Though not perfect, Portland a viable city for baseball

When it comes to baseball attendance, there's no such thing as a sure thing.

In 1972, the New York Yankees didn't manage to draw one million fans. In 1977, the Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants -- sharing one of the country's most populous areas -- didn't manage to draw 1.25 million fans between them. In 1983, the New York Mets just barely managed to draw more than one million fans.

To be sure, there are some basic Rules of Attendance that generally hold true. Winning teams draw more fans than losing teams. Big-city teams draw more fans than small-city teams. Brand-new ballparks draw more fans than 30-year-old ballparks.

Those rules apply to existing teams. But what about cities that don't already have teams? That's where things really get dicey. You just don't know until you try. And that's the problem Major League Baseball faces when trying to "figure" which cities without a major-league team should have a major-league team.

Denver and Phoenix? Check.

Miami and Tampa Bay? Oops.

Which is to say, you can look at demographics all you like, but you're not going to know if a city will support a major-league baseball team until you actually put a team there. Reasonable people will tell you that in a perfect world -- that is, a world where Major League Baseball doesn't enjoy the supposed fruits of a nonsensical anti-trust exemption -- there would be three or four major-league teams in the New York-New Jersey area, rather than two. That there's more than enough money, more than enough people, for three or four teams to thrive there.

But do we know that's true? Isn't it possible that the people in New York and northern New Jersey would have little interest in spending $40 on a ticket for a baseball team that's not the Yankees or the Mets? And if NY/NJ isn't a sure thing, then what is?

That's the question that Bud Selig would ponder, if he bothered to ponder. In truth, the Montreal Expos will simply end up going to the highest bidder, rather than to the bidder that figures to provide the most viable home for this misbegotten franchise.

Still, it's an interesting intellectual exercise. And there are, considering only these United States, two obvious potential homes for the Montreal Expos: the Washington, D.C. area, and Portland, Oregon.

I believe that both places are viable, and that both will eventually host Major League Baseball, within the next 10 years if not the next five.

Purely in terms of population, the D.C/Northern Virginia is the best place for the Expos. There are a couple of big problems, though. One, there's been virtually no progress made in getting a new ballpark built, and a new ballpark is a requirement for any prospective new home. And two, the Orioles owner, Peter Angelos, is vehemently opposed to a new team so close to Baltimore, which might not be a problem if he weren't one of the more skilled litigators in recent memory. One way or another, putting a team within 50 miles of the Orioles will wind up costing somebody a lot of money.

And then there's Portland. There are still hurdles to be cleared, but financing for a new ballpark is further along than in Washington, and the nearest major-league franchise is more than 150 miles away. But will the people in and around Portland support a team?

Here are some facts:

  • Portland is the largest metropolitan area -- No. 22 in the U.S., and with more people than Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City -- without a major-league baseball team.

  • Portland is the largest metropolitan area with just one major professional sports team (the Trail Blazers).

  • Portland's per capita income ranks higher than 12 existing MLB markets.

  • Portland is the seventh-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country.

  • In 2001, the TV ratings for the Mariners in Portland were higher than the TV ratings in 19 cities that have their own teams.

  • In 2002, Portland's TV ratings for the World Series ranked seventh in the country. The ratings in Portland for Game 7 doubled the ratings in the Washington, D.C. market.

    Does all this mean that MLB will be a rousing success in Portland?

    Remember, there's no such thing as a sure thing.

    Within the last 30 years, two Pacific Coast League franchises have failed, and the current PCL entry isn't wildly successful, either. There are plenty of diversions during the beautiful Portland summers, and if a Portland baseball team isn't competitive, Portlanders will find other things to do with their time.

    And speaking of Portlanders, they are ... well, they're different. If the new owner of the Expos commissions HOK (an architecture firm which specializes in building new ballparks) to design a 45,000-seat ballpark that doesn't look like something that belongs in Portland, Portlanders will turn around and walk -- or hike, or bike, or drive their Subarus -- the other way. Portlanders won't respond to just any old "retro" ballpark. Portlanders consider themselves and their city better than everybody else, so they're going to want a ballpark that is, if not better than all the others, at least different than all the others.

    Rob Nelson, famous as the inventor of Big League Chew, pitched in Portland and still lives there. On Wednesday, Nelson told me, "Portland's really got to go intimate, and dramatically unique. That's the way it's going to work here. I think if they build a Fenway Park-type of stadium, the team's got a chance of getting a rabid following."

    I think Nelson's right. If somebody builds the right ballpark in the right place, the people of Portland will support a baseball team. Will this team make as much money as the Yankees, or the Mariners? No, of course not. There are only so many huge markets, and Portland's not one of them. But Portland would be far from the worst market in the majors, and could settle right in with cities like Denver, St. Louis, Cleveland, and San Diego.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.