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Scoffers say no, and support needs to emerge, but city could be a candidate if MLB expands

COURTESY: BARRY SMITH - An architect's rendering shows how a 38,000-seat Major League Baseball stadium might fit into the Rose Quarter. But to get a franchise, Portland would need to attract an owner and demonstrate the political drive for a team.Speaking at a Baseball Writers Association of America luncheon during major league All-Star week in Cincinnati, Commissioner Rob Manfred said he is open to the possibility of expansion and, if necessary, relocation of existing franchises.

“Maybe one of the reasons I got this job is, I’m bullish on the game,” said Manfred, who assumed his position a year ago. “I think we are in a growth business, broadly defined. Over an extended period of time, growth businesses look to get bigger. So yeah, I’m open to the idea that there will be a point in time where expansion may be possible.”

As for relocation, Manfred said he doesn’t want to move the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland Athletics — the two franchises with poor attendance and stadium issues — but if logistics demand a move, the league wants to be prepared. He said MLB’s analysis of other prospective cities will “examine their viability, think about what we can do to make them more viable, so that we have business alternatives if they are available to us.”

In ESPN reports from the meeting, eight sites were identified as “possible new venues,” including Montreal, San Antonio, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, northern New Jersey, Mexico City ... and Portland.

So could it happen: The City of Roses lands an MLB franchise? Lynn Lashbrook thinks the possibility has never been better.

“We have put ourselves on the radar on a level we’ve not had in the past,” says Lashbrook, a Portland resident and president of Sports Management Worldwide, a sports agency and online sports career training school. “We’re respected more in baseball on this campaign than we’ve been in the past. I’m more confident today than I’ve ever been. We’re now on a new level of conversation.”

Perhaps. But as near as I can tell, Manfred didn’t specifically identify any of the potential candidate cities listed by ESPN. General consensus is Portland would be considered if expansion or relocation were to occur, but again, the commissioner wasn’t quoted about any of the cities.

We’ve gone through this dance before.

Lashbrook was one of the drivers of the Oregon Baseball Campaign that sought relocation of the Montreal Expos to Portland in 2003. The group spearheaded passage of House Bill 3606, which would allocate $150 million in funds tied to MLB players’ income tax revenue to construction of a new stadium. Those funds, incidentally, are still available for use, though $150 million in today’s dollars doesn’t mean what it did then.

It was all for naught. The Expos spurned Portland for the nation’s capital, moving to Washington, D.C., in 2005 and becoming the Nationals.

A year ago, with the stadium situations in Tampa Bay and Oakland in peril, I wrote about a renewed drive spearheaded by Lashbrook and a pair of cohorts — architect/real estate broker Barry Smith and former major league scout Larry D’Amato — to bring a team to Portland.

Since then, Lashbrook, Smith and D’Amato have been working behind the scenes to keep alive their dream of landing major league baseball here, either through expansion or relocation.

Over the past year, the trio says it has been in contact with major league officials, though they say they can’t name names.

“The only thing we can’t talk about is the people we’ve been talking to confidentially,” Smith says.

Smith says MLB officials are taking Portland seriously. He says some representatives from the commissioner’s office have come to meet with his group to check out the city and potential sites for a baseball stadium.

“Our biggest problem has been that nobody knows about Portland,” Smith says. “Every time we have visitors come here, they go nuts. We pick them up, take them on light rail, have lunch, look over the city and talk about the possibilities.

“Our timing is really good. We have a new commissioner who is open to change. Whatever path it takes, we’ll continue to keep Portland on the menu.”

Portland is the 22nd-largest television market in the country. Orlando (19) and Sacramento (20) are the only larger markets that don’t have major league baseball. Pittsburgh (23), Baltimore (26), San Diego (28), Kansas City (31), Cincinnati (34) and Milwaukee (35) are smaller markets that do, though all have had established franchises since at least the 1960s. Other U.S. cities mentioned — Charlotte (24), San Antonio (37) and Las Vegas (42) — are smaller.

But Portland doesn’t have a stadium, or a well-heeled local businessman who wants to be an owner, or political leaders who seem tuned into what major league baseball could drive in the city.

“We were advised last year in order to get more credibility to our efforts that someone from a political position in Oregon should write a letter to the commissioner and invite him to Oregon,” Smith says. Former governor “John Kitzhaber did that to Bud Selig and to (his successor) Manfred. There was a response letter from Manfred to the governor saying, ‘I’d love to come out.’

“We’ve since gone back and made sure the current governor’s office is aware we’ve done this. It’s a huge step.”

Darren Rovell didn’t deliver the reports from Manfred’s meeting with the media in Cincinnati. But the respected ESPN business reporter is an educated voice on the subject of expansion and relocation in baseball. I asked him if he thinks we’ll see either happen in the next few years.

“It would seem like that would be the case,” Rovell said, “but (in terms of expansion), I don’t know how much more baseball can command.

“Manfred’s hallmark since he took over has been that everything is open for discussion. I was shocked when I asked him in his first 20 days, ‘Can you imagine shortening the season?’ He said, ‘Yeah, maybe to 154 games.’ Bud Selig wouldn’t give you anything like that.

“Part of me thinks (Manfred) sometimes says things to be open and be the anti-Selig. At some point, we’re going to figure out exactly how serious he is.”

Rovell said most stadiums in recent years have been built through public/private partnerships that have meant cities have contributed major dollars to the project.

“The biggest issue is, the sweetheart deals are starting to run out,” he said. “Politicians can’t railroad these deals without the taxpayers weighing in. It used to be really fashionable to railroad something through to score a team. Now the public is smarter than that.”

Are there prospective owners willing to foot the entire bill?

“I don’t believe so,” Rovell said. “Figure an expansion fee as about $800 million. Then you have the cost of a new stadium. Owners want to see if they can get some sort of sweetheart deal.”

I asked Rovell if he considers Portland a viable candidate. He says it’s a difficult question to answer.

“It would help if you had a prospective owner who has established himself there,” Rovell said. “That person could be (Timbers owner) Merritt Paulson, if he’s interested. Given the success of the Timbers, perhaps something could be pulled off with him in a leadership position.”

Paulson was owner of the Triple-A Beavers from 2007-10 before he sold them to turn his attention to soccer. In a recent conversation, Paulson told me for now he’s not interested in major league baseball under the current financial climate, questioning the high costs of building a stadium and running a team and a shortage of corporate support in the state.

Other sources wonder if major league baseball is simply using Portland and other “potential” cities as leverage to pressure the Rays and A’s to get stadium projects done, or to get larger cities such as Montreal on the stick. Smith doesn’t believe that to be the case, noting that two cities will be added if expansion were to occur.

“Portland is better-positioned than any of the cities that have been mentioned,” he says. “I’m worried about who the second city is, because I don’t think anybody else has its act together.

“Montreal is not a serious candidate. Until the Quebec separatist issue (a provincial sovereignty movement) is settled, you’re not going to receive the infrastructure investments in Montreal. Nobody knows where to spend the money because you don’t know where the population is going.”

Broadcaster Harold Reynolds has mixed emotions about major league baseball in his home state.

“I’ve been so removed from Portland for 30 years,” says Reynolds, 54, a Corvallis native now working for FOX Sports and the MLB Network. “I go back now, I’m amazed how big it is, and it continues to grow. There may be enough baseball fans there to support it, I’m not sure.

“But Seattle is so close, and I would worry about territorial rights. I don’t think ownership is the problem. There’s money like we’ve never seen before. The biggest challenge for Portland isn’t a stadium, it’s the Seattle Mariners.”

Lashbrook says that’s not an issue, citing several regions of the country with two teams, including Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

“There is no territorial rights problem,” he says. “You could share broadcast rights with Seattle. It’s negotiable.”

Adds Smith: “It’s going to be about television revenue. You can triple the revenue by promoting regional rivalries.”

Rovell says he knows Lashbrook and is aware of his ongoing quest for major league baseball in Portland.

“But that’s been going on for a decade,” Rovell says. “I like Lynn. He’s very passionate. He’s been doing it forever. It doesn’t seem to mean anything without real money.”

In 1992, Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Yamauchi became majority owner of the Mariners to keep them from being sold to a group planning to move them to St. Petersburg, Fla. Perhaps real money could come from somebody with similar interests abroad.

“There’s an international marketplace that could benefit Portland if things change,” Rovell says. “Maybe the world getting smaller benefits Portland, if there’s another Asian owner who wants to get in.”

Lashbrook believes there is that very possibility.

“It’s logical the next MLB owner could be a zillionaire from somewhere outside North America,” he says. “What we need to do is identify an owner. I’m the broker here without a contract. It’s a political issue.

“Our consultants say the profile of Nike, Under Armour and Adidas here makes us an even stronger city. Baseball needs Portland. Owning a franchise is a very good investment. Prospective international owners are in line. Our job is to get baseball to put us on the radar, which we’ve done.”

Smith likens the quest to find ownership that wants a team in Portland to a golf scramble.

“What the developers, the people who finance these things and the teams want is somebody to come up and hit the long drive,” he says. “They want somebody else to get as close to the pin as possible, so they can step up and tap in for a birdie. They don’t want to commit to a situation that’s a sinkhole of an effort. They want credible proposals so they can evaluate them and know if they can select one and move forward and know what the issues are ahead.”

D’Amato worked for 33 years as a scout with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, the New York Yankees and Houston and owns four World Series championship rings. He retains ties to major league baseball and says he has had many discussions with owners who like the idea of another team on the West Coast.

“Three different owners have said, ‘I’d love to have Portland,’” D’Amato says. “One owner told me, ‘I’ll get you the votes.’ We have a genuine opportunity here.”

Smith says his group is spending 20 hours a week, working on all aspects of bringing major league baseball to Portland. There are several potential sites for a stadium, he says, that could work. The preference is for it in the downtown core, where light rail could come into play.

“It takes five years to get an expansion team,” he says. “Or, if a team agrees it will relocate, we can have a stadium built for them in a five-year cycle. We’re working to be in position to invite a team to come and have something ready for them when they need it. We have a competitive advantage because of our ability to have great sites, and it doesn’t cost as much to build here.

“This is not a sports deal. This is a real estate deal. This is about having a location in a viable city. I have a listing on Portland as a real-estate broker, and I’m selling Portland. We show them opportunities. We show them the potential to succeed. We have a great marketplace. We just have to start figuring out the problems of what happens if they say ‘yes.’”

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