Diamond in the Rough

Pima County got taken, out at the ballgame.

If there is any common theme to the early days of Major League spring training 2001 in Tucson, it is renegotiation.

Frank Thomas, the Chicago White Sox slugger known as "The Big Hurt," arrived at the team's spring headquarters, Pima County's Kino Sports Park, and was indeed hurt in a big way. Thomas checked in and checked out, upset with the measly $9 million he will make this year.

Thomas wants to redo the 9-year deal he signed in 1997. Though that made him one of the highest-paid players in baseball, that was then and this is now. And now salary is tied in with the off-season deals that Thomas told sportswriters down at Kino last week make for a pay scale that is "out of whack." Alex Rodriguez left the Seattle Mariners for Texas and a 10-year-deal for $252 million. Derek Jeter of the World Champion New York Yankees re-signed for $189 million.

"You can't have A-Rod making $25 million and we're coming in at $7, 8, $9 million," Thomas said.

Meanwhile Jerry Colangelo, the Phoenix sports mogul, came to town suffering from severe cash-flow problems, made worse by the 15,000-seat drop in season tickets at Phoenix's Bank One Ballpark, the regular season home to the 4-year-old Arizona Diamondbacks.

While Thomas agitated for more cash from the White Sox, Colangelo, the Diamondbacks' managing general partner, persuaded 10 of his own players to defer a total of $16 million in pay this season.

It is no wonder that County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry was joking only halfway when he worried aloud late last week about what he would hear when he returned a call from the Diamondbacks' president, Rich Dozer.

It was good news. Dozer and Colangelo, pleased with the couple of hundred fans who have shown up for practice session, wanted to set up some rewards such as coffee and munchies for the earlybird fans.

Dozer said the Diamondbacks are happy with their Tucson connection.

That's good, because the county could ill afford any upgrades.

From the time the Cleveland Indians declared 10 years ago that they would abandon their spring training home at the city's Hi Corbett Field for a new place in Homestead, Fla., county officials were besieged with demands by self-styled baseball promoters and economic development shills to build a two-team spring training complex that will pay for itself.

Three sets of anxious and eager-to-please Boards of Supervisors, together with the City Council, listened. And taxpayers got buried under more than $60 million in baseball debt. That includes:

• A good $50 million for the stadium, called Tucson Electric Park, and training complex used by the Diamondbacks, White Sox and, in the 5-month-long AAA season, by the Tucson Sidewinders. The Board of Supervisors, including four holdover members still in office, mortgaged the county jail in February 1997 to secure the investment instruments known as certificates of participation. Three years after the complex and stadium opened, taxpayers still owe $33.5 million in principal for Tucson Electric Park and nearly $14 million in interest to be paid by 2014.

• About $9 million for improvements, done in two phases, to Hi Corbett Field to satisfy the Colorado Rockies. The first phase, at $4.7 million, was paid for by the county for the Rockies' first season, in 1993. The city assumed the cost for the second phase. Interest was high on the front end of this project. The city refused to put up Hi Corbett as collateral and the financing could not be judged by bond rating agencies. The bonds were placed privately to an Illinois insurance company at a high 8.75 percent.

• Insufficient revenues from tourist taxes--a 1-percent hotel bed tax, a $3.50 surcharge on car rentals and a 50-cent-a-night tax on RV spaces--together with next-to-nothing payments from the teams have left the county's Tucson Electric Park $3 million short in operating costs.

It will only get worse. Contracts heavily favor the teams. And the bond payments, in a refinancing that initially gave the county, not unlike Colangelo, a little better cash flow, will increase from $2.5 million to $3.8 million in three years. That is a 52 percent increase. Huckelberry and other county officials are hoping that there will be enough money in 10 years to make the payment that is scheduled to increase to more than $4.1 million.

THE COUNTY'S STARK budget book, even though it provides few details on the baseball complex's money problems, paints a bleak picture. The operating deficit is glossed over. Only through greatly optimistic revenue projections in all categories will the complex reach a break-even at $4.2 million. Car rental surcharges, first approved in the rush to replace the Indians in 1991 and increased in 1995, must hit $1.6 million. The bed tax, which drew opposition in 1995 from innkeepers who said their hotels are full during March without spring training, must bring in $1.4 million. And the RV tax, which brought screams of protest when it was imposed four years ago, must bring in $200,000. Still, that is only one-fourth of what it was initially projected to capture. The model also needs $955,000 from rents and revenue from concessions, parking and advertising.

There is essentially no rent from the teams. In the case of the Sidewinders, attendance is so low--under 200,000--that a paltry $30,000 rent was due last year, and that was further reduced by offsets allowed in the contract. Despite the narrow margins, there is no slowdown at the baseball complex in personnel growth, where costs will soar 50 percent to more than $744,507 this year.

There was no help, even though the stadium is owned by the taxpayers, from Tucson Electric Power Co. when it paid $2 million for the naming rights. In one of the many giveaways provided by the Board of Supervisors in 1996, a board that included Republicans Ed Moore, Mike Boyd and Paul Marsh and Democrats Dan Eckstrom and Raúl Grijalva, that money went to the Diamondbacks and White Sox.

In many other cases, money from naming rights is not helping just the teams. Even in sports-crazed Denver, the two-time Super Bowl champion Broncos could not pull of such a deal in naming rights on the stadium that will replace Mile High. Invesco agreed to put up $120 million over 10 years, but half of that money will help Denver taxpayers pay for the $400 million stadium.

And so it is that even if capacity crowds swell Tucson Electric Park March 9, when the White Sox play the Chicago Cubs and the Diamondbacks host the Rockies, and continue to build throughout spring training, Pima County will lose money overall.

"The county should declare free agency," says Bruce Postil, the baseball-loving former deputy county manager who served as a consultant to Huckelberry and the Board of Supervisors last year examining baseball operations and the county health system. "If ballplayers can renegotiate during the terms of the contracts, why can't taxpayers renegotiate?"

Postil says flatly that the contracts, particularly with the Sidewinders, are so one-sided in favor of the teams that the county should seek to have them declared invalid.

"The county gave everything away," Postil says. "As far as the AAA season, the county would do better by having Little League play there and parents selling bags of peanuts."

Faced with constant pressure from baseball promoters when the Indians announced their pullout, county and city politicians raced to be the baseball champion. And the first contract set the stage. Although the Rockies were a logical geographical fit, the county and city rushed to provide giveaways. The first agreement was so generous that county and city officials violated state public records and open meeting laws in 1992, shielding the deal from reporters until the City Council and Board of Supervisors, meeting in a special joint session, voted unanimously to approve what the public never saw. Included were renovations at Hi Corbett, a Phoenix practice facility, a new stadium by 1995 at the site of the Rockies' choosing, resort golf privileges and luxury cars for Rockies brass.

The deal was put together by the county's designated negotiator Dan Schneider, a former Major League and University of Arizona pitcher who moved on to a career in insurance. Then a member of the county's tax-supported Sports Authority, Schneider later formed his own baseball and sports promotion group that sought a piece of the spring training income. The group, which included popular Tucson Toros and Tucson Sidewinders general manager Mike Feder, became the chief pushers of a county-funded spring training complex. But they found themselves cut out when supervisors and City Council members decided they didn't need middlemen.

Deadlines for the new stadium were repeatedly missed; sites were named, examined and re-examined; and baseball fully exposed the usually cloaked petty jealousies and low-rent gamesmanship between rivals from the city and county governments.

And while jockeying and debate on sites for a new stadium complex--downtown, at I-10 and I-19, at Continental Ranch--dragged on for four years' worth of extra innings, the decision was really reached well before. It was the vacationing Postil who, over an $8.50 Budweiser on the Champs Elysées a decade ago, envisioned the spring training complex on property the county already owned west of Kino Community Hospital and between East Ajo Way, Kino Parkway and Interstate 10. Postil took scale maps and aerial photos of Hi Corbett and placed them on maps of the Kino property to prove the fit. Supervisors bit and approved the concept in 1992. Money from the car rental surcharge, which was restricted to baseball facilities for Cactus League spring training, soon went into Kino ballfields.

The choice saved money. At least $9 million would have been required for bank protection at the I-10 and I-19 site. Flood control and bank protection also would have been required at the downtown Rio Nuevo site. And so the ensuing three years of bickering among city and county pols was meaningless.

WHEN COLANGELO'S GROUP was awarded a Major League franchise, the first part of any promise to the Rockies was complete. Colangelo repeatedly said his club would need a statewide base, virtually assuring Tucson one of the two more Cactus League teams promised in the Rockies agreement. The White Sox soon followed. Still, supervisors were scared into a hasty and lopsided agreement when the Rockies and Colangelo blustered about setting their spring training camps in Las Vegas. Insiders say it was never a real threat. Although Vegas could throw up lavish facilities in a hurry, travel and baseball's wariness of gambling with teams full of kids under 21 made it prohibitive.

Pima County Supervisors, all of whom were then seeking re-election, jumped to approve agreements with the Diamondbacks and White Sox in August 1996.

And club officials were happy to reciprocate. Grijalva, facing a political nobody in Sue Casteloes, raked in $1,075 in related campaign contributions in the weeks after his vote for the teams, records in the county Division of Elections show. All but $200 came from Diamondbacks, including Colangelo and his wife, Dozer; Roland Hemond, a baseball man who has since joined the White Sox; then-manager Buck Showalter; and general manager Joseph Garagiola. All gave Grijalva $150 except for Garagiola, who gave $125. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, also owner of the NBA's Chicago Bulls, gave Grijalva $200 six days after the contracts were approved.

Four years earlier, Grijalva had pledged not to take contributions from those seeking board votes. Yet last year he took another $320 each, the maximum allowed under state law, from Colangelo, Reinsdorf, the White Sox' promotion man Richard Rahn, and Jay Zucker, the second-year-owner of the Tucson Sidewinders.

Eckstrom collected $850 from Colangelo and five other Diamondbacks bosses; Boyd received $450 from Dozer, Hemond and Showalter; Marsh, who was defeated in 1996, received $850 from Diamondback officials; and Moore, who also lost his seat that year, picked up $750 from Colangelo and four of his Diamondback officials, records show. Zucker also gave $320 each to Eckstrom and Carroll, both unopposed last year. And Carroll also received $320 from Reinsdorf in 2000.

The Diamondbacks and White Sox had plenty to be happy about. Besides revenue from naming rights, supervisors gave all this away in similar agreements with both clubs:

• Eighty percent of the ticket revenue. The county gets 20 percent, but only a full month after the spring training season is over. Moreover, except for season ticket packages and other advance tickets, the county must provide ticket sellers, ticket takers and ushers.

• All revenue from hard concessions such as souvenirs, hats, shirts, balls.

• Nearly all revenue from ballpark advertising. Yet the county is responsible for all sign maintenance.

• Eighty percent of parking revenues. But the county must provide all parking management.

• All broadcast rights and revenue. The county gets three public service announcements each game at no cost.

The county must provide utilities, traffic control, a scoreboard operator and a public address announcer, medical and security personnel, groundskeeping and fields maintenance, facilities management, and post-game cleanup. Ground maintenance will cost $587,000 this year.

The county is free from providing upgrades for only the first five years of the 15-year agreements. Then, the county must make upgrades that match those at the Cactus League's seven other facilities. The county, using revenue from the ticket surcharge and premium seating, must maintain a capital reserve account with up to $75,000 in any year of the 15-year agreement. And the county must provide the teams with a capital spending plan each year by December 1. Questions about that annual spending plan drew nothing but blanks from the complex and county staff.

The county gets all soft concessions--food and beverage. The county pulled in $315,000 in soft concession revenue in 1998, $343,000 in 1999, and $241,000 last year, according to figures provided by the county's stadium staff. Parking brought in $23,000 last year and $16,000 the year before. No parking revenue figures were available for 1998. The county also requires the teams to play one charity game each year and the county gets 250 tickets a game for distribution to school or youth groups.

WITH THE MAJOR LEAGUE TEAMS signed, Martin Stone began his all-out assault on the county. Stone, a multimillionaire businessman, farmer and land speculator, is a failed political candidate who once owned the minor league team in Phoenix. He acquired the AAA franchise that would become the Diamondbacks' affiliate. The predecessor, the Tucson Toros, had played at Hi Corbett, enjoying a popular run that climaxed with a championship year that featured University of Arizona basketball and baseball player Kenny Lofton in 1991. Lofton moved on to a superb career with the Indians.

Throughout 1997, Stone personally lobbied supervisors. He finally got his way in November, pleading with Grijalva, Eckstrom and Boyd and two newcomers, Sharon Bronson, a Democrat, and Ray Carroll, a Republican.

Stone whined that he could not make it unless he hit 250,000 in attendance for the 72 regular season home games. Thus he would avoid making any substantial payment to the county.

Only Eckstrom, easily the brightest supervisor, asked any tough questions, according to meeting minutes. The county, he said, was due $30,000 a season but would be spending $35,000 on field maintenance. And he noted the threshold attendance for revenue sharing was set at a figure never achieved by a minor-league team in Tucson.

Eckstrom complained that there was no detail on county costs. He questioned why the county should have to pay for field maintenance and why the county should have to wait a month after the season to get an accounting statement and its money.

"Pima County may be taking the role of being the banker," Eckstrom said. "This is not good business."

Dissatisfied with responses to his repeated questions about income and expenses, Eckstrom said: "Why doesn't the county just go to 80 Little League teams and let them play there, because this agreement is essentially the same thing."

Carroll, then in office for less than six months, pressed for a vote and said he was prepared to "take a leap of faith on the spring training and AAA for the potential draw of people from other parts of the state to spend money in Tucson."

He had already seconded a motion from Boyd to approve the agreement. But Eckstrom offered a substitute motion for a 30-day delay. Bronson agreed. It failed, with Grijalva joining the Republicans, as he quickly did on Boyd's original motion to approve the deal with Stone. Eckstrom and Bronson dissented.

The deal Grijalva and the Republicans gave the county provides little revenue to the county for the Sidewinders' long season. And all three teams can tie up practice fields for most of the year.

If the Sidewinders' season attendance is below 200,000, the county gets $30,000. If it is between 200,000 and 400,000, the county gets $60,000. And if it exceeds 400,000, or 5,000 people a game in a park that can accommodate 11,000, the county gets $90,000.

The small percentage on parking also is based on the turnstile. The county gets only 15 percent if attendance is below 200,000; 25 percent if attendance is between 200,000 and 250,000; 30 percent if attendance is between 250,000 and 400,000; and 35 percent if it exceeds 400,000.

All souvenirs and other hard-concession revenues go to the Sidewinders. The county's take on food and drink is narrow and based on attendance. It calls for zero if attendance is below 250,000; 25 percent if between 250,000 and 300,000; 33 percent if attendance is between 300,000 and 350,000; and 40 percent if above 350,000. The Sidewinders paid the county nothing last year for concessions.

The triggers seem moot. The Sidewinders have failed to top 195,000 in season turnstile attendance in three years. 189,553 came through last season.

Stone, 72, was diagnosed with prostate cancer and sold the Sidewinders before last season for a reported $7 million to Spanish-language broadcast impresario Jay Zucker.

The contract he inherited differs from the county's agreements with the Major League clubs in several areas. For example, the Sidewinders must provide personnel for parking, security, first aid, ticket selling and taking, ushering and public address. Four charity games must be played.

Zucker, 43, promised to breathe new life into the AAA business with promotion and more emphasis on family. He installed kiddie attractions, waived parking fees, implemented for-fee valet parking, and is proud that attendance last season was up 11 percent from the year before despite four rain-outs.

Energetic and personable, Zucker is nonetheless suspicious of what he can't control. He balked, for instance, at meeting a Weekly photographer because he didn't know in advance what this story was saying.

Zucker is building on his theme nights, for example bringing back discount beer on Thirsty Thursday and $1 hot dogs on Wiener Wednesday. Tuesday is family night: The whole crew gets in for $8. Fireworks go off on Fridays and concerts or shirt or hat giveaways will be featured on Saturdays. The first post-game concert will be April 7.

Also new this year is the Snake Pit, an outdoor sports bar, where adults can smoke, drink booze, watch other sporting games on a big screen, play on the putting green or shoot hoop. Zucker promises heavy emphasis on the designated driver.

The county, which has placed into the contracts a number of references to anti-tobacco health promotion, quashed the attempt for cigar sales at the Snake Pit.

Zucker says the Sidewinders are "on a roll" in meeting the "mission" of providing a family environment. A day-care, called the Minor League, will open this season with trained staff to help keep youngsters who want more than baseball occupied with arts and crafts, videos or even cots for a nap.

CHUCK HUCKELBERRY, the county administrator, is brilliant in his specialties, but when he sought out Postil he brought back someone unrivaled in the county in brains and guts. A talented prep baseball player in Chicago and on Army teams during his service, Postil is not bowled over by baseball people or their money.

"I'm a big baseball fan," says Postil, who has held Diamondbacks season tickets since the team started National League play. "But I'm willing to tell them to screw themselves in a nanosecond."

He didn't get the chance. He and 12 other top county employees were victims of the 1993 purge orchestrated by then-Supervisor Ed Moore. The move saved nothing in operations costs and ended up costing taxpayers upwards of $5 million in legal settlements and lawyers' bills.

Postil's review of the county health system enabled the county to save at least $4 million this year.

In baseball, he wasn't joking about renegotiating. At one point he suggested that Zucker take over the full operations of Tucson Electric Park while the county received a 20-percent interest in the Sidewinders.

Zucker, who says he lost "a couple hundred thousand dollars last year," thought about it, then declined.

In the meantime, Postil says, the county should insist on a $1 surcharge on Sidewinders tickets, get shares from pay phones, install and get shares on ATMs, sell advertising on the back of tickets (something done before) to at least pay printing costs, sell parking-lot advertising to fund full paving, and sell cup-holder advertising inside.

He also said the county should pare down administrative costs at the ballpark and redo or eliminate ancillary contracts, such as the $50,000 that is split between the Pima Council on Aging and Jim Murphy (a former county health system director) for the senior squad of ushers during spring training, and the $28,000, one-month contract for EMTs provided by the Tucson fire fighters union. Staff from the county's adjacent Kino Hospital should be used, he said.

In the final week of preparation for this year's spring training, Tom Taylor, the park's administrative services manager, is optimistic.

Taylor, who retired in 1997 as a sheriff's lieutenant after a 20-year career, says the Kino Sports Park is on the upswing. It will become, he says, another "gem show haven" after a show that brought in $20,000 this year. Car and RV shows have also been staged at Kino.

The park also hosted the two-day Tucson Festival last September. It brought in $35,000, but more important, Taylor says, "It taught us we could do concerts and other events without hurting the field. The field is sacred."

Taylor, who makes $47,000 a year in his new job, says Kino will soon "pay for itself."

Taxpayers have heard that before.