Isotopes Park turns 20: A story of how a ballpark was built and baseball made its comeback - Albuquerque Journal

Isotopes Park turns 20: A story of how a ballpark was built and baseball made its comeback

A couple of weeks ago, a young guy came to Albuquerque for the first time.

Soon after he arrived, he saw her – beautiful and apparently oh, so ready to play. As was he.

So he just had to know more and, at the risk of being forward, asked how old she is.

At this point, someone spoke up: “How old do you think …?”

The first-time Isotopes ballplayer looked around at the object of his attention – Isotopes Park – before his reply.

“He said ‘five, six years old,'” said John Traub, flattered since he runs the place as Isotopes vice president/general manager.

In fact, city-owned Isotopes Park, which seemingly only yesterday was the latest brand-new thing, turns 20 years old this month. Built on the footprint of its forefather Albuquerque Sports Stadium, it first opened for business on April 11, 2003 for the first Isotopes home Triple-A baseball game.

Perhaps oddly, the club has no plans to commemorate it. Last year instead it marketed 20 years of Isotopes baseball, even though one of those seasons (2020) was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Isotopes, who wrap their first 2023 home stand Sunday after a late Saturday home game vs. Salt Lake, will be on the road Tuesday, in El Paso.

Nonetheless, 20 years is a landmark for the franchise but especially for the crown jewel of a facility, which also since 2019 has been home to New Mexico United. The soccer team subleases the facility from the primary tenant Isotopes.

Since its 2003 move-in, the Isotopes franchise has paired the old and traditional with the new, before, after and between innings of actual baseball.

There are still the antics of the ageless mascot Orbit, the creative promotions, Fourth of July fireworks and the often unpredictable events that are the essential minor league experience.

But there also are the real-time communications and engagement, touchless transactions and a massive state-of-the-art video board which is a performance in itself. Even the balls and strikes usually are called by satellite technology, not the home-plate umpire. Want to see where the pitch was? The board can show you.

Year in and out, a tight-knit group of veteran pros leads the ongoing, usually successful, effort to provide sports entertainment – with as much emphasis on “entertainment” as “sports.”

“There’s really no better place in Albuquerque to spend a summer evening,” Steve Hurlbert, a former Isotopes media relations director now in a similar role at the University of Colorado, wrote in an email.

“While the ballpark is spectacular, the organization overall is also first-class and that ultimately comes down to the creative and passionate people who are there every day making the magic happen.”

But before the Isotopes arrived two decades ago to begin their own magic, baseball disappeared for two years, and it took a form of magic to get it back.

Postponed, ‘Storm’

Jim Baca was Albuquerque’s mayor from 1997-2001. At some point in 1998 or 1999, he was at Albuquerque Sports Stadium taking in a Dukes game as guest of club president and general manager Pat McKernan.

In maybe the eighth inning, McKernan, back and forth much of the night, returned to tell Baca and others that it’d be wise to leave. Radar indicated a big thunderstorm storm was coming, with potential for danger and damage.

“It was sort of a metaphor for how this whole thing got started,” Baca, 77, said recently.

In March 2000, it was announced that Dukes owner Robert Lozinak, who in 1979 had purchased the team from the Los Angeles Dodgers for $340,000, was selling the franchise to a group in Portland, Oregon. The Journal reported the sale price at north of $11 million. He told the Journal he needed the money to fund a stadium for a Double-A team he owned in his hometown of Altoona, Pennsylvania.

With McKernan running the Dukes as the family business with his wife and kids, the Los Angeles Dodgers-affiliated, Lozinak-owned Dukes had experienced glorious days – six Pacific Coast League titles and twice (1984, 1991) winning the prestigious John H. Johnson Trophy awarded to the top franchise in Minor League Baseball.

But McKernan had told confidants he feared this doomsday was coming. And with it, there would be a huge challenge in filling the created void.

The Albuquerque Sports Stadium had opened in 1969 with an exhibition game between the San Francisco Giants and Cleveland Indians, when Willie Mays reportedly called it the finest minor league stadium he’d played in.

By the turn of the millennium, however, it obviously had aged ungracefully. All of the cookie-cutter stadium templates of the 1960s and 1970s compared poorly to the more attractive, fan-friendly neoclassic ballpark designs beginning in the 1990s, with intimacy and concourses and sight lines to the action from wherever.

Plus, minor league teams needed more amenities like indoor batting cages and larger clubhouses.

“Everybody moving in baseball at the time wanted to move into a new house,” Rodger Beimer, a retired marketing and public relations executive, said recently.

Beimer was among those who reacted, and quickly. He became an active member of Backin’ Baseball, an action committee of perhaps 50 members from a wide swath of Albuquerque life – “attorneys, Little League officials, contractors, baseball nuts, business leaders” Beimer said – convened to bring back baseball. An initial breakfast meeting of the group resulted in $95,000 pledged toward that objective. So they were serious.

It gave Beimer’s longtime friend Baca, who had been exploring how to bring a multipurpose indoor venue to the city, occasion to pivot to finding a baseball stadium solution. He isn’t a sports fan, but “I knew what was important,” he said.

So, what about a team?

Oh, Canada!

Duffy Swan, a now-retired president of Albuquerque’s French Funerals & Cremations and previously in the telecommunications business, had this friend Mike Koldyke, a Chicago venture capitalist. They both were members of the Golden Apple Foundation of New Mexico.

At some point after the announcement the Dukes were leaving, Koldyke flew into town and Swan picked him up at the Sunport. They drove by Albuquerque Sports Stadium, by then mothballed. Koldyke asked what was up.

We no longer have a team, Swan told him.

Koldyke reportedly was stunned; Albuquerque is too good of a baseball town not to have baseball, he said.

He began brainstorming. He knew a guy who knew a guy – in this case, Ken Young, a Tampa, Florida-based baseball and concessions owner. They became the linchpins of a prospective ownership group. Its plan: Find a franchise for sale, buy it and move it to Albuquerque with a caveat – the city had to build a new ballpark or renovate the Sports Stadium.

Meanwhile, Branch Rickey III, then president of the Pacific Coast League, offered an assist. There was in fact a team for sale – the Calgary Cannons in snowy Alberta, affiliated improbably with the beach-y Florida Marlins.

Traub, a Los Angeles native, had been there since 1992 and at the end was the Cannons’ general manager.

Young became the front man of the prospective ownership group, and its negotiations with the Calgary franchise began quietly.

But apparently not quietly enough.

“An episode of ‘The Simpsons’ came on, on a Sunday night in Calgary, and it was the ‘Hungry, Hungry Homer’ episode when the team was being secretly sold to move to Albuquerque from Springfield,” Traub said. “The local (TV) affiliate knew that this episode was going to come on, and it actually came to my house with a TV crew – to watch me watching this episode.

“It was like life imitating art, or art imitating life.”

Driving ’em home

Baca, Lawrence Rael, then as now the city’s Chief Administrative Officer, and Beimer went to Chicago and courted Koldyke as if they were college basketball coaches on an in-home recruiting visit, “just to show him how serious Albuquerque was about having him,” Beimer said.

Some of the Backin’ Baseball members toured the Triple-A ballpark in Oklahoma City, seen then as a standard of what could be.

Others set a bar not so high. Some decried the need to do anything other than find a lower-level team – Double-A, Single-A, maybe an independent – which would be glad to pick up the Sports Stadium scraps.

Rael: “We said ‘we’re a Triple-A city, and we want to stay at that level.'”

The mayor’s team won that debate, but not all. It wanted a ballpark Downtown. The City Council leaned toward a Sports Stadium rebuild. The Council could have used discretionary funds to pay for one, but instead insisted on a ballot referendum. There was organized opposition to using any taxes for baseball.

Once it had in hand the lease terms the Rael-led city team and Young had agreed upon, the City Council set a special election for May 30, 2001.

On that day, voters approved a general-obligation bond issue of up to $10 million for a renovation of the Sports Stadium. The tally was 55-44 percent for the bond issue, 66-33 percent for the less-expensive $10 million renovation instead of committing $15 million for a new ballpark. City councilors had capped the cost of a new stadium at $35 million, a renovation at $25 million.

“You’re going to have a generation of kids that will be able to go to a ballgame and remember it the rest of their lives,” Baca said then in a triumphant moment.

Young by then had become the front man of the ownership group, negotiating simultaneously the purchase of the Calgary club and a ballpark lease in Albuquerque. Those terms: A $700,000 annual rent plus 12.5 percent of revenue earned on-site in excess of $5.5 million, to a point.

Roughly 14 months after news that the Dukes were leaving, a plan was in place to replace both the team and their old home. Ed Adams took over the building project for the city. The architects and construction firms fell in. By fall, 1601 Avenida Cesar Chavez was a major construction zone.

“You’ve never seen city government move faster,” Rael recalls.

Meanwhile, the team moving to Albuquerque still had one more season in the Great White North.

Migration south

The 2002 Calgary Cannons season was the lamest of lame ducks under the Young-Koldyke reign, who closed a deal for the franchise the previous December. Traub said 19 dates on the schedule were erased by bad weather.

“We lost an entire eight-game home stand to snow,” said Traub, “I knew there was no way we could play. So we kept the team on the road. For 16 games.”

Ownership’s instruction to Traub was to limit the losses as much as possible.

The Cannons packed up the moving van at season’s end in September.

Traub was part of the furniture, as it were. Young offered him a job with the Isotopes in the summer. He accepted, not immediately but eventually, moving with wife Liz, a toddler son Joe, and a 10-month-old daughter Sophie. His 11 years in Calgary were complete.

By the fall of 2002, the new baseball ownership group set up an office in a building across University. It began hiring helpers.

From that office with its one computer in early 2003, the club announced sales of ticket vouchers. No way then to sell by phone or online. At 8 a.m. on the frosty first day, lines were wrapped around the building. The club learned that day it’d need a bigger boat.

It also needed a name, which would be “Isotopes” in an homage to “The Simpsons” episode and despite a sentiment to try to keep the Dukes name.

The naming of the facility? It was as simple as Traub nudging Young on the phone one day that it needed to be done, and Young’s reply: “Aaaahh, let’s just call it Isotopes Park.”

The return

The finished Isotopes Park of course looked nothing like the Sports Stadium, except for the spectacular view beyond the outfield of the majestic Sandia Mountains, red and twinkling at dusk. In the spirit of the agreement to “renovate,” the concrete was preserved upon which rest the lower level seats, from dugout to dugout. The tunnel to the home clubhouse is the same. Some footings and a scoreboard remained, for a while.

Triple-A baseball returned on April 11, 2003, with an announced sellout of 12,215. A flyover by F-16 Falcons of the New Mexico Air National Guard shook the building and wowed the crowd. Gov. Bill Richardson and Albuquerque’s next mayor, Martin Chavez, threw out the first pitches – with Bart and Homer Simpson mascots cheering them on – during pregame ceremonies that lasted 28 minutes to fit in all the important people. Baca didn’t get a first-pitch invitation, but he received lots of handshakes and back-pats.

Not all went perfectly. About 40 tickets were duplicated and caused pregame difficulty at the box office. Human error was blamed. An unsung hero of Opening Night was an electrician who climbed the light pole in left field and reset the breaker when the lights went out. Later in the home stand, a game was called off because of wind – which knocked out a light standard behind home plate. This time nobody could get to the repair.

“It was the first year; anything that might go wrong would go wrong,” said David Bearman, the team’s original media relations director at age 24.

“But it was so much fun.”

Those Marlins-affiliated Isotopes fell that night 5-3 to Oklahoma. But that season under colorful and fiery manager Dean Treanor, they won their division in the PCL. On the final day of the regular season, the Isotopes clinched when another team lost earlier. And even then, the ‘Topes couldn’t get off the field to celebrate, instead needing 15 innings to finish off a loss.


If all the fun times, like 40,000 units sold on 50-cent hot dog’s debut in 2003, tend to blur for the casual fans, so be it.

The franchise has had some tough times, as have been documented previously here. The wiped-out COVID-19 season of 2020 resulted in heartbreaking employee furloughs for the ballclub and challenges in keeping relationships with season-ticket holders and sponsors. The passing of assistant GM Nick LoBue that November from COVID is “something I still haven’t gotten over,” Traub said.

And the move-in of ever-popular United has created coexistence challenges, not the least of which is conversion of the playing surface from a soccer pitch to a baseball field and back, time and again over a season. The Journal has been told it’s close to a $40,000 city expense each time.

Rael said it’s “not quite that high” but acknowledged “it’s expensive,” but that the city gets it back in the form of the Isotopes’ rent checks. Concessions and the like sold at United home games, as an example, are subject to the surcharge.

Meanwhile, United ownership is seeking a place to build its soccer-specific stadium, with the city’s help. That’s after Albuquerque voters in November 2021 rejected a bond issue designed to fund a downtown stadium for the USL Championship franchise.

The Isotopes have paid more than $32 million to the city per the lease agreement negotiated then by Young and the Rael-led team. It’s nearing the end of its 25-year term; Young and city officials have begun talks about an extension.

Rael said the Isotopes’ rent has paid the $10 million debt service on the original bond twice over. He gets emotional when reflecting on how well the deal has worked.

“This one is about how elected officials can work together to really make a difference in the lives of families in our communities,” Rael said. “We invested the right amount of money, we got the right ownership group and Albuquerque is better off for it.”

Baca threw out a first pitch last season and with wife Bobbi gets into games in the city’s suite each year. “That’s my payback,” he said, laughing. He believes now, as he did then, that the stadium should have gone Downtown, so its presence could spur urban renewal as have stadiums in other cities.

Still, “it worked out,” said Baca. “It’s really a nice stadium. And it actually makes money.”

On the field, the Isotopes have lost more than they’ve won, whether as Triple-A Marlins (2003-08) after the shotgun wedding, Dodgers (2009-14) in a sentimental reunion with an old love, or the more organic current relationship with the nearby Colorado Rockies (2015-present).

Traub, 58, has on staff son Joe, now a staffer in media relations. His daughter Sophie is in college.

He says the club continues to look for new ways to engage fans – “that makes this fun.” This year, the club put in a “sunset deck” on the fourth-level concourse, away from the noise of the game, but with the promise of spectacular sunsets. Next year, maybe a hospitality suite on the concourse above right-center field.

McKernan, who threw out the first pitch in the last Dukes home game in August 2000, never got a chance to see what came next. He died in July 2001 at age 60.

The Dukes team he ran, which was sold after the 2000 season, played in Portland (2001-10) and Tucson (2011-13) before relocating in 2014 to El Paso, the Isotopes’ opponent Tuesday.

Lozinak, meanwhile, sold the Altoona team, now known as the Curve, in 2002. Then he reacquired it in 2008 and, at age 85, still owns it, per the Double-A franchise’s website.

If ever he was a scapegoat for taking the Dukes away, hindsight suggests he shouldn’t be. Losing the Dukes, after all, pushed Albuquerque to take the necessary, worthwhile if not immediately comfortable leap into a new era.

“In some ways he did the city a big favor,” Baca said. “If you’d tried to do it with the old Dukes, people wouldn’t have gone for it.”

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