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Arizona Diamondbacks To Start Regular Season In Stadium They Want To Leave

Salt River Fields
(Photo by Matthew Casey - KJZZ)
The Diamondbacks host the Cubs at Salt River Fields on March 23, 2017

A sea of Chicago-Cub blue nearly blanketed the stands when the defending World Series champions played the Arizona Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. But Stephen Walden’s old-school Diamondbacks jersey stuck out among the few speckles of Sedona red.

“It’s the World Series classic one,” he said. “It’s probably the most money I’ve ever spent on a piece of sports equipment.”

Walden worked for the Diamondbacks when he was in college, and he still goes to at least 10 games a year. But the team’s record won’t be the only thing the 27-year-old business owner follows this season. Walden is also keeping tabs on the club’s lawsuit to leave Chase Field.

“Is it worth it to you — the tax money — to let them go? To me it’s worth paying to keep them here,” Walden said.

April 2 is Opening Day of the regular season for the Diamondbacks at Chase Field. The club will start its 20th regular season in a stadium they want to leave.

The Diamondbacks have sued the Maricopa County Stadium District, arguing the lack of money to maintain Chase Field is so big the club should be freed from its lease about a decade early.

“The county in essence just said this dispute should be handled by binding arbitration,” said attorney Rick Cobb, who is not involved in the case.

Money for maintaining Chase Field comes from different pots. Financial gaps are supposed to be filled by subleasing the venue for events like concerts.

But the contract cut during the 1990s doesn’t say what to do if there’s a funding shortfall, which is one reason why Cobb, who’s been a member of the Arizona bar for about 30 years, thinks this case is fascinating.

“This litigation will be interesting to watch because there are a couple of big themes that you don’t have to be a baseball fanatic or a legal fan to understand,” he said.

The Diamondbacks argue a shortfall has been created by the failure to book enough non-baseball events. The club also argues that it should be allowed to look for a new home because it’s impossible to come up with the money they say is needed to fix Chase Field.

“To explain it in its simplest terms, they’re saying they’ve entered into an agreement that cannot be performed, or cannot be performed in any practical way,” Cobb said.

The club also alleges the District’s refusal to modify the contract, and its unwillingness to let the Diamondbacks take over sub leasing efforts, are more reasons why they should be freed from the deal and allowed to look for a new home.

“What they are saying in essence is that the county has breached not an express contract provision, so much as the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing that’s written into every contract,” Cobb said.

If the Diamondbacks leave, Maricopa County would lose their original investment in Chase Field, plus annual payments from the team, which is one reason why Cobb finds the case intriguing.

“There is certainly a feel about the case that the Diamondbacks are going to get up there and suggest the county has not been a wise steward of the public trust if it has exposed the taxpayer to the loss of the revenues that are derived from the stadium deal,” Cobb said.

Another example is the possibility that, unlike Walden, the public won’t empathize with the club’s situation.

“There is a certain feel about this case that maybe the Diamondbacks are asking for something that looks like stadium envy," Cobb said. "Maybe the fans are not going to appreciate the case. You just don’t know.”

If that’s true, the Diamondbacks may have given a clue about the Major League Baseball park they covet. In the lawsuit, the club mentioned the Atlanta Braves, who fled a roughly 20-year-old downtown stadium for the suburbs. The Braves new ballpark is funded by hundred of millions of public money. It will open in April.

“It hasn’t gone all that well,” said Neil de Mause, coauthor of the book "Field of Schemes," which criticizes public subsidies for pro-sports venues. “There have been cost overruns.”

The recent trend among owners is to try and shorten the lifespan of a stadium, de Mause said. They have to start thinking about how to get the next ballpark right after opening a new one.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily a very sustainable way of running either sports or local government,” he said.

The Field of Schemes website analyzes venues from all the major sports, even minor league baseball. De Mause said there are some similarities between the Diamondbacks case and other stadium wars.

“Team owners and public bodies are suing each other all of the time,” de Mause said. “While this is an especially interesting example, I don’t know if it’s necessarily any different than standard business practice in the sports industry right now.”

The sports industry boomed when the Diamondbacks played the Cubs, setting a new single-game-attendance record at Salt River Fields.

Walden, the Phoenix-native who spent $200 on eBay for a throwback Diamondbacks jersey, said the finger pointing between the club and the Stadium District distracts from the potential catastrophe of the team leaving.

“I’d be really upset,” he said. “I’d be pretty devastated.”

Walden has fond memories of 2001, when the Diamondbacks gave the Valley its first major championship. The lawsuit could determine if the club is here long enough to win another.

Major League Baseball Stadiums

Click a point to learn more about each of the 30 professional baseball stadiums, including year built and cost.

Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.