The eyes of sports fans across the country are fixed on Major League Baseball playoffs, the heart of the professional and college football schedule, and the start of the NBA season. Portland is relevant in only one of those sports, but there is interest in another.
Major League Baseball appears to be renewing its on-again, off-again interest in Oregon’s largest city, based on a report from Baseball America suggesting a possible major realignment of the league and confirmation that a Portland ownership group has formed to run a team.
Baseball America’s story suggests MLB could expand by two teams — one in Portland, one in Montreal — as part of a shift away from the traditional American and National leagues and toward a regional alignment like the NBA.
Such a move would reduce travel time and costs for the league and could include a reduction in games from 162 to 156, according to Baseball America. A Portland team would play in the West Division, along with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners.
The Baseball America story adds to the intrigue begun by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who said last month that “Portland is a possibility” and that “a team in the west would need to be a part of” potential expansion plans.
But Manfred didn’t suggest that expansion was happening anytime soon. In his comments to reporters, he emphasized that there are more pressing issues to resolve first.
“[O]ngoing stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay will need to be resolved before baseball considers expansion,” Manfred said.
The Portland area is home to the Hillsboro Hops, a short-season single “A” minor league team, affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The region also supports the Portland Pickles, a “collegiate wood bat team” that plays in Southeast Portland’s Lents Park.
There are multiple obstacles to Portland acquiring a major league team. Upfront costs could run in the hundreds of millions of dollars, not to mention the complexity of siting and building a ballpark. Some also question whether there is the corporate support and fan interest to fill a stadium, day after day, over the long MLB season.
The office of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler opened the door to a possible MLB team, but not if the league expects Portlanders to make a big financial commitment.
“Portland is a great sports town and a great baseball town. We would be an ideal fit for Major League Baseball. Portland is a growing city, and is now part of the nation’s #22 media market. While Major League Baseball will find a lot to love about our community, what they won’t find is a grab bag of public giveaways. The good news is that a dedicated ownership team with a quality stadium plan can make this work without subjecting our city to a harmful bidding war.” — Michael Cox, spokesman for Mayor Ted Wheeler
Portland has flirted with Major League Baseball before. The Rose City was in the running to receive the relocating Montreal Expos, before the team wound up in Washington, D.C., to become the Washington Nationals in 2004. The Oregon Legislature had approved $150 million in 2003 to help build a ballpark — a mechanism that remains on the books today if landing a team became a strong possibility again.
The subject of Major League Baseball resurfaced in 2008 when the minor league Portland Beavers were forced out of Oregon as the city’s downtown sports arena was renovated to be “soccer-only” for the Portland Timbers. In recent years, “MLB to Portland” efforts have quieted as the city embraced professional soccer through its support of the Timbers and the Portland Thorns women’s team. Both teams have been very successful: the Timbers won the MLS Cup in 2015, and the Thorns won NWSL titles in 2013 and again this year.