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¡Ay, Chihuahuas!

The city of El Paso buys into the modern game — Triple-A ball, that is — for modern reasons

Even the president of the league can’t help but laugh about it, the optics of it all. Branch Rickey1 chuckles when I reach him at his office outside Austin, Texas, where he runs Triple-A baseball’s Pacific Coast League. That there was a city so eager to join the PCL, a city so sold on the idea that baseball — minor league baseball, at that — is the magic ingredient that will finally lift it into the big leagues. (Or at least close to the big leagues. “Let’s face it, an NFL team was never going to come here,” says Alejandra de la Vega Foster, a developer who bought into the baseball dream. “This is the best we could get.”) A city so hopeful and optimistic that its leaders were willing to actually, well … There goes Rickey again, giggling.

“I can’t get over the symbolism,” Rickey tells me, pausing for a moment to compose himself. “This is so much fun. You will enjoy this — that in order to build a baseball stadium, they imploded another building. And not just any building. They imploded their own city hall.”

The city is El Paso, Texas. The new stadium, Southwestern University Park, will officially open on April 28, when the visiting Fresno Grizzlies will play the Chihuahuas, El Paso’s brand-new team. Batters rounding first might slide into a second base located where City Hall stood for 34 years, until El Paso officials were persuaded that knocking it down was the best way for an ambitious city to step into the future.

El Paso had tried so many things before the stadium — at least 53 proposals over the years, the city manager estimated. There was that fruitless attempt to turn El Paso into a home for “creatives,” the writers and artists who were once believed to be essential residents of a thriving city. A mayor even proposed an $800 million monorail, apparently unaware that a monorail is more of a Shelbyville idea. Nothing worked out. El Paso remained merely the sixth-largest city in Texas, an isolated desert outpost pinching into New Mexico and spooning uneasily with the Old Mexico city of Juárez, just below the Rio Grande.

So El Paso finally decided to bet on sports, like so many aspirational cities around the country. Citizens coughed up $62 million — so far — and contractors began erecting a new baseball stadium. As ordered by city leaders and league officials, they placed the stadium downtown, where space was limited. To make room, they first needed to remove one little obstacle.

“The symbolism!” Rickey repeats. “A community willing to blow up their city hall! Oh, god. In order to bring minor league baseball to town! You can’t make that up. ‘We blew up our city hall for minor league baseball!’”

El Paso blew up its city hall on a clear Sunday morning just over a year ago. At precisely 9 a.m., residents who had gathered downtown heard a series of concussive pops. Small and surgical explosions shot down one side of the building, which had been upgraded in recent years with a new HVAC system, new elevators, a new roof, and new wiring for its computers and phone lines. Another, louder explosion near the building’s base sent a plume of smoke into a blue sky spotted only by the whirling blades of news helicopters. And then the building fell. A wall of windows reflecting the Juárez Valley folded in on itself, the collapsing panes rippling like a stage curtain. A final blast buckled the far half of the 10-story structure onto the front half, resulting in a neat pile of mismatched slabs. The crowd on Franklin Avenue let out whoops of “Whoo!” and “Play ball!” Flocks of black birds darted skyward, the first sign of trouble.

A thick cloud of dust mushroomed up from the pile. The plume rushed over railroad tracks before engulfing the history museum and the city library. The sun disappeared. Photographers atop the Scottish Rite Temple could be seen covering their faces as they tried to scramble off the roof. Then they couldn’t be seen at all. The cloud grew thicker.

“Oh, god! Oh, god!” cried someone when the cloud overtook the spectators. Coughing. Spitting. A few people sprinted away, and then dozens more followed. The fleeing mob made downtown look like the finish line of the Pompeii 5K. Tan dust cascaded, like volcanic ash, onto parked cars and streets and buildings and everyone who couldn’t get out of the way.

“Don’t breathe!”

“Oh my god!”

“Holy jeez!”

All that dust fell onto a city that has never been considered a flashy place. “We’re not a destination,” says Carl Robinson, a city representative. “We’re just not.” A quarter of El Paso’s residents live below the poverty line. U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke claims the El Paso he grew up in seemed comfortable with mediocrity. Students at the University of Texas at El Paso complain that, fashion-wise, El Paso is too isolated and frugal to be stylish.

“Not a lot of people here want to help out, you know?” says 30-year-old Saul Vasquez, a lifetime resident. “They just want to live in the same shithole, you know what I mean? It’s a beautiful city, man, but it’s not the city it could be.”

Residents know the derogative nicknames. “Hell Paso,” for the punishing summer sun. “El Pass Thru,” for the cars whizzing along I-10 to bigger cities like Houston and Los Angeles. O’Rourke, who fought for the new baseball stadium, has said he wants El Paso “to become, as a community, much more ambitious.”

Central to that desired ambition has been a plan — in place since 2006 — to transform downtown. For decades, the district has been defined by mom-and-pop retailers selling knockoff clothing to Juárez bargain hunters. What if instead there was an “arts walk” to rival San Antonio’s River Walk? City planners talked of leveling sections of the adjacent Segundo Barrio, a dirt-poor neighborhood that has long served as a first stop for immigrants crossing from Mexico. To rise in the barrio’s place: condos, lofts, and a “lifestyle retail” district.

“Wouldn’t it be fun if there was this neat urban center with lots to do downtown?” asked economic development director Kathryn Dodson, back when the plan was hatched. “It would be great for El Pasoans to go to a Starbucks downtown.”

Nothing much really changed, though. Downtown El Paso continued to function like a flea market during the day, and at night it was so empty and dark that it felt seedy. Finally, a couple years ago, someone suggested baseball. Just look, he said, at how sports have transformed Oklahoma City, now the home of an NBA team. Look at how much money cities from Tacoma to Chattanooga are spending on sports to take a stab at cultural relevance. Shouldn’t El Paso play this game, too?

“In the arms race, so to speak, do you want to be left behind by Tulsa? By Little Rock?” asked Rick Horrow, a consultant brought in to lobby for public stadium funding after it was decided that baseball might be the answer.

Another consultant matched up El Paso with a PCL franchise roaming the West in search of a free stadium. The team, a Padres affiliate, had bounced from Albuquerque to Portland to Escondido, California, as one public-money deal after another fell through. It was currently stuck in Tucson, a city not interested in subsidizing the team for the long haul. “We felt we’ve been burned by baseball in the past,” Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías says. A few wealthy developers in El Paso stepped up to buy the nomadic club and give it a permanent home. There was but one condition, stipulated by both the new owners and the league: The team had to play in a new stadium to be built downtown.

That El Paso already had a minor league baseball stadium was brushed off as a niggling detail. This existing ballpark was specifically designed to house a Triple-A baseball team. Built with public money, opened in 1990, and unoccupied for the past year, it’s easily accessible from anywhere in the city, it has plenty of parking, and it seats the same number of fans as the new stadium will. National Geographic magazine once placed the stadium on its cover to illustrate the appeal of baseball at the minor league level. Upgrading the ballpark to modern standards would cost far less than building a stadium from scratch. But that existing park, Cohen Stadium, is 10 minutes from downtown. The new stadium will be downtown. The new stadium will revitalize downtown. Or that’s the dream, anyway. That’s the plan.

When Branch Rickey talks about what minor league baseball brings to a city, he doesn’t talk about increased property values or the stimulation of downtown entertainment districts. “We’re not in the business of urban redevelopment,” Rickey says. “We would not profess clairvoyance on that front.” He prefers to talk about the fan experience. And when he talks about this experience, he just happens to talk about new stadiums.

“Minor league baseball was anchored in architecture from the WPA years,” he explains. “Concrete stadiums that were marvelous structures when they were built, but which only 20 years later you could not get fans to go to for all the tea in China. They weren’t engineered for baseball. They weren’t comfortable. They were in the wrong section of town. You could smell the restrooms before you opened the doors. There were no baby-changing stations. I can name you a slew of other things that all conjure up something that we don’t want. Any of our newer ballparks from the last 15 years, they put a person in an optimal situation.”

Almost all the stadiums built over the past 15 years cost public money. Werner Park near Omaha. The Dell Diamond in Round Rock, Texas. Nashville is contributing $65 million toward a new stadium for the Triple-A Sounds. The billionaire owner of the Reno Aces has threatened to move his team if Reno, which invested $86 million to open Aces Stadium, doesn’t start giving him a million dollars a year in additional tax relief. Fighting to get these stadiums built “has taken years off” Rickey’s life, he insists. But when the lobbying works out, and when a ballpark opens and Rickey sees the first crowds arrive, he gets a warm feeling. Talking about that feeling brings him right up to the edge of giggling again.

Take Indianapolis, he says. Only six years after the opening of Cohen Stadium in El Paso, Indianapolis christened Victory Field for its Indians, a club feeding the Pittsburgh Pirates. The city paid for half the stadium’s construction costs. Rickey arrived early for the inaugural game and sat in the stands by himself, looking around. A family entered the park soon after and sat in front of him. There were two boys and two girls, all preteen, all dressed in Izod and Ralph Lauren polo shirts and shorts. Everyone wore matching, brand-new tennis shoes. The boys and the father wore hats; the girls and the mother wore scarves.

Rickey leaned over and asked if any of them had been to Indians games before the new stadium opened. Never, they answered. They didn’t even know the day’s opposing team. (Oklahoma City.) None of them knew the first thing about baseball.

“That’s who we have become,” Rickey says, “and I take pride in us becoming that. Because we are not surviving on the single-digit percentage of people that are big baseball fans. Most people who come to our games just want to go out and have a big time. When they play ‘We Will Rock You,’ you can feel the stands vibrate. The fans are on their feet. There’s a vibrancy. There’s a chemistry that develops at the ballpark. Ninety percent of our fans, when they leave the stadium after the game, can’t even recall the final score.

“I can see why cities fall for that,” he concludes. “I don’t have any trouble getting wound up and saying it’s fun. It’s dag-gone good fun! And you know something else? It’s good, wholesome fun. How many places do parents and kids have a chance to be with each other? I’m fairly unapologetic about it.”

One doesn’t have to know much baseball history to recognize that Rickey and his family go way back in the game. His grandfather, working as the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, famously broke baseball’s color line by signing Jackie Robinson. Rickey’s father, who also shared the same name, ran the farm systems of several Major League teams. When I ask Rickey III about a team from El Paso called the Diablos, I’m not surprised that he knows about the team, and why I brought it up. The Diablos basically invented the family-fun atmosphere that new minor league stadiums aim to foster. And they did it in a run-down stadium so old the grandstand was built with adobe brick.

“If I had to pick one franchise that placed a premium on fun, that made every game a rollicking adventure, the El Paso Diablos were the winners, hands down,” wrote David Lamb in Stolen Season, his classic book about the minor leagues. “No one else even came close.”

El Paso native Jim Paul, back from a tour of Vietnam, bought the team in 1974. He paid $1,000 — his life savings. “My wife told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t buy that team,’” Paul says when I meet him at the hospice he now runs on El Paso’s east side. “Nobody wanted to have anything to do with the minor leagues. From 1970 to 1975 you could have bought any club in the United States just for the debt. Nobody wanted ’em.”

The Diablos came to Paul weighed down by some $25,000 of this debt, incurred through uniform purchases and bleacher repairs and other basic operational costs. The debt more than doubled after Paul’s first year in charge. He had no idea how to run a club, he admits. His own history with baseball had ended at age 12, when he’d quit Little League.

Home turf was Dudley Field, in a run-down neighborhood a pop fly from the border. The ballpark was “full of odd angles, nooks and crannies,” wrote Lamb. “The grandstands were built with adobe brick, and there was a small hill in center field that covered an irrigation ditch. … The outfield wall, made of plywood, was held up by two-by-fours and had once fallen down in a mild gale.” When Paul first poked around the stadium, he found a giant blackboard on which the previous tenants, the Sun Dodgers, had tracked the handful of promotions they’d offered the prior season. Giveaways and contests were rare back then. Baseball, went the thinking at the time, was for purists. Paul calculated that if he never attempted to reach beyond die-hard fans, maybe only 600 people would show up for a game. He needed to draw at least three times that to break even.

“When I was a kid, I used to take my youngest brother to a game now and then,” Paul recalls. “And the only games we went to were when they had Country Days, which we thought sounded like a lot of fun. There was an egg toss. A greased pig. Someone would try to milk a cow. And so I’m sitting there looking at that big board and thinking, What the shit? We need to do something every night to make it fun to be here.

On the blackboard, Paul mapped out Kazoo Night. Ten-Cent Beer Night. Country Days, of course, and also an appearance by a then-obscure touring mascot called the San Diego Chicken. At one game, Paul tried to set a record for the most soap bubbles blown at one time. He placed a 120-foot-long banana split in the outfield, handed plastic spoons to every kid in attendance, and invited them to race out and eat as much ice cream as they could. When creditors repossessed the stadium’s organ — money was always tight — Paul bought a tape recorder at Radio Shack and began playing the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin over the loudspeakers. After Diablos home runs, fans placed dollar bills in the batter’s helmet, in gratitude. The ballpark was renamed the Dudley Dome even though it remained roofless. The PA announcer relayed statistics — “No team scores more runs with two outs than the Diablos!” — that he simply made up.

The Diablos, a Double-A team, began drawing overflow crowds even while the team trudged along in last place. The Texas League named Paul its executive of the year. Twelve months later, he won executive of the year for all of the minor leagues. A winter marketing seminar he launched in El Paso grew exponentially as his methods proved successful. The athletic directors of schools such as Notre Dame and LSU began showing up, joining executives from baseball clubs as big as the Houston Astros.

His decision to seek public money to replace the Dudley Dome began as a half-drunken lark.

“Even into the 1980s, nobody ever thought about going to the city council to get a vote to build a stadium,” Paul recalls. “We were just happy to be anywhere, you know? But that changed with Richmond, Virginia.” In 1984, the general manager of the Richmond Braves convinced his city to put up a third of the cost for a new stadium, with the rest split by the team and its parent club in Atlanta. “When we saw what he did, everyone in the minor leagues began thinking, Hey, maybe we can do that, too.

Not long after the Richmond vote, Paul was having beers with a couple of city representatives. It was a Friday, and the mayor just happened to be out of town. A council meeting was coming up. Paul casually suggested that his friends add a vote to fund a new stadium to the next ballot. “Shit, why not?” he recalls. “What have we got to lose?” When one of the representatives asked how much public money Paul wanted, the Diablos owner picked a number out of thin air.

“Six million?” he spitballed.

The idea of public funding for a baseball stadium met strong opposition at first. Paul countered with endorsements from baseball stars Tommy Lasorda, Orel Hershiser, and — most persuasively in a city so close to Mexico — the pitcher Fernando Valenzuela. The measure managed to pass narrowly, and the Diablos got their new ballpark, Cohen Stadium.

“To me it was a miracle,” Paul recalls. “That vote was an absolute miracle.”

It was also a harbinger of seismic change. When it became clear that baseball could extract public money from even minor league cities, the value of clubs skyrocketed. A team in Midland, Texas, that had been bought for $100,000 was flipped three years later for a cool million bucks. Offers to buy the Diablos began pouring in.

“I never thought the club was worth anything,” Paul tells me. “I never understood the value. When somebody offers you millions of dollars — I think I netted about two and a half million — it seemed like time to call in my chips.”

Paul sold the Diablos in 1999. The consortium that bought them — it owned three other clubs — flipped the Diablos five years later for twice what it had paid, the team jumping to a free stadium in Springfield, Missouri. A second incarnation of the Diablos started up at Cohen Stadium, playing in an independent league until the owners saw the Chihuahuas coming and bailed. Those Diablos are moving to tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri, and into a stadium upgraded with $6 million in public money. The upgrades were pitched as a way to revitalize Joplin.

The public-funding phenomenon ended up coming full circle in Richmond. Only 12 years after their landmark stadium deal, the Braves demanded that Richmond give them another new ballpark, this time paid in full with public money. When city leaders hesitated, the team bolted to suburban Atlanta and a stadium built and maintained by the government of Gwinnett County. Richmond’s current mayor now wants his city to build and pay for a new baseball stadium for another team, as part of an $80 million investment in civic renewal.

From the air, El Paso’s downtown looks like a big toe testing the waters of Ciudad Juárez. Every morning, the Santa Fe Bridge backs up with Mexican visitors marching over to eyeball cut-rate tube socks, underwear, and denim jeans stacked in bins outside stores on El Paso Street. Casa Silvia. Casa Blanca. La Quinta Lingerie. Zapateria Yang, according to the shoe store’s green awning, is a “best choice for fashion.” El Paso’s first-ever main street is busy during the day, though not every storefront is occupied.

Walking four blocks north a little after noon, I cross onto Mesa Street. Even daytime commerce thins out. Dollar Plus Discount sits abandoned, cracks spiderwebbing across glass that once showcased cell phone chargers and hands-free headsets. I see a “FOR LEASE” sign, and then a “FOR SALE” sign. A copy store offers a deal on business cards. I stroll up and east past the Tap, a stellar dive bar. There are the county and federal courthouses, and the post office, and the old newspaper building purchased by the city to temporarily house the mayor and other city staffers.2

As I walk back west, construction fencing blocks the sidewalk and forces me to cross the street. A renewal is under way. One by one, faded Art Deco buildings that have moldered for years are being bought up by investors betting on a renaissance. I step inside the Centre Building, one of the first rehabs to come online. That Starbucks the city’s economic planner wanted is finally here, percolating in the atrium lobby. I ride an elevator up one floor to the Chihuahuas’ front office, where I’ll run into Alejandra de la Vega Foster.

She owns the team, along with her husband, Paul Foster, and two members of another prominent border clan, the Hunt family. She and her husband own the Centre Building, too, which they renovated. They also own the historic Mills Building next door, the historic Plaza Hotel across the street, and a parking garage near the new baseball stadium. She owns the Starbucks in the lobby, as well. It’s the only Starbucks downtown, and she had to open it herself. No one else wanted to.

I talk first with the Chihuahuas’ front-office staff. President Alan Ledford and general manager Brad Taylor explain to me why their mascot is a tiny dog popularly linked with Paris Hilton and Taco Bell. Chihuahuas are feisty and loyal like El Pasoans, I’m told. They’re a common dog on la frontera, and the name, it’s hoped, will attract Juárez residents, who live in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The name is specifically designed to appeal to kids, but the team uniforms are classically styled, with pinstripes and lettering aimed at traditional fans. The new ballpark, I learn, will feature a killer sound system.

Both Ledford and Taylor are baseball lifers. They’ve spent the past year focusing on the logistics of a start-up — hiring, marketing, and a branding effort so thorough that the highest deck at the new stadium will be called the “Woof Top.” We speak inside a room that serves as a sort of mock luxury box. Huge photos on the walls simulate a view of the field. With construction crews still racing to complete the stadium, the room serves as a visual aid to potential ticket buyers. While we’re talking, Foster ducks her head inside.

“Can we come in for one minute?” she asks, a small pack of Mexican businessmen trailing behind her. “I just want to show off our stadium.” Foster, 45, is one of the wealthiest women on the border. She’s not only the wife of successful oilman Paul, she’s an equally prominent developer in her own right. “She’s the second most powerful person in Mexico after Chapo Guzmán,” jokes one of the businessmen standing next to her, referring to the drug trafficker who had recently been arrested.

Her family cornered the beer market in Juárez, where Foster grew up. When she was 25 years old, she ran the Cobras, a soccer team her father had bought, and the first Juárez team ever to rise to Mexico’s major league, where they lasted one season. When she married Paul Foster, the couple’s combined net worth cleared $1 billion. They own a house in Aspen, she says, which they like a lot. They could live there year-round if they wanted to. I ask why she stays in El Paso.

“We asked ourselves that question during this process, believe me,” she says, referring to the fight to get the stadium built.

When Foster talks about the Chihuahuas, she uses the phrase “quality of life.” She also drops the words “affordable family fun” — the same mantra on which Branch Rickey hangs his minor league shingle. Foster also talks about her mother, a woman who devoted a significant portion of her life and wealth to improving life in Juárez. Alejandra says she wants life to get better on the El Paso side, too. She can see the city finally growing out of its image as a low-rent, unstylish outpost.

“We’re staying here because my mom didn’t raise us to abandon our home,” she asserts. “It isn’t that complicated.”

Foster and her husband just spent two years installing a new, high-end restaurant in the renovated Mills Building, next door. Foster helped craft the menu, and she brought in architects from New York to give the restaurant an upscale look you might find in midtown Manhattan or Beverly Hills. Wine at this restaurant, Anson 11, sells for as much as $2,400 a bottle. Business has been slow so far, but once the Chihuahuas start playing home games, the place should start hopping. At least, according to her vision. “If not us,” she says, “who is going to do all this?”

“This” isn’t baseball. It isn’t sports. Downtown gentrification is the aim. “This is first and foremost a real estate deal,” says Carl Robinson, the city representative, who is an opponent of the stadium. Urban renewal is what baseball has been selling for years, no matter what Rickey or even Bud Selig say to the contrary. Even the Chihuahuas’ front office is savvy to the big picture, to the team’s real purpose.

“It’s been educational for me from an urban planning standpoint,” explains Ledford, the team president. “Part of the study the city had commissioned had identified that a venue like this was really critical to creating a core downtown experience.”

Foster and her guests stay in the mock suite for only a couple of minutes. After they leave, and after I wrap things up with Ledford and Taylor, I head back down to the street. I want to take in more of the core downtown experience. I pass the Starbucks and Anson 11 on the way to the Chihuahuas’ team store, which is also in a building Foster owns. I step inside to browse caps featuring the team’s snarling canine logo. I look at the pinstriped jerseys, which really are attractive. I settle on a basic red T-shirt, deliberately distressed, with the logo and the words “El Paso Chihuahuas.” I’m so on autopilot with my credit card that I don’t realize until I step back onto the street that my T-shirt cost $34. That’s a lot of money. Major League money. It might be the most anyone has ever paid for a T-shirt in downtown El Paso’s history, which is not necessarily something to cheer about.

I walk over to the stadium for the first time, strolling through what has been designated the Downtown Arts District. There’s the Plaza Theater and the public library. The art museum advertises a collection called “Metaphors of El Barrio.” (A bus station stubbornly squatting inside the district advertises fares to Denver and Los Angeles and Phoenix.) I spot the baseball team’s logo hanging in the window of a small bar across from a bank. The sign bears a message of optimism: “Welcome, Chihuahuas fans!!!” I hear a grinding sound and follow it to a construction site on downtown’s western edge. Welders shoot sparks as dump trucks back up with staccato warning beeps. This is Southwest University Park. The stadium was supposed to be ready by April 1. Delays have forced the Chihuahuas to begin their inaugural season with a 24-game road trip. “We’re going to be gone so long, I’m going to have to do my laundry on the road,” radio announcer Tim Hagerty tells me.

The team has already earned national attention for pulling a prank on outfielder and former Major Leaguer Jeff Francoeur. For almost a month, the entire team convinced Francoeur that one of his teammates, pitcher Jorge Reyes, was deaf. “I’m definitely not deaf,” Reyes revealed in a YouTube video with more than a million views. “What an idiot.” The Chihuahuas opened the season with a win in Reno before settling into near-.500 ball. Not that their play on the field matters all that much, in the grand scheme of El Paso’s urban renewal.

The sun sets into the Juárez Valley, throwing the stadium’s unfinished girders and support beams into silhouette. It’s still light enough that I can make out “The Bible Is Real: Read It” painted in Spanish on a mountain over on the Mexico side. Officials at El Paso’s visitors bureau have started talking about how the baseball stadium will attract business to their convention center, which I can see just down Santa Fe Street. There’s that civic optimism again, the faith that this minor league ballpark will finally set the city on a new course.

I close my eyes and listen to the construction. I imagine the implosion of City Hall at this spot, and then I try to imagine downtown thriving as an entertainment zone. Starbucks and sports bars and restaurants that sell bottles of wine the average Juárez factory employee would have to work half a year to afford. When I open my eyes, I see a downtown still largely empty. Ambition isn’t easy to visualize. This redundant stadium, not yet finished and being built with millions of public dollars, is all there is to work with. 

Illustration by Clay Rodery.

Filed Under: Baseball, Minor League Baseball, El Paso Chihuahuas, Triple-A, Public Funding, Stadium Policy

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Robert Andrew Powell is a contributing editor at Howler magazine and the author of This Love is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez and Running Away: A Memoir.

Archive @ robertandrewp