PROVO -- After soliciting pitches for professional baseball in Provo the past month, the city has narrowed the field of teams to two.
As anticipated, Mayor Lewis Billings' selection committee is considering a bid from an expansion franchise in the Western Baseball League. Owner Jim Goldsmith, president of New York-based American Sports Equities, has had an eye on Provo for some time and wooed city leaders and local college and high school baseball coaches earlier this year.The surprise entry is the Helena Brewers, a long-established Pioneer League team apparently looking to relocate.
Though Leland Gamette, city economic development director, would not reveal names of those behind efforts to play ball in Provo, he did concede one submission came in unexpectedly.
"It was kind out of the blue," he said. "It was one that we wouldn't have expected."
The Deseret News was able to verify the finalists through other sources.
Provo quietly sent out requests for proposals in May to attract a minor league baseball team to Utah's second largest city. Although city officials targeted several specific potential owners, word spread throughout baseball circles.
Club owners made in-person presentations to the city last week, leaving their fate in the hands of an ad hoc selection committee. The committee was to have made a recommendation to the mayor by Monday, but Gamette said that might not come for a week or so.
Billings wants to negotiate an agreement with a team in time for the 2000 season. The city has yet to settle on a site for a stadium, though the Ironton area in southeast Provo looks like a front-runner.
The two teams and leagues are competing for a franchise in perhaps the largest untapped professional sports market in the country. Provo has about 110,000 residents, while Utah County boasts 340,000. College athletics, notably Brigham Young University, dominate Utah Valley's sports entertainment landscape.
"It's a very attractive market," said Jim McCurdy, Pioneer League president. He referred questions about the Brewers' interest in Provo to the team's Los Angeles-based owners. They were unavailable for comment.
Helena general manager Jessica Berry said she had no knowledge of the franchise moving.
The Pioneer League wasn't able to break into the Utah Valley market three years ago when some Salt Lake businessmen failed to move the Medicine Hat Blue Jays to Provo. Salt Lake Buzz owner Joe Buzas, who under National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues rules maintains the territorial rights to Utah County, blocked their way.
Buzas won't do the same with the Helena franchise, a rookie level affiliate of the major league Milwaukee Brewers. The Ogden Raptors are also a Milwaukee farm team playing in the short-season (76 games) Single A league.
"I gave them permission," Buzas said of the Helena owners. "We have a financial agreement."
Buzas figures a team in Provo won't be a threat to the Triple A Buzz, which he estimates draw 5 percent to 10 percent of their fan base from Utah Valley.
"What the heck? I want to see baseball flourish in Provo," he said. "I think we'll be OK. I told the Helena people I'd help them."
Whether that aces out the Western Baseball League franchise, which appeared to have an inside track before Provo expanded its search, remains to be seen.
American Sports Equities doesn't have Buzas' blessing nor does it need it. The team would play in the independent Western Baseball League where national association rules do not apply. Independent teams, such as the Zion Pioneerzz in St. George, are not associated with major league clubs.