Born again

The Texas-Louisiana league claims it's about to resurrect the Fort Worth Cats

The field has been barren for nearly 30 years, a plot of land in Fort Worth where only ghosts by the names of Duke Snider and Irv Noren and so many others play catch. You can see the baseball field only "in the mind's eye," says the man who owns the land, and even then, your mind's eye has to squint real hard. You must first walk out to the middle of the property, where the pitcher's mound still exists. From the perch, you can see where the dugouts once were, though they're more like open graves these days. The old concrete light standards are even there, only without the lights. But who needs them when nobody plays ball here anymore -- and hasn't for more than three decades, ever since the Fort Worth Cats of the old Texas League disappeared into the history books.

LaGrave Field once held more than 13,000 spectators, who would flock to see their beloved Fort Worth Panthers and, later, the Cats take on the Oklahoma City Indians, the Houston Buffs, and the Dallas Eagles. LaGrave was the premier stadium in all of minor-league baseball; the Brooklyn Dodgers, who controlled the Cats, made sure the stadium was nothing less than a diamond shining in the middle of a cattle pasture. Yet since the early 1970s, the plot of land has sat empty, the property of Texas Refinery Corp., who couldn't figure out what to do with it for nearly three decades.

Byron Pierce knows just what he'd like to do with the land. The Garland businessman wants to build a new LaGrave Field upon the old one's ruins. And he would like to let the Fort Worth Cats play ball upon its hallowed ground once more. In fact, he claims he's this close to completing negotiations to bring back the Cats -- so close, he's looking to make an announcement about the new team before the end of this summer. Think of Byron Pierce as Ray Kinsella, only without Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Iowa cornfields or J.D. Salinger.

Pierce has made lesser baseball dreams come true: In 1994, he and Congressman John Bryant founded the Texas-Louisiana Professional Baseball League, bringing the sport to such faraway places as the Rio Grande Valley and Greenville, Mississippi, and the Ozark Mountains. It's rather astonishing, actually: At a time when owning a baseball league outside of Major League Baseball's field of vision is about as prudent as opening a whorehouse in a nunnery, the seven-team Texas-Louisiana independent league continues to expand into such places as Lafayette, Louisiana, and even make a little bit of money. Pierce swears the next stop is Fort Worth.

"We're in the process of negotiating with Fort Worth Sports Authority and the city council," Pierce says on his cellular phone from Harlingen, where he's visiting the Rio Grande Valley White Wings. He is now the league's president, having sold out last year to Chicago-based ownership. It's his mission to spread the Texas-Louisiana gospel and start new franchises throughout the South.

"It finally looks like things are progressing to a point where we'll be able to make an announcement by the end of the summer," he says. "We've been actively pursuing this for a long time."

No kidding: The Texas-Louisiana Profes-sional Baseball League has been threatening to come to the metroplex for several years. In June 1997, talks between the Plano City Council and league officials broke down over where to build a stadium -- and, of course, who would pay for it. (Should have talked to Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who's never met a sports team he didn't want.)

After Plano, Pierce began touting Fort Worth as the new site for a Texas-Louisiana team. Two years ago, there was considerable speculation -- especially in the pages of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram -- that a team would begin to play there in 1998. But there's been nary a word printed about the Texas-Louisiana league in the local sports pages since 1997. Most likely, the league was way out of sight -- the closest team is in Abilene -- and out of mind.

But Byron Pierce -- who taught school in Garland and ran some batting cages before forming his own league -- insists there will be a team in Fort Worth after all. And, he says, the team should be on the field no later than 2001 -- and right on the spot where the vaunted old Fort Worth Cats once played. The way Pierce tells it, all that remains to be worked out are the details. The Fort Worth Cats team will likely share LaGrave Field with Texas Wesleyan University.

But things are not as far along as Pierce would indicate. Jerry Hopkins, president of Texas Refinery Corp., says there has been only a "little activity" concerning the Fort Worth Sports Authority's purchase of the land. Hopkins also adds that he has heard Texas Wesleyan's name mentioned as part of a future deal.

"The field has definitely not been sold," Hopkins says, "and we're not in active negotiations with anyone. There has been a great deal of interest on Texas Wesleyan's part. And there has been a great deal of talk about [the Texas-Louisiana league] in the last three, four years. But no, there are no offers on the table right now."

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