Can Delta Ball Clear the Infield? 

Antioch pol's dream of hosting a minor-league baseball team faces some sobering historical and economic realities.

Two years ago, councilmembers from the small city of Antioch hired a team of consultants to take a good look around their delta community and come back with some pow-pow ideas to snazz up the aging town. The consultants returned with the typical suggestions: dress up the downtown area, open public spaces along the riverfront, decorate the city limits with new signage -- "The existing community entry sign is dated," they observed.

But one item on the to-do list stood out for its novelty: "The city should look at attracting a minor league baseball team."

The seed for this build-it-and-they-will-come proposal was planted by councilman Brian Kalinowski, 34, the town's youngest and, by vote tallies, most popular politician. Still, after the new signs went up at the city's gates, few thought the council would get much further down the wish list.

In fact, Kalinowski's dream to bring the national pastime to the delta has only gotten more lucid, ready to burst -- one way or another -- into reality. In March, the council approved $100,000 for a feasibility study on the project, and new consultants will return later this month with ideas on how and where a team might play. Best-case scenario: Delta folks will be cheering on their boys of summer by next season.

Yet Kalinowski, a sheriff's deputy by day, has a second dream that could make his first one all the harder to realize: In his quest to save taxpayers from spending a dime, he's proposing the club be run as a nonprofit. The way the councilman envisions it, the team would get off the ground with help from corporate sponsors and local philanthropists. Ticket sales, parking fees, and advertising dollars from outfield banners would cover operating costs. And, to the delight of his municipal neighbors, he'd like to make this a regional project, putting the stadium wherever it would fit best along the delta, not necessarily Antioch. "A nonprofit would give it the community touch," Kalinowski says. "The people would have a stake in their team. They'd be the owners."

The best and perhaps only example of a successful nonprofit minor-league team occurred in Reno beginning sometime in the 1950s. A group of civic do-gooders, who wanted a baseball club but couldn't convince an entrepreneur to take the risk, created a nonprofit corporation called the Washoe Youth Program to run the Reno Silver Sox. Fielding a team was relatively easy back then, says Jack Hoffman, the nonprofit's last president, and players' salaries were still within the ballpark of reason. "It was a different world in the '50s," he recalls, "and minor-league baseball was a different thing, too."

Back in those days, most minor-league teams were affiliated with major-league clubs. In the case of the Silver Sox, it was the San Diego Padres. In exchange for the city maintaining the field and covering stadium costs, the Padres provided players' wages and equipment. Under these conditions, the nonprofit model was considered ingenious. Boardmembers raised about $200,000 annually -- saving money by picking up trash after the games and mowing the lawn themselves -- and it was worth it. Kids and families bought $5 tickets to watch major-league could-bes turn two on hot summer nights. And any profits went into stadium maintenance. "There wasn't much left over," Hoffman says.

But as minor-league ball became a source of higher-end entertainment, major-league clubs began demanding high-end stadiums for their farm teams. The league required precise field measurements, ironing-board-flat infields, cush seats for fans, and perhaps most important, a comfy press booth for reporters to ensure they promoted the sport.

Reno's Silver Sox offered a pockmarked playing field, wooden bleachers, and no press booth. The nonprofit's board rallied for several fund-raising drives, but it was too late: In 1987, citing the facility's poor condition, the Padres pulled their affiliation and, with it, major-league funding.

In an effort to keep baseball in town, Hoffman and his board then fielded a team from what's known as an "independent league." Talent-wise, independent players are stuck in baseball limbo, one rung above college talent yet one rung below an affiliated single-A team. (MLB-affiliated teams range from "A," the lowest rank, to "AAA," the highest.) But fielding an independent team left Hoffman and his cohorts covering player expenses and maintaining the stadium, about $600,000 in all.

The experiment lasted one year. "Workers' comp just killed us," Hoffman recalls. "If a guy hurts himself getting hit by a pitch or breaks a leg sliding, it'll cost you. ... Ultimately we didn't have enough capital to survive."

In Antioch, Kalinowski now faces even greater obstacles. Minor-league teams have become undeniable cash cows, and therefore harder to come by (last year, all ten affiliated single-A clubs in California --teams such as the Bakersfield Blaze and the Lancaster Jethawks -- reported profits, according to league president Joe Gagliardi). And, due to MLB zoning rules, any affiliated team hoping to play in East Contra Costa County needs permission from the A's. Because the A's already have a solid farm system in place, it's unlikely they'd relocate a team to where it might compete with Oakland for ticket sales.

Kalinowski's best hope is to field an independent team, which by some estimates would now cost $600,000 to $800,000 a year. How he'll convince corporate sponsors to invest is a mystery, considering that the regional indie league has fallen on hard times recently. Last year, the Western Baseball League, which had been expanding thanks to the newfound difficulty of landing affiliated minors, folded for lack of funding. Citing workers' comp costs and dwindling ticket revenues, the owners couldn't afford to keep it running. League promoters are attempting a comeback next year, but it's unclear how economic conditions will be any different.

The nonprofit model, too, may be an outdated dream. "I'm not saying it can't work in Antioch," says Hoffman. "In fact, more power to 'em. But ours ran out of gas in '88 because we looked up and we didn't have an affiliated team. We made it work for a season, but we couldn't make it work indefinitely."

Last month, Kalinowski pitched his idea to the Delta 6, a group of regional mayors and CoCo County supervisors, winning their vows of support. Around town, he says, no one has even challenged the idea, save one letter writer to a local newspaper.

When the consultants return with their findings later this month, they'll probably suggest an independent team that could start playing as early as next summer on an existing field like the one at Los Medanos Community College. From there, Kalinowski would like to see fans support the club and -- one day, if all works out -- a multi-use stadium deal. Of course, all the profits would go into youth programs or city coffers, he says.

Even after learning about the demise of the Silver Sox, Kalinowski remains upbeat, a man unwilling to let go of his dream. "If a nonprofit doesn't work out, then we'll look at for-profit opportunities," he says. "Maybe we'll set it up as a board, where everyone who gets in buys in at the same amount, so there's not one owner to pull in the profits, and then, if things don't work out for him, leave town.

"I really think it will happen," the councilman continues, then corrects himself: "I believe it will happen."

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