Field of Liens

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

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.

That the publisher of the Vacaville Reporterwas an enthusiastic baseball fan -- kids in Little League, the whole nine yards -- really seemed to help matters at first, locals say. (Former publisher Richard Rico wouldn't return calls for comment.) Of the 248 articles the Reporter published involving Portner during the late '90s and early aughts, the first third or so read like a prolonged swoon.

"The press conference Wednesday announcing the deal to build a stadium at Nut Tree and move the Sacramento Steelheads baseball team to Vacaville wasn't as exciting as the imaginary ballgame beneath towering eucalypti, a permanent backdrop for the new stadium. Here they come, the ballplayers, funneling off the buses and heading for the Nut Tree dugouts. A batter, a Solano Steelhead, strides out to home plate, pressing and digging his cleats into the soft dirt called Dodger Dust. The outfielders chatter. The pitcher winds up. Here comes the pitch. The batter pivots. He swings. Home run!" enthuses one 1999 entry in the Portner/Reporter archive.

The deal that gave Portner his stadium seemed to have something for everyone -- at first. A San Francisco developer, the Kivelstadt Group, had hoped to earn city approval for plans that would turn land surrounding the defunct Nut Tree into two golf courses, two large hotels, 600,000 square feet of storefronts, 200,000 square feet of offices, and 400 luxury condos. The developers were led to believe that giving the city a new ballpark, via Portner, would grease the political skids for their ambitious building plans. According to the initial deal, the developers would get the stadium off the ground, and after things were up and running, Portner would kick in some investment for stadium upgrades.

But very quickly, it seemed, everyone with a financial stake in the deal desperately wanted to get Portner out of their lives.

The developers agreed to deed the stadium to Portner for a dollar to get him out of their hair, people familiar with the deal later said. Before long news stories started to speak of "financial troubles." Portner asked the city for a $362,000 loan; he was turned down. Early this year local papers announced a deal, with terms kept secret, under which Portner would sell his stadium to a local family that owns Vacaville's Chevron wholesale fuel distributorship. The family had bought box seats the previous three years. At the time, Chevron distributors Curtis and Bryant Stocking thought they'd gotten a sweetheart deal.

By this time, local newspapers had given up on the Field of Dreams cant of Portner's early days. In December 2001, Fairfield Daily Republic writer Jess Sullivan ended an investigative fishing expedition with a full creel of Steelhead and Portner catch.

Portner, it turned out, had, indeed, operated a minor-league ball team for a year in Sacramento, just as he'd claimed to; but he'd wracked up a half-million dollars in unpaid debts by the time he moved to Vacaville, and his single Sacramento season spawned more than a dozen lawsuits.

"Through my reorganization, everyone's getting paid 100 cents on the dollar. Sacramento was a business failure. It didn't work. I couldn't compete against AAA ball," Portner says. "It was all with the best intentions."

He'd operated a team in Australia, also, just as he said. But when Portner left the country, Australian authorities enlisted the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to collect unpaid taxes he owed in that country.

The reporter made a mistake, Portner says. The IRS was hounding him for U.S. tax debts, not Australian tax debts, that Portner accumulated while in Australia.

When Portner came to Vacaville, he described himself as a marketer and real estate investor; he didn't mention that in 1996 he bought into a Napa County real estate company that produced legal judgments of more than $180,000 against Portner and his company.

"Like every normal business over the course of three years, we got sued a couple of times," he says.

It didn't take the Stockings long to realize they'd bought a pig in a poke. They'd hoped to pay for stadium improvements by promoting concerts and the like, but this didn't pan out. The Stockings defaulted on some $2 million in payments to various builders.

At some point Portner stopped making payments on his general liability insurance, and on his workers' compensation insurance. The Stockings locked out Portner's team, forcing the Solano Steelheads to miss the last six games of their season.

And by season's end the already- feeble Western Baseball League -- a seven-team association unaffiliated with any major-league teams -- had become feebler still. League champions the Chico Heat quit the WBL. The team's owner said he didn't want to be involved with such a financially shaky organization. The Bullfrogs of Yuma, Ariz., host to the league headquarters, went bankrupt. The owner of the Sonoma Crushers, located in Rohnert Park, recently told reporters he may not continue next season. And the Long Beach Barracudas are so broke that the Chico Heat's owner this summer had to pay the visiting players to show up for a game.

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