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2 leagues vie for home of their own
Provo considering contrasting plans for a pro baseball team

PROVO -- While some might say baseball is baseball, Provo has a choice between two brands of the national pastime as it mulls proposals for a professional team.

A pair of minor leagues and franchises with different philosophies are vying for the city's affection. As lower-level pro baseball goes, the Pioneer League and Western Baseball League are as far apart as home plate and a Mark McGwire blast over the leftfield wall. Both would bring hits, runs and errors to the ball park but with styles all their own."I don't think there's any comparison between our two leagues," said Jim Goldsmith, who owns the rights to an expansion team in the WBL.

Goldsmith's bid is one of two a city selection committee is considering.

The Helena Brewers, a Milwaukee Brewers farm team, also submitted a plan to relocate to Provo. The city administration wants to field a team for the 2000 season.

The fledgling WBL relishes the race between it and the 60-year-old Pioneer League for the Provo pennant.

"I think we've put forward a great option," Linscheid said. "It's done nothing but good things for St. George." The Zion Pioneerz began play in the WBL this season.

Goldsmith, president of New York-based American Sports Equities, has made numerous trips to Provo the past few months assembling his bid package unlike Helena whom he says "parachuted in" at the last minute.

"We invested a lot of time and a lot of energy and we have committed to giving it all of our resources," he said. "I don't think they can hold a candle to my operation."

The former minor-leaguer likes what he sees in Utah's second largest city. The economic climate and family orientation make it an ideal locale for baseball. All that's missing, he said, is a stadium and an ownership group.

"This seems to me to be a city on the move," he said.

Brewers' general manager Jessica Berry again Tuesday expressed no knowledge of the team considering a move to Provo. The franchise owners, a pair of Los Angeles attorneys, did not return telephone calls to the Deseret News. Salt Lake Buzz owner Joe Buzas, who owns the territorial rights to Utah County, said Monday that he signed financial agreement with Helena for those rights.

The WBL and the Pioneer Leagues present a contrast in minor league baseball.

The 4-year-old WBL is an independent association with franchises in St. George; Yuma, Ariz.; Reno, Nev.; Sacramento, Calif.; Chico, Calif.; Sonoma County, Calif.; and Tri-City, Wash. Owners control all aspects of team operations from signing players to selling hotdogs. Four of the six teams are profitable, said Bob Linscheid, league president.

Most of the players have some professional experience. Though teams have big-league prospects, they are not affiliated with major league clubs so top performers are not called up to larger teams during the 90-game season.

Some spend a couple of years with one franchise, giving fans players to root for beyond one season. Others sign contracts in major league organizations.

Observers say the level of play is rated Double A, basically a step below the Buzz.

The Pioneer League, which started play in 1939, is a 76-game season rookie league. Each of its eight teams -- Billings, Butte, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula in Montana, Medicine Hat, Alberta (Canada), Idaho Falls and Ogden -- are associated with a major league franchise. The big league teams subsidize their farm clubs and control personnel moves. The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues governs "affiliated" minor league baseball.

Many of the players are fresh out of high school and college, getting their first taste of professional ball. Those with potential move up the baseball ladder. Fans could conceivably follow them to places such as Dodger Stadium or SkyDome.

Ogden Raptors President Dave Baggott called Utah County a "baseball mecca" that deserves a pro team, though he is partial to having it play in the Pioneer League. Provo would become the league's marquee city overnight, he said.

"Having that major league identity would be a major plus," said Baggott, who formerly ran the independent Salt Lake Trappers.

Goldsmith counters that there's no real benefit to being connected to the majors. As an independent, Goldsmith said, his team has more latitude that those the national association oversees.

In addition to good baseball, Goldsmith said, he'll provide family amusement at the ball park with sometimes silly but always tasteful promotions. "We like to make the games chock-full of entertainment for anybody and everybody that may be sitting in the stands," he said.

The team would cater to the county's predominant religious beliefs by not playing home games on Sundays or selling beer, Goldsmith said.

As for a team name, he said he'll let fans decide in a contest if Provo selects his franchise.

One thing is sure should Helena get the nod: The Brewers would have to find a new nickname in teetotaling Utah Valley where a garbage can full of dry ice and root beer extract is the closest thing to a brewery.

Helena has been a Milwaukee Brewers' affiliate since 1985, although Berry said the parent club might sever the tie after this season. Milwaukee also has a rookie-league team in Ogden. Helena, a western Montana city with a population of about 35,000, has fielded a Pioneer League for 21 seasons.

The current owners bought the team three years ago, she said.

Attendance for its first six home games this season averaged just under 800 fans. The franchise is doing fine financially, Berry said. "The team does turn a profit," she said.