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Hit or Miss?

Author: Bill Meagher
October, 2011 Issue


San Rafael neighbors continue to debate the merits of minor league baseball in their town.

 

It’s midsummer, and a bright sun beats down on Albert Field in San Rafael, doing its best to bake the infield rock hard and fade the grass from green to brown. The stands are quiet, the dugouts filled with plenty of nothing. This baseball park, which dates back to the 1950s, is old in a charming way—like a favorite aunt who’s arrived at that age where her face speaks gently of character, and the twinkle in her eyes peeks out from beneath a feather of salt and pepper hair.

Centerfield Partners (CP) wants to fill the stands here next season with families and baseball fans, and the dugouts with minor league players hoping to punch their ticket to the big leagues.

The company, led by CEO Brian Clark, Corte Madera resident Michael Shapiro and Petaluma’s Brian Sobel, hopes to have a yet-unnamed entrant to the new North American League (NAL) playing at Albert Field for 45 games next season. The NAL is an independent league, which means none of the teams are associated or under contracts to major league teams. (For instance, the San Francisco Giants have a rookie team in Oregon, a Class A team in San Jose, a double A squad in Connecticut and its top farm club in Fresno.) Instead, the teams in this league would hail from a dozen different locations as far flung as Edmonton, Alberta Canada; Wailuku, Hawaii; Edinburg, Texas; and Chico, Calif.

For years, the city of San Rafael has tried to bring activity and energy to its downtown after 5 p.m. with its “Live after Five” program. So bringing a minor league team to Albert Field, just a block off Second Avenue, would seem to be a home run.

Not so fast.

Early innings

Before a public hearing regarding the team in mid-July, a TV truck from KTVU (Oakland Channel 2) is parked outside San Rafael City Hall. The cameraman is filming a group of kids dressed as a hot dog, bags of popcorn and peanuts as well as Cracker Jacks. The kids are either very gifted costume creators, or mom and dad are minor league baseball fans.

Not everyone is a fan, however, not by a long shot. Lawyers Nick Rossi and Dotty LeMieux have been hired by different groups of Gerstle Park (where the ball field is located) residents who’d like to keep the pros off the field. The neighbors are concerned with traffic, noise, alcohol abuse and parking woes.

Well…in the best tradition of Marin County, it’s a little more than that. After a public hearing that ran more than four hours and included 45 different citizens speaking both for and against the idea of baseball at Albert Field, I can tell you first-hand that some neighbors are concerned with their home values being dragged down by minor league baseball. There are also folks worried about their health—so much so that one well-meaning local offered to bring the mayor a note from her doctor regarding the ill effects of noise on the human body—or concerned that their tree-lined streets might become home to post-game violence or car vandalism. There are also neighbors who fear people using their front yards as restrooms.

Just as there are two teams in every baseball game, the meeting also included neighbors who support the upstart league, expressing to the patient city council their hope to be able to bring their kids to see baseball in a less pricey venue than the Giant’s yard at AT&T Park. Some supporters talked about dining downtown and walking to the park. Other speakers told the council they simply wanted to enjoy baseball in an old-fashioned setting in their own hometown.

As the clock slipped past the midnight hour, Mayor Al Boro found himself in front of a crowd so large the Fire Marshall had to hang around all night. Boro, a baseball fan who was once a batboy for the San Francisco Seals (when the Pacific Coast League team called 16th and Bryant home), knew the time had come for him to play umpire. He told the crowd that while the city staff had recommended Centerfield be allowed to use the park, the council wouldn’t take a vote on the issue. It was clear the neighbors had legitimate concerns. Instead, he said, another meeting would be scheduled. Vice mayor Greg Brockbank chimed in, imploring Centerfield Partners and the neighbors to get together to find some middle ground.

The minors

CP owns the rights to four different NAL baseball franchises in the Bay Area. This means the NAL will let CP own four independent teams—and CP hopes the San Rafael entry will become a successful setup model for the others to follow.

Since NAL teams are independent, the league has created some guidelines for its teams to survive. Team rosters are limited to 23 players, and teams have a minimum and a maximum payroll for all players; the least that can be paid is $60,000 and the most is $90,000. To put that into perspective, the major league minimum salary is $450,000, exactly 80 percent more than the NAL top rung.

On the other hand, the NAL has left room for teams that feel they want to go the route of the New York Yankees and buy themselves a title. Teams can exceed the cap by $20,000 and kick in a 25 percent luxury tax. The scale goes all the way up to $80,000 extra if the team is willing to pay 100 percent tax.

While the league lives on a shoestring, that hasn’t kept some big names from getting involved. The Lake County Fielders, the Zion, Illinois-based team, is partially owned by actor Kevin Costner. The Edmonton Capitals are owned by Daryl Katz, the same guy who owns the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League. Jose Canseco, the one-time Oakland A who wrote a tell-all book on baseball and steroids, is co-managing a team in Tucson, Ariz., along with his brother, Ozzie.

Like all independent leagues, the NAL is colorful. For instance, the Fielders have bounced paychecks or not issued them at all, the play-by-play announcer quit in mid-game and a new stadium promised by the city of Zion failed to open. Almost the entire roster of players, fed up with living hand-to-mouth, either quit or were released after protesting their plight. (Lake County has gone out of its way to explain Costner isn’t involved in the day-to-day operation of the team.)

In July, the Tucson Toros ceased operations, and the Yuma Scorpions are now pinch-hitting for them while Toros ownership tries to unravel a puzzle that involves the city of Tucson, its Hi Corbet Field and various claims. One of the 2011 starting pitchers for the Chico Outlaws is Eri Yoshida, a 19-year-old woman who was born in Japan and throws a wicked knuckleball. It’s the second year in the league for the player known as the “Knuckle Princess.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to fess up a bit. My Dad played in the minor leagues—with Jackie Robinson in Montreal in 1946, no less. I’ve watched minor league games in Denver (before the Rockies were a glint in Major League Commissioner Faye Vincent’s eye), Reno, Chico, Stockton and Sonoma. I played in an instructional league for the Dodgers and in college. Baseball has always been a part of my life, so I bring a little understanding to this story.

Minor league baseball is about a trio of adults bending over to put their foreheads on a bat, spinning around and then trying to walk a straight line between innings. The minors are a place for 8-year-olds to get a huge thrill from getting the autograph of a guy who won’t get any closer to the big leagues than buying a ticket. And it’s the spot to see a player like Sergio Romo strike out the side on his way to the bigs.

By the way, Romo played in the NAL before ending up in the bullpen of your world champion Giants.

The deal

CP is led by Brian Clark, who made his money in the travel industry. Clark was formerly an officer with Virgin America and senior vice president at Fly.com, a travel search site. The Dublin, Calif., resident is now CEO of travel startup Vayant Travel Technologies. While Clark has no background in minor league baseball, he does have two key ingredients: cash and passion.

He’s also had the good sense to bring Corte Madera’s Mike Shapiro on board as a consultant. Shapiro has a baseball background, having served in either management or legal capacities with the San Francisco Giants, the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals. He also has his own company, Redwood Sports and Entertainment Group. And Clark brought Brian Sobel in to help navigate the maze of municipal approvals in Marin. Sobel, a former member of the Petaluma City Council and a long-time political consultant, has his own business, Sobel Communications, in the city that was once the chicken capital of the world.

Clark views the San Rafael team as a good first entry into the NAL for CP. “San Rafael would be our first team, and it would have the smallest venue [1,500 seats at Albert Field] in the league. By way of comparison, the average attendance at independent baseball games last year was more than 2,800 fans,” he says. “Despite the smaller venue, we feel comfortable we can do well. But the margins in independent baseball are typically thin. We’d be pleased to have multiple teams each making ’OK’ margins, adding up to a decent return overall.”

While Albert Field, from an old-time baseball perspective, is charming, it’s also long in the tooth, and the city of San Rafael has pretty much given up on maintaining the park, choosing instead to focus on keeping the libraries open and cops on the streets. This means CP is on the hook for any needed improvements. The team will replace the backstop, paint the grandstands, refurbish the locker rooms and bring in more seating as well as temporary bathrooms and concessions. “We expect to put tens of thousands of dollars worth of improvements into Albert Field before we’ve ever made a nickel,” Clark says.

The city expects to make $4,000 to $12,000 from rental of the park to Centerfield, with much of that payment being made before the season even starts. The team plans on charging between $6 and $15 per seat. CP will take advantage of the parking lot at the adjacent office complex owned by Seagate Properties.

The brushback

Dotty LeMieux is a spirited advocate, the kind of lawyer who brings a passion along with a major league savvy to any fight. She’s long been a presence in Marin politics as a consultant, and her 13-page, anti-NAL letter to the city is a study in reasoned argument. In the first sentence, she tells the city that minor league baseball at Albert Field is, essentially, a privatization of a public facility. She says the city stands to gain little, if anything, from its association with the team, which she labels a “highly speculative business venture.”

At the July meeting, she was very much at home as she patiently ticked off her objections to minor league baseball at Albert Field in an organized fashion, attacking the city’s lack of an environmental impact report along with detailing concerns of her clients. She told the council and the standing-room-only audience that having a college or semi-pro team play at Albert is a far cry from a season of minor league ball. She called on the city to delay a decision for another night, and her presentation was greeted with cheers from opponents of the proposal.

She was followed to the podium by a parade of people wishing to weigh in on minor league ball in downtown San Rafael. Those who felt Albert Field is a bad location for a minor league team talked about a public address system blasting music and bright lights disrupting calm summer evenings. Neighbors told the council that they feared the Gerstle Park neighborhood would become inundated with fans trying to save the $5 parking fee. Still other opponents worried that beer and wine would be available at the ballpark.

In the weeks that followed the meeting, Centerfield’s Clark and company met with neighbors. “We’ve actually had several productive meetings already with neighbors and other local residents. We met with the Federation of San Rafael Neighborhoods on April 20, which was before we ever presented our plan to the Park and Rec Commission. We’ve spoken with individual neighbors on several occasions since, and we sent an open letter outlining our plan to the Gerstle Park neighborhood.

“This program of community outreach is central to our operating plan and is detailed in several places in the use agreement proposed to the city council. Baseball, at its core, is a community activity. So we plan to be out and about in the community in-season and off-season,” says Clark.

Change strikes out?

One of the basics of living in Marin County is that change is rarely a welcome event. It goes beyond simple NIMBYism (the generic not-in-my-backyard attitude that can be found in many neighborhoods across the county). Here, it’s more pronounced, with bedrock roots driven deep by the heady combination of a population that’s well-educated, well-compensated and that sometimes has some spare time to explore the complexities of how to retain the highly valued status quo against all odds.

As one neighbor told the mayor and council, she moved to the neighborhood two years ago, attracted by its numerous trees and old homes with porches. There was no hint that there would be baseball at Albert Field, she complained. This, in essence, was not what she and her family had signed up for.

It’s an open question just how much a change the team would actually be. In the past, Albert Field played host to the Seals, a team made up of college players that played a full slate of games. Beer was served at the ballpark, and the city says it didn’t receive any complaints from neighbors about the lights, noise or intoxicated patrons mistaking Buicks for bathrooms.

Rick Wells, CEO of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, says his organization has taken the temperature of the business community on baseball. “More than 95 percent of the businesses that responded to the survey said they think professional baseball at Albert Field would be beneficial. The support is clear,” he says. “This proposal is about strengthening our local economy—more dollars circulating in the city and bringing the community together.”

End of the game?

As this issue goes to press, a decision regarding minor league baseball at Albert Field is still up in the air. After a series of meetings with neighbors and the community, the city has proposed conducting an environmental study of how baseball will coexist with the neighborhood.

The city would pick a firm to perform the study, which originally was thought would cost $30,000 to $40,000, and take perhaps four months to complete. But after CP took a closer look at what the parameters would look like, it was clear the organization wouldn’t be able to complete the study and get work done on the ballpark in time for the 2012 season. And with Centerfield estimating the cost of the study could climb as high as $70,000, the organization is trying to figure out if it can afford to play ball in San Rafael.

With 2012 already gone and the team wondering whether it could afford to bring pro ball to San Rafael, Centerfield brought a counterproposal to the city. It would scrap its plans to double the seating at Albert, and instead make do with the 700 seats already in the house. It would make parking free to encourage everybody to stay out of the Gerstle Park neighborhood. It would address the noise concerns by limiting music between innings.

The plan essentially mirrors what’s been in place for the Novato Knicks, a semi-pro team that has played at Albert Field over the years. And it reflects the use by the aforementioned Seals. In a way, it puts the city on the spot, since CP is no longer asking for anything more than what’s been allowed in the past.

At this writing, in the dog days of August, both Centerfield and the city are in modes of consideration. City Manager Nancy Mackle had this to say: “City staff recommended approval of the Centerfield concept as we seek to partner with others to bring events and activities to our community that we could not otherwise offer on our own. As with any proposals, we attempt to assess the benefits that would come to our community but also look at the potential impacts and have plans in place to mitigate them. We will continue to look at this proposal with Centerfield over the next few weeks”

As for Centerfield? Brian Sobel, who makes a living dealing with the media, was circumspect, only saying that Centerfield doesn’t know what will happen.

Were someone to suggest a wager on whether minor league baseball is coming to Albert Field, I have a Jackson that says if you want to see pro ball, you better hop the ferry to McCovey Cove.

The final score: Neighbors 1, baseball fans 0.




Bill Meagher is a contributing editor at NorthBay biz. He writes the monthly column Only in Marin and is putting the finishing touches on a book co-authored with Diet Stroh, Three Months: A Care-Giving Journey from Heartbreak to Healing.


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