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Arizona Diamondbacks Greatest Moments #7: Phoenix awarded expansion franchise

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On March 9, 1995, the Diamondbacks as we know them were born.

American sports Mogul Jerry Colangelo Photo by Evan Hurd/Corbis via Getty Images

The origins of the Arizona Diamondbacks go back to the eighties, a decade in which the city of Phoenix saw explosive growth, its population increasing by over 40%. At the time, the only game in town was the Triple-A Phoenix Firebirds, an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, Beginning in the middle of the decade, Firebirds’ owner Martin Stone began to look into either an expansion or relocated franchise for the city. He initially intended to team up with the NFL Cardinals’ owner, Bill Bidwill, then of St. Louis, to build a facility downtown. But when the Cardinals relocated in 1988, they opted to play at Sun Devil Stadium. Stone’s plans collapsed, though he did make a pitch during the 1993 expansion wave.

When word of potential further expansion began to seep out, Maricopa County supervisor Jim Bruner and sports attorney Joe Garagiola Jr. recruited Jerry Colangelo, then owner of the Phoenix Suns, to lead efforts this time around. He had good connections from his Chicago days, not least White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who’d become a strong supporter of the Phoenix bid. Arizona Baseball Inc. was formed, and Colangelo set about negotiating an arrangement for stadium funding, deemed essential for the city to be awarded a franchise. This eventually lead to an agreement in February 1994 on a sales-tax increase to part-fund any needed ballpark. But the lack of a public ballot on this proved highly contentious.

Shortly thereafter, the process began, in March 1994. Following the commercial success of the previous expansion in Colorado and Florida, MLB created a nine-man committee to look into the possibility of adding more teams. Headed by Boston Red Sox General Partner John Harrington, and including Reinsdorf among the members, it issued a call for submissions from interested parties in June. Of more than 20 initial expressions of potential interest, nine cities formally threw their hats into the ring. These initial candidates were Buffalo, NY; Mexico City and Monterrey in Mexico; Nashville, TN; Northern Virginia (effectively Washington DC); Orlando, FL; Phoenix, AZ; St. Petersburg, FL; and Vancouver, Canada.

These entrants were reduced to a shortlist of four: Northern Virginia and Phoenix, plus the two Florida cities, and the candidates presented their cases in November ‘94. The Chicago Tribune wrote Phoenix was “considered a cinch” to be awarded one of the franchises due to Colangelo’s relationship with Reinsdorf. But the newspaper also said, “Colangelo’s group made the most impressive presentation. He brought in a mock player wearing a mock Arizona uniform, complete with the trendy colors of teal [and] black.” When the expansion committee made their initial recommendations, it was a four-team expansion with another pair - not limited to the unsuccessful entrants - being added two or three years later.

[Of course, the latter phase never happened. Indeed, at more than 22 years, MLB is now in the longest “expansion drought” since the process started in 1961. ]

The five groups - there were two competing ones for the Virginia entry - each got to make a brief final pitch to the expansion committee at the start of March 1995. Though it appears the decision was already in the bag, and it didn’t take long thereafter for the final winners to be anointed. On March 9, Commissioner Bud Selig made the official announcement that Tampa Bay and Phoenix were the winners. Said Harrington, “Our committee members put a great deal of time and effort in deciding, first, whether to expand right now and second, where to put the new teams. We strongly believe the time is right and these two cities are clearly the best choices.”

It’s possible external factors played into the choices. The Washington Post wrote in January 1995 that expansion, “would satisfy members of Congress in Florida and Arizona who have been pushing to have the owners’ 73-year-old exemption from federal antitrust laws repealed or limited.” The cost was also the subject of some last minute hard-bargaining, and was substantially up on the $95 million Colorado and Florida had paid four years earlier. The final price-tag was $130 million, paid in installments ($32m in July 1995, $25m in July 1996, $40m in July 1997 and $33m in November 1997). The new teams also waived $5m in payments from baseball’s central fund, for each season of operation from 1998-2002.

The Diamondbacks had arrived, although there would still be three years to go before the first pitch was thrown at Bank One Ballpark, with many hurdles to cross. The sales tax increase which would provide the bulk of stadium funding, raising $238 million, continued to prove a public concern - likely even more so, now that the hypothetical franchise had become a reality. Colangelo’s take-no-prisoners style of public relations probably didn’t help his cause. For example he told Hearst magazine in an interview, “The anti-tax people are also the types who are against the American flag and apple pie”! But the die had been cast, and there was little or no possibility of turning back.

By coincidence, at the time the franchise was awarded - or more accurately, sold - to Phoenix, baseball was also shut down. Unlike the current hiatus, however, this one was self-inflicted. A labor dispute between players and owners had curtailed the 1994 season in August, and the strike was still ongoing the following March. Indeed, one of the spurs to getting expansion completed as well as the late increase in the price, was the cash influx which would result from the franchise payments by the winning bids. That would help offset some of the owners’ losses resulting from the absence of games. One wonders whether a similar route might be taken after the current pandemic is over.