Gerard Mildner, an associate professor of real estate finance at Portland State University, grew up a Detroit Tigers fan but became a Giants fan for life a few years ago when he attended a conference in San Francisco and ended up seeing
He’s also studied the reasons sports franchises move, and he has a message for all you Oregonians dreaming of Major League Baseball: You’re kind of being played right now.
“In practice, what’s happening is that Portland is being used as a strawman to get these other two franchises better stadium deals from their local city,” Mildner said. “We’re stadium bait for the Tampa and Oakland franchises.”
Like the rest of sports-loving Portland, Mildner has been closely following the renewed conversation about bringing Major League Baseball to Oregon’s largest city.
A group that includes a former Nike vice president and the former television voice of the Portland Trail Blazers wants to build a major league-ready ballpark. They've made offers on at least two pieces of land, including the current headquarters of the Portland Public Schools headquarters and an old industrial site in Northwest Portland.
And they’re trying to drum up public support with visions of warm summer nights spent watching baseball’s best – and 8,000 new housing units as part of the package.
“We’re not just trying to bring a ballpark and baseball. We’re trying to bring a new district to Portland,” said former Blazers announcer Mike Barrett, now part of the Portland Diamond Project. “If we can help solve and help aid some of the issues that face the city, then all the better.”
The drive for baseball has drawn quite a bit of public attention in recent weeks. But setting aside money to buy your season tickets would be a major case of putting the bullpen cart before the horse.
The Portland Diamond Project has said buying land for a park will cost around $80 million. They have not said who is paying. Nor have they said where the money to actually build a stadium would come from. That could cost as much as $1 billion.
That's billion with a b, as in Bill Buckner or Babe Ruth or, "Boy, that's a lot of money for a city without many Fortune 500 companies."
The last time baseball was a serious possibility in Portland was almost 20 years ago. The Montreal Expos — now the Washington Nationals — were looking to move. State legislators passed Senate Bill 5, which would essentially let a team that settles in Portland use the income taxes players pay on their salaries while playing in Oregon to repay money borrowed for construction. That could raise $150 million or more, at least a start toward the cost of a stadium.
“It’s found money,” said Jason Atkinson, a former state legislator and part of the Portland Diamond Project. “It’s people who come here, players that play get taxed, and we can use that.”
Baseball organizers have said they’re not asking for a flat public contribution toward buying land or building a park, but experts in stadium projects elsewhere say taxpayers should expect to help in other ways. Ballparks require all sorts of infrastructure upgrades – wider roads and sidewalks, more parking lots and bus stops, water and sewer systems that can handle 32,000 users a night.
So far, no one currently in office at the state or local level has stepped up to champion baseball or public support to help fill in the gaps.
Mildner said that’s just political common sense right now.
“We’ve got a PERS crisis, we have a housing shortage, we have a lot of issues on the table right now. We have people who are very unhappy about how public education is funded,” he said. “I think whoever steps forward to try to advocate a major subsidy for attracting Major League Baseball is going to run into a lot of the bread and butter politics of our region.”
Gov. Kate Brown was asked about baseball recently. She laughed at the very question.
“I think we have really limited state dollars at this point, and we will be focused on critical infrastructure with those limited dollars, like roads and bridges, making sure we can move forward with affordable housing,” she said. “I love baseball, and I look forward to seeing what the private sector can do to put together a package.”
But let’s make like Mariners fans and stay optimistic despite years of disappointment. Say you find the money and the political wherewithal to buy the land and maybe even build a ballpark. Next comes the really hard part: Finding a team.
Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has said expansion to 32 clubs will happen — someday. He's also been asked specifically about Portland.
“Portland would be on a list, yeah,” he told reporters in Seattle recently. “If we were going to go to 32, we would need a western time zone team. We’d need at least one more.”
But Manfred has also said nice things about pretty much every other reasonably sized U.S. city that lacks a major league team, a list that includes Charlotte and San Antonio. He gets asked about expansion a lot and has also talked up several non-US cities.
“My personal sort of frontrunner would be either Montreal or Mexico City,” the commissioner said when asked during a game in Chicago in 2016. “I think it would be great for the growth of the game, Mexico City in particular would be new ground for us.”
And he’s said other things come first.
“In terms of sequencing the issues, it’s important to get Oakland and Tampa resolved before we move ahead with expansion,” he said.
“No Pity in the Rose City” is the motto of the Portland Timbers, the team that took over Providence Park as a soccer-only facility when it joined Major League Soccer – which in turn led to the departure of the Triple A Portland Beavers.
But the slogan might turn out to be apropos in baseball as well. Owners in Oakland and Tampa want new stadiums. It’s not clear how or whether they’re going to get them.
Proponents of a Portland ballpark say we need to be ready if opportunity comes knocking, whenever that happens.
“Look, this is not a sprint,” Atkinson said. “This is a long-term project. We’ve got a very long way to go.”
Even Mildner, the Portland State professor and Giants fan, said he does expect MLB to happen in Portland — eventually.
“It’s probably 20 years in the future,” Mildner said. “Once we’re closer to the population size of San Diego or Seattle, about twice the size of us, we will have a baseball franchise. We’ll be too big to ignore.”
Until then, baseball fans will have to wait ‘til next year. And probably many more years after that.