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Expansion Team Dreams of Field

General manager of a potential minor league ball club seeks a site in Santa Clarita, hoping to hit a home run with developers, residents.

March 28, 2006|Andrew H. Malcolm | Times Staff Writer

If you build it, they will come.

Ah, but Santa Clarita isn't Iowa. Where do you find enough open, flat land for a minor league baseball field with room for about 2,500 people -- and their cars -- in an exploding suburb?

That's Craig Duswalt's challenge.

He's the general manager of a potential Golden Baseball League expansion team that has no players, no name and, for the moment, no place to play. His job is to find 20 acres in Santa Clarita to change all that.

"I think finding money may be easier than finding the right land," he said.

It's a familiar theme for many American urban areas where a steady flow of people is trying to squeeze into limited space. Santa Clarita, a city of more than 165,000, 26 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, was once a sleepy collection of onion fields that stretched between craggy hillsides.

Now the 52-square-mile city, gets about 100 new residents every week -- its population increased 49% between 1990 and 2004. Its residents need schools, streets, stores and services more than onions. So there goes the affordable flat land, acre after acre.

But another need of the growing suburb is entertainment. And that has attracted the attention of some baseball entrepreneurs.

The Golden Baseball League is a year-old collection of six independent minor league baseball teams that sprang from a business-class assignment completed by Stanford University graduate students Dave Kaval and Amit Patel. Both are avid fans aware of the mushrooming popularity of minor league baseball, with its $5 tickets, $3 beer and imaginative family-night promotions.

Offering A-level ball with former pros, such as Rickey Henderson, but without major league affiliations, the Golden League attracted roughly 450,000 fans across Southern California and Arizona over an inaugural 80-game season. The league is adding a team in Reno this year. Next year's expansion could include Santa Clarita.

"When a serious proposal comes forward, we're definitely open to discussions," said Rick Gould, director of the city's Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department. "We know a team can be a real economic engine."

The city, which is actually an amalgam of Valencia, Newhall, Saugus and Canyon Country, seems ripe for such an attraction. Already the home of Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, the area has a growing number of affluent households seeking family activities without long treks and huge price tags.

In recent years, the community has spawned its own symphony, chorale and performing arts center. It also has a vast Little League baseball program that could generate attendance. Many high school football games are held in the local junior college stadium because they draw such large crowds.

"We've got everything here," Duswalt said, "except a place to play."

The original target for opening day was May 2007. Because it takes most of a year to get organized, that date may push to 2008.

Besides hiring players and selling tickets, fielding a team takes, well, a field -- 15 acres minimum; 20 acres is better. To help scout for sites, Duswalt formed a board of advisors made up of local business people, lawyers, real estate agents and sports enthusiasts, including Kevin Malone, a former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager.

At a recent meeting, Duswalt introduced Kaval, the league founder and chief executive. Kaval said the league and its teams are centrally owned by a dozen investors, including Pat Sajak, host of "Wheel of Fortune," and Christian Okoye, a former National Football League running back. They envision three 10-team divisions in the West, primarily the Southwest, within a decade.

Revenue comes from a Safeway Stores sponsorship and ticket sales and concessions, mainly beer and hot dogs, plus the sale of players' minor league contracts to major league farm systems. This year, he said, 30 Golden League players moved up.

Kaval said two studies found that a team generates about $4 million in local economic spin-offs each season. But the game, with performing mascots and between-inning activities, is more than a sports contest, the studies said.

"It's an entertainment experience," Kaval said. "Forty percent of our attendees don't know the score when they leave."

One suggestion, to start taking $100 deposits on season tickets to indicate a groundswell of support for a new team, was promptly adopted.

Then Duswalt and Kaval toured half a dozen potential ballpark sites.

Not just any flat piece of land will work. The selection process involves the varied interests of landowners, financiers and developers, as well as zoning, urban renewal and flood-plain restrictions.

First up was an abandoned oil refinery in Newhall along California 14. It had nearby freeway access but a craggy, steeply sloping topography and the need for oil-spill cleanup. An adjacent open piece of the same property was better but contained oak trees that would have to be preserved.

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