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By Rawn James, Jr.
A Friday night game opens the PNats’ first homestand of the season and C. Richard Pfitzner Stadium resembles a 10-year-old Ford scrubbed spit-shine clean for the prom. The grass beams manicured green beneath the late evening’s summer sun. American and Virginian flags flap in a breeze blowing as easily as the players’ trot from the dugout. The stadium is ringed by tall deciduous trees whose leaves flutter high above the ballpark, mimicking the children below who dance to the music accompanying each batter’s introduction.
The game is against the Frederick Keys and, despite the balmy weather, attendance is sparse. Most fans are seated in the first four rows of box seats along the first and third baselines.
The bleachers are nearly empty. Pfitzner Stadium is well-staffed with earnest teenagers, and there appears to be a one-to-one fan-to-staffer ratio. Before you sit in your box seat, a smiling teen wipes it clean for you.
What the crowd lacks in numbers, however, it makes up for in enthusiasm. The fans greet the starting lineup with justified cheers: Unlike their major league namesakes, the Potomac Nationals are doing well this season. They are in first place in the Northern Division of the Carolina League. Their pitcher tonight is a 6-foot-5-inch 22-year-old southpaw named John Lannan, and the fans want him to pick apart the Frederick Keys lineup. When the umpire makes a close call on a ball, boos bellow across the field. The next pitch is a strike. Lannan wipes his brow.
Winding the Pitch
Last winter, just 30 miles south of the Washington Nationals’ new stadium site, it appeared that their Single A affiliate, the Potomac Nationals, would join their major league namesake in procuring a new stadium.
Team owner Art Silber spent months negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the Prince William Park Authority to replace 23-year-old G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium with a state-of-the-art $22.5 million ballpark. Under the terms of the MOU, the PNats, as fans affectionately call the team, would lease the 6,500-seat stadium for 25 years. Silber agreed to pay half the stadium’s construction costs and the county would pay the rest.
By the time a public hearing was held in January, however, the PNats’ prospects for a new stadium hung lower than the winter clouds over the Occoquan River. Six of the eight members of the Prince William Board of Supervisors told The Washington Post that they would vote against the plan. County residents seemed almost unanimous in their opposition to a publicly-financed stadium. The Board of Supervisors never brought the plan to a vote.
Silber admitted, “Right now everything’s stopped.” Indeed, it appears the plan to replace Pfitzner Stadium with a publicly-funded ballpark is dead.
Occasionally, though, even the wiliest pitchers get hit deep and the most predictable politicians surprise. The Potomac Nationals’ continuing quest for a new stadium is the story of how the region’s most conservative county is poised at the vanguard of changing the method and meaning of building an arena with public funds.
This Old House
The Potomac Nationals joined the Single A Carolina League in 1978. After being affiliated with major league teams like the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox, the team associated with the Washington Nationals in 2005. In September 2006, the Potomac Nationals signed a player development deal affiliating the PNats with Washington for at least the next four years. The Washington Nationals issued a statement declaring they were “excited to extend our working relationship with the Potomac Nationals.”
The Potomac Nationals were less than excited to spend another season playing in Pfitzner Stadium. Originally called Davis Ford Park when it opened in 1983, the ballpark was renamed a few years later to honor the Board of Supervisors member who led the successful effort to move the Class A baseball team from Alexandria to Woodbridge. Barry Bonds played his first professional baseball game at “the Pfitz” as a member of the Prince William Pirates. During the 20 years since then, several amenities have been added to the arena, including the box seats behind first and third base and a new scoreboard. As the team’s website boasts, however, “the basic structure from 1984 still remains.”
This, according to Brian Merzbach, proprietor of the long-standing website www.ballparkreviews.com, is the root of the problem. Pfitzner Stadium “is a very cheaply made, typical ballpark of the mid 1980s,” he wrote. “I’ll go back when they have a new stadium, but certainly not before.” Merzbach, who responded from his home in New York, said that a stadium’s condition “absolutely affects attendance. With a good facility, I have no doubt that the Potomac Nationals would be able to draw a large number of fans.” Art Silber, the man who has owned Potomac’s baseball team for 19 years, could not agree more. “[The stadium’s condition] is seriously affecting attendance,” he said. “It’s so uncomfortable to sit there. We only have about 500 individual seats. Everything else is a bleacher, and more than half of those do not have backs.”
Silber is an energetic former president and CEO of a Baltimore-based bank whose vivid love of the game belies his corporate background. At 66 years old, he coaches first base in a Nationals uniform, and is one of only two men in professional baseball permitted to wear Jackie Robinson’s retired number 42. (The other is future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees.)
“A couple seasons ago,” Silber continued, gaining momentum in discussing The Pfitz’s condition, “a fan sitting up in the bleachers actually fried two eggs on the bleachers during a day game. That’s how hot it was in those seats.”
And while the fans may have it bad at The Pfitz, the players have it even worse. “We have three showerheads for 30 people. The locker rooms are beneath the high school level. We only have one toilet. The press box is an absolute joke; the roof leaks.”
How does it compare to other ballparks in the league?
“It doesn’t. It is simply a horrible, horrible facility that is literally falling apart. The nuts and bolts are rusting.” Silber sighed before concluding, “If we don’t get a new ballpark, we’d have to leave because the facility would be unplayable.”
The score is tied at zero at the end of the first inning.
The PNats mascot, Uncle Slam, resembles a larger-than-life Smurf in an Uncle Sam getup. The crowd cheers when a 3-year-old boy named Clayton beats a decidedly gimpy Uncle Slam in a race around the bases. When he isn’t hosting between-the-innings entertainment, the mascot mingles and jokes in the stands.
Uncle Slam also sponsors a reading program in which over 10,000 area students participate. After the fifth inning of a game last season, Uncle Slam shoved two men out of the beer line to get a quick laugh from other fans. He is complex that way.
Ian Desmond is the PNats photogenic 22-year-old shortstop from Sarasota, Calif., who has hit one homerun this year. With the score tied at zero at the bottom of the second inning and with a man on second, Desmond hits his second homerun. The Nationals’ score goes up by two runs and the crowd erupts.
After the game, Desmond will tell Robert Daski, a reporter who covers the PNats for The Potomac News with a George Will-like appreciation for those who play the game, “Everything’s kind of clicking right now. It takes a lot off your mind when you’re having fun.”
The night’s fun is just beginning for Desmond as he receives high fives in the dugout; he will hit a double and a single later this evening.
Public Peanuts Needed
NBC News reports that, over the last 15 years, local governments have granted $15 billion in subsidies to finance stadiums. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig’s success in persuading localities to foot the bill for major league stadiums has trickled down to minor league teams. The Brooklyn Cyclones, the New York Mets’ Class A team, play in the 7,500 seat KeySpan Park, which opened in 2001 and cost the City of New York $39 million.
The Big Apple’s taxpayers shelled out another $71 million to build Richmond County Bank Ballpark for the Class A Staten Island Yankees. The borough’s president claimed that the stadium would economically energize its neighborhood—the same argument set forth by proponents of the Washington Nationals’ stadium in southeast Washington, D.C.
Jeremiah Collins, a fan keeping score in the box seats with his girlfriend, takes his Nationals baseball seriously. Decked out in a Washington Nationals cap and T-shirt, Collins has been coming to minor league games in Woodbridge for eight years. When asked what he thinks of The Pfitz, he replied, “This is definitely one of the smaller stadiums. The one in Myrtle Beach is larger and nicer.” Collins nods to indicate the mostly empty ballpark. “But this is a great deal. You can pick out where you want to sit. Compared to the prices at RFK, 12 bucks [for a box seat] is great.” Asked if he would pay higher ticket prices to replace Pfitzner Stadium, Collins is emphatic: “I definitely would pay more for a new facility. Definitely.”
As for the team?
“They’ve gotten better in the last five years.”
Before the third inning, the announcer proclaims over the speakers that the judges have determined which is “The Dirtiest Car in the Parking Lot.”
“Oh, that’s messed up,” laughs a man who could win any Carroll O’Connor look-alike contest.
The announcer broadcasts the license plate number and invites the car’s owner to claim the prize: a free deluxe car wash courtesy of a local sponsor. Everyone looks around to see who owns the Dirtiest Car in the Parking Lot. The winner is not immediately forthcoming. On cue, the DJ plays Rose Royce’s classic song “Car Wash” over the loudspeakers; adults laugh and children dance while the Nationals toss around the baseball.
The seat of the Prince William County Government is at 1 County Complex Court, just off Prince William Parkway. Facing a massive parking lot, the only destination in walking distance from the County Complex is Pfitzner Stadium. Any publicly-financed ballpark deal will have to be approved by the Prince William Board of Supervisors, which meets three times a month at the James J. McCoart Administration Building at the Complex.
The Chambers seats visitors comfortably in movie theater-style chairs, complete with cushions covered in red fabric. Supervisors conduct business on a semi-circle dais, and, unlike members of most legislative bodies, they actually pay attention when a colleague is speaking.
Noticeably absent from the dais is the fidgeting, whispering and empty seats that tend to make most legislative hearings look like college freshman biology lectures.
After serving three years as Supervisor for the Occoquan District, Corey A. Stewart was elected Chairman-at-Large in a November 2006 special election. In an interview one week before the PNats 2007 season opener, Stewart offered this assessment of Pfitzner Stadium: “It’s the worst stadium in the Carolina League, and its poor condition is suppressing the team’s revenue.” Having said that, Stewart added flatly, “There will not be a vote [on stadium funding] this year. It’s a question of how much debt can we afford.”
Right now, Prince William County can hardly afford to take on any new debt. The national slowdown in the real estate market hit the fast-growing county particularly hard. Prince William faces an $18.1 million shortfall for fiscal year 2007, and this figure may increase in 2008.
Yet, Stewart says he is “very optimistic” that the Board will approve a publicly-financed stadium construction plan if it comes for a vote next year.
By the end of the sixth inning, the PNats lead the Keys 8-0. The night’s breeze carries a slight chill. A junior high school teacher, who asked that her name not be used because she was discussing a school trip to the stadium, described sitting in the bleachers.
“They are very uncomfortable, especially when it’s cold. That’s when they feel cold and damp. But when it’s hot, they burn in the sun.” When she attends games with her family, she adds, she sits in the box seats. The Potomac Nationals go on to beat the Frederick Keys 8-2. Six PNats had more than one hit, and pitcher John Lannan pitched his third straight win. For all its shortcomings, no one ever claimed that The Pfitz was unlucky.
The Board of Supervisors’ goal, were it not accompanied by the outlines of a plan to enact it, would comprise the sort of everyone-wins proposition most often found in campaign speeches and elementary school talent contests: As Chairman Stewart described it, the Board wants to build a stadium “that costs the county literally nothing. It will be revenue-neutral.”
County officials hope to build its revenue-neutral ballpark with something of a quilt of public and private funds. Silber is committed to paying half of the new stadium’s estimated $23-million price tag.
The county will pay for the other half by selling the naming rights to the new stadium and dedicating the state sales tax revenue to paying for the ballpark — an idea first promulgated in Richmond when Virginia was competing for a major league team.
“The combination of Silber’s contribution, plus naming rights plus a sales tax refund [from the state] brings us very close to having a revenue-neutral stadium. The debt challenges have forced us to think outside the box.”
Even if Richmond balks at permitting the county to pay for the stadium with stadium-generated revenue, the county might be able to pay its half of the construction costs from the naming rights revenue alone. The Fresno Grizzlies play in a relatively small market and recently sold the stadium’s naming rights to Chucchansi Gold Resort & Casino for $16 million over 15 years.
The Potomac Nationals play in one of professional baseball’s largest Class A markets; naming rights to its stadium could fetch over a million dollars per year.
“So many major companies in the area have bought naming rights,” Silber said. “Look at FedEx, Comcast and Verizon. We are pretty optimistic and hopeful that we will have a new ballpark for the ’09 season.”