Dipping into the mailbag

Could baseball thrive in Las Vegas? Is it smart for the Reds to bat Adam Dunn leadoff? Rob responds to user e-mail questions.

Originally Published: February 21, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

I was planning to post a primer on territorial rights, but then I discovered that Doug Pappas beat me to it (this actually happens quite often ... danged Internet). So instead, today I'm running a tiny percentage of the e-mail that I've been saving since last week.

First off, a response to my column suggesting that if the Bay Area can support two major-league teams, then by gosh the Baltimore-District of Columbia-Northern Virginia area should be able to support two, too.

"Not so fast!" a lot of you cautioned.

    Rob, I'm reading your column about a team muscling into the Orioles' part of the country, and you mention that Chicago and the Bay Area each have two teams, and that both markets support two teams just fine. As you wrote,

    Both of those metropolises are roughly comparable to Baltimore-D.C., and there's every reason to think that both can support two baseball teams, especially if the teams are managed competently.

    I don't know if I agree. Have you seen the "crowd" at a White Sox game lately? While White Sox fans claim to be more "knowledgeable" fans than Cubs fans, they don't show it by going to the ballpark. And the A's are always selling off their greatest talents because they can't afford to keep them. In fact, I've heard the A's actually referred to as a "small-market team," and one could argue that the White Sox behave like a small-market team as well. I'm not sure that one can really say that these markets are "supporting" two teams apiece. The teams are there, and they don't look like they're gonna go bankrupt any time soon, but to say they support them, may be stretching it.

    Craig Stambaugh
    Bloomington, IL

A number of readers made this argument: that I was wrong, that really there's only one market -- New York -- that really supports two teams. Just look at the White Sox! They were fairly competitive last season, but drew well short of two millions fans (and about a million fewer than the Cubs). Look at the Athletics! They reached the postseason for the third straight year, but finished just eighth among American League teams in attendance. And look at the Angels! They might have been the best story in professional sports, but they didn't even draw as many fans as the last-place Rangers did.

The White Sox have been to the postseason twice in the last decade, and they finished second a number of other times. Now, you can say what you will about the ballpark (and you'd be right), but if a team is competitive, how can you say they're not supported. What's more, the White Sox make enough money from their local TV deal that they really don't have to draw two million fans to remain competitive. New Comiskey Park is a handicap, but it's just a small handicap, like a fry cook losing his left pinky finger.

Same thing for the A's. They win, and they've been winning since the day they moved to Oakland in the late 1960s. Granted, they haven't generally made a lot of money -- the exception being the late 1980s, when the Raiders were in Los Angeles and the crowds were great -- but I don't think you're holding them (or the White Sox) to a fair standard. Only a few teams can rake in the bucks, year after year. You should hold the A's and the White Sox to a much easier standard, which is, "Can this team make enough money to survive, and occasionally compete for a championship?"

By that standard, the White Sox and the A's and the Angels are better off than a lot of other teams, particularly those in Kansas City and Milwaukee. The White Sox ranked 10th in the league in attendance last season, which means four teams were worse. If Chicago isn't supporting the White Sox, then what does that say about Toronto, Detroit, Kansas City, and Tampa Bay?

It seems to me that if you honestly don't think that Chicago can "support" two teams, or that the Bay Area can't "support" two teams, then you need to start thinking seriously about contracting six or eight teams from the major leagues. Because that's the logical conclusion to your argument. Every team can't draw three million fans every season, and it's silly to hold a prospective franchise in Washington or Portland to that standard.

Speaking of Portland,

    Hey Rob,

    I just read the small debate you have with Jim Caple (I need something to pass the non-baseball days). I thought that you had Caple pinned on every issue until the end subject. That subject being Vegas.

    I've always wondered why Las Vegas was devoid of professional sports. I can understand that the casinos might not want the competition for the tourist dollar, but it seems like some smart guy would find a way to use a professional sports team to enhance the Vegas experience, all while helping to line the pockets of the big casino boys. Sure, the population is small and the buying power limited, but combine a local Vegas fan base with the incredibly large, diverse, and spendy tourist group and you have more than enough to support a team.

    Put a park on the strip, next to the biggest casinos. Make it a large, inclusive experience, with seating sections and luxury boxes that have gambling as you watch the game. Invite everyone to watch baseball during the day and gamble at night.

    Casinos could use a sports team for tourist incentives, because we know the casinos will lose money on some items to make it back on gambling. Treat your high-rollers to a luxury box. Offer hotel/game ticket packages.

    Honestly, I can't see why it wouldn't work. The money is there and can you imagine the kind of ballpark Vegas would build? Think about it, baseball in Las Vegas could be a totally interesting experience and it would work. I would go to a ballgame in Vegas!

    Also, I think Caple is right about New Jersey, but it will never happen. It makes too much sense, economically.

    That's my two cents.

    Shannon Dunn

Well, here are some problems with Las Vegas:

1. I'm not sure I agree with you about the tourists. Will people really come to Las Vegas to do something -- in this case, see a baseball game -- that they could do at home? But even if you're right, and the team averages 35-40,000 fans per game, that won't do anything for the TV ratings, because you know those tourists aren't going to sit around at night, watching the Las Vegas Hoovers on their hotel boob tubes.

2. Given the heat in Las Vegas, you'd want a ballpark with a retractable roof, like they have in Phoenix and Houston. And given the way everything is done in Las Vegas, you'd have to have all the bells and whistles the designers can imagine (as you suggest). So what's this baseball palace going to cost? Somewhere between 750 million and one billion dollars.

OK, so where's the money going to come from. The city's already attracting a huge amount of tourists, so does it really make sense for the local government to pony up more than half a billion dollars for a new ballpark? And if the city won't pay, you're probably not going to get a ballpark, because privately-financed baseball stadiums are to Bud Selig what garlic and wooden stakes are to a vampire.

I just don't see it happening, not anytime soon. In 20 years, assuming that Major League Baseball is still a going concern, there might not be teams in Milwaukee and (particularly) Kansas City, and there probably will be teams in Las Vegas and Sacramento. But we're just not there yet.

We're not at Opening Day yet, either, and so it remains to be seen if Adam Dunn really will become The World's Largest Leadoff Man. And at least one reader thinks it ain't such a great idea.

    I'd actually use Aaron Boone to leadoff, and for a few reasons. Last year was a weird aberration, but Boone's OBP's in 2000 and 2001 were in the .350 range, and he does have some speed. Also, part of Dunn's slump last year, at least according to some observers, was over-patience, taking pitches that were too good. Well, if he needs to be more aggressive, the last thing I'd do is put him in the leadoff spot because it might stunt his development.

    Rick Bergstrom

Good point, Rick. I think I'd also probably use Boone (if not Barry Larkin) in the leadoff slot. I think the Reds have to be at least a little worried about Dunn's 26 homers and .454 slugging percentage last season, because in 2001 he hit 51 homers. Granted, 32 of those came in the minors, but there's just no way to interpret his 2002 season as anything but a mild disappointment. I'm not normally one to worry much about strikeouts, but 170 K's from a 23-year-old player has to be cause for concern (even if the 170 K's come with 128 walks, as they did).

Now, one might argue that Dunn's problems last year came when he was not leading off, so why not try that? But if the primary goal is to facilitate Dunn's development -- and in the long run, that's about a hundred times more important than who bats leadoff for the Reds in 2003 -- then I'm not sure that asking him to lead off is the best thing.

Still, I'd like to repeat something that bears repeating: where everybody sits in the lineup isn't nearly as important as who is in the lineup.

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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