San Antonio, Home of Big League Dreams

Professional baseball is part of San Antonio in the way that the people generally remember San Antonio is the second biggest city in Texas; it’s there, sure, but it isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

In fact, it’s been months since there was talk of the MLB expanding to the city, during which time most of America looked at articles on ESPN and parroted takes across pockets of baseball media, shrugged, and forgot about it 10 days later. Actually, it’s been even longer since the same thing happened the last time in March of last year, which is miraculous only in that San Antonio caught national traction in a sport other than basketball twice in the same year.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred during a press interview (2018)

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred during a press interview (2018)

Rob Manfred hasn’t been shy about baseball expanding to 32 teams in the near future, and for a lot of cities that’s caused rampant speculation. Manfred even mentioned San Antonio by name twice, which you might have gathered happened in March and August. It’s such an obvious candidate, from the fact that it only has one entrenched sports team to compete with, to the fact that it would probably create similar rivalries to the ones the NBA has seen within Texas. It would bridge the gap between Dallas and Phoenix, and it’s had pro baseball for over a hundred years. Oh, and by the way, it has a huge population and in the era of baseball expanding to Latin markets San Antonio is a multicultural and mostly bi-lingual city. Those last two aren’t even my arguments, I’m mostly just paraphrasing the ESPN article from March (it’s been repackaged since as part of a larger article about expansion, an earlier version included some of the other arguments alongside others. You can find it here).

Their next discussion on the topic a few months later was noticeably less glowing. The last time a big outlet published anything new about it was August 3rd, 2018. Before that you have to go back to March 29th, 2018. The last time an article was written about expansion in Portland, a city with almost a million fewer (you read that right) people than San Antonio? One week ago, March 5th. And again two days before that.

The San Antonio Missions, a now AAA-affiliate club, are the only thing holding the city back from complete baseball obscurity. They’re a team with 13 Texas League titles, most recently in 2013. They’ve had five Hall-of-Famers pass through their ranks, names like Billy Williams (a member of the Cubs all-century team) and Dennis Eckersly (the first of two pitchers to have a 20-win season and a 50-save season across a career), even more all-stars, and more than 250 future major leaguers plied their trade with the Missions, or their various iterations. And for a while in 2017, there was doubt as to whether they would continue to exist.

Nelson Wolffe Stadium, current home of the San Antonio Missions in 2006)

Nelson Wolffe Stadium, current home of the San Antonio Missions in 2006)

Owner David G. Elmore had expressed interest in moving to a different Texas location, something he eventually did, early in the year. They’ll technically live on as the Colorado Spring Sox move down and take on the name and facilities in a tandem move, and minor league clubs get Cleveland Browns-ed all the time so it isn’t that rare, but it’ll be the first time since 1888 that the charter members of the Texas League won’t even be playing in the Texas League. No, that club will be moving into Amarillo and a cozy $45.5 million stadium. If you’ve caught on to San Antonio’s baseball luck you might’ve guessed that this isn’t even the first time Amarillo has lured the team away — it happened in 1968 too. With that sort of history, it’s fair to wonder if San Antonio feels that same way about baseball as baseball feels about it.

One thing is for sure: it isn’t Houston, which had nearly 40 players with area ties selected in the 2018 draft. A fairer comparison would be Dallas, which despite having a large college baseball team and their own pro team since 1972 produced 18 draftees. San Antonio had eight. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that those figures vary year to year, although generally San Antonio is just behind. Plus, this is more anecdote than science. Speaking of anecdote, 2017 was an especially strong year for the Alamo City, they even became the hometown of arguably the best pitching prospect in the minors (Forrest Whitley). Medium-sized victories are about the best you can hope for.

2018 MLB Draftees

The push for a new stadium serves as a pretty good reflection of the overall climate. Discussions have been ongoing for three years now. The fans support it whole-heartedly, and it would likely be less expensive than what Amarillo just shelled out. There’s only one problem. No one seems to want to pay for it. Elmore said the team would only be willing to put in small investment and the city is hesitant to do, well, anything. Former Mayor Ivy Taylor had thrown her weight behind the idea of a centrally located downtown stadium with room for a lot of expansion, possibly in hopes of securing a space for any possible expansion franchise or a financially struggling franchise that barely justifies its placement. I don’t know, probably something in Florida. Either way, her support waned over time as Elmore stalled on ever presenting a proposal.

In 2016 Barrett Sports Group, a valuation and advisory firm, found seven suitable downtown locations for a new stadium (only six are still available, the seventh is now an office building of the school district), but Elmore never put forth any preference or plans for any of them. New Mayor Ron Nirenberg is less patient, and even less willing to use public funds. He’s drawn criticism from the city councilman in the district that houses the current stadium, and Judge Nelson Wolffe, whom the stadium is named after. For what it’s worth, he’s not overly concerned. When asked whether the stonewalling on a new stadium might result in the club leaving, not just swapping out, he replied with a lot of confidence, “No, that’s not a concern.”

Amid all of this the minor league club thrived. It finished fourth in the Texas League in attendance last year, nearly outdrew the average of the entire Eastern League, and battered the average of the Southern League. A team that is no stranger to stars saw Fernando Tatis Jr. develop for an entire season under their tutelage (along with eight others from our Padres Top 30). Fans likely saw MLB futures every game.

This has been the city’s role for more than a hundred years: grow the future, support it, cheer it on into the face of the searing sun in a college stadium that a town with 200,000 people could improve upon. Natives have mostly shifted their big league views to the clubs around them, becoming Astros fans or Rangers fans. When the Astros went to the World Series, San Antonio sold merchandise so quickly it ran out twice.

There’s one thing I can say for certain: the hunger is there, pushing, sacrificing a place in the only league an Alamo City club has ever known in hopes that it’ll be seen, trying to put plans in place for new stadium after new stadium, making adjustments to try and finally get to the big leagues. It’s a prospect’s dream, mirrored in the gaze of every player that passes through Wolffe Stadium. For now at least, they’ll both have to continue aspiring, putting the best baseball they have on show just in case the men in suits come calling. And isn’t that all they can ask for? A little hope, a couple of dreams, and the crack of a bat. That’s San Antonio baseball, after all.