Play ball

The Sierra Nevada Baseball group wants to bring a Triple-A ball club to northern Nevada. It’s slated to be built near the Sparks Marina, but is that really the best location?

Illustration By David Jayne

Pat Cashill can pass his passion to anyone within earshot when he talks about baseball. He’s not talking about the modern-day big-leagues professional baseball with million-dollar salaries, seventh-grade attitudes and steroid-pumped muscles. He’s talking about the kind of baseball that seems somehow quaint these days. That kind of baseball hasn’t existed in northern Nevada since 1999, when the BlackJacks left for Marysville, Calif. Some would say it’s been gone a lot longer than that.

The lawyer is seated at a little table in the front of Newman’s Deli, clasping a cup of black coffee in a blue cup, but it’s apparent that in his mind’s eye he’s on the bleachers at Moana Stadium two miles away with a hot dog and a soda. His top coat and impeccable suit seem almost at odds with the stories he’s telling. He should be wearing short pants and a cap.

Cashill tells great baseball stories about when Reno’s best known ball club, the Silver Sox, was at its height. He gives life to that old story about the manager who got thrown out of the game and climbed a light pole outside the stadium in order to continue giving signals to the team and the one about the pitcher suspected by the ump of throwing spitballs, so he rolled the ball to the umpire when it was demanded of him. As his blue eyes flash with humor, he tells how his family once broke bread with baseball’s fiercest player, Ty Cobb.

Cashill is plainly excited about the possibility of top-end, minor-league baseball returning to the Truckee Meadows in the near future—perhaps to a spot near the Sparks Marina.

The 10,000-seat stadium, by all estimates, will be spectacular. It is to be designed by the same group, H.O.K. Architects, that designed Pac Bell, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Olympic Stadium in Sydney and 50 minor-league ballparks. Nobody knows exactly how much the stadium will cost, since the architects haven’t started on a design because a 2 percent rental-car tax wasn’t finalized by the county until Jan. 13, but it is expected to be about $25.5 million just for construction. That price doesn’t include infrastructure, land or parking.

Sierra Nevada Baseball is the group that hopes to buy a Triple-A franchise in the Pacific Coast League, which includes teams in Sacramento, Las Vegas, Fresno, Tucson, Portland and Albuquerque.

Even most of the money seems to be in line. Washoe County Commissioners agreed to sell some $35 million in bonds to finance the stadium and other expenses, like debt reserve. Those bonds would be paid back with money generated by a variety of resources, including around $18 million from the rental-car tax, $6.3 million rent from the team, an extra $1 per ticket from users of the stadium, a bit of redevelopment tax increment back from Sparks and other sources. Some sources say privately that as much as $4 million remains to be figured out, but in the bigger picture of community improvements, $4 million doesn’t seem like a hell of a lot. None of these numbers include the “north of $10 million and south of $15 million” that a Triple-A Pacific Coast League franchise costs these days. Still, baseball is, as they say, a game of inches.

So Cashill has reason to be excited. He’s a baseball fan. Just a fan. He wasn’t involved in the political machinations going back as far as four years ago to bring minor-league ball back to Reno. He wasn’t involved in Sen. William Raggio’s negotiations that got the rental-car tax legislation slipped through the contentious Nevada Legislature last year. He’s not involved in Sierra Nevada Baseball, the group that seems poised on succeeding—where so many individuals have failed—to bring pro ball back to town.

There’s a dark cloud hanging over his excitement, though, like a wet front appearing on the horizon to dampen the playoffs. He remembers what happened the last time a baseball stadium was built on the outskirts of town, or at least he saw the results. That was Moana Stadium, and while baseball saw many years of success and packed stadiums, he doesn’t believe it was as successful as it could have been. In fact, if it had been built closer to the center of town, with easier access, professional baseball may never have left the region in the first place.

“The park, Moana Stadium, was too far removed,” he said. “A lot of the baseball folks, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, wanted the ballpark built at Threlkel Field. It was right off Fourth Street, right where Wells Cargo is. It was perfect. It was right between Reno and Sparks, and there was an existing ballpark there. This is the heart of the two towns. That’s the place that’ll draw the most people. That never came to pass, and ultimately the Silver Sox faded as an organization.”

Photo By David Robert

Outta the park
Cashill’s argument makes sense. Many folks who aren’t baseball fans but are fans of financial stability will say the cities of Reno and Sparks are dropping the ball by not placing the stadium at some point along Fourth Street between the two cities. Do you want 60,000 people living within five miles of the stadium, or do you want closer to 200,000? In a recent feasibility study, a population of 758,000 was reported within 75 miles, so maybe it doesn’t matter who can walk to the ballpark.

The issue basically boils down to this: Reno, Sparks, Fourth Street and Prater Way have all struggled with redevelopment for years. Across the country, baseball stadiums have become the linchpins in successful redevelopment efforts. If the stadium were built on the border of the cities, it could become the centerpiece diamond on a string of jewels that has downtown Reno at one end and the Sparks Marina at the other.

There’s another piece to the controversy that hasn’t been talked about. If the stadium goes onto property east of the Sparks Marina, it may create another nexus of business traffic on the outskirts of town, creating further sprawl, more automobile traffic and perhaps even shutting out redevelopment efforts elsewhere—sort of like Meadowood Mall did 25 years ago.

There’s a reason few people are talking about the possible negative impacts on the neighborhood and the region or even about why the stadium’s being built near the marina: They don’t feel it’s their business. Reno government failed to maintain or support Moana Stadium’s teams for many years, and Sparks government never made aggressive overtures to bring baseball to the city, so a group of private investors took the ball and ran with it. It ain’t about government at this point.

Privately, officials will say there are other reasons the cities did not wholeheartedly embrace the stadium idea. For one, since the rental-car tax is basically a tax on tourists, local voters would be little affected, so politicians didn’t get involved. Second, the deal between Sierra Nevada Baseball and the Triple-A Pacific Coast League seems too secretive; for example, the identity of the potential team has not been announced. Third, the motives of the principals of Sierra Nevada Baseball seem a little suspect: What’s in it for them? There are few groups that would invest thousands of hours of time and risk millions of dollars out of the goodness of their hearts and for the love of baseball.

Finally, there’s no guarantee of success. Reno-Sparks would be the smallest Triple-A market, although the lack of other professional sports should mitigate this factor. Still, an average attendance of 4,500 seems like a lot of people, and that’s what it’s going to take to make the bottom line.

The real reason the governments didn’t offer more may be somewhat more prosaic. Reno is already putting hundreds of millions of dollars into a train trench and smaller redevelopment efforts, such as the downtown events center. Sparks is having trouble providing basic services to its citizens. Bottom line: Everybody’s broke, and it’s hard to plan for fire hydrants when the kitchen is burning. When private industry comes along with a bucket, nobody is going to ask where the water came from.

Bases loaded
Bruce Breslow, former mayor of Sparks and spokesman for Sierra Nevada Baseball, says if there had been a different administration in Reno two and a half years ago, when SNB began looking for a site, things may have turned out differently—not that anything is a “done deal” at this point.

“I don’t think Reno had the financial means nor the political will prior to this new administration,” he says from his home as he prepares to head out to physical therapy on his knee, which he recently had reconstructed. “When we were looking at all the sites, we never heard from Jeff Griffin, but Bob Cashell has been very supportive.”

Cashell, for his part, said the stadium wasn’t what Reno needed.

“When I ran for office, and they were talking about spending millions of dollars on a baseball stadium, I just thought there were too many things we needed to do on the river and in our downtown and with our parks, and I thought, ‘We need to come up with something better than this.'”

Reno began a feasibility study in 2000 that looked at six sites, but after the election it seems the appetite for minor-league ball was lost.

Pat Cashill shows off one of his fondest possessions, a baseball bat Ty Cobb mailed to his family after dining at their home.

Photo By David Robert

Cashell’s sentiments were echoed by several folks on the council, including Toni Harsh and David Aiazzi. They said another big reason for not starting a bidding war with Sparks over the location of the stadium was, basically, not to further fan the flames of ill will between the two cities.

“We were concerned about good city relations,” said Harsh. Harsh is the niece of Baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel, and her family is widely known in the area as a “baseball family.” “I think that’s as simple as it gets. We have spent a lot of time building our relationship with Sparks.”

Sparks may also have had an in, simply because two former Sparks politicians belong to the group seeking to bring back baseball.

Sierra Nevada Baseball is made up of such local luminaries as Phil Zive, former Sparks councilman and managing partner; Breslow, marketing and public relations director; Jim Davenport, stadium project manager and assistant managing partner; Garrett Sutton, corporate and securities counsel; and Steve Hamilton, franchise and stadium committee chairman. The committees include such folks as Joe Crowley, former UNR president, Steven High, executive director of the Nevada Museum of Art, and Dan Gustin, advertising agency owner.

Breslow said the group explored several places to put the stadium, but none captured the public’s imagination the way the location at the marina did. SNB even held an online poll for a location, and it had a clear winner, the marina.

Breslow is dismissive of the notion that the group is bringing professional ball back to northern Nevada for self-enrichment. He freely admits that, yes, members of the group own property where the stadium is slated to be built, but he doesn’t think there’s enough property to earn anyone a whole lot of money.

“It wasn’t a get-rich deal,” he said. “It was a ‘have to get the land’ deal, assuming that when the bonds were sold they’d be paid back for the land. However, the county and the city of Sparks felt that the bonds should only go for construction, so now Sierra Nevada Baseball has to raise funds, among whatever investors we’re going to have, to pay for the parking.”

Breslow said it would be difficult to get much money for land that has a stadium on it.

“We didn’t buy any land for development around the stadium,” he said. “There may be an extra five acres somewhere that they won’t need, but they don’t know what the parking requirements are going to be.”

Washoe County Assessor records seem to support the notion that the group owns enough land along East Lincoln Way and Marina Gateway Drive to build a stadium—as much as 27.8 acres.

Marina Properties II LLC and Marina Properties LLC, which own the acreage, share some membership with SNB. Marina Properties II’s corporate entry on the Nevada secretary of state’s page lists three managers: Clarence A. Jones, James R. Davenport and J. Warner Griswold. Jones, who was the driving force behind the effort to bring Triple-A ball back to town, died in October. Davenport, as mentioned, is SNB’s stadium project manager and assistant managing partner.

The land ownership may turn out to be crucial. As point of comparison, Raley Field, which hosts Sacramento’s Triple-A team, the River Cats, is 16 acres, not including the acreage required for 3,500 parking spots, at about 100 spots per acre. The SNB park will need about 2,500. Still, there’s a big, fat, 80-acre plot to the south, currently held by Robert Blume, who owns the rundown outlet mall on Sparks Boulevard.

In the 1930s and 1940s, this spot, which is now occupied by Wells Cargo, had Threlkel baseball field on it.

Photo By David Robert

Sparks Mayor Tony Armstrong said the city is working a deal with an undisclosed group to develop those 80 acres. If an agreement can be reached between this developer and Sierra Nevada Baseball for shared parking, it could be a slam dunk—rather, a grand slam—for both groups.

“I can’t disclose who they are, but they’re looking at this, and they’re dealing with Bob Blume,” he said. “We’re trying to help them with their financial package.”

Dahl said he’d sold the property in two parcels. He was unsure of exactly where on the property the stadium would be.

“You’ll have to ask the baseball guys,” he said.

Even now, with so many players in motion, Breslow says the project’s success is poised on a pinpoint. The county’s decision not to allow bond money to pay for parking or land has made the margin of financial error very thin. In order to be successful, the deal depends on very low cost or free land—or a big influx of new investors.

“If somebody comes up to us and offers us free land and parking in a place that the public would have good access, absolutely we’d look at it,” he said.

But since the ball is rolling, that offer would have to come within weeks—maybe even days—before it would be too late.

Rhubarb on the mound
For the largest part, members of the community have taken a wait-and-see attitude, but one man, Gary Schmidt, longtime owner of the Reindeer Lodge and recent addition to Washoe County’s Board of Equalization, has said the area isn’t only making an error by placing the stadium at the marina, it could also be sacrificing the redevelopment game for the entire region.

“When you are talking about a project that will use more than $30 million of county tax dollars, and when you are talking about a project that will draw people from all of northern Nevada, it’s a regional issue,” Schmidt said. “The region should place it, and we should place it in the most appropriate place for the entire region. Near Fourth Street is the ideal location. There are several spots near Fourth Street or Prater Way with great freeway access and visibility.”

He mentions properties such as the Governor’s Bowl sport center, the government property on Galletti Way, the El Rancho Drive-in and its surrounding trailer parks and several other spots. He says if the stadium goes on Fourth Street or Prater Way, it should be wholeheartedly supported by Regional Planning, but if it goes near the marina, it should be stopped.

“Redevelopment’s success could be guaranteed—if the stadium goes to Old Highway 40. It could be end of story, school’s out, for redevelopment on Fourth Street. That would be it. If it mirrors other Triple-A ballparks built in the West, Fourth Street will redevelop and renovate. Once it’s up and running, redevelopment will reach all the way up to downtown Reno and all the way down to downtown Sparks.”

Schmidt has a final argument against placing the stadium at the marina. He says turning that area from one that is basically open to the public, as with the Don Mello Sport Complex just across the undeveloped desert, to an area with a commercial base contradicts Sparks’ planning.

Gary Schmidt supports building a ballfield, just not at the Sparks Marina. He’s pictured here in front of Reno’s old ballpark, Moana Stadium.

Photo By David Robert

“It’s in total violation of Sparks’ own Marina District plan,” he said. “Their own Marina District plan states that development should enhance housing. This isn’t going to enhance housing; you can’t put housing in a ballpark.”

Pacific Coast League President Branch Rickey said there’s more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to building baseball stadiums. While he prefers stadiums built in urban renewal situations—the results are “surprising” to people who haven’t seen them before—projects built in undeveloped areas can work, too.

“There are two ways to approach it,” Rickey said. “If there is a set of circumstances in close proximity to downtown, to a corridor that is ripe for redevelopment, then a baseball park has a very valuable potential as that element that can bring renewal to a revitalization project.

“However, you can do that project elsewhere and have a very successful baseball franchise and surround with development that is projected to occur. …That’s what we’re looking at here.”

Did Reno balk?
All apologies to Pete Rose, but was a bet missed by downtown Reno, downtown Sparks and Fourth Street redevelopment districts?

The city of Sparks didn’t have to put a whole lot of money into the possible stadium project. While the city claimed it would pay to complete East Lincoln Way—thus saving SNB a few million in infrastructure costs—the 1,500 feet of Lincoln Way construction was already on the Regional Transportation Commission’s plan for completion.

“The Lincoln Way extension is part our Regional Road Impact Fee program, which is a 10-year list of projects,” said Jack Lorbeer, acting planning director for the RTC. “In theory, we would hope to get that extension done without any accelerants, such as this ball field, within the next 10 years.”

Since it’s in the Regional Road Impact Fee program, if a development company came in and built the road, it would not necessarily have to pay fees: It could build the road in lieu of paying fees to the RTC. Lorbeer says no agreement has been struck.

The bottom line, though, is Sparks isn’t going to have to pay for the road construction.

In fact, the biggest chunk of change Sparks has pledged to the project is from the tax rebate package, which could work out to $3.5 million over 20 years. But that money doesn’t come out of Sparks taxpayers’ pockets. The money doesn’t exist now, and it will only exist if the stadium is built—since it’s generated by the stadium’s property tax—the city may get a Washoe County taxpayer-owned $35 million amenity at little cost to itself.

Washoe County Commissioner Jim Shaw is unconcerned about the possibility that a different location for the stadium would be better for the region.

“Regardless of where we have it, it’s going to be a big asset to our community,” he said. “If people come to a ballpark built in Sparks, I’m sure they’ll visit a restaurant or casino or hotel or a gas station in Reno as well as in Sparks. Still, I’m kind of partial because I live in Sparks, and I represent Sparks. I think it’s a real addition to what’s planned out there.”

Commissioner Jim Galloway, who represents part of Reno and Incline Village, is also sanguine about the future of the ball stadium. At least there are safeguards in place so that, if it fails, it will have little impact on local citizens or Washoe County’s expenses.

“In the general context of projects, we’re talking a $35 million bond issue,” he said. “It is not a $380 million to $400 million trench. It is not a $100 million second convention center. In the grander scale of things, looking at the other money that is being spent around here, this is not the biggest chunk of money, by far.”

In the meantime, fans like Pat Cashill will look forward to the possibility of an opening-day professional baseball game in 2006, barely 26 months away. Until then, though, he’ll fondle the bat Ty Cobb gave his father after that memorable dinner all those years ago, reminiscing about the sound of the ball in the glove and the roar of the fans, continuing to tell those great stories about when northern Nevada had minor-league baseball at Moana Stadium.

“This is a good baseball town," he says. "People are hardened baseball fans, and this is not an easy place to be a baseball fan—especially in the spring. But, still, there are serious baseball people in this town, and we produce serious baseball players. I think there’s a real community interest in seeing a stadium built."