Sunday, November 27, 2011

Would Albert Park be a field of dreams—or a field of screams?

Feature: Aaay, batta-batta!

No other endeavor epitomizes the vision of small-town America, romantic past and present reality, than minor league baseball. Hollywood types knew that when they made Bull Durham.
Although that movie looked into the lives and loves of players on their way up and down the baseball ladder, it didn't reveal the real world of minor league baseball, a world that came to San Rafael this year. A proposal to bring minor league ball to Albert Park touched a nerve. Many saw the possibility as an affirmative addition to San Rafael and Marin, an embodiment of the "small-town character" so often mentioned when city governments deliberate a new proposal of almost any kind. Almost nothing can be more "small town" than a minor league baseball team, supporters contend. The proposed team, the San Rafael Pacifics, would provide a welcome addition to the family entertainment possibilities during the summer months; the team also could add revenue to city coffers. A minor league team can bring millions of dollars in ancillary revenue to a town and give a boost to local schools and charities through cross promotions. What could go wrong with a proposal like that?

But this is Marin. Neighbors in the Albert Park area say the proposed team will create unacceptable noise and traffic impacts. They hired attorney Dotty LeMieux to represent their interests. On behalf of the neighbors, LeMieux filed a lawsuit raising a California Environmental Quality Act challenge. It's a common tactic here for opponents of almost everything. The lawsuit says the city erred in its assertion that the baseball team's proposal needs no environmental review under CEQUA. [sic]

"We're not against baseball," LeMieux says. "We just want them to play by the rules." She says an intrinsic part of a minor league team is the focus on family entertainment, which gives parents a chance to pass on values, set good examples—such as following the rules. "When you do a project like this, you need to have an environmental review. They were going to do that, but instead of doing a review they came back with this somewhat truncated project. But it's still a greatly increased use of the space. It still increases the number of people that can be there. They're planning to play baseball 45 days a year, which will keep some of the amateur and semi-pro people out, and there are going to be traffic issues," which have not been adequately addressed. Those issues should be looked at to determine whether a full environmental review is appropriate for the baseball proposal. It's not exactly evocative of the romantic crack-of-the bat vision. 

Lost in much of the debate is exactly who wants to come to town. The team would be the start of a new stable of minor league ball teams in the Bay Area. It's a tough proposition; teams have tried to make the North Bay home before, but they haven't lasted. 

Mike Shapiro is president and general manager of Centerfield Partners, an LLC corporation that bought the rights to run minor league teams in the Bay Area. Brian Clark, known in the aviation industry for playing a key role in bringing Virgin America to, well, America, started Centerfield. "His avocation is baseball," says Shapiro of Clark. "He had this vision and dream that he could form a company that could own and operate multiple minor league teams in the Bay Area." Clark retained Shapiro to put together a business plan and scout locations for the teams. "The first place I took him to was Albert Park because I had played there as a semi-pro player, and my sons currently play there as high school players." 

Shapiro played centerfield at Albert Park from 1974 all the way to 1993 on a variety of semi-pro teams. "I played on so many, it's hard to remember now," says the Corte Madera resident. His history at the ballpark raises one of the issues on which Centerfield and the city rested their contention that the proposal should be categorically exempt from needing a full environmental review. "The truth of the matter is that since [Albert Park] was built in the 1950s, it has hosted a wide range of activities, even some professional exhibition games. There also were collegiate, high school and Little League activities, all levels of play."
• • • •
LEMIEUX AND THE neighbors who object don't buy the contention that because Albert Park has been the site of past baseball activity, the city should open its arms to professional minor league play without an environmental review. The city has failed to assess the difference between the current usage and what will happen when minor league guys step up to the plate. "Even today with the teams that are there, balls hit the walls of nearby apartments." Players for the Pacifics, says LeMieux, "will be professional players. They are heavy hitters." That needs to be reviewed.

When Centerfield first approached the city in April about plans to bring minor league ball to Albert Park, the company proposed adding 800 temporary seats to a 700-seat grandstand. Centerfield also said it would upgrade bathrooms, install netting behind home plate and add other improvements. But neighbors soon voiced their objections. Centerfield responded by reducing the scope of its proposal. The new plan calls for adding just 100 seats and providing free parking. Neighbors said that without free parking, those attending games wouldn't use designated parking and would clog neighborhood streets. Centerfield agreed to the no-fee parking plan.

In addition, a committee will review activity during the season and act as a liaison between the neighborhood, the team and the city. That came about during discussions with the city, Centerfield and the neighbors, says Shapiro. "They said they needed a venue to focus and direct their comments and concerns, and they wanted responsiveness. I said we would do that as a matter of course." Centerfield also agreed to put aside its desire for a three-year lease and sign a one-year agreement with the city. At the end of the first year, Centerfield can go back to the city for an extension, which Shapiro is confident Centerfield will be able to secure after a season goes by with few problems.

San Rafael City Councilman Damon Connolly and Mayor Al Boro served on a subcommittee that went out to the community prior to the city council voting on the team's proposal. The council voted twice, both times giving Centerfield a unanimous nod to round third and head home. "It's fair to say that the process got off to a rocky start," says Connolly. "Neighbors expressed concerns that they weren't being heard. In response to that, we made a point to meet with the neighbors. By the end of the process, I was satisfied that this will be a good opportunity for the city, and I've heard a lot of positive feedback from the community on the vote. I hope [the team] will be a boost to local business and provide a source of family entertainment." Connolly says the city decided the proposal could be exempt from an initial environmental review because of the process the city undertook to get community input, which led to the scaled-down proposal and the concessions to which Centerfield agreed.

City Councilman Greg Brockbank came up short in his bid for the mayor's chair in the recent election; he's leaving the council and has no ax to grind. He says the neighbors "are overly concerned" about the impacts from the Pacifics playing at Albert Park. "There won't be any night use. There might be slightly larger crowds, and maybe their PA system will be used a little more often than it is now," but the impacts "won't be unduly burdensome."

Brockbank acknowledges the neighbors' concerns over the increased commotion and clamor that will occur, but he points out that the neighborhood already has noise and impacts from the local farmers' market and the current activities at the park. "Some people think they ought to have the right to have their windows open on a summer night and not have to hear baseball noise." But the crack of the bat already sounds in the park, proponents reiterate. It's also true, as LeMieux points out, that the players cracking the bats now aren't heavy-hitter pros. Still, when a prospective homeowner buys property next to an airport—or a baseball field—it's reasonable to assume that some noise will emanate from what should be an expected use.

Centerfield is proceeding with plans to start its 45-game season for the Pacifics in May, barring legal delays. The Pacifics will be part of the North American Baseball League, which includes teams in California, Hawaii, Texas and Canada. Commissioner Kevin Outcalt says a team in Nevada may be a new addition. "We're still working on a few team inclusions. We have our league winter meeting the first week of December, and we'll come up with our draft schedule then."
• • • •
THE NORTH AMERICAN Baseball League is independent, which means it's not affiliated with major league teams. It's been in existence for eight years, according to Outcalt. For six of those years, it was known as the Golden Gate Baseball League, with teams mostly on the West Coast. Last year, the league expanded and rebranded itself as the North American League. 

The minor league system in baseball includes a "farm system" of teams, each affiliated with a major league team. In the farm system, AAA teams are closest to the majors; AA is one notch down; and A teams are for newcomers to professional ball. The goal is to produce players for the affiliated major league teams. Winning games is less important than working with players to make them credible major league prospects. Independent minor league teams, like the Pacifics, play to win, although players on independent teams unaffiliated with major league teams can and do advance to the majors.
"Most of the North American League players will be players that played in major league organizations and were released," says Outcalt. "About half the team will have AA or AAA experience. The other half will be A players or a few college guys. It's tough to make a team in our league if you have no professional experience because the level of play is very high."

The history of minor league ball in the North Bay shows how tough it is to bring a team to the area and survive. The Sonoma County Crushers called Rohnert Park Stadium home until financial reality ended the dream about 10 years ago. A plan to bring an affiliated minor league team to Windsor met with opposition from the San Francisco Giants, which controls the North Bay territory for affiliated minor league teams.

Shapiro, who says he has two physical handicaps—he's short and a lefty—wound up in baseball management. He worked with the Giants and the Braves and was senior vice president of the Washington Nationals before returning to Marin to join Centerfield Partners.

"This offers me an opportunity to take all I learned in the majors and bring it down to the community level. I can't imagine having any more fun. I just turned 60 this year, but I'm way more immature than that."

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