Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dear John, let the Beavers go. Love, a baseball fan

Where does the idea come from that the City of Portland, as an administrative unit, has some special responsibility to Triple A baseball and the Portland Beavers?  Monday was blame-game day in John Canzano's sports column in The Oregonian, which is hardly news since his column enjoys pointing (not to mention wagging or giving) its finger more than just about anything. The object of his contempt was Mayor Sam Adams and the rest of City Council (except for Randy Leonard), who somehow let slip the opportunity to give a large public subsidy to the owner of Portland Beavers, Merritt Paulson, in the form of a brand new baseball stadium. Which is why I'm asking: Where does the idea of a special responsibility to the Beavers come from?

After the invective (Adams is apparently, sputter, sputter, an "empty suit') and the red herrings (Beau Breedlove in a cameo appearance, the aerial tram and our "silly bike lanes"), Canzano's strange argument is that somehow we need Triple A baseball to "raise the city's profile." Um, right. We will now plunge below Tacoma and Reno and Fresno, in the category of "profile."  And our hot battle for profile supremacy with Nashville, Memphis, Omaha and New Orleans is now lost for good. Those are some of the other cities in the Pacific Coast League, which also included the Portland Beavers. We use the past tense because the team won't play here next year or anytime in the definite future, for those who haven't been paying a bit of attention to this sideshow.

Canzano argued that Adams and the "visionless" city council didn't "think big." Really? That's it? Triple A baseball is thinking big? In Portland the Beavers have been an afterthought since the mid-'80s. If they'd been central to summer sports life here, then Canzano himself and the assembled media, The Oregonian included, would have covered the team far more religiously than they did.  If the metro area, which 2.2 million strong, had generated more than a bare few thousand fans a game, no one would have had to "think big," because the owner would have made sure they survived here somehow.

That also happened to be both the free market and democracy at work (sometimes it works out that way).  The people voted with their attendance, with their attention, and it wasn't directed at the Beavers. Now, why would a city council and its mayor overturn the will of the people? Only if they were in the pocket of a special interest of some sort, I suspect, or pursuing some crazy field of dreams inside their own heads. 

Canzano wanted city council to force you to spend your money on the Portland Beavers when you'd decided of your own volition not to do so. And his only reason for doing so is this misguided notion that Triple A baseball raises our profile somehow?  Uh no. That's not convincing, its not reasonable and in the end, it's not democratic.

I write this as a baseball fan. If the Mariner's Triple A affiliate was in Portland instead of Tacoma, I would have gone to lots of games this season, because I follow the dismal fortunes of Seattle's allegedly major league team. But my interest does not mean that city council should pay for my pleasure.

The only part of Canzano's column that made any sense to me at all was the first sentence: "I would love to write about Satchel Paige today." That's the problem. The Beavers are in the deep past tense. They may kindle the nostalgic reveries of old baseball fans, but they aren't part of a dynamic present tense, and an expensive new baseball stadium wouldn't have helped. 

Bottom line? It would have been a dereliction of duty by city council if they had allowed my nostalgia -- or Canzano's -- to dictate public policy or to base a decision on so scant a claim as Canzano makes about how our profile is connected to Triple A baseball.

Other links:

Brian Libby explains the false choice that Randy Leonard and Canzano were trying to force -- a new Beaver stadium or Memorial Coliseum.

The Portland Mercury weighs in, scathingly.


Bob said...

Also speaking s a baseball fan, the way too often ignored trouble is that baseball effectively killed off its minor leagues several decades ago, when it decided that the object wasn't winning at the AAA, AA, A or (remember these?) B, C, and D levels but simply developing players for the big-league team. Once upon a time the Pacific Coast League was open classification and teams kept the same players for several seasons: some players liked it so much that they just kept signing with the Seals or the Stars or the Beavers even when they might have made major-league rosters. Today, you not only can't tell a minor league team's players from season to season, you often can't tell from week to week. And a team's success isn't judged by win-loss record by how well particular blue-chip players are progressing. If the organizations and teams don't care whether the team wins or loses, why should the fans? Especially if most fans don't know when they walk into the ballpark who's going to be on the team?

Brian Libby said...

Bravo, Barry!

Barry Johnson said...

Bob, You're exactly right. The Beaver roster this year as the Padres have competed for a playoff spot (surprisingly) has been in total flux all year. Which isn't that different from last year when the Padres' record was dreadful. (The Beavers are a minor league affiliate of the Padres.) I think Canzano wanted to write about Satchel Paige because he couldn't remember the names of any current Beavers. This makes "following" a "team" practically impossible.

Thanks, Brian!

Anonymous said...

I'm not a baseball fan so I don't have a horse in this race, but after cruising around your blog a little, I felt compelled to comment as a sports fan.

You write:

"That also happened to be both the free market and democracy at work (sometimes it works out that way). The people voted with their attendance, with their attention, and it wasn't directed at the Beavers."

Yet in a previous article still on your blog, you ask whether to subsidize art of not. You write:

"I envy the rich subsidies that European countries lavish on the arts. It leads me to believe that they understand the deep, widespread cultural benefits that the arts supply, not to mention the tangential economic benefits in the form of tourism they attract."

These intangible cultural benefits aren't so different than what Dwight Jaynes had to say in support of the Stadium:

"My belief is that stadiums — like mass transit, streetcars, trams, convention centers, public squares, zoos, opera houses and so many other things — are part of what makes a city special. Most people in most cities agree with me, by the way. It’s why there are so many nice arenas and stadiums sprinkled throughout the world. They are just one more thing that adds to the quality of life where you choose to make your home."

The justification for funding sports and funding the arts is not so dissimilar. In both cases, you'll have people argue that we shouldn't spend money on them.

In both cases, if the decision was simply left up to free market and democracy, we probably wouldn't have either.

Barry Johnson said...

grigs, thanks for your careful reading and thoughtful comment.

Some cultures will privilege professional sports -- Texas and New Jersey, for example. Some won't, and Portland is among them for now. The will of the people was not thwarted by our decision not to subsidize a baseball stadium. I'm fine with that, though I myself like the occasional baseball game.

Sports and the arts share some similarities but they are also very different. Basketball isn't intended as an exploration of Fate and the way narratives shift as "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is (among other things). The arts intend to get at the very heart of human experience. Baseball is a human experience, but it isn't a comment on human experience in and of itself.

Portland's democracy has voted for both sports stadiums and performing arts facilities (Memorial Coliseum and the performing arts center), not to mention one of the best library systems in the country. We can decide that some things are important to us, just as we can decide that some things aren't.

All I can say about Dwight's argument is that it wasn't persuasive. We choose to apply ourselves in other ways than building stadiums for wealthy owners to play with. What Texas does is not a good argument here, apparently, certainly not in this economy.

I do wish we could do some substantial things together. One of them would be to support the arts more so more of us can attend concerts and plays and exhibitions. I hate that some of us can't participate in the arts because they can't afford it (which is why I envy the European model). But until the democracy goes along with me on that, it won't happen. I'll keep trying to change people's minds about it in my poor way.

JC said...

The part I don't get is, didn't Adams and Leonard successfully use their political capital, vision, leadership and political horse-trading abilities to make soccer happen in the first place?

Barry Johnson said...

JC, well, yes, that is the context of this, isn't it? Thanks for reminding us. The Big Idea in operation for Paulson and city council was Major League Soccer, and that idea dislodged the Beavers from PGE Park. At one point Paulson tried to play, er, hardball with the mayor by suggesting that he wouldn't go through with the MLS deal without a new baseball stadium deal in place, but that stance didn't survive the news cycle that day, as I recall. For Paulson, MLS is a far bigger deal than Triple A, and I suspect it is for Portland as well.