OAKLAND — The baseball news flew under the cloud-cover of the NBA Playoff series here.
As if it didn’t matter.
As if both Western Conference Finals cities shouldn’t care.
The Oakland Port Commission voted unanimously Monday to approve an exclusive negotiation agreement for the A’s potential waterfront ballpark. It gives the Major League Baseball team four years to conclude an environmental impact report at the Howard Terminal site.
This was good for Oakland. Also, good for Portland. Also, it might be a toothless gesture designed to buy Oakland time to find another, more feasible site.
Still, movement is your friend, Portland.
I reached out to MLB’s front office earlier this month to find out where Commissioner Rob Manfred’s head is on the Portland Diamond Project’s bid to land a franchise. The Portland-based group is calculated, organized, well funded and has secured the rights to at least one site for a potential ballpark and surrounding development. But it’s going to need more than a plan and a thirst for baseball.
John Blundell, the director of media relations for MLB, told me in a statement:
“There is not an ongoing expansion or relocation process in place. MLB is currently working with Tampa Bay and Oakland on their local stadium situations. Beyond that, there is nothing to say at this time.”
Well then, I’ll say it for them.
Realignment is on the horizon. Players pushed for it in the collective bargaining agreement. With that comes expansion by two franchises. It makes sense that the commissioner’s office would leverage the threat of cities such as Portland and Montreal to motivate Oakland and Tampa to fix their situations.
Portland is ready right now. Not in five years — now. It’s here to help. Either by becoming an immediate destination for one of those franchises. Or by pushing them into a solution so the league can get about expanding by two.
What MLB doesn’t understand is how fleeting the window is in Portland.
The “money people” won’t want the more than $1.3 billion in early commitments to the Portland Diamond Project tied up for five-plus years. The current political leadership that is keen on the idea of MLB to PDX won’t stay in power forever. Also, Portlanders want nothing more than to matter, and if MLB doesn’t seize this window, we’ll move on.
The most dramatic shift in the last 20 years in our region isn’t just the population boom. It’s that our city and state has opened its mind to change in a way that didn’t before exist.
“Portland,” it was always said, “is where young people go to retire.”
Now it’s where they go to dream big, and build buildings, and develop a business.
What I’m saying to Manfred and his bosses is that if MLB drags this out for years, Portland won’t be there. The city will move its focus and passion to the next big sports thing. Bidding for an Olympics, maybe. Or landing an NHL franchise to put in Moda Center.
The A’s are also dreaming, it seems.
Oakland president Dave Kaval brought Rickey Henderson, Bip Roberts and Shooty Babbit to the public rally in front of Monday’s vote. It was a smart move. But I wondered as I saw footage if the players even knew the franchise would be on the hook for the “environmental cleanup” of the new proposed site. That could come with a $500 million bill.
Also, there’s the matter of the longshore workers in Oakland. They’re organized, well-funded, and don’t want 50 acres of waterfront used for a ballpark. Melvin Mackay, President of Longshore Workers Union Local 10 told a Bay Area television news station on Monday, “This yard is a maritime yard, it’s for maritime use only.”
The A’s could always build a new stadium in their current site. Except, if the plot off I-880 were any darned good the Raiders and Warriors wouldn’t be abandoning it. It’s not a mixed use area.
Monday was an important development. It was traction. But where is this going, really?
Also, Tampa has stopped pretending. It has no solution.
MLB needs to take a proactive role here with both cities. Solve the issues. Either keep the teams in Oakland and Tampa or get on with moving them to more lucrative opportunities. But what baseball can’t afford is the damage caused by ongoing indecision.
Baseball is in trouble.
That’s the big fallacy isn’t it?
Baseball in 2018 reported record revenue — $10.3 billion. Attendance figures slipped by four percent, but owners will tell you business is good. The increase marked the 16th consecutive year that baseball’s revenues broke the previous year’s record. And the attendance slip was attributed by most to bad weather and changes in how a couple of franchises counted tickets sold.
The messaging around MLB should be about success, fortune and growth. The league has some generational players and wonderful stories. These things should be Manfred’s legacy. Yet, ongoing, never-ending, played-out stadium problems in Oakland and Tampa give the world the perception that the sport is dying.
Meanwhile, Portland is dying, too — dying to build a stadium and wrap its arms around a team.
That won’t last forever.