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A team's allure can be costly

My hometown in upstate New York is one of the great minor-league baseball towns in America. Almost 40 years ago, the people of Auburn went down to the local ballpark, cleared the field of rocks and debris and pooled their money to create a team. Today they still own it.

In the 1960s, the team was so good, even though it was a farm club for the worst major-league team in history, that the Saturday Evening Post published an article called "The Town Where the Mets Are Champs."

Abandoning journalistic objectivity in favor of community commitment, the local sports editor _ my first boss _ served as president of the ball club. (When the team won, the headline read: "Auburn Wins." When the team lost, the headline read: "Auburn Plays Tonight.") Later he also served as president of the league, and today one of the league's divisions is named after him.

Now, a continent away, my adoptive hometown is struggling with the question of getting a minor-league baseball team. Only these days the question is not, "How can we do it?" but, rather, "Can we afford it?"

The president of the California League has assured us that if Ventura builds a suitable stadium, we'll get a team. And a local land-owning family has assured us that their property is the perfect location for a sports complex that includes a baseball stadium. All that's required is for the city to kick in around $50-million.

It's hard to say what kind of return we'd get for this investment. A minor-league team would be fun, but it's unlikely to draw very many out-of-town fans, so the economic impact is probably small. Even the most optimistic observers concede that the city wouldn't break even operating the stadium.

And if the experience elsewhere is any indication, sooner or later the out-of-town owner will start grumbling and try to shake us down for a better deal. After all, there are always other cities that want a team. In a town where the libraries are so impoverished that they're only open three days a week, this doesn't sound like a very good investment in building a community.

Yet it's a deal that town after town throughout the country seems willing to make. Because almost all of them are farm clubs for the big league, the supply of minor-league baseball franchises is strictly controlled. Thus, like their major-league counterparts, the minor-league club owners can manipulate supply and demand to their advantage. (Part of the problem appears to be that minor-league teams have become playthings for rich fellows with major-league egos.) And like their metropolitan counterparts, minor-league towns are falling all over themselves to accommodate the owners, claiming that minor-league teams provide vast benefits for their communities.

One success story frequently mentioned is the Southern California division of the California League, where six neighboring cities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties have developed strong rivalries. Three of these towns (Rancho Cucamonga, Adelanto and Lake Elsinore) have built new stadiums for their teams and draw well. Yet underneath the glamorous publicity lie some ugly facts.

The consensus is that Lake Elsinore paid far too much (more than $20-million) for its stadium. Tiny Adelanto (population 8,000) nearly went bankrupt servicing the debt on the ballpark and other redevelopment projects. And the remaining owners continue to play hardball with the cities. Refusing to build a new stadium, the city of Riverside (county seat of a county with 1.4-million people) recently lost its franchise to Lancaster, a town half the size. And troubled San Bernardino has been virtually blackmailed into committing to a new stadium.

Sometimes it's hard to figure just exactly what these towns are buying that they couldn't replicate on their own without the aid of a major-league farm club. It certainly isn't community spirit or a stimulating rivalry with neighboring towns; if those factors didn't exist in the first place, the teams would fail. And it certainly isn't the excitement of a pennant race.

Minor-league games are little more than simulations, providing a vehicle for scouts to watch young players under game-like conditions. Players come and go based on the whim of the major-league team, not the competitive needs of the minor-league team. Rooting for such a team is a laughable idea.

In the end, what the minor-league towns are paying for is nothing more than a designer name _ the mystique of being associated with the "big club" and the ability to put that team's name on your uniforms, on your stadium and in your newspaper.

This by itself is not a bad thing: Towns must constantly try to connect with the increasingly non-geographical sense of identity their residents create for themselves. But in the case of minor-league baseball, the price for tapping into that kind of identity is getting too high.

William Fulton is editor of California Planning & Development Report, a monthly newsletter.

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