minor league teams and features Mike Veeck, the celebrated promotional whiz with unmatched baseball bloodlines.

Veeck’s first news conference in Portland, held outside the front gate of PFE Park, was a breath of fresh air. The man responsible for Disco Demolition Night in Chicago promised games at PGE Park would be a blast because of his zany promotions. Veeck said hip Portland was perfect for his schtick.

"There’s a 24-inch park here, a guy who wanted to put beer in the fountains at a city park (Henry Weinhard) and a 24-hour Church of Elvis. This is a marriage made in heaven," Veeck said.

Veeck, however, found nothing amusing about $8 million in losses. "I hate to cast aspersions, but (the financial picture) was astounding," he said. "Was I surprised? That would be an understatement. I’ve never seen anything like it in my career."

The new Goldklang management was still trimming the fat at PFE, firing a glut of front-office employees and trying to make sense of the books. The group is looking for a full-time general manager. Mark Schuster is acting as PFE president. It was Schuster’s thankless job to let people go. "The bloodletting had to stop somewhere," Veeck said. Meanwhile, Schuster told the local media it may take years to put the operation in the black.

Veeck praised Glickman for his ability to attract fans with affordable ticket prices and the lure of a brewpub and grill along the right-field line. Glickman promised family entertainment, and he delivered. He also made peace with the neighborhoods around the stadium over parking and noise issues, no mean feat in a town that loves to fight city hall.

"In many ways we’re just inheriting this," Veeck said. "The heavy lifting has been done."

This comes as a relief to the Padres. "We had no idea they were having those kind of financial problems," Padres general manager Kevin Towers said. "I’m sorry what they had to go through. But this doesn’t affect our relationship. We signed a four-year deal. We’re definitely staying."

San Diego moved its affiliate from Las Vegas to Portland, and Towers, an Oregon native, said it was absolutely the right decision in spite of the turmoil. Exchanging Sin City for Rip City was a no-brainer, he said. The heat and humidity in Las Vegas made it difficult to keep the players anywhere but inside an air-conditioned clubhouse. The lure of the Strip was also a concern.

"You were always worried about what might happen after the game," Towers said. "I know when I was in Vegas, I always felt like I was missing something when I was asleep."

Padres farmhands may have lamented the loss of the MGM Grand and the Mirage, but they did not miss Vegas’ withering temperatures.

"The first thing these guys said when they laid eyes on (PGE Park) was, ‘Man, this place is beautiful,’ " Sweet said. "They loved the city, they loved the fans, and I think the wives loved it here, too. That’s why the Padres wanted to come here."

One thing not lost in the makeover from Civic Stadium to PGE Park was the ability of a place that holds just 25,000 fans to sound like a huge stadium because of the noise level. "You get 7,000 or 8,000 people in here and it sounds like 30,000," Sweet said.

Said closer Bryan Corey, "I’m not sure there are places in the big leagues as loud as Portland."

Few places in the country have Portland’s baseball history, either. It begins with Portland’s 86-year association with the PCL. The Beavers won their first PCL pennant in 1906. Harry Heilmann, Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane, Satchel Paige and Jim Thorpe (yes, that Jim Thorpe) all wore Beavers uniforms when the team played in the old firetrap on Vaughn Street.

PGE Park, which began as Multnomah Stadium in the 1920s before it evolved into Civic Stadium, also has a rich past. It was a public gathering place for Portlanders from the beginning, attracting dignitaries from the sports, entertainment, and political worlds: Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Jack Dempsey, Elvis Presley, Billy Graham . . . And oh, what baseball memories. The Beavers moved there in 1956. Portland’s first major league affiliation was with the Cardinals in 1961.

From 1955-69, the Beavers were a community-owned franchise. Shares were sold for $10. Private ownership returned when Bill Cutler bought the team–he would later move it to Spokane after the 1972 season–and in the ensuing years Portland had affiliations with the Indians, Pirates, Phillies and Twins. Portland’s last PCL pennant, and its eighth overall, came in 1983 with the Phillies under manager John Felske.

Willie Stargell hit a 500-foot shot off the adjacent Multnomah Athletic Club in right field during a home run-hitting contest in 1979 prior to a Beavers-Pirates exhibition game. Twins farmhand Bernardo Brito, who hit 120 homers for Portland, hit a celebrated 500-foot home run off Fernando Valenzuela in 1992.

And to think the rest of the country remembers PGE Park for a single play on May 27, 1991, the night Vancouver outfielder Rodney McCray literally ran through an outfield wall (and the Flav-R-Pac sign) chasing Chip Hale’s long drive. It was captured by a TV cameraman in town to shoot the NBA playoffs, and McCray became almost as famous as the ski jumper in the "Wide World of Sports" intro.

Ski-jumping, greyhound racing, the NFL, the NBA, the World Football League and pro wrestling have been part of PGE Park lore, but it all comes back to baseball. It always does.

In between the old Portland Beavers and Felske’s Phillies, there were the zany independent Class A Portland Mavericks managed by a local character named Frank Peters. The Mavericks had a post-"Ball Four" Jim Bouton in the bullpen, Kurt Russell in the outfield and an owner/actor (Bing Russell) who played the sheriff on TV’s famous "Bonanza" series.

The Mavs had a player–basestealer Reggie Thomas–who once threatened to shoot Peters because he was removed from the lineup before the first game of a doubleheader. When Peters learned Thomas did indeed have a gun in the dugout, Thomas regained his starting position in the outfield on the spot.

Jack and Mary Cain, who mortgaged their house to buy the team, moved the short-season Bend franchise to Portland in 1995 and began a successful run as the Portland Rockies. The Rockies became one of the gems in Colorado’s farm system, shattering short-season attendance records, winning two division titles and one Northwest League championship.

They drew so many fans it became obvious the market was ready for Triple-A again, and maybe even the majors if somebody could find a way to steal the Expos. The pursuit of a big league club didn’t work out, but the Albuquerque Dukes were ripe for a move.

That was Glickman’s cue to pitch the city on ballpark renovation, the return of high-level baseball and the rebirth of soccer in a town that was once called Soccer City USA when it had the old Timbers and played in the North American Soccer League. Glickman’s ideas were sound, even if his financial judgment would come under question later.

In Veeck’s mind, Portland’s storied baseball history should mean its team will see nothing but positives and success down the road.

"It’s a huge market with a 100-year baseball history," Veeck said. "There’s a lot here that says this is a good situation."

Paul Buker covers the Beavers for The Oregonian newspaper in Portland.

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