The search for Richmond’s replacement has been narrowed to a handful of teams and Minor League Baseball hopes to announce the winner of the sought-after territory by early August.
The Richmond Braves will not be succeeded by a fellow Triple-A team when they leave their home of 42 years for a new ballpark in the suburban Atlanta region of Gwinnett County, which only recently began construction on a $45 million publicly funded stadium scheduled to open for the Braves affiliate next season. A Double-A or Class A team are among the fewer than five teams interested, and being considered by Minor League Baseball, to relocate to Richmond, MILB chief operating officer Tim Purpura said.
Purpura declined to identify the teams or leagues under consideration, but did state the higher classification teams that meet geographic and financial criteria will get first shot at the territory. Richmond fits well within the footprint of the Double-A Eastern League and high Class A Carolina League. It would be the northernmost team in the Southern League.
Richmond would fit into the sprawling low Class A South Atlantic League, however the Sally League appears to be third on the pecking order of potential replacements.
"When there is a territory that opens up, the higher level leagues come first in the pecking order," Purpura said. "But it is not the final determination in who gets the territory . . . You also have to weigh out the travel (for teams). You wouldn’t put a Double-A league in there just to put a Double-A in there if the travel didn’t make sense."
Holding up the decision has been the Braves failure to release the territory–a step necessitated by the National Association’s PBA before teams can actively pursue an area. The Braves, who have an option on their lease to remain in Richmond in 2009, have until 30 days after the conclusion of the minor league regular season to announce their decision.
Neither Richmond general manager Bruce Baldwin nor Atlanta Braves vice president Mike Plant immediately returned calls for the story.
"We would hope (to make an announcement) in early August," Purpura said. "We have to get something from the Richmond Braves before we can officially do this . . . We’ve been actively talking to participants and trying to weigh out all the variables and factors that would go into this move. We’re looking at it from a big picture point of view: What is best for Minor League Baseball in a macro sense, and also who is going to have an opportunity to negotiate for a new stadium."
International League president Randy Mobley had initially hoped that the league would be in position to release the territory by the all-star break. Though that deadline has already passed, Mobley said that should not be considered an indication that construction has stalled.
"Things are still on track in Gwinnett County," said Mobley, who declined to give a second estimate for when the Richmond territory would be released. "We’re not quite to the point of feeling comfortable in (releasing the territory) yet. We want to give things more time to develop from a construction standpoint.
The official groundbreaking for Gwinnett’s ballpark took place in early May, though sight lines and other work had been underway for at least a month. Still, turning around a 10,000-seat ballpark in 12 months leaves little room for error.
"It’s an aggressive plan, but they have a lot of resources you don’t normally have, with the Braves having gone through building ballparks in recent years," Mobley said. "The folks in Gwinnett County are committed. They don’t have any concern that it won’t be ready."
A local ownership group has voiced an interest in acquiring a team, said Purpura, adding that MILB recognizes the importance of having a management team familiar with the area.
Of course, a team would be have to be put on the market first.
"It is important to have people who know the area, people who can be involved in the business community. Local ownership is always important. We’re not interested in putting an ownership group in place then have them sell two or three years down the road."
An owner familiar with Richmond’s complex political landscape could certainly be beneficial in negotiations for a new ballpark. The city of Richmond itself has a population of roughly 200,000, but the market increases to over 1 million when factoring the city’s surrounding counties. The Diamond ballpark is operated the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which consists of representatives from the city and neighboring counties, and a crowded political landscape has complicated past stadium negotations.
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