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Gloom strikes city when Dukes depart

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Aging stadium, owner’s need for cash send team to Oregon

EDITOR’S NOTE: First in a series.

It’s as it should be.

Baseball in Albuquerque. A tradition.

On Thursday, the Albuquerque Isotopes, who have become one of Minor League Baseball’s most successful franchises, open their Pacific Coast League season against Iowa at Isotopes Park. April will mark 10 years since the Isotopes played their first game in the Duke City, where the Dukes once ruled.

Beverages will flow, and the aroma of pizza, burgers and just about any food you can imagine will fill the air.

Tailgaters enjoy a Dukes ballgame from the famous outfield drive-in at the Albuquerque Sports Stadium in 1983. (Journal file)

Tailgaters enjoy a Dukes ballgame from the famous outfield drive-in at the Albuquerque Sports Stadium in 1983. (Journal file)

Kids will chase down foul balls and play in the Fun Zone. Other youngsters will be glued to their seats — as well as listening to every word their parents tell them about the most American of sports.

A few of those parents might even talk about what once was.

Few, if any, will mention the dark summers of 2001 and 2002 — when political haggling and wrangling once held the city’s baseball fans hostage. When the Dukes left after the 2000 season, the prospects of baseball returning were uncertain.

“Looking back, it was all worth it,” says Lawrence Rael, the city’s former chief administrative officer. “When you’re sitting there having a hot dog and your favorite beverage in a beautiful stadium, nobody’s ever going to remember all the political morass that we had to go through to get here. That’s probably the greatest satisfaction for me going to that field today. But if these folks really knew how close we were to not getting here … ”

Sure, there were slight hints in the 1990s that someday problems could arise with Albuquerque’s minor-league franchise because its home field since 1969, the Albuquerque Sports Stadium, had seen better days.

But they were just hints. Few people paid attention to them.

After all, these were the Dukes. This was Albuquerque.

The team and the city went together like, well, baseball and hot dogs.

The Albuquerque Sports Stadium as it appeared on June 21, 1983. It was state-of-the-art when it was built in 1969. (Journal file)

The Albuquerque Sports Stadium as it appeared on June 21, 1983. It was state-of-the-art when it was built in 1969. (Journal file)

Even when then-Mayor Jim Baca publicly stated something needed to be done to keep the team from leaving — like building a new stadium — who listened?

Baca said he was proposing a $30 million bond issue to finance a new stadium.

Too late.

Just three days after Baca’s warning, the nightmare of Albuquerque baseball fans became reality. The Dukes, owned by Maryland’s Bob Lozinak, were sold to Portland Family Entertainment and said: “Hasta la vista, Albuquerque.”

The Dukes played the 2000 season, won their division, then headed for the Pacific Northwest.

“Looking back on it, the Dukes being sold out from under us really provided the opportunity to get things done differently,” Baca says. “Frankly, it’s almost miraculous we got it done.”

For more than a year, the community and politicians scrambled, debated and flat-out argued about how to get America’s pastime back to a city that first had Dukes baseball in 1915, and had enjoyed minor league baseball every year since 1946.

Stadium falls into disrepair

Albuquerque joined the Pacific Coast League in 1972, three years after the state-of-the-art Sports Stadium was built. The team was one of the most successful franchises in the PCL, and that success only increased when Pat McKernan became president/general manger in 1979.

McKernan, who died of cancer at age 60 in July 2001, was twice named minor league executive of the year.

Under the direction of the parent Los Angeles Dodgers, the Dukes were winning in a big way — both on the field and in the stands.

But success can breed complacency, and few fans realized how much the stadium had aged — and not gracefully — during the Dukes’ heyday. In the late 1990s, McKernan took Baca and Rael to Oklahoma City to see its new Triple-A ballpark.

It wasn’t anything like the city-owned Sports Stadium.

“When they built the Sports Stadium in 1969, it was the best,” says Patrick McKernan Jr., who was also on that trip to Oklahoma City. “The perception here was that we still had one of best in Triple-A, but that wasn’t the case.

“We didn’t want to make all that public. Looking back, maybe we should have.”

While folks in Albuquerque didn’t realize how the stadium had deteriorated, those in the PCL did. There were numerous things behind the scenes, like a tiny, outdated kitchen that couldn’t keep up with the fans’ concession orders. There was also a need to modernize for the players — like getting an indoor batting cage and bigger locker rooms — to keep up with other Triple-A teams.

Branch Rickey, president of the PCL then and now, said he didn’t want to see baseball leave Albuquerque. But he knew it was inevitable.

“I was instrumental in the team departing,” Rickey says. “… The difficulty we had was that the vibrancy that Pat had injected into the franchise, and how Albuquerque took to it in the bygone years, had colored the perspective of how badly the stadium and its fan-friendly character had been passed by.

“… Something needed to happen to re-energize and bring Albuquerque to what it could be.”

Rickey said he had hoped a new stadium would have been built while the Dukes were here, but he knew that wouldn’t happen.

“It wasn’t going to be accomplished within the normal framework,” he says. “There was not a lot of discussion about a new stadium, because all of the preliminary feedback was, ‘You’ve got to be out of your minds. This is the wrong time, the wrong place.’ ”

Rickey said he had discussions with “people whose authority and influence I trusted” about getting the stadium built, but nothing ever came of those discussions.

“There were other issues, that’s how I took it, in Albuquerque and statewide, that were so significant that it was hard to focus on a baseball stadium,” he said. “I think there was a little bit of a surprise (when they left).”

The group that purchased the Dukes had already renovated a stadium in Portland. It previously had agreed to purchase the Calgary Cannons and to move that franchise to the Pacific Northwest. But the deal fell through very late in the process, leaving Portland with a sparkling place to play, but no team.

McKernan Jr. says the Portland group then took a shot and threw an offer at Lozinak — who was busy putting money into his stadium in Altoona, Pa., where he owned another minor league team.

Lozinak couldn’t refuse.

“We were making money, but the franchise was only worth $7 (million)-$8 million,” McKernan says. “They bought it for more than $11 million. They way overpaid for it, but they needed a team.”

On Sept. 7, the Dukes beat Memphis 5-2 at home to even their best-of-five playoff series.

It would be their last game at the Sports Stadium.

Three days later the Dukes lost the series in Memphis — and Albuquerque lost its team.

Just like that, the Dukes were gone.

“Maybe the city should have built them a new stadium before I got there,” Rael says. “…We just knew we had to get baseball back.”

The question was how? And when? And where? And who would help?

The controversy — and conflicts — had just begun, and the mayor, the City Council and the residents of Albuquerque all had opinions about the best way to return the game to the Duke City.

ON MONDAY: The scramble to replace the Dukes — and the controversy about how to do so — begins.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal