The last time that happened was never — not during the influenza pandemic 100 years ago and not during either of two world wars.
No one could have foreseen this, of course, least of all the late former Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini, who risked much of her political capital three decades ago building what now is called Smith’s Ballpark, and who lured a triple-A team to the city, now known as the Bees.
That matters, but not in any way you can document in a text book.
This COVID-19 inspired pause in the game may be as good a time as any to look back on those days and the promises made. There were plenty of them. It was a contentious time.
I was a reporter covering City Hall in the early ‘90s, and I ended up devoting much of my life at the time to studying minor league baseball and economic development, when I wasn’t following Corradini around and keeping up with the protests. Twenty-seven years ago, I wrote a six-part series on the construction of the stadium. You may take it for granted today, but its location was anything but an easy political decision.
Corradini wanted to build it downtown, in Pioneer Park.
She saw that as an economic gold mine. The stadium would spin off money in all directions. It would create a synergy with what now is called Vivint Smarthome arena. In those pre-Olympics days, she hoped to build a speed-skating oval across the street from the stadium to complete a sports corridor.
But Corradini quickly ran into trouble. The nearby Greek Orthodox Church objected, saying it wanted neither the traffic nor the noise. Advocates for the poor protested, worried about the homeless who used the park. Others didn’t want to develop a park that had been an original settlement for early pioneers.
And then, most surprising of all, came the protests from people who lived around the old stadium, known as Derks Field; the people who had to put up with all the cars and traffic every summer. They said their neighborhood, already teetering economically, would suffer an identity crisis if the stadium left.
It made little economic sense to build on the corner of West Temple and 1300 South. But once it became clear that the pressure was too great to resist, Corradini began to shift her promises to that neighborhood.
She told me eventually there would be shops and restaurants nearby. “I envision 10 years from now the stadium will define the south end of downtown,” she said.
A quarter-century later, the neighborhood around Smith’s Ballpark looks about the same as it did all those years ago, with the exception of a few new high-density housing units. I don’t see many restaurants; no corporate headquarters or popular shops. Salt Lake City is growing faster than it has in years, and yet no one would confuse the stadium with downtown.
But maybe that’s OK.
I quoted a lot of experts back then who predicted this would be the case. If minor league ball offers any economic benefits, they said, it is when it locates downtown. But generally, it doesn’t offer a lot of tangible benefits anywhere.
If you think I’m being critical of Corradini, you’re wrong. I may have known her better than any reporter at the time. Like most humans, she was complicated. She later became embroiled in a scandal that nearly derailed her. But she was smart enough to change course when faced with new information. Without her, Salt Lake City might not have any baseball today.
Which of course, it doesn’t right now, anyway.
News reports say the loss of a season may destroy some minor league teams.
As the folks who live around the stadium understood all those years ago, it never really was about money. What the city built on the old Derks Field site has been hailed as the most beautiful minor league stadium in the country, with spectacular views of the Wasatch Mountain range.
But beyond that, a baseball team and its stadium can become the heart of a city, even in an old neighborhood away from downtown.
For the sake of that neighborhood, the people who work at the stadium and the thousands who enjoy seeing those mountains above centerfield on a warm summer night, we need to root for a 2021 season.