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Riverside Gets Pitch for Pro Baseball Team

September 28, 2004|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Riverside, the birthplace of San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, could have its own pro team to cheer for next year. A newly formed minor league organization has approached city officials about bringing a team to Riverside.

"It could only enhance the city," Councilman Ed Adkison said.

The council today will consider whether to support a proposal to bring a team to the city, which has produced some baseball legends but has a losing record when it comes to supporting minor league teams.

In addition to Barry Bonds, his father, Bobby, the late All-Star outfielder, and Chicago Cubs Manager Dusty Baker were born in Riverside. The city has been the temporary home for several UC Riverside players who went on to the major leagues, including Anaheim Angels relief pitcher Troy Percival.

Jerry Schoenfeld, founder of the newly formed West Coast Baseball League, approached Riverside officials this year about bringing an independent team, with no major league team affiliation, to the city to play in 2005 or 2006.

The league is expected to field eight teams throughout California, Arizona and Nevada, although Schoenfeld has not signed any contracts. He said he was on the verge of signing three leases but declined to reveal those cities.

Another independent league, the Golden Baseball League, announced this month that Fullerton and Long Beach were among the eight cities that would field teams for its inaugural season, which begins in May. The Fullerton team would be Orange County's first independent team since the Mission Viejo Vigilantes, which disbanded in 1998.

Chris Bitters, assistant general manager of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, said independent minor league teams can face an uphill battle, but there were examples of successful teams across the nation.

"There's some teams that do very well. The St. Paul Saints draw extremely well," he said. "It really boils down to the product you put out."

Schoenfeld, former general manager of the Long Beach Breakers, agrees.

"If you go out and put a good product on the field, get people wanting to come to the stadium and [provide] inexpensive, good family entertainment, the people are going to come. If you don't do that, then you're going to fail."

However, minor league baseball has had a checkered history in Riverside. The Riverside Red Wave, a farm team for the San Diego Padres, played from 1988 to 1990 before moving to Adelanto. The Riverside Pilots, an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, played from 1993 to 1995 before moving to Lancaster.

A Minor League Baseball official, who asked not to be identified, said the main reason teams left Riverside was because they suffered financially by playing at UC Riverside, where they were not allowed to sell alcohol.

It's unclear where a new team would play; UC Riverside rejected Schoenfeld's bid to play at the university. He is exploring playing at Cal Baptist University, and also the possibility of encouraging investors and the city to build a stadium, which he estimated would cost $6 million to $10 million.Council members said they would need far more information to even consider financing a stadium.

"Those are awfully expensive," Councilman Art Gage said. "Whether we would be able to do that and make that work, I don't know. I'd need a lot more information."

UC Riverside baseball coach Doug Smith, who has played or coached at the school for more than three decades, said a Riverside team would face competition from the Anaheim Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as from major league farm teams in Lake Elsinore, Rancho Cucamonga and San Bernardino.

Councilman Dom Betro questioned whether the city should be thinking more aggressively, courting a farm team or even a major league franchise. He said the 3 million residents in the Inland Empire could easily support a team.

"I think it's going to happen someday out here. The question is will Riverside be in the forefront of making that happen, or are we going to let someone else take the reins?" he said.

At Riverside Batting Cages & Pro Shop, employee Jeff Kellman said a local team would provide a cheap alternative to the occasional Angels games he attends.

"I would definitely go see them," he said. "We definitely need more activities out here."

J.D. Elmquist, a Moreno Valley resident who said he attended at least 40 games a year when Riverside had local teams, is now a season ticket holder for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. He said he would return to Riverside if the city landed a team.

"There are tons of fans right now who go to San Bernardino or Rancho Cucamonga or simply won't make the trip anymore, but if it were someplace closer, would definitely go," he said.

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