Diamondbacks versus Taxpayers: Nine Stadium Issues That Will Determine If the Team is Out

The Diamondbacks say Chase Field is an antiquated stadium.
The Diamondbacks say Chase Field is an antiquated stadium. Jim Louvau
It is crunch time for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

So said sports columnist Dan Bickley, and Bickley would know.

“Now comes their moment of truth,” Bickley wrote last week in the Arizona Republic. “By nightfall on August 17, you will know much more about their staying power.”

He was postulating about a key series of 20 season-defining games against top opponents. He could just as well been describing the stuffy courtrooms of the Maricopa County Superior Court.

That’s where a franchise-defining duel of sorts is playing out this week, with another at-bat scheduled today. On the mound, the county is staring down its biggest hitter, the Diamondbacks.

If the Diamondbacks get their way, the pitch is out of the park, and so are they. They have filed suit hoping to break their lease 11 years early and look for a stadium somewhere else, claiming the county saddled the team with a massive, unfunded repair bill to Chase Field.

But the county has a potentially devastating sinker: The franchise cannot sue. A long-standing stadium agreement forces the two parties into binding arbitration and the case should be tossed, the county says.

As always, the fans and taxpayers are in their bleachers shaking their heads at yet another rerun of a now classic squeeze- lay. How many times has a sports team threatened to pull up stakes if a county or city didn’t (read: you, dear taxpayer) cough up a new or improved stadium? Any San Diego — cough, splutter, choke — Chargers fans out there?

So here we go again, sports fans.

This time, the D-backs say Chase is a mess and needs $185 million in upkeep to prevent it from being unsafe and unfit and bring it up to Major League Baseball standards. The team, technically the AZPB Limited Partnership and the Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation, allege that the Maricopa County Stadium District did a “paltry” job socking away repair money by booking non-baseball events.

“There is no agreement on who will pay for capital repairs, where additional funds may be obtained, whether the needed capital repairs will simply not be done, or whether the Diamondbacks will be required to play in a stadium that is subpar, unsafe, in disrepair, in violation of the building code, or in violation of MLB standards,” the franchise argues.

“This is now the precise situation faced by the parties,” the claim alleges. It goes on to say that a 2013 report outlines $135 million in repairs. Of that, $30 million is needed for repairs relating “directly to safety, structural integrity, and/or potential building code violations,” but only $8.1 million exists in the fund.

The Stadium District counters that some of the urgent repairs, detailed in the report, are luxury goods that the parties never agreed to maintain a “state of the art” stadium as the team contends.

“The facts are far different,” the county’s lawyers argue, noting “necessary structural repairs either have been made or are in the process of being made,” and that the D-backs demand “upgrades beyond what is necessary to address structural, health, or safety issues.”

“The complaint seeks to wriggle free from the Diamondbacks’ promise to the District and the taxpayers to play home games at Chase Field for 30 years,” the county claims, adding, “the filing of the complaint is, in and of itself, a breach of the Diamondbacks’ covenant.”

It’s like a nightmare landlord-tenant dispute. The renter, metaphorically, says the sewer is backing up and the roof caving in; the owner says he’s not paying for an ultra-HD, 70-inch, 4K plasma TV.

In the complaint, the Diamondbacks name nine things that are terminally wrong with Chase Field. Here’s what the team lists, citing the 2013 report:

1. Crumbling stands. Crumbling concrete and exposed, rusting rebar in upper deck risers. It should have been done in the 2013 season at a cost of $570,400. The work was never done.

2. Safety railings. Railing posts were supposed to be replaced to prevent a fatal fall from the upper decks by 2016 for $205,000. Never done.

3. Aging joints. Expansion joints, steel rods, and anchors that hold different parts of the stadium together are deteriorating from water damage and threatening “the structural integrity of the stadium.” Efforts to repair and reseal the joints was due by 2016 at a cost of $5.9 million. Wasn’t done.

4. Fire alarms. The original fire alarm system was to be replaced by the 2014 season. Cost: $454,000. Work not done.

5. Sound system. The center-field sound system, last upgraded in 2006, was to be revamped during the last off-season so that fans could adequately hear emergency announcements. Cost: $4.8 million. Work never done.

6. Backup power. A battery-powered uninterrupted power supply was called for so that fire alarms don’t go out during a power outage. It was supposed to happen in the 2013-14 off-season at a cost of $83,400. It was partially done.

7. Floodlights. The MLB rated Chase Field’s sports lighting as the worst in the league and below acceptable standards. An upgrade is supposed to happen in the 2018-19 off-season at a cost of $1.3 million. The suit didn’t say how much had been done.

8. Scoreboards. The out-of-town scoreboards don’t work. The bulbs have burned out and cannot be replaced. They were to have been replaced in the 2014-15 off-season for $1.3 million. Never happened.

9. Video room. As league transitions to 4K video production, Chase Field lags and the video production equipment will become obsolete and unusable. It was to have been replaced by last year for $6.3 million, but wasn’t and isn’t scheduled to be.

Before you sign your paycheck, life’s savings or first-born child over to your beloved D-backs, it’s wise to bear a couple of things in mind.

We’re talking about a stadium that opened in 1998 and features an outfield swimming pool. Taxpayers contributed $238 million for the construction, paying a 0.25 percent tax on almost everything they bought.

It’s true what the Diamondbacks say in court: The stadium galvanized the rebirth of downtown Phoenix. An Arizona State University study, quoted heavily in court, estimates the team has generated $511 million in taxes and license fees and fully $3.8 billion in overall economic benefit for the region.

Now the Diamondbacks are in crunch time. They have to convince fans to flock to and fill a 20-year-old stadium they say is an obsolete, crumbling death trap. Without more help, they want to leave town.

The umpire, a superior court judge, will decide whether to call a third strike on the Diamondbacks or a balk on the county, giving them a free pass to home.

Did the team get stuck with a white elephant by an uncooperative partner that hasn’t acted in good faith? Or is the team now unfairly putting the squeeze on and trying, unlawfully, to break its contract?

Batter up.

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Sean Holstege is a freelance reporter with a 30-year career in print news. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege