Diamondbacks vs. Tucson: the saga continues

MLB Florida and Arizona Spring Training - SB Nation

At the time of writing, the Diamondbacks are playing an evening game over in Surprise tonight, so no recap as yet: not going well though, with the Rangers 4-0 up in the bottom of the fourth - seven hits and two walks off Jon Garland thus far. Instead, here's the latest in what seems to be a developing feud between the team and Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who wrote a letter to Sports and Tourism Authority Chairman Tom Tracy. The latter, while acknowledging that there is no chance the D-backs will stay at Tucson Electric Park, is working on a proposal for a new facility - probably closer to Phoenix [Marana is one possibility, a good half-hour less travel time], and will be submitting a proposal, along with other potential sites, to the team any day now.

Huckleberry is not so optimistic, saying in his letter, "There's no way we can afford to do anything for the Diamondbacks because frankly, they are leaving a perfectly good stadium that could have another team. Perhaps the Rockies and the Diamondbacks are a lost cause, and what we ought to focus on is filling the gap with youth and amateur sports until we can pick up three or four teams out of Florida." He also expressed frustration the team were looking elsewhere when the county had spent $600K on TEP, said the county was in no position to put further money in, and 'should not have to subsidize a team that earns $3 million in profit from spring training, while the county gets just $500,000 in revenue.'

The team was none too happy when they learned of the letter's content - not least because they weren't even given the courtesy of a CC on it - and we've been passed a copy of the response which they fired back to Chuck. That's after the jump, along with some thoughts:

March 23, 2009

C.H. Huckelberry, County Administrator
County Administrator’s Office
Pima County Governmental Center
130 W. Congress
Tucson, AZ 85701-1317

Dear Mr. Huckelberry:

Please consider this an official response to your letter addressed to Mr. Tom Tracy and dated March 12, 2009. I would like to express disappointment and offer corrections on behalf of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The letter, which we were surprisingly not copied on, offered several false assumptions and exaggerations.

You expressed your displeasure with an announcement of our intention to leave Tucson, when in fact, that announcement has never taken place. We have been working with your local Sports and Tourism Authority on solutions to remain in Tucson. As we have noted publicly time after time, it has been our desire all along to remain in Southern Arizona, should we have success in attracting two more teams. It is becoming clearer as each day passes that this challenge does not present any short term solutions.

The RFP process that we are currently managing is a necessary step to gather all facts from interested parties in a time-lined and controlled manner. We will have a better idea at the end of this month of how many legitimate options are in play, including Tucson.

You also compare TEP to the new facilities in Glendale and Goodyear and make a point that there are no differences. We would beg to differ with you as would any objective viewer, but we are not here to debate facility shortcomings. Factually again, we have never pointed to the state of our facility as a reason to have to move. We have been clear and consistent that the issue is simply the number of teams in the area. It was difficult operating with just three teams, and it is now nearly impossible to operate in a competitive environment with the Diamondbacks and Rockies.

Though we had no intention of criticizing TEP or the practice facilities, you made it a point to include a recent $600,000 investment in your communication to Mr. Tracy. We appreciate the new carpet and paint this off-season, but question the end cost. And, as we have shared and pleaded with the County in recent years, the fields have never been maintained to adequate levels, and quite honestly, provided risk and caused injuries. We were told “no” in years past when we simply asked for torn or missing windscreens to be replaced, building expansions, or new carpeting, which still has not been installed on the minor league side. Our Triple-A affiliate, who along with the White Sox, has abandoned Southern Arizona, was extremely dissatisfied with the field conditions over the last several summers. Our baseball operations staff has had serious concerns over the field’s quality, which came into play at the start of this spring when our number one draft pick from 2007 complained about the pitching mound firmness and packing, and then twisted an ankle and fell in the midst of his first pitch.

Your letter implies that these facility concerns will only worsen when you state, “I have directed staff not to spend further money on improvements unless we are assured that the Diamondbacks will complete and extend their contract at TEP or we are actually negotiating contracts for new American or Japanese major league teams.” As uncomfortable a statement as that is, continued maintenance of the field and facility is required under our agreement. I should add that these threats do not work to your advantage when trying to attract other teams.

As for the $3 million that you claim are our profits from spring training, it is important to note that we have made less than $1 million in profit nearly every year after expenses and your larger share of revenues. Those numbers that you referred to from the RFP were gross revenue numbers. Spring training has never been lucrative for our organization, but we have never complained. What has been more important to us regarding spring training is that our players are properly preparing for the upcoming season without any disadvantages when it comes to competition, travel, accommodations and/or field quality.

We have always been, and will continue to be, good partners Mr. Huckelberry. I would have expected a phone call or some direct contact on your part to get clarification before going public with your letter. It is clear to us now that you have moved on and are not seeking a solution for keeping us in Southern Arizona. I also assume you have not been working with the City to help keep the Rockies in Tucson, as they continue to become more and more impatient.

You have asked the Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority and other officials and business leaders involved to focus on youth and Japanese teams rather than the Diamondbacks. While this saddens us because of our connection and history to your great city, it is a reality of the situation at hand. We understand the difficulty in getting teams to relocate, as we have tried and failed with every organization that was a possible fit. We are also truly sorry that you have been unsuccessful in retaining teams, persuading others to join us, and maintaining Major League-quality facilities.

Sincerely,

Derrick M. Hall
President and CEO
Arizona Diamondbacks

C: The Honorable Chairman and Members, Pima County Board of Supervisors
Hank Atha, Deputy County Administrator for Community and Economic Development
Tom Moulton, Tourism and Economic Development Director
Chris Bartos, Stadium District Director
Dan Schneider, Executive Director, Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority
Don Haskell, President, Southern Arizona Sports Foundation
Timothy Buzard, Sr. Vice President of Administration, Chicago White Sox

The Diamondbacks are in a difficult situation with regard to the Tucson situation, being the 'local' team. The White Sox and Rockies would suffer little or no penalty to their fan-base or local image, and so can go wherever they want in Arizona, based purely on what makes the best sense - be that logical, fiscal or baseball-based. Not quite the case for the D-backs who run the risk of alienating a significant portion of their target market if it's perceive that they are 'abandoning' southern Arizona. Matters are, of course, not helped there by the loss of the team's Triple-A affiliate to Reno, even though this was something almost entirely outside their control [the Sidewinders being a privately-held concern]

They can either stay in Tucson, and be completely marginalized - if, as is almost inevitably expected, the Rockies bail from Hi Corbett and head north for the Valley, as fast as they can work out a way to do so. Or they can make alternative arrangements, nearer Phoenix, and take the inevitable PR hit from Tucson fans, who are understandably feeling increasingly disconnected from their team. [Indeed, it took direct action by President Hall to rescue the Opening Day shuttle up from Tucson for Opening Day, which almost got dropped too] It's pretty much a no-win situation, and there's basically no potential resolution which will make everyone happy.

It could conceivably have been avoided. Back last July, the Arizona Legislature had the chance to give the then-newly created Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority, the ability to raise taxes for maintenance and improvement on Hi Corbett and TEP - which its Maricopa County equivalent has been able to do for years. But the lawmakers adjourned their session without doing so, and since then, it looks like the window of opportunity has passed, especially in the current economic climate. The timetable to look for additional teams was suddenly accelerated when the White Sox opted to break their contract [does anyone know exactly what happened to the $5m million they paid?], though it does seem Pima were sitting on their butts while Maricopa siphoned off all the teams looking to get out of Florida.

That said, there's two ways Tucson can deal with the situation. They can whine with thinly-veiled threats about the iniquity of it all, like career civil-servant Chuck Amuck, who has been (non-elected) supervisor for 15 years, and gets an annual salary of $230K. Or they can get off their butts and pitch, not only the Diamondbacks, but other teams: what about the Cubs, who seem to be keen to get out of Mesa? Or there was the suggestion of getting some of the Japanese league teams to train in Arizona? Mind you, these positive moves seem unlikely under the reign of Citizen Chuck, since he seems to be no baseball fan, having declared that the Sidewinders wouldn’t be missed and that the county could make more money holding a few summer rock concerts... With leadership like that, getting the hell out of the county is probably not a bad idea for the D-backs.

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