California Ruling Could Lead To Franchise Moves

Escondido Ballpark Project Dead

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Building a ballpark in California isn't impossible, but unearthing the dollars to get digging is going to require some creativity following the state's Supreme Court ruling just before the New Year.

The court upheld California Gov. Jerry Brown's earlier decision to abolish redevelopment agencies as part of a 2011 budget compromise, essentially wiping out state funding for local construction projects—like ballparks.

The Padres' Triple-A Tucson affiliate is the most immediate casualty of the ruling, as its plan to settle in the San Diego suburb of Escondido is now dead. But the decision also affects the California League, which is trying to find new or renovated ballparks for a pair of its clubs.

California League president Charlie Blaney described the court's ruling as "disappointing but not surprising" and said he remains committed to building new ballparks for the Bakersfield and High Desert franchises within the league's footprint.

One of the potential destinations, likely for High Desert, had been the city of Chico. Even without state money, Blaney says the city remains a possible destination, as supporters of a ballpark project are considering alternative financing plans to get one built. They may propose a sales tax that would help pay for a new ballpark, police station and other civic projects. Blaney said the measure would likely be voted on by June.

Bakersfield was not affected by the court ruling because the city did not have any redevelopment funds, Blaney said.

The struggle to find new markets in California has reignited interest in moving two teams from the California League to the Carolina League, a move that was proposed nearly four years ago by Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner and former Cal League president Joe Gagliardi.

Blaney remains opposed to the move, particularly since he was charged by Cal League owners to find new homes for Bakersfield and High Desert when he replaced Gagliardi after the 2009 season. But he admitted that a solution to replacing the two outdated ballparks needs to be found this year.

"We can't continue the same course of action with those ballparks in High Desert and Bakersfield, so 2012 will be a pivotal year as to determining the future of the California League," Blaney said. "That's only fair to our major league partners . . .
"I'm still scouring the state to find opportunities, and I think we'll definitely be able to come to a head within the next year. But right now, I'm focusing on the 10 strongest teams we can have. And I'm focusing totally on California. There is no focus on contraction to the Carolina League. But who knows what will happen down the road."

Padres owner Jeff Moorad purchased the Pacific Coast League franchise that had been in Portland, Ore., after the 2010 season, with plans to have it play temporarily in Tucson before settling permanently in a new ballpark in the San Diego suburb of Escondido.
But without state money, that shiny new facility—which would have been just 30 miles north of Petco Park—won't get any further than architectural renderings. And without a new ballpark nearby, Moorad has no interest in running a Triple-A team and will put it up for sale.

Moorad did not respond to an interview request from Baseball America, but he told the San Diego Union-Tribune that "at this point, we will reconsider our options. It is still our preference to be in the North County. Some in the North County are talking about other options. Those would have to develop quickly as we also pursue the opportunity to sell the club. We have been patient for more than a year."

The club has been in flux since former owner Merritt Paulson decided to convert the team's former home in Portland, PGE Park, into a soccer-only facility after the 2010 season. He hoped to build a new baseball park in Portland, but voters rejected all such plans, forcing Paulson to sell the team.
Moorad bought the club early last year and settled on Tucson as a temporary home shortly before the start of last season. The club understandably struggled at the gate, averaging a Triple-A-worst 3,410 fans. Tucson general manager Mike Feder said marketing the team in such a short period of a time was a challenge, and the team didn't even have a logo until a week before Opening Day. He said he was optimistic about the 2012 season and hopeful their stay could be longer.

The team is committed to Tucson in 2012, but where it lands after that is uncertain. Moorad told the Union-Tribune that he had been contacted by people in three cities outside California interested in the team, including El Paso, Texas. Minor League Baseball had considered El Paso previously as a temporary home, but officials were concerned about the state of the city's ballpark and its suitability as a Triple-A market.

Bulls To Operate Old Home

It has been a busy offseason for the Durham Bulls.

First, the International League franchise is losing several of its veteran front-office staffers. Assistant general manager Jon Bishop left for a job with the NBA after 13 years in Durham, longtime announcer Neil Solondz moved on to a job with the parent Rays, and director of media relations and promotions Matt DeMargel took a job out of baseball.

The Bulls also made a significant addition: a second ballpark. The team agreed to operate the renovated Durham Athletic Park, taking over the lease of the Bulls' historic former home from Minor League Baseball, which had been using the facility as a training grounds since overseeing its renovation in 2007.

The Bulls will run the DAP through August, when MiLB's lease with the city expires. They have no plans to stay on longer but will consider all options, depending on the city's interest and the success of the operation, Bulls general manager Mike Birling said.

Minor League Baseball announced late last year that for financial reasons, it would not continue running the DAP after its lease expires. The DAP will continue to serve as the home field for North Carolina Central and local youth leagues. And though Birling realizes the challenges of turning a profit there, he believes the team's link to the community should create new opportunities.

"We'll try and be a little more aggressive because of the resources we have here," Birling said. "There are always situations where people want to do different events here at the DBAP (Durham Bulls Athletic Park), but can't do it because we may have a homestand or the groundskeeper needs to give the field a break. Now we have two stadiums to look at, so if we can't do it at the DBAP, maybe we can pull it off the DAP."