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Born again

Byron Pierce played a little high school ball. Now, he's in the big leagues...or the biggest little league going.

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."

Fort Worth City Councilman Jim Lane, president of the Fort Worth Sports Authority, says negotiations between the city, Texas Wesleyan, and the Texas-Louisiana league are still ongoing, but that the plan calls for the school and the league to share the field. Right now, Lane says, the main sticking point is just how to pay for the construction of the stadium. Lane estimates the facility will cost about $7.5 million -- from the ballpark itself to a banquet hall to a museum full of Fort Worth Cats memorabilia from the collection of ex-Cats catcher-manager and Texas League president Bobby Bragan.

Lane says the sports authority would buy the land and even build the ballpark, then turn around and lease it to the Texas-Louisiana league and TWU. The city has even registered the Cats name with the Secretary of State's office.

"I really am optimistic we're going to be able to pull it off," Lane says, sounding every bit as giddy as Pierce. " I think right now, not everybody's convinced that the Texas-Louisiana league has enough financial wherewithal to help finance it. I don't know if that's true...All I know is it sounds like a lot of fun to me. I'm pushing it very hard."

Whatever the concerns, nothing on this earth can stem Pierce's excitement. He is convinced he can bring minor-league baseball -- and it's hardly even that -- to a town only miles away from one of the most beautiful big-league parks in the world.

But Pierce can't help but be a true believer; after all, not too long ago, he was running batting cages in Garland, trying to keep his stick in baseball any way he could. Pierce never intended to start a baseball league: Originally, he and John Bryant wanted to put together a group of investors who would buy into an existing minor-league team. Pierce had played a little ball at Samuell High School and says he even received a baseball scholarship to Dallas Baptist in the late 1960s; he had long tried to find a way back into baseball.

But in 1991, it took them only two weeks to discover there wasn't a minor-league team for sale, so instead he and Bryant began the process of forming a league of their own, independent of the minor-league system. The problem was, that meant there would be no ties to Major League Baseball -- meaning, no prospects rising through the ranks, no instant credibility, no major-league assistance.

Still, there was one rather significant bonus: Minor-league teams are not allowed within 70 miles of a city where a major-league team plays. Being independent, Pierce and Bryant could put a team wherever they wanted -- in Arlington, if they liked.

From 1991 through 1993, the two men traveled through Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, talking to small-town city managers and school district officials about using their existing stadiums for the time being. Finally, in May 1994, they got their league going with six teams in places such as Amarillo and Mobile, Alabama. Teams have come and gone -- among them ones in San Antonio, where the Dodgers' minor-league team was the dominant franchise, and Tyler -- yet the league has managed to grow. Next season, former Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers pitcher Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd will have his own Texas-Louisiana team near his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi. The 39-year-old Boyd swears he will be on the mound come opening day, May 22, 2000 -- as owner and starting-day pitcher.

The league actually owns most of its teams, but Pierce no longer owns the league. Last year, he and his partners sold a majority ownership in the Texas-Louisiana league to Chicago businessman Horn Chen, founder and owner of the Central Hockey League (of which the now-defunct Fort Worth Fire was once part). Chen also is majority owner of the Oklahoma City Blazers of the CHL, and he once co-owned the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League and the San Antonio Iguanas of the CHL.

Chen's something like the minor-league version of Tom Hicks: The man collects sports franchises the way a kid collects baseball cards. But his investment in the Texas-Louisiana league -- said to be along the lines of a million bucks, worth 70 percent of the league -- has allowed it to stay afloat. His investment might actually be worth something if he can get his league out of the boonies and into a major city.

 

Pierce is confident he can sell small-time baseball to Fort Worth and, eventually, the northern suburbs of Dallas (he also would like to bring a Texas-Louisiana team to The Colony or Frisco or McKinney). He doesn't fear the Rangers, insisting that big-time baseball and independent ball are like "apples and oranges": One's the real thing, while the other's "the Chuck E. Cheese" of baseball.

"The Rangers have a product that has nothing at all to do with us," Pierce says. "We offer so much more than them, and they offer more than us. People don't come out to our games to see Juan Gonzales and Pudge [Rodriguez]. They come out to see the mascots, the on-field fun. Would you put a Mexican restaurant on a corner with a hamburger restaurant? Sure you would."

That's quite a pitch.


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