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Field of Liens 

Before you succumb to nostalgia about a simpler, humbler baseball time, heed the lesson of Vacaville

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
Some fans never return after frustration as deep as last weekend's Giants travesty.

But most of them will be back, those orange-and-black nomads who unpack from their cars across China Basin Canal from my office window every summer. They'll be back because during the off-season, America's mind never truly abandons the diamond; fans spend the colder months optimistically reshaping it in their minds. Their memories drift away from big-time, corporate ball toward a simpler, humbler baseball place and time, where athletes play for pure love of the game.

In this dream-time hideaway, baseball means sand lots and buses and night games where neighbor greets neighbor in the stands. Libraries of baseball prose and poetry help this fantasy along, and treacly movies -- Field of Dreams, The Natural, Bull Durham, et al. -- drive it all home. Few San Francisco residents realize it, especially in this season of World Series discontent, but that simple, allegorical world of Norman Rockwell baseball isn't far away. It's just 50 miles north of downtown, in the American town of Vacaville.

At Travis Credit Union Park, they play a type of minor-league ball that's a bona fide allegory for real life, circa 2002. Built on a corner of the large piece of land occupied by the Vacaville Nut Tree, a defunct restaurant and variety store that's part of many Northern Californians' childhood memories, the stadium is home to the bankrupt Solano Steelheads, owned by a bankrupt flimflam man; the team plays in the broke Western Baseball League. This is a place where a man with a long-standing reputation as a serial con man somehow seduced journalists, snowed city fathers, hornswoggled local businesses leaders, stung developers, and enthralled a newspaper publisher into turning him into a small town's version of a baseball tycoon. Like George Bush's America, Vacaville is a place where 1950s small-town sentimentality is such a powerful delusionary force that it's compelled otherwise canny people to put faith in nonsense.

Before answering the call of baseball nostalgia, Bay Area aficionados should follow the story of the Vacaville Field of Liens. They'll turn off the television, leave their fan gear in the closet, and begin life anew.

Before one considers how Bruce Portner managed to convince the people of Vacaville he was some kind of marketing tycoon -- so they would facilitate construction of a multimillion-dollar stadium, which would be given to him for $1 so his bankrupt, losing, bush-league baseball franchise might play there, and then go bankrupt all over again -- it's instructive to take a stroll through San Francisco's Brannan Street diamond district -- diamonds as in stones, not ball fields. That's where Portner landed during the 1970s and first established his now-trademark style of doing business, which involves a keen appreciation of the value of publicity, a flair for crafting an inflated image of himself, and a penchant for making business associates extremely angry with him.

"His name will come up in conversation, and it will be, "This son of a bitch, I'd like to kick his ass,'" one diamond district denizen recalls.

Another local, who did business with Portner in San Francisco during the 1980s, is even less complimentary.

"I'm surprised the guy's alive ...," Portner's former diamond business colleague says. "I would never have anything to do with the guy. He could be sitting with a cup of water and dying of thirst, and I'd take the glass from him without a second thought. That's how I feel about him.

"You can't just treat people that way. He really has hurt a lot of people. He's always done things to people."

In the mid-1980s Portner disappeared from the S.F. diamond business. He may not have left the diamond business with a shining reputation. But he did learn to an exquisite degree the value of free publicity. During his small-time run in the San Francisco gem business he managed to convince reporters from the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and People magazine to write stories suggesting he was a major diamond-industry player. He may not have known it at the time, but he brought with him the essence of baseball.

I'm on the phone with Bruce Portner for not quite half an hour when he begins to explain why independent minor-league baseball remains, for him, an attractive line of business, even though his league's broke, he's bankrupt, his team's bankrupt, and the people he recently sold his Travis Credit Union Park stadium to are taking legal action to permanently ban him and his team from doing business there.

"It's not quite a Ponzi scheme. Here's the difference: The league is in the process of restructuring. The old model of this league was to be like AA-play league. That meant very high pay to players," Portner says, explaining that he's sure he can make a go of it next year, if he can win his legal fight regarding the stadium, fend off his creditors, and halve his players' already-paltry wages to $44,000 per year for the entire team.

It wasn't always thus ... well, sure, Portner himself was more or less always thus. But when he came to town four years ago, telling anyone who'd listen that he was a big marketing tycoon with plans to bring a scrappy minor-league baseball team to Vacaville -- and maybe even attract the Oakland A's to this anonymous freeway burg -- locals treated him just like the potentate he pretended to be. He'd brought minor-league ball to Sacramento, he said. Before that he'd run a team in Australia. He was the guy who'd been in the papers in 1995, touting a $20 million Budweiser sponsorship deal he'd supposedly lined up for Candlestick Park, which died quietly when Budweiser wouldn't confirm Portner's claims.

He was the guy, newspaper articles would proclaim over and over again, who would turn outlet-mall, car-dealership, and tract-home Vacaville into the vibrant Bay Area city its boosters always knew it could be.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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