The heart of Millennium summer, mid-July of the year 2000. Politicians slither across the land, hunting the first 21st century presidency. The skeleton of the International Space Station takes shape beyond the stratosphere. And Missoula baseball fans couldn't care less.
Down on earth, they revel in a scene right out of mythical good old days. Floodlights blare down on a diamond by the Clark Fork River. Most of the 2,000 or so fans in the spitshined park sport T-shirts and shorts in cooling evening air. The smell of the river rolls over the outfield, and beyond the first base line lie seldom used train tracks.
In the midst of all this pastoral preciousness, actor Bill Murray's Butte Copper Kings cling to a one-run lead in the 7th inning. In a jam with men on first and third and only one out, the home team's gone to its ace middle reliever, one of the hottest prospects in the Arizona Diamondbacks' farm system.
Four pitches later, the rangy kid who'll probably throw for the El Paso Diablos next spring forces Butte's clean-up man into a double-play. The promise of a late rally to cap a perfect night for baseball puts a buzz in the crowd, and everyone jumps up for the traditional seventh-inning stretch.
This is a succulent fantasy for baseball fans, an imaginary night at a ballpark yet to be built. For the Garden City, the scenario holds a precarious promise, one that supporters say would enliven civic life and provide a potential base for development. Doubters-even those who enjoy a good game-counter that the problems inherent in bringing a big league affiliate to town may not be worth the risk.
For a committee of local business people and fans behind the effort, the dream of a diamond on the banks of the Clark Fork River drives a very real effort to built a $5-million stadium and lure a minor league team to Missoula.
This week, as a major league season some are calling the greatest ever climaxes in its October championship rites, the committee hopes to announce that it's raised $700,000, enough money to entice a team in the Pioneer League-likely the Lethbridge, Alberta Black Diamonds-to move to Missoula.
While baseball backers won't say much on the subject, Lethbridge is the Diamondbacks' only Pioneer League affiliate, and the Diamondbacks' interest in putting a team in Missoula has been a centerpiece of the campaign.
The plan to bring minor league ball to town would culminate in the advent of a gorgeous full-sized stadium in the heart of the city by the year 2000. If the steering committee raises $2.5 million in private and corporate donations, and secures at least another $500,000 from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency-the only public money called for-the Garden City could hold contests in a stadium built to the exact dimensions of the Diamondbacks' field down in Phoenix.
The rest of the $5 million would come from the team's owners, the value of donated property and bank financing. With a mere 10 percent of the price-tag to be paid out of public pockets, Missoula's drive doesn't look much like stadium controversies roiling cities around the country-on the surface at least. While plutocratic owners from San Francisco to New York extort tax dollars for skybox-ridden superstadiums, the local committee seems dedicated to building an accessible ballpark.
For one season only, Missoula's Pioneer League team would play the American Legion's Lindborg-Cregg Field off Spurgin Road, home to the Missoula Mavericks high school ballclub. At the same time, according to committee members, the 3,500-seat stadium would kick-start development on 500 acres of isolated, abandoned industrial land now owned by Champion International, timberlords-turned-donors of the proposed stadium site.
Thirty-eight years after the Missoula Timberjacks vanished, seven years after voters resoundingly refused to pay for a park, the committee says, Missoula has a no-lose chance to revive the game and fill a hole in the cityscape-mostly on the private sector's dime.
While they may like baseball, the doubters contend that they don't want public money spent on a stadium. These naysayers don't buy into hopes the stadium will drive development in the neighborhood, and suggest that issues like the need for affordable housing would be worthier objects of all this civic-minded energy.
At least a few baseball fans are wondering, as well, whether the project might not harbor a few hidden public costs-and about what may happen 10 years on if the new team decides to go elsewhere.
"I don't think we should put a penny of public money into the ballpark," says City Councilman Jim McGrath. "It's public money and it's to be used for public purposes.
"The redevelopment of the Champion land is supposed to be the subject of a public, community discussion. They're ahead of the public process. They should wait until there's a community consensus about what to do with that land.
"A ball field may or may not fit into that vision."
Stepping up to the plate
Wey Symmes is a baseball fan-that much is obvious when you walk into his office at First Security Bank.
The 1976 Cincinnati Reds, grouped together for a portrait at the height of the world-beating Big Red Machine era, stare from one wall-Bench and Rose, Morgan and Foster are all there. Right above the framed team poster hangs a painting of the stadium Symmes wants to help build by the Clark Fork, resplendent in the colors of a Missoula sunset.
The painting comes from the Heery architecture firm, a San Francisco outfit specializing in ballparks, and it's enough to set a baseball fan drooling. The park-called simply Missoula Stadium for now, until a big-ticket donor can be found to honor-is depicted from just beyond the right field fence, about three-quarters full, glistening under the lights.
"If you're a baseball junkie, like so many of us are, it doesn't get any better," Symmes says. "You just get a special feeling from sitting in a ballpark. That's all it takes."
If Symmes is a junkie-he reminisces fondly about the 1966 World Series between two favorite teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles-he also has his eye on the supply end of the addiction. Along with fellow First Security vice president Hal Fraser, Symmes chairs the committee working to get a team for Missoula.
That's where the memorabilia comes in. There's an autographed bat commorating the same Reds team, and a Pete Rose game jersey still grimy from one of the tarnished hero's trademark head-first slides. The yellowing relic of the game's greatest hitter sets off the brilliant white, new Arizona Diamondbacks shirt it hangs beside.
If the Reds paraphenalia, provided by Keith Peterson, team physician for the Seattle Mariners and member of the steering committee, call up the past, the Diamondbacks shirt and fantastic painting testify to the future. All are meant to impress potential donors to Symmes' project.
To hear Symmes tell it, there are many reasons why the time for baseball in Missoula has come, not the least of which is the renaissance enjoyed by the minor leagues in the last 10 years.
The National Assocation of Professional Baseball Leagues, the superstructure for clubs affiliated with the majors, reports that this summer 35,427,012 fans clicked turnstiles to fill minor league stands-the most in 49 years. That figure doesn't count the half-dozen or so leagues not linked to big clubs; the Northern League, the largest such circuit, drew over a million fans in 1998.
The Pioneer League, which has four of its eight teams in Montana, drew 469,638 fans this season, paced by Utah's Ogden Raptors and the venerable Billings Mustangs.
Symmes says the campaign's going well. "There's a misnomer about Missoula, that it's not a baseball town because people don't support [high school] American Legion ball the way they would probably like to be supported," he says. "But it's not that we don't support baseball, it's just that it's hard for people to stay involved with Legion after their kids are done with the program. That's natural.
"It's in the dream stage now, and it sometimes can be pretty easy to discount a dream. But Missoula's a special place. People are stepping to the plate, so to speak."
The '99 season, when Symmes hopes a team will play at the high school field, would be the first of a 10-year committment on the part of the minor-league franchise; major-league clubs sign player-development contracts with farm teams for up to four years. Meanwhile, the new stadium would take shape west of McCormick Park.
The ballpark would be owned by a private, non-profit corporation; currently, the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation holds the land.
Tickets to the new ballpark would be cheap-Symmes estimates $6 would get you a seat behind homeplate. The Pioneer League team would play at least 38 games a season in its new digs, and Symmes suggests that concerts, soccer games and even the Farmers Market might find a home there in the off-season.
The players would mostly be fresh out of college ball, classified Advanced Rookie by their big-league club. They'd make very little money, and probably only stay a season before moving up or going home, depending on their performance.
"What this provides is the chance to see pro ball," Symmes says. "At the same time, these young men would be part of the community. They'd be living two to a house around town."
It's all part of Symmes vision of a ballclub inextricably linked with its city. The stadium's parking lot would accomodate the legal minimum of 450 cars, making its position at a confluence of walking and bike trails crucial. Symmes says fans would show up on foot, on bike and by bus.
If the plan has a down-home feel, it's likely because Symmes emphasizes its broad, grassroots backing and pure motives.
"There's no gain in this for anyone," he says, "beyond the fact that this will be a linchpin in the development of that whole neighborhood."
Bringing the serious heat
The chance to build something on the 500 acres of land Champion owns but doesn't use draws the interest of the MRA, an agency charged with stoking downtown development. While Symmes and steering committee member Geoff Badenoch of the MRA emphasize that the money's already there, the prospect of spending taxpayer dollars on the park ticks some people off.
Councilman McGrath says ballpark backers are trying to keep public input at bay until the last minute, when they'll be able to present the relocation of a Pioneer League team and the construction of a park as a done deal. That, he says, undermines the sometimes-tortured planning process Missoula's focused on for years.
"If you want to have a good conversation in Missoula, stop anyone on the street and ask what should be done with that Champion land," he says. "It's interesting that we can get a parcel of land donated for a stadium, but not for affordable housing or some other project."
McGrath adds that, done deal or not, the stadium committee will eventually have to ask the council to approve use of MRA funds. Mayor Mike Kadas has voiced support for the ballpark.
Symmes counters that the stadium fits in well with urban planning objectives McGrath has supported, namely filling in the city's core and providing incentives for alternative transportation. As for affordable housing, Symmes says there's plenty of room in the area for citizens as well as ballplayers.
"There'd be nothing better, from our point of view, than to have some residential housing in that area," he says.
Economist Larry Swanson, who works alongside committee member and ex-Congressman Pat Williams at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, says the value of a city-center stadium as a social focal point is hard to overstate. "The people trying to make this happen are looking at the benefits of having minor league ball as part of the community, on the one hand, and second-and this wouldn't be happening if this weren't the case-using this as a tool for urban redevelopment," he says.
But Bryan DiSalvatore, a Missoula writer and retired softball guru, has his doubts. DiSalvatore was a vocal opponent of the 1991 bond issue that would have hit city taxpayers with the tab for a ballpark and, having invested years researching a forthcoming book on baseball history, has a thing or two to say about the present project.
"I think this is a good thing," he says. "I will be there watching baseball. But what we have here right now is a love feast. Someone has to wash the dishes. Because baseball occupies an irrationally fond place in our hearts, it's easy to forget it's a business."
DiSalvatore says that, no matter how easy procuring a team looks, the private business of running a ballclub will one day intrude on public politics.
"I will say it's inevitable," the writer proclaims. "I will bet 10,000 beers that somewhere down the line, demands will be made."
Those demands, he says, could come in the form of stadium improvements, new roads, extra police on game days, as well as traffic signs and signals to ensure traffic safety around the park. Cities around the country, he warns, have found themselves faced with a stark choice: pay such hidden costs or lose the team.
"The history of baseball for the last 130 years has been a story of owners manipulating teams. If Lethbridge or somewhere else can get kicked in the ass, we can too."
It's going, going...
Stadium backers have answers and assurances ready. The doubts persist, though, seemingly fueled by a conviction that baseball-a pastime well-known for breaking hearts-comes with a cost, no matter how painless it may seem.
You don't need to tell that to fans up in Lethbridge, the town that looks most likely to lose its team, the Black Diamonds, to Missoula. When Symmes and I sit down for an interview in early October, he says he'd rather not comment on which Pioneer League team the committee has its eye on.
If the Diamondbacks jersey hanging on Symmes' wall isn't enough of a tip-off, though, there's the fact that the Heery-designed ballpark is to be built to the exact dimensions of Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix, where the first-year expansion club plies its trade. From the day when the new ballpark effort was first reported in the Missoulian, the Arizona Diamondbacks' desire to put a team in Missoula has played a prominent role in the campaign. Mike Ellis, owner of the Black Diamonds, didn't return phone calls for this article. Tommy Jones, Arizona's director of minor league operations, is reticent on the specifics of relocating a team. Jones does say, though, that the D-backs like Missoula.
"We've been to Missoula, we've seen the location and we're excited about the prospects of this current effort," he says. "We signed a player-development agreement with Mike Ellis. He is basically in charge of this situation, and we're committed to him and his people.
"Wherever he ends up, we'll be there."
The reluctance of Symmes and others to discuss the Black Diamonds' possible move is understandable; after all, the loss of any team inflicts a visceral trauma on sports fans. That was true when Walter O'Malley moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to La-La Land, and it's true now, even in small cities like Lethbridge.
Fans in the Canadian farm town-a prairie settlement roughly the size of Missoula-wax eloquent over their small ballpark and their affection for the team, but acknowledge that poor attendance over the last few years has made a move possible, even inevitable.
"If you put something together, I can't see them not leaving," says Baden Pilling, a Lethbridge insurance salesman. "The owners are American citizens, the parent team is an American club and we're always dealing in American money anyway. There are just so many factors."
Indeed, Lethbridge was near the bottom Pioneer League's attendance table this season, averaging 1,079 fans a game at Henderson Field, which seats 2,750. According to Reno Lizzi, a fan who served as president of the city's previous minor-league clubs in the '70s and '80s, that's just not enough.
"When you're talking about a community of 70,000 people and you're drawing 1,100 a game, well, I look at Calgary where they have 800,000 or so, and that team draws 4,000 or 5,000 a game. Eleven hundred here doesn't seem so bad," Lizzi says. "But Mike needs that extra 200 to 300."
Lizzi, Pilling and others in Lethbridge speak nothing but praise for Ellis and hold out hope that, even if the Black Diamonds leave, their city won't be permanently jilted. There's talk, they say, that the Medicine Hat Blue Jays will head for Lethbridge, enticed by one of the nicer parks in the Pioneer League.
"There have been rumblings already that the Blue Jays will come here," Lizzi says. "I would hate to lose it again. I cried a few tears when the Dodgers packed up for Great Falls, I'll tell you that."
Sad indeed, but the movement of teams in search of more lucrative markets is, in fact, as old as the pro game. In the minds of those pushing for a Missoula stadium, there's little question that a ballclub headquartered in a vital downtown can survive and thrive, quickly becoming a crucial civic amenity.
"The real benefit to having a baseball park is not economic gain and not tax revenues," says the MRA's Badenoch. "Anyone in pro sports who says that's the case is lying. What it gives us is entertainment you can feel good about taking your family to."
Swanson adds: "You could take this ballpark and put it on the edge of town, and it wouldn't do the community nearly as much good as it will here. It's such an ideal match, with St. Patrick Hospital right across the river and the planned retail, commercial center on the Fox Theatre site."
The criticisms of McGrath, DiSalvatore and others are worth noting, as is the experience of Lethbridge fans left in the lurch by their team's potential departure. Still, with the turn of the century at hand, the sport that was America's first love has plenty of adherents in Missoula.
"My love for baseball is driving this, along with the fact that I'm convinced that this would be a great enhancement for the community," Symmes says. "I'd rather go to a minor league game than a major league game any day."
This artist's rendering shows what the 3,500-seat Missoula Stadium would look like on completion. Boosters say the venue could host not just a minor league team, but a variety of civic events.
Courtesy Missoula Area Economic Development Corp./Heery
Developer and baseball fanatic Wey Symmes has been busy building support for the $5 million Missoula Stadium.
Photo by Loren Moulton
Buck Showalter, #11, manages the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose farm team could end up in Missoula.