STRIKING OUT ON A STADIUM

"Phoenix is a nice place to visit in winter," Jerome Holtzman was saying, "but don't expect to get a major league baseball team down there anytime soon." Holtzman of the Chicago Tribune is the acknowledged dean of the country's baseball writers. Regarded as among the most knowledgeable and best connected of all the writers, he will be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame this summer.

"I figure that Florida and Denver will be the first two places to get teams," he said.

"Somewhere down the line, Phoenix could possibly get a team, too. But certainly not until the year 2001." Holtzman wanted to know about the Phoenix plan to build a stadium.

He shook his head in wonderment when told that it would not be a domed stadium.

"I'd say that if Phoenix won't build a dome, they can forget about it. There's no way the other major league owners would approve any franchise that didn't play down there in a dome. It's just too hot in Phoenix in the summer to consider anything else.

"It would be unfair to the visiting team and career-shortening for the Phoenix players who had to perform there all season long," he said.

Holtzman was speaking as someone who likes to see baseball played the old-fashioned way--on the grass.

"They made a mistake when they built the dome in Minnesota," he said. "That ballpark in Bloomington was a great place to watch a game. This new place in Minneapolis is a catastrophe. And what did they save by going into a dome? Probably an average of three or four rainouts a year." Holtzman thinks that it is really the warm-climate cities that actually require protection from the elements.

"In the North, people prepare themselves against the cold and rain," he said. "They pack Wrigley Field when it's in the forties and a cold wind is blowing off the lakefront. They do the same in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.

"But how do you protect yourself against 115 degrees in the shade unless you have air conditioning?

"I really disliked the Houston Astrodome when it opened. I still do. But I now realize that it was the only way that major league baseball could survive down there. It will be the same thing with Phoenix, too.

"They will not become a major league city unless they are willing to spend the money to build a dome and the additional money for the air conditioning to cool it." I offer these remarks from Holtzman, a dispassionate observer, as a word of caution to the politicians and deal makers who want to add construction costs of a stadium to your annual tax bill.

There are some other things working against the effort to gain a big league franchise here, too.

Just how much credibility does anyone think that Martin F. Stone, the owner of the Phoenix Firebirds, actually has with anyone at the top level of baseball?

To them, he's a resident of upstate New York with highly questionable financing. That he has promised to move to Tucson if awarded a franchise means absolutely nothing to anybody. The most critical question is why Stone thinks he deserves the time of day. He's a nobody with no track record.

And why would baseball people listen to a sales talk from Joe Garagiola Jr.? What makes him an expert on anything?

Besides, baseball people have already decided they have heard more than enough talk about baseball from his father, who has suddenly become Bryant Gumbel's best friend.

That's a friendship that will be sorely tested within the next few months if Gumbel gets canceled, as he most certainly should.

Arizona would be better off to concentrate on saving the state as a spring training center. If the legislators and the Board of Supervisors decide to blow all their money on the construction of a stadium, they are asking for trouble.

The baseball teams which train here regularly each spring are already being wooed by small Florida cities to move their spring training operations.

The only thing that will keep teams like the Chicago Cubs, Oakland Athletics, Cleveland Indians, and San Francisco Giants from departing here will be a constant infusion of capitol.

Does anyone think it's possible to spend $100 million or more on a baseball facility and still have the other millions required to make constant updates on the existing spring training facilities?

We are constantly being assured that no taxpayer money will be spent until a major league franchise is in the bag.

Why should we believe the politicians will keep their word? Once that money starts going through the tubes they will find a way to get their hands on it.

There will be an emergency. There will be a necessity to show good faith. And before you know it, they will be breaking ground.

There will be a big campaign to convince us we are doing the right thing. I can visualize the television spots now: "If You Build a Stadium, They Will Come." Kevin Costner, star of Field of Dreams, will be brought into town to kick off the drive.

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