Baseball town

Although it sounds corny and clichéd, it’s true: If you build it, they will come. I have no doubts.

Within a couple of months, the city of Reno will decide whether to build a new ballpark and lure either a Single-A or a Triple-A team to the biggest little city. The price tag, some of which will be taxpayer financed, will be steep for either—$21.4 million for a Single-A park, the more likely scenario at this point, or $34.2 million for a Triple-A stadium. The topic has received a lot of attention lately, including a mammoth piece in the Aug. 21 issue of the Reno Gazette-Journal by veteran reporter Steve Sneddon.

In his piece, Sneddon quoted numerous community leaders (he says he conducted some three dozen interviews for the story), many of whom seemed skeptical about whether Reno’s citizens would come out to support a minor league baseball team.

I was surprised at the level of skepticism out there. Apparently, these skeptics forget that Reno has a long, successful history of baseball, and that several primary obstacles—none of which had to do with doubts about fan support—forced the last two teams to leave town.

The first team to leave, in 1992, was the Silver Sox, which had been around in some form or another since 1947 (minus the years 1952-54 and 1965). The team bolted Reno for Riverside, Calif., not because of a lack of fan support—the team drew 105,346 fans in 1992, which was the second-highest total ever and was nowhere near the bottom of California League standards at the time—but largely because of disputes with the city’s management.

The ownership was steaming over what it perceived as shoddy treatment by the city—for example, the decision to build a fire station in the Moana Stadium parking lot without consulting the team first—and the fact that Moana Stadium, to put it bluntly, was decrepit by minor league baseball standards. (I went to many a game when the Silver Sox were in town, and it was always fun to analyze the scoreboard, which was missing so many light bulbs that simple numbers looked like hieroglyphics.) When the ownership was offered a sweetheart deal by the Riverside folks, the Silver Sox were gone.

Then, in 1996, the Reno Chukars came to town. Unlike the Silver Sox, which belonged to a league affiliated with the majors, the Chukars belonged to the independent Western Baseball League (meaning the players coming to town were, with a few exceptions, not really going anywhere). This lasted for four years—the team was known as the BlackJacks in 1999—before the team left for Marysville, Calif.

Why did the BlackJacks leave? Well, for one thing, the owners did little to attract local interest. And while it is true that the BlackJacks in 1999 had the lowest average attendance in the six-team Western Baseball League, it was also true that the other five teams were all playing in new or recently remodeled stadiums. The Blackjacks played in Moana, which remained, well, decrepit.

Reno is not necessarily a fair-weather sports town—in 1988, the Silver Sox drew 85,624 fans, its fourth-highest total ever, despite a professional baseball worst record of 39 wins and 103 losses. Also, Reno is not a bad sports town. If it were, baseball would not have lasted here for the better part of 50 years. And there is no reason to believe that a brand spanking new stadium on the banks of the Truckee River near the National Automobile Museum wouldn’t pack ’em in, just like brand new stadiums across the country have done.

If they build the stadium, the fans will come, be it a Triple-A or a Single-A ballpark. History says so.