Digging For Home 

Groundbreaking marks the end of a tumultuous four years for Play Ball Missoula

When the jagged maw of an excavator took a ravenous bite out of the scabbed earth in the vacant lot just west of McCormick Park Monday afternoon, it represented more than a mere physical beginning to a project that will, with a little luck, serve as the home field for the Missoula Osprey in June of 2002 and beyond. Though the legal wrangling surrounding the project ceased to be a factor some months ago, the constant controversy that has dogged this riverside location—now in its fourth embryonic year—resulted in a confused environment that had many wondering when—or even if—the ballpark would ever see the light of day.With the smell of freshly turned dirt in their nostrils as evidence of a long-held dream now realized, however, Play Ball Missoula members Mike Flaherty, Joe Easton and Wes Spiker were of no mind to reflect on the past, at least not at this moment. “Looks like we’re going to have a ballpark, Matt!” Spiker bellowed to Matt Ellis, the general manager of the Osprey, over the din of the heavy machinery. “Congratulations,” Ellis responded, “You guys deserve this!” The story dates back to November of 1998, when Play Ball, a non-profit organization created to shepherd into existence a permanent home for the Missoula-bound Pioneer League team from Lethbridge, Alberta, held the first of many public meetings on potential sites for the stadium. Play Ball, in part because of the work done in 1991 by a committee under then-mayor Dan Kemmis, determined the five-acre parcel of land west of McCormick Park (donated by Champion International to Play Ball, who in turn gave it to the city) to be the most suitable spot to plant a ballpark. Facing stiff opposition from neighborhood activists and an inability to secure a much-needed adjoining chunk of land from the Idaho Timber Company, Play Ball floated the idea of building the stadium within McCormick Park itself, supplanting its existing softball fields. Even though they offered to build eight new softball fields at a different location, that proposal went over like a lead balloon with the Missoula Softball Association, and the neighbors remained decidedly unhappy. Potential sites at the University of Montana’s Dornblaser Field, and another one out by the airport followed, but the Champion site continued to hold sway for Play Ball. In a show of support for the original location, the city began the laborious process of acquiring the land needed for the parking lot next to the Champion land, and may even resort to a condemnation proceeding. Everything seemed a go for the site—including an 11-1 vote in favor by the City Council—until neighborhood activists formed Fair Play Missoula, a non-profit geared to stop the park from being built on the river. Fair Play filed suit against the city and Play Ball, alleging that the stadium agreement between the two entities had circumvented proper procedure. That lawsuit was dismissed outright by Missoula District Court Judge John Larson in September 2000, and shortly afterwards Fair Play appealed to the state Supreme Court. That appeal is pending, but in June the Court announced that it would not hear new arguments in the case, relying instead on briefs from the District Court proceedings—a ruling that likely means Judge Larson’s decision will stand. Along the way, Fair Play successfully petitioned a citywide referendum on the $1 million in Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) funds slated for street, trail and parking lot work at the site. Though the referendum was worded counter-intuitively—a “yes” vote on the ballot meant “no” to funding the project—the effort failed to block the MRA funding by a nearly two-to-one margin. Show me the money With the November referendum victory and the June Supreme Court decision behind them, Play Ball was essentially cleared for takeoff on construction at the Champion site. The reason groundbreaking didn’t start until this week—a timeline that puts considerable pressure on the fragile sequence of events needed for its successful completion—is largely due to funding issues. Play Ball is responsible for raising, through private donations, the $5.5-$6.5 million (outside of the MRA funds) needed to build the Osprey dream home. Included in that cost is a targeted sum of $1.25-$1.5 million for the naming rights to the stadium, an effort that so far has gone unrealized. “We’re a cautious group,” says Play Ball board member Spiker, “and we’re talking about a huge sum of money here.” It’s a sum that Play Ball initially insisted would be wrapped up before construction began, but the inability of the Osprey to continue playing at the American Legion Lindborg-Cregg Field has turned up the heat for the Fish Hawks to have a place they call their own. (This season marks their third there; the original agreement with Major League Baseball (MLB) was for one year in the professionally sub-standard park.) As a result, Play Ball has initiated “Phase One” of the stadium construction: a slightly scaled-down version of the original stadium plans, with its primary objective to get the Osprey on their home turf in time for the 2002 season opener. Seating in the Phase One plan calls for a 2,500-seat capacity, down from the original goal of 3,500. The concession area and restrooms on the third-base side of the stadium will remain on hold for the time being. However, the Phase One plan includes everything—playing field, lights, fences, batting cages, dugouts, clubhouses, scoreboard, PA system—required by MLB for minor league ballparks. And, of course, seating for a few thousand Osprey fans, including grassy areas bordering the left- and right-field foul lines, where people can escape the confines of clustered seating and spread out blankets and lawn chairs. “Even in Phase One, this ballpark will be the best facility in the Pioneer League, with the possible exception of Ogden[Utah],” says Spiker. Because of a number of factors—fluctuating cost estimates, uncertainty about the stability of the ground beneath the site, the effect of winter weather on construction—neither the completion date nor the final cost of the project is set. Although Play Ball is “very confident” that they have the funds—through money already donated and pledges yet to be collected—to complete Phase One, the bottom line is that they won’t know for certain until the project nears completion. “Anything is possible,” admits Play Ball president Mike Flaherty, when asked about the chance of the money running out, “but the city has made it clear that public funding is not going to happen. That’s the best motivator for us to keep pressing with our fundraising operations.” Flaherty notes that the group has already factored in a 90 percent expected return rate on active pledges, as indicated by a national study, but says that the excitement generated by the start of construction should be more than enough to put both Phase One and Phase Two (the completion of the original stadium plans) on solid financial ground. “Once people see the ballpark taking shape, we expect fundraising to get a bit easier,” says Flaherty, adding that potential naming-rights sponsors are likely to be more enthusiastic as well. “Up to now, we’ve been walking backwards very quickly on eggshells.” The members of Play Ball agree that the funding questions they face are very likely the result of the stop-and-go nature of the project to date. “There’s no question in our minds that the legal challenges and all the delays have cost us a significant amount of money,” says Spiker. “If we had been able to use the momentum of the City Council’s vote and our first groundbreaking ceremony (in May 2000), we would’ve had no problem in building the stadium we planned all at once.” Movin’ on up Play Ball maintains that the park will be in playing shape by the beginning of next season, but circumstances could dictate otherwise. “We’re not going to say, ‘If it’s not done by opening day, we’re out of there,’” says Tommy Jones, director of minor league operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks, the parent club of the Osprey. “Obviously, we need that team in a new ballpark. But Play Ball has done such a tremendous job of sticking with it through all that’s happened, there’s no way we’d leave them holding the bag.” Jones says that as long as the team is in their new digs by July, the organization will be willing to work out a shortened temporary arrangement at Lindborg-Cregg, however unpleasant that may be. “We certainly appreciate the cooperation from the folks at the Legion Field,” says Jones, “but that facility is just not up to MLB’s snuff. We had people from the league look at it, and there was not one thing—playing surface, lighting, dugouts, clubhouses—that met their requirements. Heck, we had to hold our mini-camp elsewhere because of schedule conflicts with the Legion team. Our guys didn’t even see the field this year until the home opener.” Osprey General Manager Ellis has serious concerns as well about his team’s temporary home. “We’re very concerned about the safety of our players on that field,” he says, citing the poor lighting and uneven playing surface as potential pitfalls. “This has been one of the longest temporary facility uses by any team in baseball, and the league is not interested in setting that kind of precedent.” Concerns of inadequacy will not be an issue at the Missoula Civic Stadium. Design of the stadium is in the hands of Kent Bray of CTA architectural firm in Missoula, and CTA has enlisted the aid of Heery International, a firm in San Francisco experienced in designing baseball parks. Every basic necessity—from plumbing fixtures to floodlights—must meet a stringent set of requirements dictated by MLB’s 1990 Professional Baseball Agreement. But there is a degree of flexibility in many other aspects of the park, and Bray believes that, when the project is finished, the Osprey will be the envy of all Pioneer League teams. “I think it’ll be even nicer than Ogden’s park,” says Bray, of the reigning Pioneer champ in deluxe accommodations. Bray traveled to Lancaster, Calif. (where the Ellis family owns the D-Backs Class A franchise) and to Ogden to pick up ideas for the Missoula stadium. “I really liked the urban ballpark feel in Ogden,” he says. “And the Lancaster stadium really drove home the importance of open areas for families to spread out and watch the game.” The ballpark itself Two elements place will place Missoula’s Civic Stadium in a league of its own. The first is the funding structure. Ballparks that are not directly subsidized at least in part by the community where they are built are extremely uncommon. The second is that a fan walking into the park for the very first time, at ground level, could very well stub his toes on the top row of seats. The playing field at the stadium will lay 13 feet below the current ground level. The seating bowl surrounding home plate and extending out to the areas immediately above the first- and third-base foul lines will be perched on berms formed during the excavation process, guaranteeing a top-of-the-action view for all those with reserved seats. Grassy berms will be left in sections adjacent to left and right fields, where the blanket and lawn-chair crowds can spread out—and they too will watch from an elevated, intimate vantage point. A late addition to the plan is a set of bleacher seats in right field where select denizens—known informally as the “Right Field Rowdies” at Lindborg-Cregg for their decidedly spirited antics—will practically inhabit the uniform of any woe-begotten opposing right fielder. “We had to put a bleacher down there just for them,” says Ellis. “Those guys have been phenomenal for us. It’s always the same group every night. They’re passionate about the Osprey, and they’re passionate about their role in the game.” Ellis emphatically believes that his team holds one of the strongest home-field advantages in all of minor-league baseball and boasts, “Our crowds of 1,500 sound like 3,000 to 4,000.” In contrast to MLB’s strict mandates about the size of the dugouts and the number of toilets, the dimensions of the playing field itself vary widely from park to park. The Civic stadium’s park outfield wall will stand 335 feet down the left-field line, 400 feet in dead center, and a short-porch of 315 feet down the right-field line. The right-field fence will rise, mini-monster-like, 16 feet above the ground—twice as high as the rest of the fence.The reason for the short right-field line is the railroad tracks separating the park from McCormick, a minor inconvenience that will surely turn into a major boon for players and fans alike. “People will be able to judge how far a ball travels in this park, unlike Lindborg-Cregg,” says Ellis. “Railroad shots will definitely be crowd-pleasers.” But the real stuff of legends will be the Clark Fork River itself, beckoning gently some 500 feet from home plate over the left-center-field wall. As evidenced by the manic scurry for any ball hit into McCovey Cove outside the San Francisco Giants’ new Pac-Bell Stadium, a home run ball hitting a body of water evokes a sense of mythical wonder among baseball aficionados. “I don’t know if any of our guys will get a ball wet,” says Ellis with a laugh, estimating the longest home run he’s seen at Lindorg-Cregg at roughly 450 feet. “Maybe in batting practice. Only a few guys in the majors could reach that.” The original idea for the sunken field came about when it was determined that a major excavation would have to be done to test and then maximize the stability of the soil in the field, which for years served as a sawdust dumping ground at the mill site. Play Ball, which estimates it will spend $350,000 in excavation costs alone, reasoned that it didn’t make much sense to pay someone to fill the field back in so they could build on top of it. And once they started laying out the sunken-field design, they found a number of inherent benefits, such as a lower overall profile for the structure and greater sound and light containment within the park. MRA on the team Geoff Badenoch, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, says that his group is more than happy about the use of its funds in this project. The MRA is in charge of capital improvements within the downtown districts, such as sidewalks, streets, and parking garages. “As an urban planner, I believe the Champion site is by far the best possible place to put the ballpark,” he says, citing the convenience of a major downtown entertainment draw that is easily accessible by foot and bicycle. “It’s a textbook example of how an infill project should be done.” Furthermore, the acquisition of the Champion land enables the MRA to get that much closer to a goal they’ve been pursuing for decades: completion of the riverside trail from Orange Street to California Street. “We’ve always wanted to do it, but this is the first chance we’ve had, given the past ownership of the land,” he says, noting that the 650 to 700 feet of extended trail that will be built outside the ballpark represents a third of the distance remaining to connect the two trails. Badenoch believes the MRA can parlay that third into a full realization of the trail. “We expect, in the not-too-distant future, to be able to convince Idaho Timber [which holds the lease on the remaining riverside land] to let us in and complete the trail. When we’ve got that, you’ll be able to ride to hell and back on that trail. It will be wonderful for Missoula.” Even without the Idaho Timber land, Badenoch says the added trail on the ballpark site will make possible the connection of the riverside trail and the Bitterroot Branch trail, which runs just south of the site all the way to Southgate Mall. Safe at home Though his team has spent three years in the baseball equivalent of a boarding hostel, Ellis says he has never wavered from his commitment to keep the Osprey in Missoula. “We’ve never even looked at another city,” he says, “because with the exception of a select few, we’ve received nothing but support from the community. And after being at Lindborg-Cregg for three years, we feel this is already a baseball town, and it will only get better at the new site.” And despite the fact that the ballpark delays have hurt the organization financially—“We’ll never make money in a temporary facility,” Ellis says—he pledges that ticket prices will remain very close to what they’ve been for the last three years. “All we expect is the chance to be successful as a business. I feel that our responsibility is to run the team right and provide good customer service and stand behind our mission statement, which is affordable family entertainment.”
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