Gordon Monson: Think about what a Major League Baseball team would — will? — bring to Salt Lake City and to you

Big League Utah officials continue to be optimistic as they await more details of MLB’s expansion plans.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, Entrata CEO Adam Edmunds, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Larry H. Miller Company CEO Steve Starks speak on the efforts of Big League Utah during the Silicon Slopes Summit at the Delta Center, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023.

The market assessments have been done. Urban design teams have given input. New renderings of a ballpark and its immediate surroundings are ready to be released. Visits to other Major League Baseball teams, stadiums, developments, cities, possibilities have been completed. Even speculative studies regarding what attendance numbers would be in an expansion team’s first season in Utah, where that gate would rank compared to existing teams, are now in the books.

How much firepower does Salt Lake City have to gain the favor and the votes of current MLB team owners as one of two expected expansion locations, and how prepared is it were it to be selected?

There’s cautionary good news in answering questions on both fronts, with the significant caveat noted and underscored that nobody knows with exactness the minds and will of the owners yet.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has said MLB wants to expand. That much is fact. Salt Lake has made its pitch and will wind up like Juan Marichal and deliver fastballs like Sandy Koufax, again and again, straight through from the first to the last inning, until the game is decided. In the meantime, we sit in the bleachers, we watch, we scarf ball-park franks and we wait.

Wait for the definitive words, “Play ball.”

At stake is much more than just top-level baseball and the thirst of fans here to enjoy it, although that is seen as a centerpiece for a promising development project that could boost Salt Lake to heretofore unrealized heights, not only in its physical makeup, but also in its social connection, its sense of community, its unification as residents from the west to the east side, north and south, too.

In the weeks ahead, Big League Utah Coalition, the group pushing for MLB to grant a franchise to Salt Lake City, will reveal not just fresh, updated renderings of the proposed baseball stadium in the Power District, on the west side of SLC, but also renderings of the development projects around it, including connected usages of the Fairpark area and business propositions on the banks of the Jordan River.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dale Murphy chats with Gary Hoogeveen Rocky Mountain Power President and CEO,aftger a news conference on the Power District development on the west side of Salt Lake City including a possible Major League Baseball park, on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.

The idea is to construct stores, restaurants, a commerce and entertainment center not dissimilar from the Riverwalk in San Antonio. A phenomenon known as “baseball tourism” would be drawn to the area because of its close proximity to Salt Lake’s international airport.

“The renderings are still conceptual,” says Steve Starks, who heads the aforementioned coalition, “but they are more accurate, more detailed than past renderings.”

Those mockups capture the imagination of the public because so many are fascinated by what both a sparkling new signature major league stadium and its surroundings would look like.

There, indeed, will be those who profit financially from such projects, were they to be actualized and succeed, and that’s the American way, the way it is. But the bigger benefits would come collaterally — to a city that needs rejuvenation, to a part of the city that could play a central role in connecting people of varying races, ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and interests. If there’s been a divide between Salt Lake’s directional sides, and there has, an MLB team, stadium, endeavor in the west has the possibility of bringing citizens and denizens together.

There’s a whole lot to unpack here.

First, the matter of baseball itself.

The national pastime is not, nor is it projected to be dusty and dead, even in a place where its most elite version has never been anchored. Salt Lake has had its successes with minor league baseball, and the Triple-A Bees, now headed from 13th South and West Temple to a new park in Daybreak, are a healthy example. A team in the majors, according to a market assessment sanctioned by the CSL Group in Dallas, completed independently, surmised after studying demographics that in its initial year in MLB, Salt Lake would rank in the middle-third of current teams in the National and American leagues in attendance.

Not bad.

Utah on the whole is hungry for professional sports, what with the demonstrated support around here for the NBA’s Jazz and MLS’s Real Salt Lake. There’s room for more. Baseball for sure and maybe hockey, too.

Positive indicators shining brightly for Utah and MLB are factors such as population growth, the state of the local economy, enthusiasm from government officials and residents and corporate sponsorship, a strong, respected ownership group with previous experience in pro sports, a selected stadium site with scenic views of Salt Lake’s skyline and the Wasatch Mountains also with room for that mixed-use growth around it.

Starks has done and is yet doing his behind-the-scenes work quietly and efficiently, humbly even, taking nothing for granted. He and his associates have visited other MLB teams in Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis and Minnesota, among others, meeting with owners and managers, to gather information from their experiences and approaches regarding what might be of best use in Utah.

As for convincing owners to vote Salt Lake in, Starks says gaining that favor will be “data driven,” and “relationship based,” not a matter of schmoozing and simple subjectivity. The Miller family, integral to making this happen, if it does, has a known reputation among team owners as being good partners for any league, including MLB. That’s significant.

When the time comes, and there is no set timeline as of yet, an expansion committee will vet the candidate cities and ownership groups and make a recommendation to the rest of the owners, who then cast their votes. As mentioned, MLB is expected to expand for the first time in 25 years by two teams, perhaps one in the East and one in the West.

Among betting services, Nashville is a favorite, as is Salt Lake. Candidate cities also include Portland, Austin, San Antonio, Orlando, Montreal and a few others.

(Big League Utah) Early concepts of a Major League Baseball park planned for Salt Lake City's Power District.

Starks says while Salt Lake has had productive meetings with MLB commissioner Manfred — Starks himself has communicated regularly with the commish — and gotten favorable reviews and feedback from other baseball insiders, he presumes nothing at this point. He’s simply hustling up and hoping for the best. He says, in truth, he has no clue how a coming expansion vote will play out. But he does feel assured specifically by the positioning and vast research his group has done and generally by what Salt Lake has to offer and what it will yet offer in the years ahead.

In this type of process there are no backroom deals made. The group is confident because of two prominent factors: 1) the favorable view of the market, and 2) the strength of the Miller family, along with a unified, organized embrace of the possibility.

As for the effect a multi-pack of baseball, a new stadium, new office and apartment buildings, new restaurants, new neighborhoods, new grocery stores and other retailers, new commerce, would have on the community, on refreshing and renewing the city’s west side, on connecting not just the east and the west, but the people of many backgrounds who live throughout, Starks is full of energy and optimism. Not simply for a new competitive force for the community to rally around, but for the betterment of a section of Salt Lake that has suffered in the midst of an isolated economic desert.

While a big league park, with all its attendant accoutrements, would most certainly turbocharge the proposed section of the city, community leaders in that area have told the coalition they prefer the descriptive word for that turbocharging to be “catalytic” rather than “transformative,” because, frankly, they like their community at present, but admit that it needs said economic and energetic boost.

“We have a generational opportunity to invest in the west side, to connect our city in a positive way,” Starks says. “It wouldn’t solve every problem, but if our community can imagine it, can lean into it, if it rallies, it will see what’s possible in that space in the Power District.”

He’s right.

One of the best things a professional sports team can do for a community is bring it together in a joint rooting interest, in gathering bright energy for a common cause. The Jazz have done and do that to some extent. A baseball team with 81 regular-season home dates every year, with broad appeal and overall more affordable ticket prices, could have even greater impact. Winning with an expansion team would take time, but if it’s run right …

Yeah, if it’s run right. And the draw of having the Yankees and the Dodgers and the Red Sox and the Phillies and the Giants and the Cardinals and the Cubs and the Angels and the Reds playing on the reg on beautiful summer nights in Salt Lake would blow far past notable.

When the Miller family was first approached about the idea of getting back into pro sports ownership, in this case, partial ownership alongside other partners, there was some hesitation, no real thrill to do it — until baseball was mentioned.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Larry H. Miller Company CEO Steve Starks speaks on the efforts of Big League Utah during the Silicon Slopes Summit at the Delta Center, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023.

That absolutely flipped their switch and spun their beanie. Larry Miller’s favorite sport wasn’t basketball, it was Lou Gehrig’s game, it was Mickey Mantle’s game, Willie Mays’ game. It was something more, something extra, a different deal. The auto titan played pro softball, after all.

Gail Miller and other family members were beyond passionate about the idea, and still are, not just the game, but the place, too. Larry and Gail were born and raised on Salt Lake’s west side, and both attended West High School, so the prospects all around are personal and a kind of “full-circle” moment.

“When I think about the community I love and the legacy we want to leave for future generations, I am thrilled that we have the potential of bringing an MLB expansion team to Salt Lake City,” she says. “Our coalition is swinging for the fences and couldn’t be more excited.”

Says Steve Miller: “Our family grew up at the ball park. We have seen the tangible connections between baseball, families, and the community. Baseball is woven into the fabric of our nation. We continue to want to help weave the future of our state. Salt Lake City is ready for MLB and we are ready to bring it here.”

So, the multiple concepts of great sentimentality, grand investment practicality, lasting advantageous ramifications for the community and love of the national pastime works for the Millers, Gail in particular. She’s now 80 years old, and is keenly interested in leaving behind an enduring impact — beyond what she and Larry did with the Jazz and other built businesses and contributions and philanthropies — on her hometown and also for her younger family members, enabling them to be a part of an ardent community connection. All of that comes together to spark and maintain this big idea. There’s no B.S. here, her sincerity on the matter and the chase of it is authentic.

That’s the propelling force for what Starks and his group are determined to accomplish.

He was the one who originally met with Manfred in New York in May, 2022, lobbing out the idea for Salt Lake’s candidacy. After those first discussions, he returned to Utah, as he describes it, “encouraged.”

Starks remains so now, even more so, taking nothing for granted, waiting for good word, like the rest of the community, regardless of how the money generated is dispersed, who will get what percentage of it. Those finances are fine and all. Jolts of business — east side, west side, every side — are good. But as legendary college football coach Bear Bryant once so famously observed, “It’s kind of hard to rally around a math class.” Or around financial gain.

Everyone in Utah, though, can rally around an MLB team, playing on vast expanses of grass in a gleaming, sweet new green cathedral, with a proud city and its mountains gleaming alongside.

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