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MLB likes Portland; decisions to be made

So here we are, week three of Major League Baseball talk in Portland and the question this week has to be what MLB consultant Corey Busch thought about Portland and PGE Park last week.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig sent Busch to Portland for the second time last week to talk to city officials, to look at PGE Park as an interim stadium and to get a feel for how baseball would work in Portland.

“There’s been a lot of talk, but I don’t have any indication of relocation in the short term,” Busch said. “I can tell you, certainly, that one of the important elements in evaluating the readiness of a market is the attitude and the political will and the public will toward the notion of developing a ballpark.”

This is what Busch said before his visit around the city. He was careful with what he said but even he couldn’t resist giving Portland a boost of confidence. “I’m not here to meet with anyone about relocating a team here,” Busch said before heading off to the ballpark. “But I certainly think Portland has an awful lot of the elements.”

Though cautious in his remarks, Busch made it clear he was impressed by the Portland Baseball Group and its business plan. It also didn’t hurt that Thursday was a gloriously warm spring evening to show off Portland and its fans of the Triple-A Beavers in newly spiffed-up PGE Park.

The question now is: Where does the city go from here? If Portland is ever to move beyond the minor leagues, the next crucial move must come from the legislature. The governor and senate president have to see that HB2941 gets the hearing it needs so it can be sent to the senate floor, where it stands a decent chance of passing.

The bill is much improved from its original version, which called for $150 million in lottery-backed bonds to help build a baseball stadium, if crucial conditions are met. The new plan would rely far less on lottery money and would instead capture income taxes generated by the highly paid players and other employees of the professional team. These so-called “lease bonds” should be more palatable to skeptics, as they’re paid with money that wouldn’t flow into Oregon without the new stadium.

Baseball executives, most of whom were still playing on the sandlots, must consider that 1972 was the last time baseball had to relocate a franchise (Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers). They also know that they have some troubled franchises. Consider that:

? The Tampa Bay Devil Rays made payroll last week, which, sadly, was considered an accomplishment. No one knows how much longer this paycheck-to-paycheck mode of survival can continue.

? Baseball’s commissioner has threatened to eliminate the Florida Marlins if they don’t soon secure financing for a new baseball-only stadium.

? The Montreal Expos are literally languishing in anonymity. Playing inside a stadium named in honor of sport’s greatest spectacle, the Expos are drawing a relative handful of fans each night. Add to the mix, franchises in Oakland and Minnesota that have been troubled in the past despite the fact that their teams are winning this year, and Commissioner Bud Selig knows that this problem will not be fixed so easily.

“The more I’ve analyzed the problems, the more I refuse to take any option off the table,” Selig recently told The Washington Post. “Do I consider contraction a serious and viable option? I do.”

This is where Portland fits in. Nobody has a better interim stadium playable today than PGE Park. Nobody has fewer territorial rights than Portland does. The Seattle Mariners actually back the idea of Portland obtaining a team. Finally, nobody has a larger market without a major league baseball team than Portland does. This is the 22nd largest market and the only market within the top 35 with only one major sports franchise.

Viable option? You could say that. Is the fate of baseball in the hands of our leaders in Salem? As always!

The plan, House Bill 2941, made it through the House on a close vote last month, but it has stalled in the Senate. In fact, it was declared dead during a dramatic floor speech by Ways and Means co-chairman Sen. Lenn Hannon (R-Ashland). But then a new financing structure was designed that would use income taxes generated by players’ salaries, instead of lottery revenues as originally proposed. This, in turn, would hold the team’s owner responsible for any funding gaps that might arise.

In addition to last Thursday’s gathering, baseball supporters met Monday with Gov. John Kitzhaber and Senate President Gene Derfler (R-Salem). The expectation is that the meeting could decide whether the baseball bill moves ahead in the Senate or dies in committee.

“If I had to vote on it today, I’d vote no,” a skeptical Derfler said Thursday. “If it’s such a good deal, why can’t they just go to the bank for the money?” Not exactly a good sign for Portland, but the Oregon Baseball Coalition is in this fight for the long haul.

“We have a long-term strategy to bring major league baseball to Portland, and we’re right on course,” said Steve Kanter, president of the Oregon Baseball Coalition, who helped arrange Busch’s visit. “This is just one step.”