This is not a big-league town

TWO VIEWS • Is Portland's love of baseball enough to float a major league team, or are fans just dreaming when they say it'll work here?

'If people don't want to come out to the park, no one's going to stop 'em.'

Ñ Yogi Berra

Go ahead. Build it. They won't come.

In the debate about financing a new baseball stadium and where we might put it, no one seems to have given much thought to who is going to fill it. Not only is there little evidence that Portlanders would support a major league baseball team, there's plenty of evidence that they wouldn't.

OK, it's true that the occasional major league exhibition game here draws a good crowd. But, heck, so did Michael Dukakis Ñ once.

Put simply, Portland is not a baseball town. The long, sad history of Portland's minor league teams illustrates that.

Almost every current major league city had a long record of supporting minor league baseball before receiving a big league franchise. What is Portland's record? In the last three decades, we have twice lost Pacific Coast League franchises because of lack of support.

Some dreamers say Seattle serves as an example of what can happen here. They're right Ñ but not in the way they think they are. Seattle lost one major league franchise, the Pilots, after only one year Ñ a major league record, you could look it up.

On top of that, Seattle nearly lost its current team, the Mariners, just a few years ago. Only the combination of a local economic boom, a colossal new stadium, new ownership with deep pockets and a winning team has kept baseball in Seattle.

Well, the bloom is off the economic rose in Seattle, just as it is here. If its recently overachieving team should again start losing consistently, we'd see how much of an attraction a new stadium represented all by itself.

That would be important, since, of the four legs that have recently propped up the Mariners, all that Portland would likely have to offer is that imagined stadium.

Major league baseball teams need something like 30,000 fans in the seats every night as a base for financial respectability. But those fans only begin to cover the revenue needs of a franchise. The real money comes from TV and radio contracts.

Seattle's often-shaky franchise has relied on a population base far larger than Portland's and a radio and television audience that stretches deep into Oregon. Do we really think that a Portland team can survive on a fraction of the audience that has barely sustained Seattle? Not likely.

I love baseball. It gave me my childhood heroes and has brought me many hours of rich enjoyment as an adult. It is the only sport I follow. In my heart, I'd love nothing more than to see a major league team in my hometown. In my head, I know that if it comes, I'd better catch it quick. It won't be here long.

Steve Holgate, who says he was the worst right fielder in Tigard Little League history, is retired from the U.S. Foreign Service. He lives in Southwest Portland.