Field of Liens

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

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.

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.

"We don't like being associated with him," Curtis Stocking says of Portner. "Unfortunately, we don't have any other teams in line. There aren't a whole lot of choices."

In Vacaville, residents have pretty much wearied of Bruce Portner's version of the Minor League Myth. Stadium attendance this last year dwindled to a few hundred per game, according to fans I spoke with. (Portner denies this, and says fan interest thrives.) And though Portner is telling anyone who'll listen that he's rounded up a group of investors to finance his bigger, better baseball plans, few locals seem to believe him.

They've learned the same lesson San Francisco fans ought to have learned during the seventh inning of Game 6 of the 2002 World Series, when Giants star pitcher Felix Rodriguez's knees turned to rubber under Angels first baseman Scott Spiezio's arrogant glare and Rodriguez served up a pop-fly, three-run homer that seemed to permanently ruin the Giants' will. It's a lesson inherent in last weekend's death march, when the Giants simply quit playing baseball, though they had a game and a quarter to go.

Vacaville residents now understand, and so should we, that baseball can be a metaphor for life. But it's a horrible one.

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