It's A Minor Miracle Finally, Curtain Ready To Go Up On Phils' Scranton Farm Team

Posted: March 22, 1989

SCRANTON — Picture Phillies president Bill Giles cruising up Interstate 81 on just about any sunny weekend in 1987 or '88, looking forward to a relaxing weekend at his cabin on Lake Paupack in the Poconos.

Picture Giles slowing a little just outside Scranton, craning his neck to the right so he can get a better glimpse of the construction site nestled in the woods at the base of the Montage Mountain ski area. The structure being built is the Lackawanna County Multi-Purpose Stadium, which in 1986 Giles announced would house the Phillies' Triple A farm team.

Picture Giles's shoulders sagging a little as he looks for the stadium and sees only a parking lot

Finally, picture Giles now, chuckling as he remembers those trips, relishing the thought that this year, he will have a Triple A team playing in the glittering, $22 million stadium. The lawsuit over the sale of the franchise from Maine to Scranton long has been settled. The political hurdles involved in building a stadium with public funds finally have been cleared.

"They had a hole in the ground and the parking lot done (the last few years)," Giles recalled. "I always drove by and took a look at it, to see what was going on . . . Now, it looks like it's finally going to happen . . . It had to clear a lot of stumbling blocks to become a fait accompli."

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April 26 is when the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons - the Phillies' top farm club - are scheduled to play their first-ever International League home game, against the Tidewater Mets. When the ceremonial first pitch is thrown, it will complete a quest that began more than a decade ago. That, really, is the amazing thing about the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre team. Its convoluted history has led through courtrooms, governors' offices, state legislatures and playing fields.

"They've had more problems than any franchise I can remember," International League president Harold Cooper said recently. "Unusual? My God. The International League is 106 years old, and the only lawsuit that shows up anywhere in the records is the one between Scranton and Maine."

Cooper, like many other people on the periphery of the situation, only can shake his head in wonder. Bob Tammac, owner of a Wilkes-Barre financial services company, understands how Cooper feels.

"I was in on some of the original negotiations to buy the franchise," Tammac said recently. "As a businessman, I've been in a lot of deals, but never anything as strange as this. Maybe it's the cast of characters. Maybe it's baseball. Maybe it's a combination of all those things . . . But it's also a lesson in tenaciousness."

Some of the twists the project has taken include the following:

* A 1986 agreement to purchase the International League franchise then located in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, ended in a lawsuit. The sale agreement was voided by one court, but upheld on appeal.

* The stadium was held hostage to escalating estimates of construction costs. When it is completed - three weeks into the season, after the Red Barons have played their first 16 games on the road - it will cost more than three times what originally was estimated.

* Because of the stadium construction delays, the team spent last season playing in Maine, even though it was owned by the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre group.

* John McGee, the Scranton lawyer and certified public accountant who started the baseball push and always has been the project's most visible booster, recently was convicted and sentenced to probation on income tax charges.

Lackawanna County commissioner Joe Corcoran said one of the major events of Opening Night will be the burying of a time capsule at home plate. The capsule will contain a written record "showing all the peaks and valleys we hit" during the project's long struggle to fruition.

"That is really the story of this thing," Corcoran said. "A lot of people think that when the baseball team actually comes in, that's the story. But so many things have happened to make this all happen. The people of Lackawanna and Luzerne counties are going to be able to enjoy the fruits of all the labor."

Perhaps no tale so complicated possibly could have a neat, tidy ending. In any case, it's important to note that even though April 26 will represent the end of the saga of the team's birth, the rest of the story will just be starting.

Both the Red Barons and their new stadium are municipally owned - the franchise as a joint venture of Lackawanna (Scranton) and Luzerne (Wilkes- Barre) counties, the stadium by Lackawanna County. This arrangement will keep the team from ever being moved elsewhere by a profit-seeking, private owner, but it also burdens taxpayers with some obligations. Team and local government officials acknowledge that despite the sale of more than 3,100 season tickets, the debt service on the new stadium is expected to exceed initial revenues by about $500,000 a year - about $2 from each taxpayer in Lackawanna County. The Luzerne taxpayers aren't involved in the stadium debt, which will be retired in 20 years.

Right now, though, anticipation seems to be outpacing anxiety in the public mood. The team the people of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Giles have been waiting to see, the team for which fans bought more than 2,000 season tickets five years ago, finally is on the verge of becoming a reality.

When the big night finally arrives, it will be televised in northeastern Pennsylvania by WNEP-TV, Channel 16. On a recent broadcast, Channel 16 sports announcer Joe Zone referred to the Red Barons' opener as "the night the big time comes to northeastern Pennsylvania."

The politicians who have staked their future on it see the Red Barons as a central piece of a dynamic image change for the area, from closed-down manufacturing plants and coal mines to service-industry office parks and tourism. They have built an impressive testament to their dreams, a double- decked, 10,400-seat major league ballpark in miniature whose artificial surface and fence measurements are exactly the same as those of Veterans Stadium. It features private "luxury suites" between the upper and lower decks - the equivalent of the 400 level at the Vet - and eventually will house an 8,800-square-foot, full-service restaurant.

Concerts and college baseball games are planned, but the stadium's lifeblood will be the 73 annual home games of the Red Barons. Without Triple A baseball, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre would not need such a stadium. If Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre can't support Triple A baseball . . , Well, some people are going to be in trouble. But to the people instrumental in obtaining Pennsylvania's only Triple A team, trouble is nothing new.

McGee, Corcoran, Ray Alberigi and Bill Terlecky have been four of the principal riders on the Scranton baseball roller coaster. At various times, they have seen the project boost, then threaten their careers.

McGee is the chairman of Northeastern Baseball Inc., the non-profit corporation formed nearly a decade ago to try to bring Triple A baseball to the Scranton area. The Red Barons were his idea, but he came close to not being able to attend their home opener. On Feb. 10, McGee was fined and placed on two years' probation, after being convicted of three counts of willfully failing to file timely personal income tax returns.

McGee, 37, who once taught a taxation course at the University of Scranton and who is a former Lackawanna County solicitor, could have faced up to three years in prison. At his trial, McGee said he worked so hard on baseball that he let a lot of other things go, including his taxes for 1982 to '84. Each of those years, McGee filed for an extension, but never got around to actually filing the returns until after he knew he was being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service.

McGee's dream of bringing Triple A baseball to his hometown made him a local celebrity. It led to his being named solicitor. He has said he feels his prosecution on the misdemeanor charges arose at least partly from his high visibility, as the leader of the baseball effort.

On the evening of April 26, McGee expects to be sitting in the new stadium, feeling "like Pete Rose felt when he finally broke Stan Musial's record, or like Hank Aaron felt when he finally broke Babe Ruth's record: pride, mixed in with relief."

Corcoran, 38, and fellow Democrat Alberigi, 54, were elected as the majority commissioners on the three-member governing body in 1983, and they made bringing baseball a major campaign issue. In 1987, with the effort bogged down by the lawsuit over the terms of the team's purchase, Corcoran and

Alberigi faced re-election. Their Republican opponents aired a TV commercial that showed a baseball slowly unraveling. But when a federal appeals court ruling went in the Scranton group's favor just a few weeks before the election, officially giving the team to Northeastern Baseball, Corcoran and

Alberigi were returned to office by a 2-1 margin.

On April 26, Corcoran envisions looking around the jampacked facility and feeling "Free at last, free at last, praise God almighty, I'm free at last - wasn't that what Martin Luther King said?"

Alberigi said he will be thinking that, "I played a part in sending a new message about Lackawanna County and northeastern Pennsylvania - that it is a progressive, delightful place to live."

Terlecky, 35, is the Red Barons' general manager. In 1984, Northeastern Baseball hired him from Rochester, N.Y., where he had been a Triple A co- general manager, to direct a Double A franchise in Waterbury, Conn. The Scranton-area group had bought Waterbury as the prelude to a complicated deal to acquire the Maine Triple A team. Terlecky was to be the Scranton GM. But as the Triple A transaction and the Scranton stadium construction foundered, Terlecky spent two years in Waterbury, then moved with that team to Williamsport.

Finally, Northeastern Baseball won its court case, and Terlecky became a Triple A general manager again. But the stadium still was unbuilt. So in 1988, Terlecky faced the daunting challenge of promoting a Triple A team playing in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, even though everyone in Maine knew the team was moving to Scranton at the end of the season. Compared to that, Terlecky said, promoting the Red Barons' initial season has been a snap.

On April 26, Terlecky said he will be "moving from post to post, dealing with the millions of little brush fires, feeling a load of excitement."

The events that are making April 26 such a big day in the lives of Giles, McGee, Corcoran, Alberigi and Terlecky had their origins in a University of Louisville Law School course McGee took in 1977. McGee was studying baseball's antitrust exemption, and in doing so, he came across some information on the

size of Triple A cities. McGee did not see why Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, with about a half-million people between them, could not support Triple A baseball.

Back in Scranton a few years later, McGee went public with his idea. A raffle and a benefit concert were held to raise money for a feasibility study. McGee said the study showed Triple A could work for the Scranton area. There was one very large roadblock, however: no suitable place to play.

McGee's original idea was met with a great deal of skepticism, even after the feasibility study was done. Scranton, a city of 85,000 people, struggling with the ghosts of failed coal and railroad industries, has seen more than its share of big-idea projects that have little or no private money behind them.

There was a downtown mall that never got off the ground. Steamtown, a combination steam railroad museum and excursion, was transplanted from Bellows Falls, Vt., to Scranton in the early '80s, using community grant money. Maintenance and insurance costs far outstripped revenues, however, and the project was sinking fast when the National Park Service took it over two years ago. The Lackawanna County Coal Mine Tour is another county-financed operation, one that county director of community affairs Bill Risse says broke even last year. Montage Mountain ski resort is a so-far successful venture whose debt is partly guaranteed by Lackawanna County.

In the early days, even if the then-Republican-controlled County Commission was not terribly interested in his project, McGee had one important ally. From the time Giles gained control of the Phillies in 1981, one of his major goals was to bring every Phillies farm team east of the Alleghenies. Giles was particularly concerned about the team's Triple A club, based then in hard-to- reach Portland, Ore.

"Not only was (Portland) an economic burden, it was kind of a time burden, in terms of the movement of scouts and players and so forth " Giles said. He also knew that the Phils' longtime Double A affiliation with nearby Reading was an excellent marketing tool. Giles says about 4 percent of the Phils' big- league attendance comes from the Reading area. He feels the larger Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, which currently accounts for about as much Phillies attendance as Reading, has greater potential. So when McGee outlined his project to him, Giles was ready to listen.

"Around 1982 or '83, I was contacted by John McGee," Giles said. "I told him that if he ever did get the stadium under way, we would love to get a farm team in there, but I said it had to be a Triple A team. We didn't feel we could leave Reading . . . I promised him that we would put our Triple A team in the new ballpark there if they built the park and if they could get into the International League.

"We've had other offers to go into the International League from Rochester and Buffalo, but we made a commitment to go all the way with Scranton, in hopes that their dream of a new stadium would become a reality . . . We worked pretty hard with those people to figure out a way for them to buy one of the International League teams."

In 1984, with Corcoran and Alberigi in office and committed to McGee's quest, real progress was made. Northeastern Baseball sold 2,200 season tickets at $238 each, and raised enough money to buy the Double A Waterbury franchise and to hire Terlecky to run it. It was looking for an International League franchise to buy, and it wanted to have something tangible in hand so it could raise money to build a nice stadium - for say, $6 million.

But the commissioners and McGee did not want just a bare-bones ballpark. They went around the country looking at minor league stadiums, then tried to incorporate some of the best features into their structure. The price tag rose to $9 million, then to $11 million. The commissioners arranged bond funding to build an $11 million ballpark. Then they received a revised estimate of $12.5 million.

"At that point, if we had not (already) sold the season tickets, the whole project would have been scrapped," McGee said. "Fortunately, we were too far in it for the commissioners to throw up their hands."

In the summer of 1986, then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh committed $4 million to the stadium project - after the legislature had approved twice as much - and the Scranton group reached agreement to buy the Triple A Maine Guides from owner Jordan Kobritz. The International League approved the sale, which involved transferring to Kobritz the rights to the Double A franchise Northeastern Baseball had bought two years earlier. Giles agreed to switch the Phillies' Triple A affiliation from Portland, Ore., to Maine, in anticipation of a move to Scranton.

But the Double A Eastern League did not want to see its franchise - by now located in Williamsport - moved to Maine. Kobritz contended this glitch voided the deal. The Scranton group contended such a contingency was covered in the agreement, which they said stipulated they would pay Kobritz a $50,000-a-year consulting fee for 10 years, in addition to the original $2 million purchase price, if they could not deliver the Double A team.

Meanwhile, site preparation - the clearing of land, laying of water and sewer lines, and paving of the parking lot that Giles could see on his trips to the mountains - began, as the Maine purchase went to court.

Kobritz won the first round, in U.S. District Court on his home turf of Portland, Maine, in February 1987. This bit of bad news came just a few months after the stadium went from the estimate stage to the bid stage, and the lowest bid was for $18.5 million - $6 million more than the most recent estimate. Together, these two developments nearly killed the project again.

That was the scene as Corcoran and Alberigi were campaigning for re- election. "We took a lot of lumps," Corcoran acknowledged.

But even though the Republican opposition made the baseball project's status a campaign issue, at least one observer felt the wrong point was being emphasized. Charlie Luger, 66, was a Republican commissioner for 16 years - 12 when his party had the majority, the last four in the minority, while Corcoran and Alberigi were putting together the baseball project. Luger feels the issue should not have been how the baseball effort was doing, but rather, whether it was something county government should do.

"They had that one spot on TV, but I don't think they really made it an issue the people could understand," Luger said recently. "I don't think government should be involved with choo-choo trains (Steamtown) and ballgames. Those things belong in the private sector."

Luger feels there are other, more pressing needs in Lackawanna County than a $22-million stadium.

"Our county jail has outlived its usefulness," he said. "It's not inconceivable that a federal judge could close the jail down. There are 150 bridges, the county roads, mass transit systems, human services programs - these are things that the county should be doing."

"Charlie's right, you could build a new jail," said Risse, who works for the commissioners. "Charlie Luger was a majority commssioner for 12 years. He did not build a new jail . . . Is anybody's life going to be affected more dramatically than by this? This will attract businesses to our area. The Chamber of Commerce opened an office park a mile from the stadium, and it (the park) is totally committed now . . . I think this makes an awful lot of sense."

Corcoran and Alberigi benefited from the Republican strategy of attacking the baseball venture's handling, rather than its basic premise. On Oct. 14, 1987, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston overturned the Maine ruling and awarded the franchise to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Ten days later, Gov.

Casey, a Scranton resident, announced he was committing $7 million to the stadium project. By election day, the team and the stadium no longer were in jeopardy.

Ultimately, the state is expected to pick up about half the tab for the now-$22-million facility. Delays in lining up the funding helped push the hoped-for opening date of last June to April 26.

Since the fall of 1987, the baseball project has gone relatively smoothly. The only real troubles were having to play the '88 season in Maine, even after winning in court, as the Lackawanna stadium was being built, and McGee's highly publicized tax problems. Perhaps fortunately for the Red Barons' image, legal requirements pertaining to the issuing of tax-exempt bonds had forced McGee's Northeastern Baseball Inc. to cede control of the team to the Lackawanna County Stadium Authority before McGee was charged. Currently, he has no official role with the team.

But McGee will figure in the festivities on April 26.

"He's still around and still active," Corcoran said recently. "John's still going to be very involved."

McGee said he is glad to see his dream finally come true, but he has more pressing concerns. He is awaiting possible state bar association sanctions in the tax case, and pondering his future.

"I'm looking to do anything that will allow me to make an honest living and help me get out of debt," McGee said. "I'm doing some income tax returns for friends - don't laugh."

McGee was asked what he would do if he could go back 10 years. Would he go through it all again?

"I would do it once in my life," he said after a long pause. "I don't think I would do it twice."

SIZING UP LEAGUE'S CITIES

These are figures for the metropolitan statistical areas of each of the International League cities, compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. The numbers represent what the government considers to be the metropolitan area of each city, as of 1986:

Columbus, Ohio 1,299,400

Rochester, N.Y. 980,300

Richmond, Va. 810,200

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 725,900

Syracuse, N.Y. 649,400

Toledo, Ohio 611,200

Tidewater, Va. 600,000*

Pawtucket, R.I. 317,000

* an approximate figure supplied by the team; government figures for that exact area aren't available.

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