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City leaders scramble to save the sport

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Debate raged over the level of play and stadium issues

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part two of a three-part series.

The Albuquerque Dukes were gone and weren’t coming back.

They were sold a month before the 2000 season began, finished their final Pacific Coast League campaign in the broken-down Albuquerque Sports Stadium, then headed for Portland and a sparkling new facility.

So what now?

“We needed a baseball team,” said Lawrence Rael, then the chief administrative officer for the city. “There was no debate over that.”

There was, however, debate over just about everything else.

Triple-A baseball was booming around the country, with state-of-the-art ballparks having risen in cities like Oklahoma City, Memphis and Sacramento. The Sports Stadium, a minor league jewel when it was constructed in 1969, now looked like a relic by Triple-A standards. Few improvements had been made over the years, and city officials knew something major needed to be done to bring baseball of that level back.

Build it — or they won’t come.

“I wanted a new stadium,” said Jim Baca, Albuquerque’s mayor at the time. “I traveled around the country looking at baseball stadiums, and that’s what we needed. I wanted to put it downtown, but the city council had a million different ways they wanted to get (baseball) back.

“At one point, they voted to bring in a “B” baseball team with the Western Baseball League to stay in the current facility. They didn’t want to go after Triple-A. I think it was all political maneuvering.”

Baca said the “politicking made it harder than it should have been, but it all worked out in the end.”

Isotopes Park became the latest of the crown-jewel minor league stadiums in 2003. Getting a new park was just part of the battle in bringing baseball back to Albuquerque. (Journal File)

Isotopes Park became the latest of the crown-jewel minor league stadiums in 2003. Getting a new park was just part of the battle in bringing baseball back to Albuquerque. (Journal File)

Brad Winter, a city councilor then and now, said Albuquerque was facing some huge financial issues. He also knew the city needed baseball back as soon as possible.

“What I remember, is the Dukes left because the stadium was in such poor shape there was an issue,” Winter said. “There was a thought, ‘let’s get a different kind of pro league, a lower league, just to get a team in there.’ It created a lot of controversy.

” … Some of us felt, maybe for the time being, that may work, but the mayor was adamant about not letting that happen. I think Baca was right. It wasn’t on the radar until (the Dukes) finally left. When they left it was serious.”

Some on the council just wanted to get a team, any team, at the Sports Stadium for the 2001 season.

Rael said that made for some interesting, and odd, ideas.

“I remember one presentation at a city council meeting, I think it was a Class B team,” Rael said. “They talked about a promotion they had called Gut Buster Night. They’d give away free beer ’til the first person has to go to bathroom.

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Yeah, that’s exactly what you want to have in Albuquerque.”

It wasn’t that those on the city council had anything against Triple-A baseball. They said they were just trying to get some type of ball back to the Sports Stadium, while saving the taxpayers an extra burden.

“My standing objection to many municipal projects, is they’re entertainment-related projects and are not focusing on basic city needs from government,” said Albuquerque attorney Hess Yntema, who was then on the city council. “In city government, you have to have room for discussion and opposition.”

Along the way, Baca formed Backin’ Baseball, a group of Albuquerque residents dedicated to bringing the game back to town at a high level, and in a new stadium.

That idea got some of the right folks looking to help.

“I was impressed with the group,” said Branch Rickey, the longtime and current PCL president, who was in office when the Dukes left Albuquerque. “They asked me to come to town, and when I got in front of that group and started talking to some of the people, I saw how many were so resolute, so determined, so enthusiastic and excited.

“I said, ‘If you think you can do your side (get a new stadium), I think I can do my side — which is find a club.’ And we were able to identify a franchise early on in the process.”

That franchise was the Calgary Cannons.

The team appeared set to move to Portland and its renovated stadium a year or so earlier, but the deal fell through.

The Cannons were still for sale — but nobody was buying.

Yet.

How do you like ‘dem apples?

By late 2000, Rael said he had talked to about 50 investors, trying to find someone who would purchase the Cannons and move them to Albuquerque.

“Nothing really panned out,” Rael said. “Everyone, rightfully so, was asking questions about, ‘What are you doing to get a team back?’ ”

Then, almost like a scene from “Field of Dreams,” a voice came from above — OK, even if it had simply bounced off a communications satellite.

“I’m sitting in my office in Colorado, and I get a cell phone call from a guy listening to a radio talk show while he was driving through Albuquerque,” Rickey said. “The more he talked, the more I started wondering if a bizarre phone call like this couldn’t be the real thing? The guy didn’t even live in the city, but he wanted to buy a team. It sounded preposterous. But it was real.”

The guy was Chicago investment banker Mike Koldyke, who owned land in Las Vegas, N.M.

Koldyke knew nothing of the Albuquerque baseball fiasco until flying into town for a Golden Apple Foundation board meeting. Koldyke had founded the Golden Apple Foundation — which is committed to teacher recognition, recruitment and renewal — in Chicago in 1985. He had started another chapter in New Mexico, and French Mortuary president Duffy Swan was also on the board.

Swan picked up Koldyke at the airport that day, and a casual conversation began.

One that would change Albuquerque history.

“We were driving past Dukes stadium, and Mike says, ‘Hey, how’d the Dukes do this year?’ ” Swan said. “I told him the story of how the team had moved, and he was surprised. He said ‘Albuquerque’s got to have a baseball team.’ I noticed he had seemed distracted during our board meeting. We went to dinner that night and he flew back to Chicago. He called a few weeks later and said, ‘I think I can do something about baseball in Albuquerque if you can help me coordinate some of the local leaders.’ He wanted to do it quietly, because he didn’t want to increase expectations.”

Soon after, Koldyke made a couple more calls — one of the biggest calls was to Ken Young, president of the Norfolk Tides minor-league team.

“(Koldyke) started thinking about the Dukes leaving, called another investment banker in Chicago and then called me and asked if I would preside over the whole thing,” said Young, who had never met Koldyke.

“I knew Albuquerque was a good baseball town, and I was very surprised when I had read in USA Today that the Dukes left,” Young said. “At the time I thought to myself, ‘That’s what’s bad about professional sports.’ But that was it. I didn’t think about it again until Mike called me.”

About a week later, Young agreed to join Koldyke as part of the ownership group and spearhead the operation.

“Then I had to find a team to buy,” Young said, “and I kind of knew the Calgary Cannons might be for sale.

” … But my purchase of the Calgary franchise was contingent upon Albuquerque getting a stadium, and us getting a lease in that stadium. And the deal in Albuquerque was contingent on our being able to buy a franchise.”

Everything was moving so quickly, that there was some obvious skepticism on the part of city officials. So Baca, Rael and Rodger Beimer, co-chairman of Backin’ Baseball, flew to Chicago to meet Koldyke at his home — a swank apartment on Northshore Drive.

“When we got off the elevator, walked into his apartment and looked out over Lake Michigan, we knew Mike was a player,” Beimer said. “This was the real deal.”

Stepping up to the plate

Baca formed a three-man committee consisting of Rael, representing the city, the city council’s Mark Sanchez and PNM’s Ben Montoya to broker a deal with the would-be owners.

“We had to negotiate the lease and bonds to be approved,” Rael said.

Baca vehemently fought for a new stadium, and wanted to build it downtown to revitalize the area. The estimated cost was $29.4 million.

The council wanted to renovate the Sports Stadium, at an estimated $24.4 million.

The state Legislature helped the cause by approving a bond that would give Albuquerque a waiver on the government gross receipts tax at the ballpark.

Then it was Albuquerque’s turn to step to the plate. The city needed to approve a bond or the deal would be dead.

“We had to figure out a way to get money to put on a campaign to promote an election,” Beimer said. “One morning, we had a meeting of about 30 or 40 movers and shakers in the community. All but one committed money, and we came up with $90,000.”

The debate about building a new park, renovating the old park, and even bringing a team to town increased, and was a daily topic in the Albuquerque media.

On May 7, 2001, the city council, by a 7-2 margin, opted to let the voters decide.

On May 30, more than 48,000 voters took part in a special election. They voted yes to baseball (55 percent), approving a general-obligation bond issue of up to $10 million for the project.

They also voted to renovate the Sports Stadium instead of building a new one by a 2-to-1 margin.

A few weeks later, the negotiations were completed. Triple-A baseball was coming home — set to return in 2003.

“We always had confidence that somehow we’d get it done,” Young said. “It came down to the 11th hour — then it went to voters. At that point it was a go. There was really a lot of excitement in city.”

The official groundbreaking took place on Oct. 25, 2001.

TUESDAY: Isotopes Park is a hit and so is the organization. The new franchise sees plenty of highs during a tremendously successful debut decade.
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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