Rob Nelson on the Future (and Could-Have Been Past) of Pro Baseball in Portland
I recently talked with Rob Nelson, the co-creator of Big League Chew shredded bubble gum, Portland Mavericks pitcher (and pitching coach) in the mid-1970s, and all-around fixture of Portlandâ€™s baseball scene. Our conversation centered on Big League Chew and the Mavs, but we also eventually got around to the plight of pro baseball in Portland and Nelsonâ€™s idea for getting at least a stopgap solution to the void left by the disappearance of the Beavers. I started by asking: Why has Portland struggled to keep a AAA team over the past couple decades?
Nelsonâ€™s response: â€œPortland, it considers itself a big league city; itâ€™s a sophisticated city, that doesnâ€™t feel inferior to letâ€™s say San Diego, except for the weather. A big league city, not an AAA-ball city. The low-level hockey of the Winterhawks, andÂ A ball; it does resonate here. Itâ€™s younger players giving it their all, and the effort is certainly big league level. Itâ€™s like community theater; you donâ€™t expect to see Laurence Olivier, but the people are passionate.
â€œIn AAA youâ€™re trying to get to the big leagues, San Diego. The money is so great at the major league level: the players can taste the potential. Itâ€™s a quantum leap in terms of salary, prestige. On an A-ball team, people would be giving it their all. It would cost a family $30 a night, the same as a movie. AAA ball doesnâ€™t work because the players are so close to the big leagues they donâ€™t want to be here, and it really shows. Fans know that, they can figure it out.
â€œIn A ball you have an affinity for the players; if you see them in June, you know theyâ€™ll be there all year. We would be the summer interlude between the Trail Blazers and college football.”
Nelson added: â€œThere were other issues with the Beavers leaving: the Timbers were pushing to change PGE Park, MLS wanted soccer-only venues in their league; and Merritt Paulson wasnâ€™t being totally straight with the city fathers. He felt the future was soccer, not baseball. And he wanted $45, $50 million for a new ballpark.
â€œBut for the players, thereâ€™s no money in pro soccer. The players on the Timbers, the Seattle Sounders, theyâ€™re as exploited as any pro sports player in North America. Itâ€™s no secret that there are going to be serious labor issues with MLS coming up. But, the thing with MLS is you get players who want to be the local hero, so, for now, theyâ€™re willing to play for so little.
â€œPaulson could have spent $15, $20 million for renovations at PGE. He has no shortage of fundsâ€”his dad was Treasury Secretary, he has people he can call and get support. If he really wanted to, he could have funded a ball park privately, as they did in St. Louis and San Francisco.
â€œPortland could use a white knight (no pun intended). Paul Allen, Phil Knight: if they were big baseball fans, there could be built a 35,000, 38,000 seat stadium for major league baseball, but theyâ€™re not interested.
â€œI think Portland will get a major league team when MLB expands to 32 teams. If you look at the demographics here, compared to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Montreal back when the Expos were leaving, or Tampa, Oakland: theyâ€™re better than those cities.â€
In the meantime, Nelson is trying to bring back short season A ball to Portland. He points out that Seattle has set a precedent the city could follow: losing its pro team (in Seattleâ€™s case the Pilots), bringing in an A-ball team for a handful of years, then building a new stadium to host a major league team (Miami and Tampa also had A ball before landing an MLB team).
His idea is that Portland should build about a 4,200-seat park (possibly called Stumptown Grounds, or Tom McCall Park), to be used primarily for youth sports, music festivals, theater, and other community events. Then, in the summer months, the A-ball team will play its home games there. Nelson says his plan is for the park to be â€œ90 percent of the time accessible to the citizens, with 40 or 45 days for the minor league team.â€ He adds: â€œA ball is clear-cut, squeaky clean kids, college guys, family entertainment.Â Itâ€™s a nice summer evening activity watching first-year players compete to the best of their ability. Good athletes performing as hard as they can.â€
As an aside, Nelson told a very surprising story about the effort to bring a major league team to Portland in the late â€˜70s. He says, â€œBack in 1977, Bing Russell (the Mavericksâ€™ owner) was working with a Hollywood consortiumâ€”it included Elvis and Bill Cosbyâ€”to buy the Chicago White Sox. Bill Veeck wasÂ inÂ ill health, and rumors were the White Sox were available. It would have been a $17 million deal. But Elvis died that August, and it was over, the deal was off. Elvis, he liked Westerns, including Bonanza (the tv show Russell had starred on in the â€˜60s): he and Bing had more than a passing friendship. When I came back from a road trip, I spoke with Bing, and he said, â€˜People donâ€™t know how close we were.â€™â€