Backers of major league baseball in Portland say PGE Park is just the ticket; others say the stadium is too small Can a great minor league park step up and join the bigs?
For baseball players, moving from the minor leagues to the majors isn't an easy task. Many minor league stars have quickly faded after reaching the major leagues.
Similarly, PGE Park, considered by fans, players and baseball officials to be a superb minor league facility, would face a tough transition if enlisted to serve as a temporary home to a major league baseball team.
'It needs work,' said Bob Watson, whose Kansas City, Mo.-based design firm, HOK, is exploring stadium sites and designs for the Oregon Stadium Campaign, which wants to lure the Montreal Expos to Portland. 'It doesn't fit for major league baseball at all.'
Foremost, the 19,566-seat venue, much smaller than any current major league park, would face estimated facility renovation costs of between $10 million and $20 million. Such revisions would include adding extra seats and more corridor space.
There also is the dicey matter of determining who would pay. The figure easily could daunt a potential owner, who also might be expected to contribute $100 million-plus toward construction of a permanent Portland stadium.
'It seems obvious that the new owner would be asked to pay,' said Gary Conkling, a former Metropolitan Exposition-Recreation Commission member. The commission managed Civic Stadium before it became PGE Park in 2000.
'That would make finding an owner an even greater problem than it is now,' Conkling said.
Bobby Goldwater heads D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, which is competing with Portland to attract the Expos. He said PGE Park makes the larger but drab Robert F. Kennedy Stadium Ñ the proposed temporary home if the team relocates to Washington, D.C. Ñ seem like a bargaining chip.
'We think people inside baseball understand that RFK is the best existing facility that can immediately host a team,' Goldwater said. 'I don't think there's much doubt about that.'
That's not to say that PGE Park is hopeless for major league baseball. Indeed, players who have performed there in the past two seasons like it, according to Kevin Towers, general manager of the Portland Beavers' big league affiliate, the San Diego Padres.
The stadium's dimensions Ñ 319 feet down the left field line, 321 to right field and 405 to dead center field Ñ measure up to those in big league parks. Towers said he has heard no beefs about the Nexturf artificial playing surface or the lights, either.
The clubhouses 'are bigger than what we have at Qualcomm' Stadium in San Diego, he said.
And, because Major League Baseball spokesman Rich Levin said the league has no written standards regarding stadiums, it might take just a few on-the-field tweaks to make PGE Park pass major league muster.
'The good news is that PGE Park is a pretty nice minor league park,' said John Vosmek, a Portland architect who's working with HOK on various stadium designs.
As it stands, however, PGE Park's 19,566 baseball seats would serve as the majors' smallest multiseason venue since the Philadelphia Phillies abandoned the Baker Bowl in 1938.
It's also a tad smaller than the 20,000-seat Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which will be host for 22 Expos games this year.
A new Portland team owner probably would need to add as many as 5,000 seats to PGE Park, said Dennis Howard, a professor with the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. Even at 25,000 seats, the venue still would be the majors' smallest stadium since the Expos vacated the 28,436-seat Jarry Park in 1976.
It also would contain about 5,000 fewer seats than the 30,000-attendance average for baseball's 30 franchises last year.
'They could sell out the entire stadium all season and still finish third or fourth from the bottom in attendance,' Howard said. 'It would be very difficult for that team to make money.'
David Logsdon, the city's spectator facilities manager, agreed, noting that the mid-20,000 mark is 'still below the optimal number of seats.'
Many observers believe that temporary outfield bleachers could provide adequate seating. One set of bleachers probably would sit in the current Fred Meyer Family Deck in the left-field corner. Other bleachers could sit in the concourse immediately above the left-field wall, as well as over part of Southwest 18th Avenue.
'It could be cantilevered out over the street, and it could, after it's used, be relocated to a local high school field,' suggested Steve Fosler, a Portland architect and local baseball backer.
TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said the idea could fly if the city closed Southwest 18th Avenue to vehicle traffic during games. The MAX tracks that run behind the left-field wall require about 4 feet of clearance, she noted.
Space at a premium
Adding fans brings its own set of problems. Despite its recent $35 million remodeling Ñ in which new suites, turf and scoreboard were installed Ñ the park's corridors become nearly impassable when attendance hits five figures. Concession-stand customers block the concourses; restroom lines often snake past the seating bowl's entrances.
'Ten thousand people in the park just overwhelms the restrooms,' architect Vosmek said. 'And if toilets are overused, they get dirty real fast. That's definitely not 'major league quality.' That's not any kind of quality.'
Vosmek and Watson are studying the addition of corridors to run alongside the park, perhaps along Southwest 18th and 20th avenues. The corridors probably would contain temporary concession stands and toilets.
The idea could require TriMet approval because, as with extra bleachers, exterior corridors could impede MAX train service along 18th Avenue.
Two other stadium issues could emerge. PGE Park's makeshift 'press box,' which lines an aisle behind home plate, probably is too small and too open Ñ fans sit directly behind Beavers announcer Bill Schonely Ñ for major league tastes.
Then there's the Multnomah Athletic Club, whose members, like Chicago Cubs fans with rooftop views of Wrigley Field, have long watched various PGE Park events from the club's mezzanine. Major League Baseball lately has discouraged the practice in Chicago.
'Way too early to talk about that,' Steve Tidrick, MAC's general manager, said with a chuckle.
A neighborhood worries
While some worry about watching games for free, many PGE Park neighbors will watch to see how major league baseball affects their neighborhood.
Mark Niebur, for one, questions whether major league ball would make Goose Hollow a more livable place.
'If we take that as our charge, I think we'd have a hard time as a neighborhood association supporting it,' said Niebur, who leads the neighborhood's traffic and parking committee.
More fans mean more traffic, agreed Goose Hollow resident Marcus Simantel, which means less parking in an area already known for holding few spots.
'For Beavers games, it ended up being the usual group of people who knew their way around or took the MAX,' Simantel said. 'With the major leagues, it'll be a lot of folks who aren't regulars. I can just visualize the thousands of cars trolling for parking places.'
Others, like Fosler, fear that MAX trains won't be able to handle the crunch of fans that use the mode on game nights.
'If they have to stand around for a half-hour to avoid being crushed on the train, it might keep them from coming to another game,' he said.
Fetsch said TriMet would boost service, from six trains an hour to at least nine, for PGE Park games.
Then there's the issue of noise. Neighbors fear not only the roar of the crowd but the whoops of game-departing patrons.
Along those lines, Goose Hollow denizens hope that big league operators will adhere to a Good Neighbor Agreement like the one applied to the stadium's current managers.
Among other things, the agreement calls for PGE Park noise levels to remain below 80 decibels, for stadium operators to collect the area's litter and for no more than 10 'single-day special events,' such as concerts, within a calendar year.
Logsdon says big league ball might force the city to revamp the agreement. But some portions of it might become tougher. For instance, a parking provision that limits long-term space usage around the stadium to Goose Hollow residents might merit even more teeth.
As neighbors explore possible issues, they've found one common theme: Because the Beavers draw only about 6,500 fans to each game, it's unclear how larger crowds would affect Goose Hollow.
'No one knows what it would be like with (more fans),' said Jordan Schnitzer, president of Harsch Investment Properties LLC, which owns the neighborhood Portland Towers high-rise. 'We have big questions about the impact to the neighborhood.'
Still, many neighbors say a two- to three-season commitment might be acceptable. Or at least more acceptable than using the stadium as a permanent home, an option unveiled by the Oregon Stadium Campaign last week.
Baseball insiders agree that the stadium could be a short-term solution.
Michael Veeck, the baseball impresario who briefly helped run the Portland Beavers, contended that PGE Park's size actually can be a virtue.
'Instead of widening the concourses, they should make sure the suites are sold out,' he said. 'A full house is good. A lot of people in a stadium causes a lot of excitement.'