Neyer vs. Caple: MLB in Portland?

Rob and Jim Caple renew their discussion/argument. But this one centers on the viability of a major-league team playing in Portland.

Originally Published: February 14, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Jim Caple: Rob, I hate to disagree with you -- mostly because you'll probably pull some obscure fact out of the 1956 Street & Smith yearbook to embarrass me -- but I have to disagree regarding your comments (in Monday's column) that Portland should be considered in any way for a major-league team.

Don't get me wrong. I grew up near Portland, watched Portland TV shows my entire childhood and went to Portland Beavers and Mavericks games every summer (I even saw Kurt Russell -- yes, Goldie Hawn's Kurt Russell -- play infield for the Mavericks, along with Jim Bouton making a comeback). I visit Portland whenever I can, and Powell's may be the best bookstore in the country.

But putting a major-league team there would be a disaster.

Population is the problem. You say (Portland is) the 22nd biggest metro area in the country. Great. Which puts it right with Milwaukee, Kansas City and Cincinnati, franchises of which are in terrible, terrible shape.
Jim Caple

Rob Neyer: Well, that's an interesting theory ... but I just don't see the evidence for it. Just starting with the obvious, Portland is the 22nd-largest metropolitan area in the country, according to the last U.S. Census. That makes it the largest metro area in the country without Major League Baseball.

Now, that in itself is not a great argument. It's like saying that Andre Dawson has more hits than anybody who's not in the Hall of Fame (not including Charlie Hustler), so by definition Dawson should be in the Hall of Fame. By that "logic" you'd just keep lowering the standards further and further, because after Dawson there's Vada Pinson, and after Pinson there's Al Oliver, and after Oliver there's Rusty Staub ...

Like I said, it's a bad argument, by itself. But the thing is, there are three cities smaller than Portland that do have teams: Cincinnati, Kansas City and Milwaukee. And Portland is growing fast, faster than all three of those cities and faster than a number of cities that currently are bigger.

So if population's not the problem, what is?

Jim: Sorry, population is the problem. You say it's the 22nd biggest metro area in the country. Great. Which puts it right with Milwaukee, Kansas City and Cincinnati, franchises of which are in terrible, terrible shape. If Milwaukee and K.C. are struggling to get by even with increased revenue sharing, why add another problem city? The goal is to have a better situation than the one the Expos are in now, not the same or worse.

Rob: It's not really fair to throw all four cities into the same bucket and say, "See, look at all them rotten apples."

The Royals are poorly run, and are on a shoestring budget no less, and they play in a relatively old ballpark.

The Brewers are also poorly run, and they play in the smallest market in the major leagues.

The Reds are not in terrible shape, because they're intelligently managed and they've got a new ballpark.

What's more, Portland has a huge edge on those three cities. Portland is bigger and it's growing faster and the citizens have a significantly higher per-capita income than those in the other three.

Look, there aren't any guarantees. You can never know with metaphysical certitude whether or not a city can support Major League Baseball until it actually has a team. But if you want to compare Portland to another city, I think Denver and San Diego are better analogues than Kansas City and Milwaukee.

Jim: I could overlook the low population except there isn't any evidence that Portland could overcome the low population. It doesn't have a ballpark. It doesn't have an ownership group. Virtually every minor league team that's been there has struggled, including the current one, which couldn't pay its bills. Low population, no owner, no stadium, bad history -- what else do you need to see that Portland would have trouble supporting a competitive team?

And did I mention Oregon's unemployment rate?

Rob: The unemployment rate is discouraging, but I think most economists would consider that a short-term problem, and baseball should be looking for long-term solutions.

It's not really fair to throw all four cities into the same bucket and say, 'See, look at all them rotten apples.' The Royals are poorly run, and are on a shoestring budget no less, and they play in a relatively old ballpark. The Brewers are also poorly run, and they play in the smallest market in the major leagues. The Reds are not in terrible shape, because they're intelligently managed and they've got a new ballpark. What's more, Portland has a huge edge on those three cities. Portland is bigger and it's growing faster and the citizens have a significantly higher per-capita income than those in the other three.
Rob Neyer

Taking your other points in order ... Again, I don't think that "low population" is an issue, because Portland's population isn't low for a major-league city, and it's only going to get less low because Portland is growing faster than (for example) Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

Not having an owner, or an ownership group, is a problem. The local boosters say they'll find some incredibly rich guy who wants to buy the Expos, and then by golly he'll just have to move them to Portland. I'm not so sure.

Not having a stadium isn't as much of a problem, since the D.C./N.V. (northern Virginia) people don't have a stadium, either. I mean, they can play in RFK for a couple of years, but that's obviously a short-term solution. And as I said, baseball should be looking at long-term solutions. Short-term, if the Portland Cascades have to play in a 20,000-seat minor-league park for two seasons, it wouldn't be the end of the world.

Bad history ... well, this is an interesting point. Without checking -- this is, after all, an off-the-cuff e-mail debate -- I think you're right about Portland's poor record of supporting professional baseball. But I also wonder if that's a reliable indicator of what will happen when a major-league franchise comes to town. Did Denver's Triple-A team draw particularly well, pre-Rockies? It seems to me that when a city considers itself "major league," it might not cotton real well to a minor-league team.

Also, there's pretty good evidence that Portlanders are very interested in Major League Baseball. According to the Oregon Baseball Campaign's Web site, "ESPN conducted a survey of 40,000 random selected (sports) fans and asked them a number of questions regarding sport ... Portland was shown to have the highest percentage of fans (72 percent) that follow MLB than any market that does not have a team, and several others that do." What's more, the Mariners get great TV ratings in Portland, better ratings than some teams get in their home cities.

Jim: Hmmmm ...

Your defense on population is to say Portland is about as big as the smallest cities in baseball, most of which are struggling. You admit that there isn't anyone there who actually wants to buy the team -- and while I despise most owners, they do come in handy when it's time to pay the bills. You admit they don't have a sufficient stadium. So why should Portland get a team now? Because someone with the chamber of commerce says it would be cool to have one? Yeah, well, I want a house that has views of Mount Rainier and Puget Sound and is on the Monorail line, but I don't think anyone is going to give it to me.

And while Oregon's unemployment rate may be short-term, the responsibility of building the stadium is near-term. So where would all this money be coming from? We're talking several hundred million dollars to buy the team, and probably $300 million more (minimum) to build a stadium.

And it ought to have a roof. Rainouts aren't really an issue. As you know, rain in April, May and June in the northwest usually isn't sufficient to rain out a game (and rain is almost nonexistent in July and August), but the spring drizzle is plenty sufficient to make sitting in a damp, open-air stadium miserable, which would lower attendance in the long-run, especially if the team wasn't winning).

Rob: I don't buy the argument for a roof, Jim. While it's true that it can be drizzly in the spring, is it really worth spending (at least) an extra $100 million? I don't think so. What's more, one of the things you get with a roof is fewer seats in the sun, even when the roof is open. And for most of the baseball season, the weather here in Portland is so beautiful that you don't want any of the seats in the shade. As a fan, I'd happily trade a few drizzly evenings -- and I should mention that it's a bit warmer here than in Seattle -- for a true open-air ballpark, like they have in Colorado.

Jim: Listen, I grew up in the northwest and I've played many a game in the damp of spring and watched many a game in the damp, and I can tell you, it sucks. And it will drastically hurt attendance.

Plus, you haven't addressed the Seattle issue. That club struggled for years but has now become a model franchise, thanks in large part to growing its base to include the entire Pacific Northwest. Seattle has a huge local broadcasting deal in large part because it extends into Oregon and Idaho and even Alaska. You're right, Portland has a lot of fans. And the Mariners would lose them all. So by putting another club in the mix, you would cripple the Mariners. That would mean the solution to the problem of one struggling team in Montreal is to have two struggling teams in the Northwest. How does that help?

Rob: Cripple the Mariners? That's just ridiculous. The Mariners were, I believe, No. 2 in revenue last year, behind only the Yankees. If you take away their Portland-related income, they might drop to ... what, No. 5 or No. 6? Even if they dropped to No. 10, so what? The M's don't have some inalienable right to every baseball fan from Juneau to Vancouver to Seattle to Portland to Eugene.

Jim: No, they don't have an inalienable right to it. But if the goal is to find a good location for a struggling club, don't put it in an even smaller market that would hurt another club. And you greatly underestimate the impact. The Mariners have a huge broadcast package and a lot of it is due to viewership all over the Northwest. Put a team in Portland and that package drops considerably.

Rob: If you consider the three metropolitan areas -- Seattle-Tacoma, Portland-Vancouver (Washington), and Vancouver, British Columbia -- there are plenty of people to support two MLB franchises. Will both enjoy the sort of support that the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Dodgers have? No, probably not. But you're never going to have 30 franchises that have that kind of support. Now, if you want to contract six or eight teams, then we can have 24 "super-franchises" that draw from huge populations. But as I remember, you weren't a big fan of contraction the last time it came up.

The fact is that if you move a team to Portland, you're going to hurt the Mariners. Not a lot, but a little. If you move a team to D.C./N.V., you're going to hurt the Orioles. Not a lot, but certainly a little (and maybe more than a little). So if your primary goal is to avoid hurting existing franchises, then what do we do with the Expos?

Jim: Who said anything about contraction? I don't want to get rid of any teams. And there is no reason to. But given the recent struggles of teams with low population bases, I don't think it makes any sense to seek out more such cities.

Besides, I'm still not convinced Montreal couldn't support a team -- it has in the past, though (former owner) Loria may have poisoned the waters. But there is a much better market available than Portland or D.C. or northern Virginia if it does move.

It's New Jersey.

How many times have we been told about the golden era of baseball, when there were three teams in New York City? Obviously, that is a region that could easily absorb another team. And by doing that, you would be solving another problem. You would be limiting the Yankees' and Mets' enormous financial edge (without hurting them too much) and leveling the playing field for all.

Rob: Well, again, if you want to level the playing field, putting a team in Portland would be a good way to do it, because as things stand now, the Mariners have an enormous financial edge. But I agree with you about New York.

I have to say, I'm not completely convinced that a new team there would thrive, because you might find that Yankees fans and Mets fans aren't willing to spend big-league money on a crummy team, not when stadiums Yankee and Shea are just a subway ride away.

Still, I'd love to see a team in northern New Jersey or even upper Manhattan. Give it a shot.

But let's be realistic here. MLB seems to be absolutely committed to moving the Expos, and it's practically impossible to see how MLB could open up space for a third team in the NY/NJ region; the Mets and Yankees simply won't stand for it.

So being realistic rather than idealistic, where do you want to put the Expos? And perhaps more to the point -- because I'm convinced the Expos are going to D.C./N.V. -- where do you want to put the next team that needs a new home?

Jim: Who says anybody else needs a new home? Tampa Bay hasn't even begun to have been given a fair chance, and outside of them, I don't see any unsolvable problems in any city. Look, when Portland has an owner and a stadium and a few more people, we might be able to talk. But right now, you would just be making a bad situation worse by moving a team there.

Rob: Well, I still think that Portland is, looking ahead five years, a better market than Kansas City or Tampa-St. Pete. By quite a goodly margin. But we can agree to disagree about that one. Do we also agree that if the Expos have to move soon, D.C. or thereabouts is the best place for them?

Jim: For the purpose of this argument, I will concede that major league baseball will move them (though I'm not convinced it will be in 2004). I do not concede that either of those markets is better than Montreal, if Montreal had a decent owner who made a real commitment to improving the team and gaining a fan base. I think New Jersey is better than D.C. (though George and the Mets won't allow it), and I think Vegas is better than Portland.

Rob: Well, I was about to wrap this thing up ... but Las Vegas?

I know it's growing by leaps and bounds (as Portland is), but in the last Census, Las Vegas ranked No. 32 among U.S. metropolitan areas, behind Norfolk, Indianapolis, Orlando, Columbus and Charlotte. You think Portland doesn't have enough people to support a team, but Las Vegas does? What am I missing?

Jim: I think they're about the same. Vegas is growing faster, has more money there, a lot more people with nothing to do in the summer, and it doesn't really impinge on Arizona's market that much (no one makes the drive from Vegas to Phoenix). But that's not to say I think it's a good market. Just the best of a bad lot once you get past Jersey.

Rob: In the last Census, Portland ranked 14th in per-capita income, Las Vegas 19th. That five-spot difference probably overstates the difference, considering there was just a $600 difference, and anyway what really matters is how many happy corporations are around, because that's who puts out for the luxury suites and the dee-lux box seats, etc. I do know that it's very hot in Las Vegas, and that a lot of people work at night, and that a lot of people work in the low-paying service sector. I can see Las Vegas getting a team someday, but right now Portland is a better place (and in more ways than this one).

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season and irregularly in the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

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