July 9, 2012

Mayor Johnson looks at bringing big league baseball to Sacramento

The basketball arena idea didn't work out. So, how about a major league ballpark, Sacramento?

The basketball arena idea didn't work out. So, how about a major league ballpark, Sacramento?

Still looking for a redevelopment catalyst in the downtown railyard, Mayor Kevin Johnson has turned his eye to a new sport, asking his Think Big Sacramento task force to look this summer into marketing Sacramento as a big-league baseball town.

The mayor also has begun soliciting insider advice from a notable local name, Kevin McClatchy, former co-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team and current chairman of the board of The McClatchy Co., owner of The Bee.

Aides say the mayor's moves are aimed at sending a message to Major League Baseball that Sacramento wants to be in the mix if and when a team is looking for greener pastures. Johnson has made it no secret he would like to do business with the Oakland A's, who are unhappy in their antiquated stadium.

The initiative appears to send a message as well to the Sacramento Kings, who recently turned down a financing deal to build a $400 million downtown arena.

"Sacramento must seize control of its own future," Johnson said. "We cannot rely on others, or wait for something to come along."

Any serious effort to attract major league baseball, however, will involve a host of challenges.

The Oakland A's are eying San Jose, not Sacramento, as a potential next home. Sports business experts say Sacramento could wait a long time for a team. The capital region's modest population size, compared to the Bay Area, and lack of a strong corporate base might prove a hindrance.

If a major league team did come, it almost certainly would undermine the Sacramento River Cats, the Triple A team that plays in West Sacramento's Raley Field. Under baseball rules, a major league team would have the authority to send the River Cats packing.

One sports business consultant, when contacted by The Bee, suggested Johnson would be making a mistake if he dropped his focus now on keeping the Kings.

"Possession is nine-tenths of the law," said Andy Dolich, a former Oakland A's executive. "The Kings are Sacramento's. The River Cats are Sacramento's, and a shining light nationally as to how a well-run franchise can be extremely successful.

"Wouldn't you counsel him to keep his eye on the prize of the team that he has?"

Think Big Executive Director Kunal Merchant said the mayor still wants to keep the Kings, but there is little to do on that front right now. The as-yet undeveloped 240-acre downtown railyard beckons as a potential locus for jobs and economic development.

"We need to jump-start the economy," he said.

Johnson aides said the mayor likely will hold a news briefing this week to lay out his case that Sacramento is a major league baseball city.

Former Pirates owner McClatchy, a Sacramento native, said he, too, believes Sacramento is "a great baseball town" and a "viable option for major league baseball."

McClatchy led a group that bought the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1996. They are credited with keeping the team in Pittsburgh and creating momentum for a new ballpark.

McClatchy, who sold his interest in the team several years ago, said he has had a few talks with Johnson about Sacramento's baseball prospects, serving as an informal sounding board.

"I will talk with the mayor as things come up," he said. "Hopefully, I can add some perspective from somebody who was in baseball a number of years."

Johnson and Merchant said the group also will look at whether other catalyst concepts, similar to San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter or Seattle's Pike Place Market, could be built in the railyard, or whether the city could land a major corporation to plant its headquarters flag there.

"We made it clear we have to concurrently be looking at a variety of options," Johnson said. "In the coming months, there will likely be other efforts that are publicly discussed."

The baseball idea, however, is first up.

A major league ballpark would cost in the $500 million and up range, a review of recent costs shows. Merchant pointed out that the city discovered during the arena discussions it could leverage the future money-making value of its downtown garages for as much as $255 million, and use that to finance a major project, as long as that facility provided a solid investment return.

He said his group is not trying to woo the A's or any team at the moment and understands Sacramento is not first in line.

The A's hope to move to San Jose, and await findings from a league committee studying the legal ramifications.

The San Francisco Giants hold territorial rights to San Jose.

A team spokesman declined direct comment Friday.

"We have been very consistent about our stance about a new ballpark," A's spokesman Bob Rose said in an emailed statement. "Our focus is getting a venue built in downtown San Jose, and that will continue to be the case."

Johnson aides said the mayor sees the downtown railyard – not an expanded Raley Field – as the best site for a major league ballpark because of its potential as an economic development stimulus.

River Cats officials were circumspect when asked about Johnson's major league interests.

"They have not reached out to us," spokesman Zak Basch said. "We have no knowledge of anything that is going on. It's too early to speculate."

Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan said he'd like to see Sacramento work with West Sacramento on redeveloping the waterfront rather than looking for the economic home run, especially if it is at the expense of the River Cats.

"West Sacramento has the most successful professional sports team in the region," McGowan said. "Why you want to muck around with that doesn't make sense to me. It doesn't say much for an understanding of regional cooperation."

Johnson, in response, called the River Cats "a great asset" to the region, but said he believes "Sacramento is a major league city."

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