Interview with Maury Brown, Information Director of the Oregon Baseball Campaign
Many of us have at one point or another named our fantasy teams after our home towns. Whether that team was the Duluth Sluggers or the Dallas Texans, or even a reincarnation of the Brooklyn Dodgers, there’s something inherently appealing in bringing a baseball team to a community that currently has none.
Yet while for most of us, this is just part of the fun of fantasy baseball, for others, it’s much more than that. A highly dedicated and motivated group of baseball fans in Oregon is doing everything they can to bring a franchise to Portland – not a fantasy team, but the real thing.
Founded six years ago by Dr. Lynn Lashbrook, the Oregon Baseball Campaign (OBC) has developed from a seemingly far-fetched idea to the point where the question may not be if there will be a team in Portland, but when…
We recently caught up with Maury Brown, information director and one of the emotional leaders of the OBC. Maury was kind enough to take time out from his busy schedule to talk with us about everything from the city of Portland itself to his overwhelming love of the game.
Fantasy Baseball Cafe: I’m sure everybody asks you this: why Portland? What makes Oregon a good choice for a team? And what benefits would a major league franchise bring to your community?
Maury Brown: We have a very loyal following for Major League Baseball in Portland, and Oregon as a whole. A large portion of Seattle’s fans travel back and forth 170 miles to see the Mariners play. Our TV ratings for MLB are better than two thirds of the markets that currently have MLB teams. For the World Series alone this year Portland had the 7th highest Neilsen rating in the Nation.
The benefits for Portland, as well as the entire region, are both tangible and intangible. On the intangible side, sports has the capacity to bring a community together. It crosses all race, creed, color, and economic boundaries. It’s something that ties a community together over a beer or at the water cooler.
On the tangible side, Portland is a very deserving market for pro sports. It is the third largest market in the nation in terms of population per franchise; in other words, the population divided by the number of sports teams in the area. The economic impact would be dramatic. Currently, 10% of Seattle Mariners season ticket sales are from Oregon. That’s money that would be spent within the state if there were an MLB team here. Couple that with over 2,000 jobs for the construction of the new stadium, the increase in tourism, the increase in money pouring into the hospitality industry and it’s a huge windfall for Portland and the surrounding area.
But, it’s not just Portland that will benefit. The stadium funding bill that needs to be passed has provisions so that long after the $150 million dollar bond is paid off, the money will continue to pour into the state of Oregon. Projections show as much as $433 million dollars in monies that could be used to subsidize the state.
FBC: What role does the Oregon Baseball Campaign play in furthering this cause?
MB: OBC’s job is to inform and promote MLB in Portland. This comes in the form of our website, www.oregonbaseballcampaign.com. It comes through the distribution of information to the local and national media. And it comes from working closely with all the organizations and people in local, state, and regional government to make sure that the exact nature of MLB to Portland is economic stimulus, as well as entertainment.
FBC: How long has this campaign been running?
MB: The campaign has been going on now for roughly six years. In its current form with the website, which is a large portion of the effort, just over two years.
I’ve been actively involved in OBC for two years solid. Every day there is something new coming up that gets Portland closer to acquiring an MLB team. Doing so has allowed me to be actively involved. It encompasses city government, state government and MLB. Out of these, you can imagine the one that’s the most difficult to figure out (”Hi, Bud!”). It seems that if you want to really believe in something, don’t gripe about it, get involved, and help make it happen. That’s what we’re all trying to do over at OBC.
FBC: Would a team in Portland depend on taxpayer support?
MB: No. This is something that has been very, very important to us as Oregonians. A stadium does not need to be funded by citizens of the state you reside in. We feel that there are far better things that can be done with that money, such as schools and services.
What the stadium funding bill does do is to tax the players and upper-tier executives of the club. This even goes so far as to tax the visiting team players. Using this method, the proposed $150 million dollar bond could be paid off in 20 years.
FBC: What’s the mood in Oregon (and the rest of the state): do people support bringing a franchise there?
MB: As in all things relating to sports there are detractors. The biggest thing I hear is, “We don’t want our tax dollars paying for baseball,” and I tell them that I agree, and go on to explain how the funding mechanism works.
On the whole, though, we have had far, far more positive feedback than negative. The region is in need for another sports option beyond the NBA.
FBC: What kind of people are active in your campaign?
MB: There are all types involved. Since we are an entirely volunteer-based organization we cover the entire spectrum, from software engineers to lawyers to warehouse workers, and everything in between. We have members all across the state of Oregon, but we aren’t limited to just our state. Our members come from Washington State, California, Florida, New York, Minnesota, Phoenix, Texas, Nevada, Idaho, Massachusetts, Charlotte, Washington, D.C., and small towns and cities all around the US and Canada.
FBC: What were the high and low points of your work with the OBC?
MB: The highs have been very gradual, and consistent. Portland was viewed as “No-way-it-will-happen” market just a couple of years ago, to the point now where it’s a given that Portland is either the top market, or near the top for relocation.
There was considerable optimism for stadium funding last legislative session. The Governor held his cell phone up at a press conference and played “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” while announcing that he would sign the bill if it got to his desk. All signs pointed to passage by a two thirds margin in the House and Senate. We were on a major high at that point.
But as is often the case, things are not always a given in politics. The low point came shortly thereafter when one Senator from Ashland “tabled” the bill in the House Ways and Means committee. As the Chairman of the committee, he basically stalled the process, and would not allow the bill to be presented on the floor for a vote. It was a difficult thing for a lot of people to swallow. How does one person control something that affects the people of the entire state? Aren’t there checks and balances so that one person does not control the reigns of power? By the time a solution was worked out to get around him, the session was over. You simply cannot come any closer to passage, without it happening, than that. If it had made it to the floor, I think it’s safe to say that the Expos would be coming to Portland right now.
Out of that turmoil has come a very solid group of dedicated people. A lot of folks would throw in the towel when getting that close to something and having it thwarted, but in the time in-between last session and this session, a team appears to be looming on the horizon for relocation, and that gives renewed optimism to take advantage of the moment. I’m sure that this will be a core theme when talking with the new session members in Salem this January. The opportunity is here, now, and we should do it as a legacy for the state.
FBC: What are your thoughts on the murky issue of expansion vs. contraction? Isn’t it a strange situation when the league is trying to contract teams, yet several cities are trying to attract a franchise?
MB: Ya, it’s odd. It’s also good business to relocate rather than contract teams. MLB has the rare and dubious distinction of being Anti-Trust exempt, which allows them to discuss shutting down markets instead of moving them. I’m sure if MLB had their druthers they would rather shut some teams down without moving them. Lucky for us, contraction was removed from the last Collective Bargaining Agreement. There may have been some with the League, as well as some owners, who felt that the last expansion was done prematurely in the ‘90s and it would be easier to eliminate teams that may be effecting the bottom line.
Plain and simply though it would have been unwise for MLB to have shut franchises down with good markets crying out for them. It would have been poor business, and showed weakness as an industry. Baseball is only as strong as its weakest link.
FBC: Some people say that with such a large number of major league teams, player talent is much more diluted than in the past. Therefore, expansion should be stopped. How do you feel about this?
MB: I don’t buy it. I think that the argument that pitching has somehow become diluted is completely overblown. There are so many good players in the US, as well as other countries, that the talent level is constant.
The problem is the fact that guys like Greg Maddux and Jamie Moyer would never get a chance today. Kids and coaches focus far too much on the radar gun, and therefore you don’t have pitchers with anything more than a good fastball, and possibly a slider as a second pitch.
Major leaguers tee off on that stuff. Very few straight fastball guys are so good that the opposition won’t adjust to them and start lighting them up like a pinball machine.
Beyond pitcher development that concentrates on fastballs, the use of aluminum bats in college is affecting players. It’s a radical adjustment for players to make when they get into the minors. Obviously the ball comes off a metal bat with a heck of a lot more velocity, and it’s a different feel in the batter’s hands. This is another factor that is effecting the development of players.
Both of these points are greater problems to me than the so-called “dilution of talent.”
FBC: Earlier, you mentioned residents of Oregon supporting the Mariners. How has the Mariners’ front office reacted to your eforts? Is there a situation similar to the Orioles trying to ward off a franchise in Washington, D.C.?
MB: The initial response by the Mariners was favorable. They were behind the idea, but as they started seeing the numbers coming from FOX on Portland’s TV ratings of M’s games they pulled back a bit. There is a very strong Mariners following here in Portland, and it will remain to be seen if there is a large drop-off in fans. It’s fair to say not all Mariners fans will jump ship to whatever team relocates to Portland. I don’t think you’ll ever hear the word “territorial rights” used in conjunction with Portland though. We’re 170 miles away from Seattle, and that’s just too far to make that claim.
FBC: Have you received any support from the league, or from other owners?
MB: On the record, no. They can’t. It’s an extremely political game that’s being played here. A team hasn’t moved in 30 years, and swaying one way or the other has huge implications. Anyone coming right out in favor would possibly hinder the bidding process.
I can tell you that more than one owner or team president has requested a tee shirt or hat. I think if you asked most owners off the record they would say that Portland is a market that makes good sense in the near to mid-future.
FBC: Do you think a major league team in Portland would hurt minor league teams in the area, or even the Blazers?
MB: I don’t think that the WHL Winterhawks would be effected, but it is possible that some Blazer fans may jump over to MLB. I think that the fanbase is different enough to not impact one another adversely. For one, they are played in different seasons that don’t overlap.
The AAA Beavers would definitely be effected. They would most assuredly move to another market, possibly Eugene.
FBC: Do you think the odds of attracting a franchise through relocation or expansion are better?
MB: Definitely relocation. Expansion in my mind is a very long ways off. MLB will be making sure that the markets that currently exist, as well as the new markets that get relocation teams, are fiscally sound before expansion. That may take several years. Possibly a decade.
FBC: Among teams that have been mentioned as relocation candidates, do any stand out as the most likely to consider Oregon?
MB: This is a question that gets a lot of discussion. Obviously, the Expos are on everybody’s mind at the moment. The Pacific Northwest would serve MLB in a couple of capacities with them. The obvious is tapping a new market that is underserved at the moment, but the other is the placement of an NL team.
Currently, there is no NL team in the region. It would make sense for MLB to place an NL team in Portland to offset the Mariners in Seattle who are in the AL.
On the other hand, teams like the A’s, Marlins, Devil Rays, and even Twins are still in trouble, although it appears the Twins have dodged a bullet at the moment.
The A’s are a possibility because they are on the West Coast, and because they are have serious issues in getting a new stadium built, as well as dwindling attendance. If they were to move, then you have an “I-5 Rivalry” between the Mariners and the A’s in the AL.
FBC: What makes you so passionate about baseball?
MB: Baseball has a historic significance unlike any other sport in our nation. It is a thread that runs through our nation’s history. It seems to be a more mental game to me as well; more like chess is. It is a game that is easily learned, but at its highest levels is so complex that it borders on art. Looking at how a pitcher pitches to the defense that is set up… to the runners on the pads to the strengths of the person at the plate, it’s a beautiful dance that has stillness punctuated by extreme action.
On every level I love it.
FBC: Without a franchise in Portland (yet), what teams do you root for in the meantime?
MB: I was born in Portland, but grew up in the Bay Area watching the A’s and the Giants. Rick Monday, “Blue Moon” Odom, Vida Blue, and some guy named “Jackson” were my heroes later on, but my first was Willie Mays. Something about seeing games at Candlestick really stuck with me. I think it was the cold. Ask any Giants fan from a while back and they’ll tell you no place on earth is as cold during baseball season.
I’ve been in Oregon now for over 20 years, and reconnected with baseball in the early 90’s with the Mariners. I don’t really favor any one team any more. I have a deep affection for the Mariners still, but I don’t live and die by them – which helped keep me from dropping dead in the 2001 season when they posted 116 wins and failed to get to the dance. Since getting involved in SABR, which I highly recommend to any serious baseball fan or historian, I can watch any team and love it.
My wife is from Phoenix and is a hardcore Diamondbacks fan. My 14-month old son is torn between purple and teal, and anything that has a baseball plastered on it. With my luck he’ll get into MLS, or WWF…
FBC: You’re obviously devoting a great deal of time and effort is pursuing your goal. If, as a reward, you could choose a team name for a franchise in Oregon, what would it be?
MB: You know, it depends. If it’s a team that relocates with a great deal of history then don’t mess with it. The A’s should always be the A’s. I don’t care if they played in Philly, KC, Oakland or the moon; you don’t change the name because of the history involved.
I’m more or less neutral in the “name game.” Some have said “Herons,” others have said “Lumberjacks,” but I guess I’d go with “Pioneers.” The very first professional baseball team in Portland used that name, and so I’ll weigh in on the side of history.
FBC: Also, looking at any parallels that may exist between your dream of bringing Major League Baseball to Oregon and the dreams of folks who play fantasy baseball would be interesting. Why does baseball evoke such strong emotions and dreams in us all? Why do we become so involved in these dreams?
MB: For one it’s a game that we all played as kids. Somewhere deep inside everyone is that place where we all played the “boys’ game.” It’s a game that covers generations. You can talk to someone 100 years old about the game, and they’ll know of it. Baseball marks the history of cities that have had it for years. New York, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh… the history of baseball has been in step with the city that has hosted them.
Beyond that it’s the game that started statistical analysis in sport. From that, people can always argue over who’s better or worse across generations. Right now someone, somewhere is arguing whether Barry Bonds is better than Babe Ruth or Ted Williams. It’s a “no-win” argument, but then Americans do one thing great, and that’s argue.
FBC: Have you ever played fantasy baseball yourself?
MB: I did for a bit, but the cost and the time killed me. I spent so much time making trades and poring over stats that it started to get in the way of OBC, and that is priority one right now. Fantasy Baseball is great fun. It proves every time that ball games are played on the field, not on paper. There’s always going to be consistent players that you can bank on; an A-Rod, or Giambi. But then every season there’s going to be more Ecksteins, or Tejadas, or Lackeys or Hinskes than the “sure thing.”
That’s what makes baseball great.