When you think of former athletes who moved into ownership roles after their careers ended, the names Michael Jordan, Mario Lemieux, Magic Johnson and Derek Jeter spring to mind.
Darwin Barney wants to join the club, though the former Cubs second baseman admits his ownership stake in a prospective Major League Baseball expansion team in Portland wouldn’t give him nearly the power of his more famous peers.
“I’d be in the minority group, not even close to a Ricketts, obviously,” Barney said with a laugh, referring to the family who owns the Cubs. “But it would be fun to be part of it and see where it goes.”
Barney, 33, had an eight-year major league career, including 4½ seasons with the Cubs, before retiring from the sport in 2018 after failing to land a job. He’s living with his family in his native Portland, where he and his father, David, recently became charter investors in the Portland Diamond Project, a group spearheaded by former Nike executive Craig Cheek that is trying to bring a major league expansion team to the city.
Barney, who knows Cheek from having played soccer with his son, thinks Portland is an ideal spot for baseball.
“In the past we’ve tried to get teams here in Portland, but we always needed public bond money,” he said. “That’s the biggest difference, the leadership and his experience and the fact we’re not out there lobbying for taxpayer money.
“Basically (Cheek) started a movement. I came home and ran into him at a grocery store, and he said, ‘We’re doing this and we’d love to have you on board.’ So we started talking and meeting and I ended up being hired as the chief baseball adviser for the group and one of the investors as well. We’re in the first primary investor group.”
Among the other investors are Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife, singer Ciara. Former big-leaguers Dale Murphy and Harold Reynolds are among the project’s advisers.
MLB has no plans to expand, but the Portland group wants to be ready if it does. In spring training, Commissioner Rob Manfred said MLB’s first priority is for the Athletics and Rays to get new stadiums.
“Look, five years from now I’d like to have the two active stadium issues resolved, meaning Oakland and Tampa, meaning shovels in the ground and facilities being built,” Manfred said. “I would like baseball to be in the midst of exploring whether we could get to 32 teams by adding teams in the United States, but we’re also open to the idea of Canada and Mexico as possibilities.
“I think 32 (teams) opens up the possibility of a substantial rethinking of our format and postseason format, meaning realignment … maybe even geographical realignment.”
The Portland group already has an agreement in principal with the Port of Portland to develop a site on the Willamette River for a state-of-the-art ballpark and commercial use.
“The big thing is we all know how to start a baseball team — build a stadium with a roof,” Barney said. “We’re going to be looking at almost $3 billion (for the project). We’ve bought land already. We have 45 acres right on the river in the middle of the city.
“It’s looking really good. We’re trying to in some ways do what Atlanta did (with SunTrust Park), to lock up this area and another section that would give us 90 acres and make it fully functional year-round.
“A big thing for us is we want to be in the city. It’s been an interesting movement. It’s super exciting.”
Getting an expansion team is the goal, though Portland obviously wouldn’t turn down a team trying to relocate, which could be a more viable option. The Rays and A’s for years have been talking about building ballparks to replace Tropicana Field and the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, respectively, but have run into roadblocks.
A’s owner John Fisher is hoping to build a privately financed, 35,000-seat park on the Oakland, Calif., waterfront, and the team took a step forward Monday when the Oakland Port Commission unanimously approved a tentative agreement with the A’s that would allow them to lease the property.
“It’s really a critical interim step as we move forward with our new privately financed ballpark here at the waterfront,” A’s President Dave Kaval said.
But it’s far from a done deal. When I asked A’s general manager David Forst during spring training if he could envision moving to a town such as Portland, he shook his head.
“I don’t,” he said. “I don’t think John Fisher has any intention of entertaining that. There’s a reason our slogan is ‘Rooted in Oakland.’ John and Dave have every intention of getting this done in Oakland.”
Manfred said he is “optimistic” the A’s and local officials will get a stadium agreement that keeps the team in the city. The NFL’s Raiders are moving to Las Vegas in 2020, and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors are moving across the bay to San Francisco next season, leaving the A’s as the only professional team in Oakland.
“It’s important for us to stay in Oakland,” Manfred said. “Oakland is a major league market, and we should have a club there.”
Barney said the Portland group is focusing on expansion but also has to be prepared in case a team such as the A’s needs to relocate, something that hasn’t happened in baseball since the Montreal Expos moved to Washington in 2005.
It might never happen, even if Portland has a solid game plan and plenty of investors. Baseball could decide to join the NFL and NHL and bring a team to Las Vegas or return to Montreal or one of a handful of U.S. cities longing for a major-league team.
But Barney said his group is hopeful MLB eventually will expand and vowed Portland will be ready.
“Hockey just went to 32 teams (with an expansion team in Seattle beginning in 2021-22), so there’s no reason (MLB) couldn’t go to 32,” he said. “The way I see it is, expansion is not going to happen until all 30 teams are set and comfortable. Once Tampa and Oakland figure (their stadium deals) out, that’s when I think expansion talks will kick up.”