Archive · Fresno

The Politics of Baseball and Garry Bredefeld

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I spent part of Monday thinking back on fun times at Euless Park in the 1970s.

Thank you, Garry Bredefeld, for the inspiration.

The backstory is this:

I had an early Monday afternoon appointment at Fresno State. I decided to walk to the university from my home near Bullard High School.

I stopped for lunch at the Carl’s Jr. restaurant on Shaw Avenue, a bit east of Fashion Fair. I had a sandwich, then resumed my walk along Shaw. Bredefeld was driving west on Shaw. He spotted me and pulled into a parking lot.

We’ve known each other for years. It was a good time for a chat.

Bredefeld was the District 6 council member from 1997 to 2001. He’s running for the District 6 seat in the current general election.

Bredefeld came within an eyelash of getting 50%-plus-1 in the June primary. He’s the heavy favorite in the Nov. 8 runoff against Jeremy Pearce.

But Bredefeld isn’t taking chances. He’s running a spirited campaign. And that means speaking his mind to reporters who, in his mind, have written nonsense about him.

I had fallen into that category. Bredefeld told me so (with a smile, I might add).

The issue was the Downtown baseball stadium – Chukchansi Park. Bredefeld was part of the five-member council majority that voted in October 2000 to build the stadium.

The decision was controversial at the time. It is a bone of contention in the Bredefeld-Pearce race.

In a recent CVObserver piece, I wrote that I had spoken to a veteran City Hall official a couple of months after the stadium opened in May 2002. I knew this official well enough to trust him.

This official said he had sat in on many of the behind-the-scenes negotiations leading up to the October 2000 vote. The big issue for the council was how to pay for the 30-year bonds that would pay for construction of the $46 million stadium.

In the end, the council majority pitched to the public a funding formula. The annual bond bill was $3.5 million. The money would come from about 10 sources. The Redevelopment Agency, for example, was to kick in a six-figure contribution.

The single biggest funding stream was $1.5 million annual rent from the Fresno Diamond Group, owner of the Grizzlies.

To circle back to this city official, the man told me in 2002 that City Hall insiders before the October 2000 vote knew the formula wasn’t going to work – couldn’t work – as designed. It just wasn’t practical, he said.

This city official told me this shortly after I’d written a story for The Bee showing how several of the key funding streams in the formula – parking revenue being the main one – were coming up short. At the time of my story, the stadium had been open for about 10 weeks.

Let me emphasize that Bredefeld in our Monday chat was both polite and good-natured. He just wanted to get across one message to me: He never slammed the funding formula behind closed doors prior to the October 2000 council decision. He believed 100% in the formula, and said as much from the dais. If the formula proved less than perfect when tested by reality, well, he had been gone from the council for 16 months when the stadium opened. Things might have been different if he had still been on the council.

Fair enough, Garry. I stand corrected. Thank you for setting me straight.

Bredefeld and I shook hands in the parking lot. I wished him well in his race. He got back in his car. I was only a few minutes late to my appointment.

Later, I got to thinking about Bredefeld’s choice of words. He said he “believed” in the formula. I then realized that had been my problem all along. I had never believed in the formula, not from the day in October 2000 when I first heard about it.

After all, there had to be a reason I was digging into the formula’s performance only a couple of months after the stadium’s debut. I wanted confirmation of my assumption.

What were the sources of my disbelief? Euless Park in its heyday and Bill McEwen.

Bredefeld has been in Fresno for many years (he’s a clinical psychologist), but he’s originally from New York City. I say this because I doubt if he spent many summer evenings sitting in the wooden bleachers of Euless Park watching the old Fresno Giants single A team play its home games.

I didn’t attend a lot of games. But I attended enough to appreciate the park’s ambience and get a sense of Fresno as a minor-league baseball town.

We liked our Giants. Even loved them when the pitching was good. But you know what? Two thousand-plus fans didn’t show up for every home game. The attendance usually was measured in the hundreds. And heaven only knows how many of those tickets were freebies.

We all know what happened. The ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, and at the end of the 1987 season the San Francisco Giants organization moved its California League affiliate from Fresno to San Jose.

The Euless bleachers were torn down in late 1987 – their wooden supports had rotted beyond repair. Fresno laughed its way through 1988 with an independent Class A team, then pro baseball left town.

Now is not the time to review yet again all the history that led to the Grizzlies coming to Fresno in 1998 as the Giants’ Triple A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. It’s sufficient to note that the big strategic hurdle was building and funding a home park for the team. This policy challenge sparked a political civil war in Fresno.

And through it all, I remained convinced that Fresno was still the same baseball town that it had been in the 1970s. Our population had grown, to be sure. But we remained a farm town in a farm region. It was our baseball nature to pack the park on occasion. But for the most part, the stands – be they at Euless Park or Chukchansi Park – would be largely empty.

The dramatic upgrade in talent – Single A to Triple A – wouldn’t be enough to overcome our settled ways. There’s no sin in this. I’m guessing the same holds true for most cities with minor league baseball teams.

Fresno’s attitude toward minor league baseball, whether in 1975 or 2000 or 2016, sits right in the middle of the pack.

And that’s why I was convinced that the council majority’s funding formula of October 2000 was doomed.

My old Bee colleague McEwen was covering City Hall as the stadium debate came to a head. McEwen is a great reporter. One of his stories explored the rents paid by other Triple A teams.

The Grizzlies’ $1.5 million annual rent was biggest in the nation. Second place wasn’t even close.

Look at it from the perspective of the bell curve. Fresno as a baseball-loving and baseball-supporting town can be said to be at the mean. We’re better than half the cities, worse than the other half.

There’s something called the “68-95-99.7 rule” in statistics. Let’s say we’re talking about stadium rents. Roughly 68% of stadium rents fall within the first standard deviation to the right and to the left of the mean. Roughly 95% of stadium rents fall between two standard deviations to the right and to the left of the mean. And 99.7% of stadium rents fall between three standard deviations to the right and to the left of the mean.

Near as I can tell, the funding formula approved by the City Council in October 2000 (and embraced by the Diamond Group) gave the Grizzlies a rent that placed them beyond the third standard deviation on the bell curve of minor league baseball rents.

If we were talking intelligence, we’d be talking about the territory where Newton and Einstein reside.

There was absolutely no chance the Fresno Downtown Stadium Funding Formula of 2000 would work as pitched to the public. None.

Please don’t get me wrong. As I told Bredefeld on Monday, I thought he and his four council colleagues (Henry R. Perea, Dan Ronquillo, Sal Quintero, Tom Boyajian) made the right decision to build the stadium. It was a courageous decision. And they were 100% right to insist on a stadium with a seating capacity of 12,500.

The Grizzlies’ rent has been reworked several times over the years. These changes are irrelevant to Campaign 2016. The stadium is a blessing and a boon to all of Fresno, end of discussion.

And let me add that I live in a county island. I can’t vote in the District 6 race. I have the highest regard for Bredefeld’s policy smarts and political skills. I don’t know Pearce, but from what I’ve read he strikes me as a capable candidate. District 6 voters have a worthy choice before them.

That being said, I have to wonder why Bredefeld would use the term “belief” to describe his commitment to something as squishy as a funding formula. That’s a strong word in the world of politics where most things aren’t black and white.

Maybe the word choice is a residue of emotion from those long-ago times. Maybe it’s the intensity of the current campaign. Maybe it’s a reflection of Bredefeld’s equanimity.

I sometimes discussed the funding formula with McEwen in The Bee newsroom. He raised a good point. Perhaps the formula was vital to gaining public support in fall 2000. But in retrospect, he said, something as cut and dried as a formula gave stadium critics too much ammunition. They could point to pieces of the formula that went wrong and say: “See, I told you so!”

McEwen told me: Maybe the city should have just said, We’ll get all the rent we can from the Grizzlies. The rest will come from the general fund. We can afford it.

McEwen is right. We can afford it. Then, again, he knows Fresno as a baseball town. After all, he no doubt cheered Jack Clark in Euless.

Willie, if only Garry had been sitting next to you.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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