Texas baseball fans know they can find big league teams in Arlington (Texas Rangers) and Houston (Astros). But for two days last week, San Antonio became the state’s third major league city.
On March 20 and 21, the city hosted the Rangers and the Los Angeles Dodgers in an exhibition series called Big League Weekend. The games — the Dodgers won both — were played in the Alamodome, which underwent a considerable transformation to host baseball in a stadium originally designed for football.
Dodgers minor league prospect Tyler Ogle went to high school in New Braunfels, Texas, just outside San Antonio. Growing up, he never imagined playing baseball in the Alamodome.
“I did play a football game here in high school but didn’t even know if they could make this a baseball stadium,” said Ogle.
But as Big League Weekend proves, the city knows how to host Major League Baseball.
Over its first two years, the event attracted more than 120,000 fans. This year, the total attendance for both nights was 46,025. Event director J.J. Gottsch likes where the attendance stands.
“We’re talking about 20 or 25,000 people per game for a spring training game,” he said. “If we can continue to live there, we’ll be happy.”
The attendance on March 21 (25,434) would have put San Antonio ahead of seven current cities already with major league teams based on 2014 average attendance.
“That level of exposure will confirm to people that San Antonio is a market where these major league franchises can thrive and can be profitable,” said San Antonio mayor Ivy Taylor.
The city isn't one of the top 30 media markets in the United States. But an MLB a team would attract fans from outside the city limits, from communities across South Texas — fans like Robert Peterson. Peterson drove up from Corpus Christi and was very happy to finally see a baseball game in San Antonio.
“It’s great for the city and for fans who follow Major League Baseball,” he said.
The half-dozen young fans interviewed at the Alamodome used one word to describe how they felt about seeing major league baseball in San Antonio: “Awesome!”
And it’s not just the fans who benefit from seeing the best in the game.
San Antonio is the only city in the United States to host a baseball exhibition series of this magnitude. Organizers estimated that the event brings in more than $1 million in revenue to San Antonio every year.
“Whenever we have big sporting events like this, we are always very excited at the revenue that’s generated,” said San Antonio mayor Ivy Taylor. “People come and spend a lot of money, so it’s always a big win for the city.”
As far as the city’s chances of welcoming a team permanently, Taylor said San Antonio “is very open to any discussions that would put us in the running.”
In 2006, the Florida (now Miami) Marlins were in discussions with San Antonio city officials and seemed serious about a potential move. The Marlins wanted a new stadium in Miami, and they used the threat of relocating to San Antonio to get one.
In March 2012, the Marlins opened their new stadium, while San Antonio was left hanging, still with no MLB team.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the New Orleans Saints were looking for a new home after their city and stadium had been torn apart. Once again, San Antonio officials were involved in seemingly serious talks with the Saints. After San Antonio hosted three Saints “home” games, it looked as if the team could move to San Antonio for good.
The Saints, however, ended up staying in New Orleans.
Over the past year, there was even talk of the Raiders or the Rams relocating to San Antonio. But so far, neither team appears to be close to a move to South Texas.
Bexar County judge Nelson Wolff, who was involved in those talks with the Marlins and Saints, has been a leader in the pursuit to bring a major league team to San Antonio.
“If [a team] wants to come here, we've got a dome, and we’ll fix it, but that’s not good enough,” said Wolff. “They want a brand new domed stadium.”
If the city does have a chance to get a team, it will likely come down to residents voting for that new stadium. Big League Weekend plays a large part in getting the people of San Antonio thinking about having a team of their own.
“This exhibition shows to fans what a great game baseball is, and it excites them,” said Wolff. “It’s where you can go with your family, and just enjoy the game.”
San Antonio may not get a team in the near future, but Wolff does think they’ll get one eventually. “If you’re 14 right now, by the time you’re 34, we’ll have a team here.”
In the meantime, Big League Weekend is attracting fans and generating revenue for a city that has, it seems, genuinely warmed up to the idea of hosting a major league baseball franchise.
Photos: Darren Abate/AP Photo (fans), Brian Yancelson (interview), Big League Weekend (stadium)