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September 18, 2014

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PCL prez has enthusiasm for game

Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey III took a special guest on a trip to Memphis last summer, which included meetings with local political figures and baseball officials, and a tour of AutoZone Park.

Rickey aimed to show Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman a shining example of how a Triple-A team and a modern facility can be a source of vibrancy, and pride, for a city.

Rickey and Goodman continue to talk about the future of Triple-A baseball in Las Vegas.

"We've done it in a very low-key fashion because, generally, these projects when they are pursued in a high-pressure kind of fashion, they turn out to have more compromises than when they're done more deliberately," Rickey said.

"The whole thing is a process of osmosis, or a process of increasing appreciation. And there are people becoming much more knowledgeable of what's going on in other markets."

AutoZone Park opened in 2000 and has played a dramatic role in revitalizing downtown Memphis, on the banks of the Mississippi River, so much so that it helped lure the Grizzlies from Vancouver.

That NBA team then enhanced the area by building the nifty FedExForum two blocks away from AutoZone Park.

Five-year-old SBC Bricktown Ballpark has had a similar effect in Oklahoma City.

Rickey said the situation in Las Vegas is "percolating."

An architect will visit with 51s general manager Don Logan for a second time next week, to further determine the best option between refurbishing 20-year-old Cashman Field or finding a suitable site for a new stadium, possibly in the Henderson area.

How receptive Goodman and other city and state politicos are to the stadium issue will determine the 51s' relationship with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a contract that runs through the 2004 season.

By the end of the summer, Logan said, a concrete plan will need to be devised to ensure that Triple-A baseball will be played in Las Vegas in 2005. Neither Goodman nor his associates returned calls seeking comment.

Rickey, as his name would suggest, is enthusiastic about baseball, but he is most passionate about how the game can benefit so many others in so many invaluable ways.

He is the grandson of the man by the same name who first integrated baseball by signing Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

On rural farm land on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, the third-generation Branch Rickey grew up a pasture away from his grandfather's house.

"Such a rare privilege," he said. "I was in his house as much as my own. Having known him and the way he went about life, and what he represented to those of us who lived around him, have caused us to live our lives differently."

The patriarch of the Rickey family grew up amid very modest farm conditions in Southern Ohio, and he yearned for the endorsement of his parents when he informed them that he wanted to pursue baseball as a career in 1902.

"The reputation of professional baseball players was pretty shaky," said Branch III. "Even though his father followed around the tail of a mule with a plow, his parents thought it would really be a set-back for what he could achieve in life."

To earn his mother's blessing, Rickey vowed that he would never step inside a stadium on Sunday. That convinced her that her son could play the game and still have discipline in his life, so she gave her consent.

Over a 2 1/2-year span as a catcher in the major leagues, in which he hit .239 in 120 games, Rickey never entered a stadium on a Sunday. He managed the St. Louis Browns (1913-15) and the St. Louis Cardinals (1919-25).

"And he never went into a park on Sundays," said Branch III. "He had a 'Sunday manager.' Can you imagine a manager saying to an owner, 'See you Monday' these days? For what purpose? Even after his mother passed, he adhered to his word for another decade and a half, simply because he gave his word."

Imagine, said Branch III, growing up with that kind of an example, having a grandfather at home every Sunday.

"I grew up with something more than a legacy," he said. "I had a living, breathing standard."

Junior and Senior both studied law at the University of Michigan before launching careers in baseball. In 1916, Senior became president of the Cardinals. To enable them to compete against rich clubs, he established a minor-league chain for the team.

That was the first farm system.

Junior, who had also been working for the Cardinals, actually beat Senior to working for the Brooklyn Dodgers by six months, when they hired him as vice president in 1942. Then they hired Senior to run the operation, and he soon carved his place, with Robinson, in baseball history.

Branch III bristles at the trite notion that a "color barrier" was broken by Robinson.

Rickey called it the shattering of a myth, that there were aspects -- practical, philosophical, humanitarian, Constitutional, religious and capitalistic -- that stretched far beyond the chalk lines of a diamond or the complexion of a team.

He will attend a pregame ceremony with Logan and the late Jackie Robinson's wife, Rachel, on Saturday at Dodger Stadium that will announce the distribution of Jackie Robinson Foundation scholarships, including the first donning Branch Rickey's name.

Before launching his own career in baseball administration and management, in which he served as president of the American Association before being elected to the same role for the PCL in 1997, Branch III experienced his own epiphany.

He had graduated from Ohio Wesleyan during the late, turbulent '60s, and a buttoned-down career in baseball, in a suit and tie, didn't register on his radar.

Branch III joined the Peace Corps, asked for a "suburban" assignment and found himself in the impoverished plains of Venezuela near the Amazon jungle. His English only came in use when he traveled a substantial distance north.

Growing up on a farm taught Branch plenty, about life, death and necessity, but he was not prepared for two harsh years in a Third World environment. He declined to elaborate about details of what he experienced.

"I was exposed to situations where there weren't necessarily solutions," Rickey said. "We couldn't prevent many things from happening that you would otherwise hope, and believe, could be prevented.

"Poor health ... and I'll start, and stop, right there."

He returned to the States, he said, with an independence that would shake up the world.

"I had the perspective that I would be my own man, do what I wanted according to my own thinking," he said. "Of course, I gravitated right back to all the standards of my family and was entirely comfortable with it.

"There were such wonderful examples set for me. Those approaches and beliefs were such a natural part of me. I fell back into what the family had hoped I would aim toward."

He helped combine three Triple-A leagues into two, with the dissolution of the American Association, and has steered the 16-team PCL toward unprecedented success and annual attendance records.

Before the Albuquerque franchise was shifted to Portland in 2000, that was the usual turnout for Dukes games. The community begged for baseball's return, which the PCL promised if the city responded with an improved stadium.

It did, and Isotopes Park is now a 13,000-seat jewel that opened this season to house the Florida Marlins' Triple-A team. A recent weekend series drew an average of 11,000 to three games.

Cashman is the fourth-oldest complex in the league, in a city whose entertainment value, Rickey said, is greater than that of the other 29 Triple-A towns combined.

"So you don't necessarily make a splash on the entertainment scene in Las Vegas, but you do make a commensurate splash with the families in Las Vegas," Rickey said. "I would argue that those families would be where our niche is. If we get that facility in the right place ...

"Minor-league baseball does not compete in the same area as the Bellagio, Caesars Palace or the Venetian. We're involved in this kind of vision for Las Vegas."

What Rickey and his team have accomplished in Memphis, Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, Fresno, Portland and Sacramento serves as a blueprint for success.

They turned a vision and belief into a commodity for the community. Moreover, each project was different, with none serving as a cookie-cutter template for another.

"Each is highly, highly, remarkably, stunningly individual," Rickey said. "But I'm an outsider. I like to think of myself as more of a catalyst. It's probably darn clear that I'm kind of an evangelist on this front.

"(Goodman) has a rather extraordinary role. There are so many things going on in Las Vegas, but I think he does have an appreciation of Triple-A baseball. He can be a large part of this, but it would fall to him to integrate it into (his) set of priorities."

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