Batter up

The long and winding road to Osprey (for now) field

| January 09, 2003

If Play Ball Missoula didn’t have bad luck, it might not have any luck at all. The non-profit group with the singular purpose of building a downtown home for Missoula’s rookie-league baseball team has encountered a medieval century’s worth of plagues in its five years of its existence, and there have been times when their efforts seemed altogether doomed.

But fresh on the heels of a life-infusing loan from the Missoula Federal Credit Union, Play Ball announced last week that construction has resumed at the ballpark’s site just west of McCormick Park. The group’s short-term goal is to complete Phase 1A, enough of the construction to house the Osprey—who for the last four years have played in the professionally sub-standard American Legion field off Spurgin Road—for their home opener on June 24.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” says Play Ball board member Wes Spiker, “but we’ve got to get those kids access to a pro-quality field. We simply have to get this thing done.”

City planners have looked to the site as a possible ballpark for well over a decade, and a 1991 committee headed by then-mayor Dan Kemmis selected it as the most desirable location for a pro field. In 1998, when the announcement came down from Major League Baseball that the rookie-league team from Lethbridge, Alberta was headed for Missoula, Play Ball Missoula was born.

And procedings started with a bang when Champion International, which owned the majority of the land needed for the ballpark, agreed to donate its former mill grounds to Play Ball, which will in turn donate both the land and the ballpark itself to the city once construction is completed.

But local activists formed their own non-profit, Fair Play Missoula, to prevent the ballpark from being built at the site. In a two-pronged effort, Fair Play in 2000 challenged the legality of the development agreement between the city and Play Ball that committed $1 million of Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) funds to the project. Missoula voters approved the use of city funds by a nearly two-to-one margin, and the District Court in Missoula ruled in favor of the city and Play Ball. Fair Play appealed the case to the Montana Supreme Court, which last summer upheld the ruling.

Groundbreaking finally occurred in August of 2001, and by the end of the year the playing field had been excavated—the field will be 13 feet below ground level, with seats perched on concrete risers along the berms created by the excavation—and the steel I-beams upon which the concrete risers and main concourse will rest were ready for installation.

But the snake bites continued for Play Ball, as it quickly became apparent that several layers of old asphalt buried deep at the site were wreaking havoc on the pile-driven beams, turning them into “giant silver spoons,” says Spiker. And when the economy tanked in late 2001, the group found that fundraising had become increasingly difficult. An anomaly in this age of taxpayer-funded stadiums, the ballpark is entirely funded by private donations. Construction at the site halted for nearly a year.

Meanwhile, neither Major League Baseball nor the Arizona Diamondbacks—the Osprey’s parent club—were happy with the continued delays. “Four years is the longest any team has played in a temporary facility,” says Osprey general manager Matt Ellis of his team’s stay at Lindborg-Cregg Field. “And believe me, they’re not interested in setting that kind of precedent.”

With the clock ticking and the team’s future in Missoula uncertain, the Missoula Federal Credit Union stepped in with what may prove to be a team-saving loan. The loan—the amount of which is undisclosed—pushed Play Ball’s coffers over the $4 million mark, which is the amount needed to trigger the release of MRA funds under the development agreement. “Business lending is a new arena for us,” says credit union vice president Jim Kenyon, “but as far as a community project goes, we couldn’t imagine a better one.”

The city’s financial manager is reviewing Play Ball’s books, and expectations are that the MRA funds will be released within a week or so. Once that happens, work will begin immediately to connect the site with water, electricity, gas and sewer hookups. In the meantime, the construction contractor is moving heavy machinery back to the site, where holes will be drilled to plant the remaining steel beams. Once the beams are in place, concrete forms and pre-made risers will finally give shape to a stadium five years in dream stage, and Play Ball hopes that the momentum generated by the construction will aid them in securing, perhaps from a sought-after naming-rights donor, the roughly $1.5 million difference between their funds and Phase 1A’s estimated cost. According to Play Ball, an anonymous donor has already committed to $500,000 of the $1.5 million, contingent upon a naming rights donor stepping forward.

In addition to the boggling logistics of completing a playable ball field in six months’ time, the city still hasn’t secured an adjoining parcel of land at the site for use as a parking lot. But Mayor Kadas has been given the authority to negotiate for the purchase of the land, and may resort to condemnation proceedings if an agreement can’t be reached with the land’s owner, the Idaho Timber Company.

But for now, the parking lot is the least of Play Ball’s worries. The truncated plan for the 2003 version of the ballpark calls for completion of the playing field itself, dugouts, lights, and roughly 2200 of the eventual 3200 fixed spectator seats (seating on the grass berms along the right- and left-field lines is also planned). For the 2003 season, fans will purchase food and beverages from trailers and use temporary bathrooms, much like they’ve done at Lindborg-Cregg for the past four.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, we’ve got a huge task in front of us,” says MRA director Geoff Badenoch. “But the all the parties involved—MRA, the contractor, the architects, and Play Ball—are raring to go. We are all ready to make it happen.”

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