Where To Now?
Two Cal League teams left scrambling
D.G. Elmore combed over the map of California that he had spread out before him one early March morning.
The high Class A Bakersfield owner was hardly planning a family vacation or a sightseeing tour of the state. Rather, Elmore was in search of a suitable spot to move his baseball team—a task he thought was already taken care of last summer.
The deal that Elmore thought was going to move the Blaze some 2,500 miles east into the Carolina League has fallen apart, a minor league shift that was to include California League-mate High Desert. The proposal had the backing of minor league president Pat O'Conner along with several big league clubs—including Bakersfield's major league affiliate, the Texas Rangers.
The shift would have ideally replaced two sagging markets that had seemingly given up on their teams with vibrant ones, and eliminated the every two-year ordeal of forcing one East Coast big league team to ship their high A squad west.
Yet nearly one year later, Elmore finds himself back at square one, increasingly pessimistic that baseball can survive in Bakersfield but equally unsure of where else it can go.
"We're not homeless, but we're living in a shack," Elmore said. "Something has got to give. I don't think (the solution) is the city (of Bakersfield) building something. I know we'll be here this year, but I don't know about next year. It depends on what MLB has to say about it, or a new affiliate has to say about it . . . We just have to find someplace to go. Whoever our affiliate is going to be is going to want us to be out of (Bakersfield)."
That affiliate may very well not be the Rangers, whose player-development contract runs through the 2010 season. For Elmore was not the only one who expected the deal to be done.
"Based off all the information that we were given," Rangers director of minor league operations John Lombardo said, "we are surprised that the move did not take place . . . We were very much in tune with the move to the Carolina League, and it didn't happen. It is extremely disappointing to us, this organization, to D.G. and the two teams involved in the California League."
A Tough Situation
The problems surrounding the situation in both Bakersfield and High Desert center around deteriorating ballparks and a sinking local economy that has left local officials unable—and perhaps unwilling—to spend the money needed to either replace or renovate the publicly owned facilities.
Elmore said his team invested this offseason in fixing up a field that no longer met facility standards, and to renovate the clubhouse. Last year they replaced the batting cage. Yet Sam Lynn Ballpark is anything but a cozy environment. Home plate faces west, which forces a delayed start time to avoid hitters from having to look into a setting sun. The aging ballpark provides little relief from the desert heat and little appeal to fans—an article in the Bakersfield Californian noted, gametime temperatures often surpass the number of fans in attendance.
Lombardo said city officials promised a new ballpark would be in the works within 18 months of signing their first player-development contract in 2005. However no such deal appears in sight.
"We've seen fields worse than Bakersfield. But the stadium itself, the lack of fans, playing in basically what amounts to an FSL (Florida State League) crowd" are the issues, Lombardo said. "We're trying to get players ready to continue to advance and the atmosphere is not as conducive as it could be."
An opportunity to partner with Cal State Bakersfield and share a ballpark with the burgeoning program appeared to be a recent possibility. The plan called for the university to provide the land, the city to pay for the ballpark and the team to provide funds for ballpark features such as concessions. But the city faces a budget deficit and is not willing to pay the $15 million ballpark construction costs.
"It's not going to happen," Elmore said.
The situation in High Desert may not be as dire, but is certainly not promising. High Desert owner Bobby Brett faces a lease that expires after the 2010 season on an aging ballpark in desperate need of repairs that the local government won't pay for. Brett said that they had some plans in the works regarding the team's future that he could not discuss, but also noted that plans are uncertain.
Mavericks Stadium is a 19-year old facility in need of upkeep, like replacing broken seats and general wear-and-tear from sitting in the desert sun.
"We'll continue to play where we play, continue to talk to the city and hope to get some facility improvements done."
One option, Brett said, is to work with four local cities that adjoin each other on combining to build a ballpark. However, both Brett and Elmore note, that there are few options for expansion in California. The combination of existing teams in the California League, the Triple-A Pacific Coast League and the majors, along with the large counties in the state make it nearly impossible to find a location that does not infringe on someone's territory.
"I don't think you can find a place to go that is not in somebody's territory," Elmore said.
"There is very little out there," Brett said. "It's frustrating. We have other teams that we own and operate but this one has been frustrating."
The idea of shifting to the Carolina League became particularly attractive after the Braves announced their plans at the start of last season to end a 42-year relationship with the city of Richmond and move their Triple-A affiliate to suburban Atlanta in Gwinnett County. Though not officially tied to the transfer, Richmond was the prized market.
However High Desert and Bakersfield were not alone in their pursuit of the territory—which remains vacant, though several publications have reported that Double-A Connecticut (Eastern) will fill it if details on a new ballpark can be worked out.
"I don't know if we ever catalogued the number of groups interested in the market," Minor League Baseball vice president Tim Purpura said. "It's a strong market. It was a strong market and will be a strong market. When a market like that opens up, there is a lot of interest from a lot of different levels . . . Whatever ownership structure gets put in place, they will be very successful."
Once it became apparent that Richmond would not be filled by a Class A affiliate, the shift became more difficult to fulfill.
"Everyone was hoping that Richmond was going to be one of (the cities)," Elmore said. "That was always out there as the carrot."
Without Richmond as an option, finding two suitable Carolina League markets interested in building ballparks in a spiraling economy became a challenge that ultimately halted the deal.
"If we had Richmond, we could have piecemealed one market," High Desert owner Bobby Brett said. "But piecemealing two was more of a challenge."
The plan was for the Carolina League to purchase both teams, Elmore said, and re-sell them to owners within the new markets. However the declining economy spoiled those plans.
"They couldn't find any markets and they couldn't find any buyers," Elmore said. "When the market went down, they found buyers to be scarce and cities wanting to build ballparks even more so . . . I think there are some decent cities out there for that league. My sense is that they had some cities they thought were going to come through, but hadn't talked about any brass tacks, and when they got serious about it, it was the fall of last year and by then everyone was running scared because of the economy."