CALIFORNIA ALBUM : San Jose Giants? It's Do or Die in 9th Inning : The contest to raise utility taxes 2% to bring the team south is a virtual tossup.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It will cost each household about $2.90 a month--roughly the price of a Super Dog with sauerkraut.

For that the people of San Jose can have their very own big league baseball team--the first-place Giants, shipped south from San Francisco, 50 miles away.

Great deal, huh?

It depends, of course, on your perspective.

"People always seem to look down their noses at San Jose, so getting the team would be a great deal for us," said Jerry Vignato, a college freshman who treks to about 10 Giants games a season. "This will be something that spices up life down here."

Bobby Napoli, 12, agrees. A die-hard Giants fan who wears his black team cap and jacket everywhere, he freaked when he learned that his mother was fighting to block the team's move.

"He wasn't too happy, that's for sure," said Kathy Napoli, co-founder of Citizens Against Stadium Taxes, which thinks spending public money on the Giants is a lousy idea.

With San Jose "cutting city services right and left, this is no time to give a handout to a multimillionaire like Bob Lurie," she said.

On Tuesday, San Jose voters will settle the matter, deciding whether to increase their utility tax by 2% to build the team a 48,000-seat stadium on a patch of dirt near the local sewage plant.

Lurie owns the Giants and desperately wants them out of wind-swept Candlestick Park. This is the fourth time in six years that Bay Area voters have been asked to underwrite a new home for his team.

If this try succeeds, the re-christened San Jose Giants could begin playing in their new, $265-million ball yard by 1996.

If it fails, Lurie has indicated he will likely sell his club to one of several out-of-state suitors, and the Giants--who moved west when New York refused to build them a new ballpark in 1958--would bid the Bay Area farewell.

This prospect has sown fright in the hearts of loyal Giants fans. Command central for the pro-stadium forces is perched atop a San Jose pizza parlor--a musty office with tattered brown carpeting and posters of Giants stars taped crookedly to the walls.

The headquarters are deceptively humble: The campaign has 2,000 volunteers, 11 paid staff members and a war chest of $1 million, making it one of the most expensive election fights in city history.

Ed McGovern, 35, is consultant-in-chief. A native San Franciscan reared on chilly nights at Candlestick, McGovern ran a failed 1989 campaign to build the Giants a new stadium in his hometown.

Explaining his shift in allegiance, he offers this quip: "Better San Jose than Tampa Bay."

To drum up excitement, McGovern recruited a lineup of Giant alumni to sign autographs, press the flesh and wave at rallies. Former star Orlando Cepeda, retired pitcher Vida Blue and current slugger Will Clark are among those tapped for campaign duty.

Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent also lent a hand. Speaking at a $1,000-a-plate fund-raising luncheon, Vincent derided Candlestick Park as "not habitable" and rhapsodized about the "wonderful moments . . . baseball brings to a community."

Mayor Susan Hammer--the stadium's No. 1 booster--echoes that nostalgic theme. Her main pitch for the ballpark, however, is based on dollars. Hosting the Giants, she promises, will "put San Jose on the map," create "hundreds of jobs" and bring in up to $100 million a year in spinoff economic benefits.

The other side doesn't have nearly as much money to spend. Napoli works out of a trailer at her family auto wrecking business, directing 750 volunteers who have helped raise $12,000 to defeat the tax. They don't buy the argument that landing a professional ballclub will bring jobs and national prestige to San Jose.

They also don't much care about the city's enduring image as San Francisco's homely sibling.

"Baseball is a very nice sport," said Dale Warner, an immigration attorney who donated $2,500 to fight the stadium. "But this is an astoundingly regressive tax. It's not like taxing liquor or cigarettes, it's like taxing air. What will the poor do? They've got to have utilities."

Initially, stadium foes had some heavy hitters on their side. IBM and many other big companies--facing huge increases in their power bills--were balking at the plan.

But Mayor Hammer responded nimbly, offering to trim the tax for the city's largest utility users. Most were appeased, but one is still seething--T.J. Rodgers, chief executive officer of Cypress Semiconductor Corp.

Rodgers, who employs 1,400 people, loves baseball and believes "all that stuff about how it's a metaphor for America and a feel-good sport."

"But, hey, the cost of doing business here is already higher than most places, and this tax is going to make things tougher. We're laying off people and they're talking about creating jobs for 600 burger flippers at a new stadium. It's a joke."

Many San Jose residents--even those who profess a love of baseball--seem curiously ambivalent about the whole issue.

"People here aren't blindly passionate about things," said Mark Purdy, an avid stadium booster and sports columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. "And besides, we've got another baseball team--the (Oakland) A's--an hour's drive away.

"So I think for some people it's a case of, 'The Giants may leave? Big deal!' "

For himself, though, Purdy wants the Giants in his town. A few years back, he coined a motto for San Jose: "A lot of people and not much else." Now, he says, California's third-largest city is "finally getting the good stuff--a symphony, museums, restaurants. I want professional baseball to be part of that."

Polls, however, show a neck-and-neck race, and Michael Miller--a pro-stadium volunteer and Giants fanatic--confesses he is nervous about the vote.

"There's a lot of negativity out there, and a lot of people who just don't seem to care whether they stay or go," Miller said. It is, he speculates, much like the man who doesn't realize he's out of water until the well runs dry.

"Until people lose something, they often don't understand how much it meant to them. I hope that's not the case with the Giants."

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