MICHAEL SHAPIRO admits there were "dark times" in the past year. Those were the bad days when doubt crept in and he wondered if the dream of professional baseball at San Rafael's Albert Park would ever become a reality.
Hurdling obstacles such as a neighborhood lawsuit, the dismissal of the league president and the elimination of half the teams in the division were big boulders for the management group of the newly formed San Rafael Pacifics independent minor-league team.
"There were so many times when our hearts were sinking," said Shapiro, a former executive for several Major League Baseball teams who lives in Corte Madera and is the president and general manager of the Pacifics. "But we knew bringing this baseball team to Marin was too good an idea to fail."
The ownership group, led by East Bay businessman Brian Clark and minority owner Eugene Lupario of Corte Madera, persevered. On Monday night, the dream becomes a reality when the Pacifics play their first game in the North American Baseball League.
"The process has been fun, but overwhelming at times," said Clark, who owns the NABL rights for franchises in the Bay Area and hopes to someday have at least four teams in the region. "We're off to a great start in Marin but we know there is a lot of work ahead of us."
As the only lighted baseball field in the county, Albert Park has always been a hot spot for youth leagues, high schools, adult leagues and semi-pro games. But with the exception of a minor-league traveling team that may have called the place its temporary home back in the 1950s, no professional squad has ever tried to play home games in front of the dusty old grandstand known for showing its age.
With help from community volunteers, the stadium has undergone a transformation. Fresh paint, an upgraded locker room, new netting behind the plate and myriad other upgrades have been put in place. Much of the work has been provided free of charge by members of the Marin baseball community.
"People have come out in force. We couldn't have done it without all the volunteers who gave their time and expertise," Lupario said.
Manager Mike Marshall is in charge of the talent on the field. The former all-star first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers has worked in independent minor league baseball for more than 10 years. He spent months organizing tryouts, attending camps in Arizona and using his list of contacts to put together a roster of players he feels slipped through the cracks in MLB's scouting system.
"Just sitting back and watching them take batting practice. You can see it. These guys can really hit," Clark said. "I like the look of this team."
The roster includes former San Rafael High School standout Steve Detwiler as well as talent from as far away as Cuba and Japan. The level of talent competing against the Pacifics in 2012, however, is hard to determine.
When the owner who ran the franchises in Yuma, Ariz., and Orange County left the NABL earlier this year, he created a hole in the league's Northern Division. With just San Rafael and Maui left, the remaining ownership groups decided to invent two traveling squads with leftover players. The newly created Hawaii Stars and Sonoma County Grapes don't have home parks. Their primary purpose is to ensure that San Rafael and Maui each play full 42-game home schedules. That means that the only guaranteed road games for the Pacifics are 12 games against the Na Koa Ikaika Maui team. Road games against the Stars and Grapes could happen, but fields have yet to be secured. Under an agreement with the city of San Rafael, no more than 42 regular-season games can be played at Albert Park.
"This is an acceleration of our plan. We hoped to get through the 2012 season with the former configuration but, at a certain point, it just became clear that the league needed to make a change," Shapiro said when the new teams were announced earlier this year. "The ownership in Maui is strong. The ownership in San Rafael is very strong. Our plan is start there and grow from that. ... There is plenty of talent out there for these (traveling) teams to put together strong rosters. The level of baseball will still be high."
The winner of the Northern Division plays the winner of the Texas-based United Division, which includes six teams, in a championship series. In order to keep travel costs at a minimum, the two divisions do not play in the regular season.
Monday's opener is a sellout and season-ticket sales have been higher than expected, Shapiro said. Hundreds of people turned out for a free Friday night exhibition to get a sneak peak at the park and the team. The management group is pleased and overwhelmed by the interest.
"It's going to be a great experience right from the first night, but I hope people will understand that this is a work in progress," Lupario said. "We know there will be glitches for the fans along the way. We are working hard to make minor league baseball in Marin County the family entertainment value that it should be. ... The strength of that idea is motivation enough."
Contact Dave Allen via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
The San Rafael Pacifics is a first-year independent minor-league baseball team in the North American Baseball League.
Season opener: Monday, Sonoma County Grapes at San Rafael Pacifics, at Albert Park, 7:15 p.m. Tickets are sold out. TV: Live on Comcast 30, AT&T 99 and on the Web at cmcm.tv. Webcast: radio.dominican.edu.
Opening homestand: Runs through Sunday with games every day except Thursday. Info: www. pacificsbaseball.com or call 485-1563
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