A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry about the future stadium issues that would be likely haunting baseball fans as many ballpark leases signed in the 1990’s would start coming due. Well the Diamondbacks have started making threats of leaving and the lease they signed with Phoenix and the county still has 9 guaranteed seasons of Diamondbacks baseball to be played at Chase Field.
When this news broke with dueling press conferences on Thursday held by the team and by the officials with the stadium district, it only made me cringe. ON one hand, the baseball team says that the county has not paid for what they claim are $187 million in payments needed to maintain the ballpark. This in terms of contract obligation if true would seem to leave the locals on the hook for said repairs, but the Diamondbacks are likely to get a cold reception by the tax paying community in Arizona, since they just saw the team hand out a $203 million contract over the next 7 years for one of the league’s elite pitchers.
Beyond this though, where will the team go if it did leave. NO major city worth its money in gold will ever build a stadium for a team that it does not already have or will gain through expansion or relocation. St. Petersburg built a stadium before it had a team and by the time an actual team did exist, the facility was nearly a decade outdated, no one will make that mistake again. That leaves two choices, Montreal which still has its Olympic Stadium that was home to the Expos through 2004, and another city which built a stadium, San Antonio. The Alamo dome was home to the NBA Spurs for 10 years until they got a new arena and the NFL team San Antonio thought it could get with the dome when it opened in 1993, that team still does not exist. At best, Montreal’s big O would be a temporary venue until a new baseball specific stadium opened in 2-3 seasons. MLB won’t let a team go their until that deal is signed, sealed and delivered on the desk of Rob Manfred. As for San Antonio, the Alamo dome is at best a temporary venue along the same lines, as a baseball diamond would be shoehorned into the facility the way that it was done in the Los Angeles Coliseum for four years while Dodger Stadium was built. The only difference, right field rather than left would be the cheap side of the park for homers that would be outs anywhere else in the big leagues.
The other reason the Diamondbacks stated as the need for upgrades though is at the same time petty and childish sounding. The reason, Chase Field will be the third oldest facility in the National League behind Dodger Stadium and Wrigley Field. Give me a damn break, the place is eighteen years old. Ballparks used to be built as long tern construction projects that would last many generations, yet the Diamondbacks like the Braves are copping an attitude that says, we must be in the newest, greatest, most modern facility to compete. So with that argument, folks in Houston, Cleveland, Arlington, Denver, Baltimore, the south side of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Seattle all must plan to fork over a billion dollars apiece or lose their teams in the next 5-15 years? If this is where MLB is headed, it will forever lose its credibility as a sports organization and what was once a growth touted by Mr. Manfred will be a great contraction. Cities and states are not going to be held hostage by these henchman asking for corporate Welfare and let’s get one thing strait, what the Diamondbacks are asking for, what the Braves received is pure and unadulterated corporate welfare.
The same goes for the fleecing of Florida and Arizona tax payers for spring training sites. A storm washed out the final Astros game in Kissimmee on Saturday night, and how fitting that must have been. The building of new spring training sites for team after team by these two states has proven to be a money loser, as facilities stand vacated that were built within the life time of today’s college grads. Fort Myers has two teams in a pair of facilities, a third stands empty, City of Palms which opened in 1993 when Bill Clinton was a new President. What was once known as Tucson Electric Park opened in 1998 and it along with historic Hi Corbett Field do not have a spring tenant, though the latter now is home to the University of Arizona baseball team. The Champion Stadium facility built at Disney opened in 1998 and it likely will be vacated after 2017 by the Braves with all teams from Central Florida having headed south. Space Coast Stadium in Vierra Florida opened in 1994, it will be vacant for spring training by the middle of the coming week.
We treat today’s baseball stadiums as if they are temporary palaces to be built and torn down within 30, 40 years, not as treasures of great engineering and baseball history. This madness must stop and the fans must demand that it be stopped. People joke about the cost of the proposed wall Donald Trump wants to build, 11 billion or more. That won’t and should not happen. But guess what else should not happen, an equally amount of wasted money on new stadiums for teams that are crying poor because they don’t have the newest house to play ball in. If we as a nation spend another 15 billion dollars on new ballparks, we should demand that the leases are much longer, say 70 years in length, 30 years was clearly a mistake. That money should instead go to what really needs to be done, major infrastructure repair. If teams want new stadiums, come up with the money from your private funds, through the huge TV deals you signed with your cable and satellite TV providers. Ask now, before they too are crying poor because their business model has died like an outdated piece of computing technology.
IN closing, nice move Arizona. You get fans excited about your team by signing a major free agent and making big trades, then say that if you don’t get what you want, you will leave. Good luck finding a better place to play than the ballpark you currently call home.
Forgive me for writing something that will seem obvious to those who live in Texas and what will seem like a Lone Star slanted point of view to those elsewhere. While this blog does dedicate most of its baseball writings to things concerning the big leagues, I want to take a departure and look at college athletics, especially within the state of Texas.
Many of the major universities in larger states even today after a dizzying array of conference realignment are in one or two major college conferences. A third smaller conference is home to the remaining schools at the division I level in big states like Florida, New York and California. When I first truly began paying attention to all sports in 1985, to include college athletics, the state of Texas at college athletics largest level was basically part of just two conferences, the Southwest and Southland. The Southwest was home to 8 Texas schools, Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, SMU, TCU, Texas Tech, Rice and the University of Houston, along with Arkansas. The Southland was for the smaller Division I programs that actually did have a true playoff even in those days, the old I-AA was for those smaller football programs, while division I schools that did not have a football program were listed as I-AAA. IN those days, the Southland was home to a few out of state schools, Northwestern State, Louisiana Tech and Northeast Louisiana, plus McNeese State were all part of that league, while Texas programs included UT Arlington, Lamar, and what was then called North Texas State, now the University of North Texas. Arkansas State was also part of that Southland league.
Over time membership changed in the southland and the Southwest died in 1996. Schools that were not even Division I-A in 1985 like UT Arlington and Texas State in San Marcos, as well as North Texas are now playing in various conferences at that level. UT San Antonio did not even field football until 2011, now it too is at that top level of classification, while the smaller schools like Lamar, SFA, and Sam Houston are now joined by other similar schools around the region, Incarnate Word, Abilene Christian, Texas A&M at Corpus Christi and Houston Baptist among them. While the Southland does still have a degree of rivalry between many of the smaller programs, though some old division II rivals were split up when Incarnate word stopped facing St. Mary’s and Abilene Christian stopped facing Angelo State, there is at least a degree of Texas identity in that league. To follow sports is still enjoyable and this baseball fan does keep up with who the players are to watch from those different teams. The historic Southwestern Athletic conference has never lost its identity, Texas Southern and Prairie view A&M have been part of that league as long as I can remember and while they are small Historically black Universities, they deserve their due here too.
With the larger schools though, it is almost impossible. UT El Paso, which is so far west it naturally fit in the old WAC way back when, now is in the same league (Conference USA) as Rice, UT San Antonio and North Texas. Texas State and UT Arlington play in a second league, the Sunbelt which has teams spread over a huge geographic footprint. The largest of the old Southwest conference membership lingers in the Big 12, Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech and Texas. Houston and SMU call the wide spread American Conference home, while Texas A&M moved to the Southeastern conference and renewed ties with Arkansas after 20 years apart. Who is in the old WAC, the newly renamed UT Rio Grande Valley, which was forever known as Texas Pan American.
One successful baseball only program should get mentioned here, Dallas Baptist University, which plays in the Missouri Valley as a baseball school, rather than with some of their local competition.
Given how large some of the once smaller universities have become, while not all play football, I firmly believe it is in the best interest of these programs to come back to their roots as Texas rivals and face one another in leagues that draw from among the best athletic talent in the nation. Texas is still one of the leading producers of football and baseball prospects, and we are better now in basketball as well. So my message is simple, realign into something that creates true rivalries that can bring students together even if it means leaving larger money on the table.
My proposed alignment would look like this. The old southwest Conference comes back with its eight original Texas schools, Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, Houston, Rice, SMU, TCU and Texas Tech. It adds North Texas, UT Arlington, Texas State, UT San Antonio, UT El Paso and UT Rio Grande Valley as full members and Dallas Baptist is a baseball only school. Note that UT Arlington and UT Rio Grande Valley do not field football, so your league would divide into a pair of 6 team divisions for football, Texas Tech, TCU, North Texas, SMU, UT El Paso and Baylor would be the western division, Texas State, Texas, Texas A&M, Rice, Houston, and UT San Antonio would be the eastern division. In football divisional teams would play every year, four of the six teams in the opposite division would play on a rotating schedule. In basketball, you would have a 14 team league, divisional placements would add UT Arlington to the West and UT Rio Grande Valley to the east, playing 2 games against each divisional and 1 against each opposite divisional member each season for 18 conference games. The top 12 would make the postseason tournament.
IN baseball, SMU, UT El Paso and North Texas do not field teams, though North Texas has been rumored to be looking at renewing the sport since a five year experiment from 1984-88. If that happened, Dallas Baptist as a baseball only member would play in what would be a western division of six teams. The east would maintain its basketball look. If North Texas fails to get baseball, an eastern team would rotate from those seven schools into the west each season to create a balanced 12 team baseball league. It should be noted that SMU has no baseball plans since it dropped the sport for good following the 1980 campaign. The baseball tournament could be an 8 team double elimination event and played at some of the largest ballparks in the state. The league would be a mix of Texas’s top universities, Dallas Baptist would give the league a 5th private school for baseball, while all of the large public universities would field teams in the major revenue sports of football and men’s basketball.
Could this happen and is it easy to draw up on paper, sure it is. Will such a reality of school spirit and local rivalry bring back together old conference partnerships, not for quite a long time I am afraid. The fractures created have their roots in the politics of money and big college athletics and as we see today in modern politics, no one really cares how much damage is done to what was once a great Texas, a great American institution.