No place to nest
No place to nest

Diamondbacks grow impatient as Play Ball Missoula scuffles to come up with funds for stadium

What are the Diamondbacks to do about Missoula? Tommy Jones drew in his breath and considered the question he knew was coming.

Jones directs the minor league system for the world champion Arizona Diamondbacks. On this afternoon, a Thursday in early May, he was heading northwest from Tucson, making the familiar 100-mile drive into Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun. His office is a palatial suite at Bank One Ballpark.

"I'm hitting mountains, so if I lose you I'll call back," Jones said into his wireless phone.

He'd spent the morning watching the D-backs' young prospects play at the team's spring training facility in Tucson, where Bill Plummer, this summer's manager of the Missoula Osprey, was overseeing extended spring training.

Among those performing were a dozen men well-known to Osprey followers last summer - infielders Carlos Robinson and Kervin Jacobo; outfielders Javier Boll and Jarred Ball; pitchers Sergio Lizarraga, Gabriel Mercedes, Roberto Medina, Sam Taulli and Mikael Davis.

Most if not all of them will come north after the free-agent draft early next month and spend June 10-15 at a mini-camp in Yakima, Wash.

They'll either stay to play for the Yakima Bears of the Northwest League or come with Plummer to Missoula. Those who head east will scramble for lodging, pose for pictures and go to a fund-raiser for Play Ball Missoula on Sunday, June 16. They'll open the Osprey's fourth straight season at the Legion's Lindborg-Cregg Field, battling the Great Falls Dodgers on Monday.

Maybe the mountains that had Jones wary of interference were the Santa Catalinas, which rise over Tucson's right shoulder. Beneath those mountains Jesus Cota and Scott Hairston starred in their prep years, preludes to successful rookie seasons in pro ball at Missoula last summer.

Cota lashed with power to all corners of Lindborg-Cregg en route to the Pioneer League batting Triple Crown. Later on the night of Jones' drive from Tucson, Cota would take time out from a recent hitting tear to go 0-for-3 while batting fifth for the Lancaster JetHawks. Lancaster is in the Advanced A California League, three steps up the ladder from Missoula.

Hairston's combination of power, speed and savvy at Missoula prompted predictions of a faster rise than even that of Cota. The second baseman is a brother, son and grandson of major leaguers. He had big league stamped on him when he stepped off the plane in Billings last June to join the O's for their season opener.

"He'll lead the league in hitting," predicted Sandy Johnson, Diamondbacks assistant general manager, as he watched Hairston strike out in a pinch-hitting role that night. Hairston came close, finishing fifth in the Pioneer League with a .347 average and second behind Cota in RBIs with 65. His 101 hits in 74 games were second only to the 102 by Billings' Noochie Varner.

When camp broke this March, Hairston was with the South Bend Silver Hawks, a team in the Class A Midwest League, one rung below Lancaster. After a slow start, Hairston's average has climbed to .274.

Or maybe the mountains Jones was passing were the Sierra Estrellas, which cast their afternoon shadows over sprawling Casa Grande, some 50 miles out of Phoenix.

Corey Myers cut his first baseball teeth here. The son of an ex-big leaguer and junior college coach, and little brother of an all-Pac 10 catcher at Arizona State, Myers tore up the schoolboy competition at Desert Vista High in Tempe. But he started out farther south, in Casa Grande - "Big House" in Spanish. Myers was the stunning pick of the 1999 draft. Projected as only a top 100 pick, the Diamondbacks took him fourth overall, signed him for $2 million and sent him to their new Pioneer League team in Missoula.

Myers turned 19 three days after he was drafted. Nine days later, he stood up at a Missoula City Council hearing and told the crowded room what "an absolutely perfect site" the abandoned field near McCormick Park was for a baseball stadium. Myers said he listened to neighbors of the site pan it because of the perceived noise, drinking and excess traffic that would ensue.

"It just made me think that these people have never been at a baseball game," he said.

Myers hit .276 and struggled at shortstop on Missoula's instant powerhouse that won the Pioneer League title in '99. He spent most of the next season here too, learning third base while his batting average bottomed out at .217. He found his swing last season, and on the day last week that Jones returned home from Tucson, Myers' average had climbed over .300 at Lancaster.

Tommy Jones knows minor league baseball.

He played in the bushes for six years and managed in them a dozen more, for the Royals, Yankees, Mariners, Brewers and Cubs. He was named manager of the year after seven of those campaigns. Jones managed Bo Jackson in Jackson's first season of pro ball, and he coached at the major league level when the Royals won the World Series in 1985.

Jones is called "an organization original" by the Diamondbacks. A year before Arizona stepped onto the field at Bank One Ballpark for the first time, Jones skippered the Lethbridge Black Diamonds to the 1997 Pioneer League playoffs. Mediocre attendance, a better exchange rate and a potentially attractive location to do business prompted the Ellis family and associates to move the Black Diamonds to Montana. The team became the Missoula Osprey.

My, how Jones enjoyed opening night at Lindborg-Cregg in 1999. By then he was the Diamondbacks' director of minor league operations, with an office in Bank One Ballpark just down the hall from Jerry Colangelo, team president Richard Dozer and Joe Garagiola, Jr., vice president and general manager. Jones was especially high on a Dominican outfielder named Luis Terrero, a five-tool player whom he compared to a young Bernie Williams. Terrero pounded a grand-slam home run that evening.

"Didn't I tell you about that guy?" exulted Jones, who sat in a seat along the first-base line with wife Joan. His two children shared his lap.

He's a baseball man through and through - not the crusty veteran with a cigarette in one hand and a bundle of epithets ready for every occasion. Tall and slender, Jones' facial features walk the tightrope between no-nonsense and impish. He's a newspaperman's ideal source, with a penchant for bold, no-bull appraisals.

He's made at least a trip a month to Missoula during the past three Pioneer League seasons, and plans to be here for the opening home stand again this year, June 17-20. Meanwhile Jones keeps tabs on Arizona's other five minor-league offerings. If he's not accessible, it may be because he's at the Diamondbacks' academy in the Dominican Republic, which continues to churn out Latin American prospects at a rate even the Dodgers envy.

The Diamondbacks became the youngest major league franchise to win a World Series last November. Colangelo's mission was clear from the start: Achieve immediate success through trades and the free-agent market while slowly building the farm system. The former brought Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Matt Williams and considerable debt. Jones is in charge of the latter.

He's especially delighted with his pitchers.

"A lot of tremendous arms," Jones says on his car phone. "This is the most depth in pitching we've ever had, from Triple A to short season A. We're pretty excited."

Duaner Sanchez, Missoula's ace in 1999, has moved to the bullpen in Double A El Paso.

"He's the dominant closer in the Texas League," Jones says.

Jose Valverde (Osprey 2000) was on perhaps the fastest track of any ex-Missoula pitcher, but he's struggling at Triple A Tucson. "He's just having a hard time throwing strikes," Jones laments.

First baseman Lyle Overbay, who took the Pioneer League by storm in '99 with a record 101 RBIs, lost steam from a hot start when Tucson went north to play Edmonton in April. The Sidewinders spent six of their eight days in Canada "waiting for the field to thaw out," Jones said. "The whole club had gotten off to such a great start, but then everybody kind of lost their edge."

Overbay had a few at-bats with the Diamondbacks last September, the first former Osprey to play in the big leagues. Now, with Erubiel Durazo set to begin his return from the disabled list on Friday and Mark Grace holding down first base at BOB, Overbay is slated to stay at Tucson for the summer.

"There's no immediate hurry to get him to the big leagues," Jones said. "But he is certainly talked about quite a bit. He's one of the best pure hitters in minor league baseball. And he's never failed yet, wherever he's been."

Meanwhile, back to Missoula …

Jones counts off the seasons as he drives: 1999, 2000, 2001, now 2002.

"We knew we'd be playing at that (Legion) field for one season, maybe two," he said. "But there's no way in the world the Diamondbacks ever envisioned playing at Lindborg-Cregg Field for four seasons.

"We also recognize circumstances beyond our control have taken over. We've been patient to this point, but our patience is being tested. And I think the patience of the current owners is being tested."

Construction on the new Pioneer League-caliber ballpark next to McCormick Park and the Clark Fork River began last summer. The hole was dug, vertical girders were planted. There is a clear sense of something happening at the site. But it's spring, and nothing is.

The field of beams will remain so until its owner, Play Ball Missoula, raises $1.2 million for the next stage of construction. Perhaps fittingly, it's the concrete phase.

Joe Easton, a Missoula Sentinel and University of Montana graduate, was the Osprey's general manager their first season here. He doesn't work for the club now but has become Play Ball's leading spokesman. Easton continues to paint a rosy future for the stadium project. He predicted construction will resume "in the next 2-3 months."

"We're close," Easton said. "But until we're absolutely sure, until the financing is in place, we're going to wait."

Leaders of Play Ball have come and gone in four years. Yet key fund-raising figures remain - Hal Fraser, a bank executive and veteran of a number of civic projects, and Katie Ward, broker/owner with Properties 2000.

They've assembled a cast of captains who head teams soliciting donations for the ballpark. Where once there were 10 people, there are now "20 to 25," Easton said. In the midst of an economic downturn, and now in the aftermath of Sept. 11, these are not opportune times to generate private money for a baseball stadium that was first slated to be completed two years ago.

No, Easton's not frustrated by the process. Just impatient.

"I'm very confident," he said. "I have the same feeling I've had for four years. It just isn't happening fast enough for me."

The operative goal is to have the new ballpark completed and ready for play by next June. That way the 2003 Osprey can play a full season there.

"So we are definitely in a last-hour rush at this," Easton said. "Major league baseball has been patient, the Diamondbacks have been very supportive, the Osprey have been great."

To play at the Legion field, the Osprey must receive yearly affirmation from major league baseball. The playing field and dugouts make Lindborg-Cregg one of the crown jewels of Legion facilities in Montana, and it will be the site of the Class AA state tournament in August. But it's deemed substandard for minor league baseball, partly because of its orientation (facing southwest instead of northeast) but mostly because of the lighting. Time after time the past three summers, pop-ups and even looping liners have become an adventure in perception for fielders at and after sunset.

When the Osprey spend a summer there, they must abide a crowded rented mobile home as their clubhouse, dressing room and shower. When he's in town, Jones himself wedges into a tiny coach's room after each game, to analyze, scrutinze, chat, and listen. The manager, two coaches, sometimes a reporter and quite often a player crowd in there too. Sometimes the shower works, sometimes it doesn't.

As one Osprey put it, it's good incentive to make it to the big leagues. Still, it's an awkward position for Jones and the Diamondbacks, who aren't known for cutting corners.

"We did not come to Missoula to play four years at the Legion field," Jones said. "But it'll all be worth it the day we move into that new stadium."

Jones said he is "very disappointed" the Osprey won't even get access to Lindborg-Cregg until opening day next month. The Missoula Mavericks, assuming until late winter they had their own field to themselves, scheduled the annual Scott Klaudt Memorial tournament for the weekend of June 13-16.

Jones had planned to alternate each year the June mini-camp between the new short-season A franchise in Yakima and the new Missoula stadium, but that's out the window. If mini-camp in Yakima is hampered by weather, Osprey general manager Matt Ellis said the Missoula team will have to find an alternate field to work out on Sunday, June 16. The closest one might be in Florence.

"It's very unfortunate," Jones said. "There are very few teams that have this problem. Probably none. Yet we're thankful to the Legion for their cooperation. It's by no means an ideal situation for them either."

The Great Falls Dodgers were once the Great Falls Giants. George Brett played his rookie year in the Kansas City Royals organization in Billings, which has since become a Cincinnati farm club. Aside from Medicine Hat's Blue Jays, there is little precedent in the Pioneer League to prove that a major league team will remain come hell or empty seats.

In its first three years in the league, stocked by Arizona each time, the Osprey won two half-season pennants, two league MVPs and the Pioneer League championship in 1999. Missoula has finished either fifth or sixth in the eight-team league in terms of attendance, averaging roughly 1,500 a game.

Still, Jones and the Diamondbacks insist Missoula is the best entry-level fit for them. Jones, Garagiola Jr. and manager Buck Showalter were in the stands in Helena in 1996, when Lethbridge was playing in the Pioneer League playoffs. Dr. Keith Peterson of Seeley Lake was there, helping paint a picture of a team in Missoula. The Arizona brass was enamored with the idea.

Nothing since then, says Jones, has persuaded the Diamondbacks that Missoula isn't the place to launch their young prospects on the journey to Bank One Ballpark.

Now if they just had a place to play.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or by e-mail at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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