Anonymous MLB poll ranked SLC last among expansion candidates, but some say it’s a ‘sleeper city’

The Athletic recently asked 100 major league players for their opinion on potential expansion teams. Only 2 said they preferred Salt Lake City.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dale Murphy talks to baseball players from the Westside, after a news conference on the Power District development was announced on the west side of Salt Lake City including a possible Major League Baseball park, on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.

Salt Lake City’s public campaign to land a Major League Baseball franchise has been ongoing for two months now. More privately, discussions between city representatives and the league have gone on for over a year.

And as MLB begins to narrow down potential expansion cities — with commissioner Rob Manfred wanting to add two future teams — players are beginning to weigh in on where they would like to play.

The Athletic conducted an anonymous poll with 100 MLB players, who were asked, “What is the best potential expansion city?” They were given the options of Portland, Nashville, Montreal, Oakland or other.

Salt Lake City registered last among qualifying cities, with 2% of players saying it was the best expansion option. Nashville finished first with 69% of the vote. Portland, currently viewed as Salt Lake’s main competition to get a team if the Oakland A’s move to Las Vegas, got 4% of the vote.

But MLB players and coaches who have played in Salt Lake have a different take. They said perception could be a big factor in polls like this, with many MLB players never visiting Salt Lake. Unless prospects play in the Pacific Coast League coming up, they would never visit Utah on their way to the majors.

“Salt Lake is kind of like a sleeper city. A lot of people are like, ‘Ah Salt Lake.’ And they have in their mind what is going to be,” current Salt Lake Bees manager Keith Johnson said. “But then they actually get here and experience it and it’s a pretty good city.”

Johnson played 12 professional seasons, mostly in the minor leagues. He served on the Miami Marlins staff recently and coached the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees multiple times throughout his career.

“There are a lot of guys who, as they come through here and experience Utah and Salt Lake in particular, their impressions get changed in short order,” Johnson said.

But what are the criteria for a good major league city to players?

“I feel like fan support,” said Daniel Murphy, a 12-year veteran and three-time All-Star, who recently joined the Bees. “I have been reading a lot about the Dead Ball era. Pittsburgh and the New York Giants, the fans showed up in force to support their boys. I would say fan support, personally, is the biggest thing.”

Murphy said that his favorite cities were Philadelphia, Chicago and Pittsburgh. Philadelphia and Chicago are known for their loyal fanbases.

“Coming up with the Mets, the Phillies were very good. It was kind of an electric, to go and experience with the fans,” Murphy said.

David Fletcher, who has been a five-year veteran with the Angels, believes Salt Lake has the capacity to build a fanbase worthy of a Major League Baseball team.

“We are just a Triple-A team and fans are really good for a Triple-A team,” he said. “Fans show up and they are engaged. I’d say it is above-average. From what I’ve seen I would say yes, Salt Lake would support it.”

Johnson pointed to the loyal following the Utah Jazz have cultivated over time and how frequently the team sells out its games. That same talking point has been used by Jazz owner Ryan Smith about why Salt Lake could support a MLB or NHL team.

“Obviously we support the Jazz really well,” Johnson said. “We support the Utes and BYU football teams. The gymnastics team (at Utah). There are lots of sports fans and lots of different types of fans. Obviously a major league city, the draw would be some of [Salt Lake] players. But also the Yankees come to town. The Dodgers come to town. I feel like it would be supported.”

Another factor players discussed was the attractions. That included nightlife, family outings and accessibility. Salt Lake would have a different feel than Nashville, certainly, but players who have called SLC home think that’s a selling point.

“I think the actual city helps too,” Fletcher said. “Salt Lake, for example, there is a lot to do without going very far. I think all the successful, good fan bases are kind of in a biggish city.”

Johnson thinks Salt Lake could find a niche in offering players entertainment.

“Is it a tourist destination?” Johnson said. “A lot of places there are museums, art and national history type stuff. Here it’s obviously the mountains, ski resorts. We have a lot of things that even in the summer times families can do outdoors.”

Murphy, who had never been to Salt Lake before he joined the Bees last month, thought Salt Lake compared with other MLB cities.

“All of those things, from my experience in Salt Lake City, have been wonderful,” he said of the entertainment infrastructure. “The restaurants I’ve been to. I’m staying downtown where the city center is.”

From a baseball perspective, Salt Lake would have other obstacles that its competition would not, including altitude and weather.

“We aren’t higher than Denver and they have a team,” Murphy said, who played in Colorado for two years. “The altitude does affect how you would construct your ball club. ... But I wouldn’t think that is a deterrent. Denver’s gone first and nobody died.”

As for the weather, Salt Lake could build a stadium with a retractable roof. (Texas just built a new stadium with a retractable roof for the opposite reason: the extreme heat in the summer.) But even that might not be necessary in Utah.

“You think about Minnesota,” Johnson said. “I thought they would build an enclosed stadium [for the cold] and they didn’t. It hasn’t really come into factor significantly yet. Detroit, they are in an open facility. Depending on what type of stadium they decided to build, retractable roof or something like that, I [think that is fine]. Or they don’t want to interfere with the possible backdrops, which I understand, I don’t think it comes into effect.”

Regardless of the arguments made, though, players largely understood this perception of Salt Lake might continue until more players visit the city.