California League teams on the move?

By Lance Pugmire

August 16, 2001

LOS ANGELES–Amid a flood of false rumors, conspiracy theories that would make Oliver Stone proud and a surge of California League contraction stories that have shocked towns from Adelanto to Stockton, league president Joe Gagliardi was asked last week how many teams he foresees in the league in 2003.

“At this point, I’ve got to say 10,” Gagliardi said.

So, why bother? If the head man in the league says there’ll be 10 teams, there’ll be 10 teams. Then, Gagliardi slipped. He slapped a gag order on league owners, barring them from talking about contraction.

And when Pat O’Conner, Minor League Baseball’s chief operating officer and vice president was recently reached for comment and said, “Joe Gagliardi has instituted a gag order on this issue, and I will respect that,” a search for facts was in order.

Here are the facts: Minor League Baseball has offered the owners of the Mudville (Stockton) and Bakersfield franchises $3.9 million apiece for their teams. That buyout would allow the organization to shift those franchises to the Carolina League for the 2003 season.

The sources who delivered the information said Mudville owner Tom Seidler and Bakersfield owner Pat Patton would be willing to take the money immediately on the condition they can walk away from their teams at the end of the season, rather than run the team’s day-to-day operations during the 2002 season–the final year of their present player-development contracts.

Minor League Baseball is contemplating the counteroffer. Its response is expected by the end of the month.

While the buyout offer is slightly smaller than the purchase price, Los Angeles entertainment official Steve Moses is willing to pay to purchase the Bakersfield franchise and keep it in town. The buyout price would allow Patton and his vice president/general manager son, Jack, to skip the difficult new-ownership approval process.

Mudville’s ownership group has worked toward securing a new downtown ballpark, but as Gagliardi said Tuesday, “With that kind of money out there now, this becomes a new issue.”

If Mudville and/or Bakersfield fail to accept the buyout, the next options are Visalia and High Desert.

Visalia spokesman Marcas Grant said the rumored reports of the Oaks’ involvement in a buyout has damaged ticket sales. The team is angling toward a move to Reno, whose city council agreed to discuss a future in baseball at an Aug. 28 meeting.

City officials, however, have leaked information that could keep the Oaks from arriving. Reno apparently wants to copy the terms of the lease agreement Cal League owners approved for Bakersfield’s proposed new ballpark–$2.5 million up front, $115,000 per year in rent and all utility and maintenance costs paid by the team.

The contraction idea was fostered by the displeasure of the Reds and Devil Rays about being forced into the league following a Minor League Baseball rules change mandating that each team field one high Class A and one low Class A team.

When the Reds and Devil Rays were dragged into the league last year, they pleaded for a possible resolution. O’Conner forwarded a recommendation to Gagliardi: Would Cal League owners consider downsizing by two, allowing a two-team expansion in the Carolina League?

“I viewed that as a normal request by Pat, and I told him, ‘I’ll do whatever you request of me,’ ” Gagliardi said.

Gagliardi mentioned the concept to team owners, and High Desert owner Bobby Brett, who has not so quietly let it be known that his Mavericks are unofficially for sale, raised his hand when Gagliardi asked who would be interested in such a scenario.

Despite a strong denial from a High Desert front-office employee, a local newspaper ran a story headlined, “High Desert might lose baseball,” and mentioned Brett would accept a buyout. Predictably, fans called the team asking what was transpiring, and team officials vented toward the newspaper.

Gagliardi remained skeptical in his public comments about contraction, poking fun at what he called “aggressive headlines,” but his tone changed Tuesday when confronted with the details and figures.

“In this issue, do you think I want to get in the way?” he asked. “I can’t. I’m not in control of that money and how they (Minor League Baseball) want to use it.”

Despite Minor League Baseball’s offers, one league source described them as, “Not well thought out, all knee jerk,” and insisted contraction was a 50/50 proposition.

One of the problems is where the two Cal League teams would play. There’s a ballpark in Hampton Roads, Va., but the previous team there, the Peninsula Pilots, moved to Wilmington, Del. Fayetteville, N.C., is a possibility after flopping in the South Atlantic League. Charlottesville, Va., would require a new ballpark. Lehigh Valley, Penn., is in the Phillies’ territory.

The Rockies, who wanted to join the Cal League this season and attempted a deal to land at Rancho Cucamonga’s Epicenter, could move into a Reds or Devil Rays vacancy in the California League by 2003. So could the Royals or Rangers, organizations that will set up spring training headquarters in Arizona next year.