Will the Rangers be safe or out at home?

Posted Sunday, May. 25, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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The Texas Rangers kicked off their 20th anniversary at the iconic ballpark this season with a new corporate stadium name and millions of dollars in renovations designed to improve the fan experience.

This season, Globe Life Park in Arlington features a renovated club/restaurant and gift shop, and in recent years, the ballpark has added new video boards, a huge indoor play area and more club seating.

Attendance has flourished. Last year, the Rangers drew an average of 38,759 fans per game, fifth best in baseball, behind the Dodgers, Cardinals, Giants and Yankees.

But as the Rangers enter the final 10-year stretch of their ballpark lease with the city, some community leaders say they are already concerned about Arlington’s future as a baseball town if the team decides to explore setting up home plate elsewhere.

So far, the Rangers have been quiet about their plans. Rumors have swirled that the club might be looking to move to Dallas and build a stadium with a retractable roof to help fans — and players — avoid the brutal Texas heat.

But former Mayor Richard Greene, who led the campaign to build the current park, finds the entire idea of a Rangers move distressing, even if most season ticket holders are from Dallas. Greene writes an opinion column for the Star-Telegram.

“It’s very worrisome,” Greene said. “I think it’s unconscionable that there would ever be any consideration by any owner of the Texas Rangers Baseball Club to consider their future taking place anywhere other than Arlington.”

City Council members have talked privately about their concerns that one of Arlington’s most recognizable citizens may look to move away. They said the city is prepared to help the team transition to a new lease or a lease renewal when the time comes.

“We are obviously aware of this. We communicate all the time with the team, and we have an excellent relationship. I expect that will continue,” City Manager Trey Yelverton said. “When the time is right to talk more specifically about whatever needs they have and how we might be able to assist them, we will stand ready to have that conversation like we always have.”

The Rangers, who recently inked a 10-year naming-rights deal with Globe Life Accident and Insurance Co. for an undisclosed amount, aren’t in talks with Dallas, Arlington or anyone else about building a new ballpark, officials said.

Since 2011, the team has made about $40 million in ballpark improvements, including new concession stands, an overhaul of the aging audio-video system, and the addition of more shaded seating and air-conditioned indoor spaces to help visitors beat the heat.

“We like to say this building has good bones. We like to believe we have maintained it well,” said Rob Matwick, Rangers executive vice president for business operations. “There is no reason to believe it can’t last for a long time.”

While acknowledging that a retractable-roof stadium could enhance the fans’ experience, Matwick said no decisions have been made about what to do when the 30-year lease expires in 2024.

“A lot of it depends on what is going on with the economy, the community, the commitment of owners,” Matwick said. “We have been really pleased with the ballpark and the fans, and the city here has been tremendously supportive of us.”

‘Where they should be’

The late Mayor Tom Vandergriff, who spent 13 years working on his big-league dreams, is credited with luring the Washington Senators to town in 1971. The team played its first game as the Texas Rangers on April 21, 1972, at the former Arlington Stadium.

Nearly 20 years later, Arlington voters approved $135 million in bonds, paid for through a half-cent sales tax, to help the Rangers build a new ballpark.

Construction on the brick-and-granite retro-style stadium, which is owned by the city, started in April 1992 and was completed two years later.

Within one year of the 2024 lease expiration, the Rangers can buy the ballpark at no cost, having paid for it through 30 years of lease payments, Yelverton said.

Under that option, the team would have to begin paying annual property taxes on whatever value is assessed by the Tarrant Appraisal District. Or it could ask the city to grant a 10-year lease extension or come up with an entirely new agreement, Yelverton said.

If the Rangers decide they want a new stadium, the city would have the financial means — with taxpayer approval — to help with construction costs.

Arlington’s portion of the AT&T Stadium debt is expected to be paid off about a decade early, which could free up the half-cent sales tax dedicated to it before the Rangers’ lease expires, officials said.

Mayor Robert Cluck expects rumors about the Rangers leaving for downtown Dallas or elsewhere to ramp up as the $2-million-a-year lease winds down. But he isn’t worried that the city’s longtime relationship with the team will end anytime soon.

“The closer we get to this 10 years being over, the more frequent they will become. I’ve learned to live with it,” Cluck said. “I can see why other cities would like to have them. They are very successful. However, I feel really strongly they are right where they should be.”

‘We’ll continue to listen’

Dallas comes up repeatedly as the favored destination for the team, possibly with a stadium near downtown, which already has the American Airlines Center, home of the Dallas Stars and Mavericks.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said he has had no discussions with the team about moving to his town, but he said land prices may be a problem.

“Modern-day stadiums are on cheaper and less expensive land,” Rawlings said. “Our land values in and around downtown are the hottest in history. That would be the only thing that would get in the way of any move.”

Those involved in the stadium talks in Arlington often point to a 31-acre site near downtown that includes the site of the former Reunion Arena.

The Rangers declined the Star-Telegram’s request to interview owners Bob Simpson and Ray Davis about the team’s plans after the lease ends, including any move to Dallas.

Ray Hunt, president and CEO of Dallas-based Hunt Consolidated Inc., declined an interview request. His representative said that Hunt has no relationship with the Rangers and that a ballpark is not what the company has envisioned for the land.

Rawlings said: “Dallas has got a lot of great things about it. Arlington is perfect in many ways. Fort Worth has got some great things. Those sort of things I know the owners know. We’ll continue to listen and keep our ear to the ground on this discussion.”

Arlington’s mayor said his city will face “hard decisions” over the next four or five years.

“If they are going to do something different, they are going to have to get ready to go,” Cluck said. “We are going to do whatever it takes.”

‘Ready for a suntan’

It’s not as if the Rangers have to put a roof over their fans’ heads to get people to come to the ballpark. Attendance has been just under or exceeded 3 million each of the last three seasons.

The ballpark had eight Sunday afternoon games from June through September last year, and only once did the temperature top 100, on Sept. 1 against Minnesota. It was 104 that day, and the Rangers drew 36,549 fans, slightly below their season average.

Overall for those eight games, the average high was 92.5 degrees — not so bad, huh? — while the average attendance was 40,983, more than 2,200 above the season average. The entire season saw only five home games where the high temperature that day was at least 100.

Longtime Rangers fan Ruben Velez doesn’t let the heat keep him from driving from Duncanville to watch his favorite team from his seats behind the visitors dugout.

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” said Velez, who attends about 40 home games a season. “It gets extremely hot out there in the middle of summer. I go to Sunday afternoon games. The sun is sitting right on top of me. I go out there with a tank top ready for a suntan.”

While he doesn’t mind a little sweat, Velez, 31, said he is grateful that he can take his 7-year-old son into the air-conditioned Kids Zone for a break.

Still, that hasn’t stopped the Rangers from considering adding a retractable roof.

When Tom Hicks was an owner, the team commissioned an architectural study in 2007 to draw up schematics for a retractable roof, Matwick said. He could not recall a cost estimate, but clearly the owners decided not to move forward with the idea.

“You want the ballpark to be an enjoyable experience. We battle that. Do you want to leave your home, your TV, your family to sit at the ballpark if you are not going to have an enjoyable experience?” Matwick said. “Winning baseball helps a lot. We think there are a lot of reasons for you to come to the ballpark. But anytime you get into a two-hour or four-hour rain delay, it would be nice if you don’t have to worry about that.

“It’s up to ownership to determine if it’s cost-prohibitive,” he said. “There is nothing that is not possible. It has to make sense.”

The Rangers haven’t always been interested in a roof, said Tom Schieffer, who was the club president and part of the ownership group with George W. Bush as the ballpark was being built.

“We had that conversation. It was beyond the means of anyone to do it then,” said Schieffer, who was introduced as the newest member of the Rangers Hall of Fame last week. “But the fact of the matter is that George W. Bush and I did not want that.”

Some players, including shortstop Elvis Andrus, say they wouldn’t mind a roof these days, though.

“Oh, hell yeah,” Andrus said. “It would help my legs and help you feel better, especially during the summer. It gets so hot that you have to maintain good shape. It won’t kill me, but for sure you have to maintain taking care of your body really well.”

But pitcher Colby Lewis thinks playing in an open-air stadium might benefit the Rangers more than teams who are used to cooler climes.

“I think it plays into our favor in the summertime. We’re able to make that adjustment and know how to hydrate, and these guys that aren’t used to playing in it, it’s definitely a lot rougher for them,” Lewis said.

“I’ve seen guys in the past that have come from cooler climates or pitched in a dome and it comes to be four or five innings and they’re smoked already.”

‘Part of our identity’

Only six of the 30 Major League Baseball stadiums have retractable roofs — Safeco Field in Seattle and Minute Maid Park in Houston among them — and those are in cities with extreme weather.

The Atlanta Braves announced last year that they will leave Turner Field at the end of their lease with Cobb County in 2016 and build a new ballpark on land in unincorporated Atlanta, according to media reports. The new ballpark, projected to cost $672 million with public-private financing, will have a 90-foot roof providing shade for seating, initial drawings show.

The Rangers are still acquiring land around the ballpark. This year, the team bought the 17.6-acre Stonegate Pines mobile-home park south of the stadium. The Rangers have no immediate plans for the property, though it could be used for parking one day, team spokesman John Blake said.

Rawlings said the bottom line will drive whatever decision is made about the Rangers’ future home.

“The thing that citizens ultimately have to understand is that baseball is a financial proposition. They are running a business. While it’s a mythic symbol for us in DFW, it’s also a business,” Rawlings said.

“Those owners are going to do the right thing by their balance sheets, and they are going to do the right thing by the fans. They want more fans. They want more sponsorship. They want more season tickets sold,” he said. “That will drive the decisions that those owners make.”

But many say they can’t — or don’t want to — imagine Arlington without a Major League Baseball team.

“The Texas Rangers are part of the fabric of Arlington. They are a huge part of our identity,” said Arlington Councilman Robert Rivera, who served on the Home Run Arlington Committee, which worked to pass the ballpark sales tax in 1991.

“The Texas Rangers have been at the forefront of putting Arlington on the national stage. In all 162 games that are played, Arlington has been mentioned in every game over 40 years. That type of name ID and repetition is invaluable.”

Staff writer Jeff Wilson contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639 Twitter: @susanschrock

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