Minor League Baseball is still pursuing a shift of two high Class A teams from the California League to the Carolina League as part of a new open mind philosophy toward broader realignment. Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner described the project that he has spearheaded as "not dead" and said that a decision for 2010 will likely come within the next three weeks.
The main stumbling block has been finding two markets within the Carolina League footprint that could support a full-season affiliated team, O’Conner said.
"There is no lack of enthusiasm or desire (for the shift), it boils down to markets and buyers and timing," O’Conner said in a recent interview. "Doing it for 2009 was admittedly ambitious, but the project is not dead. We’ll come to a point here real soon when we’ll have to decide if it is going to work . . . I don’t want to convince clubs to move west to east and put them in markets that are worse than they are coming from.
"In an oversimplified explanation, we have to find (Carolina League) markets to move into. A more accurate way to put it is that we have to find two markets with facilities within the Carolina League geography that can handle that level with a facility that can be built or remodeled. That has not been real, real easy."
O’Conner declined to identify specific markets under consideration and calls to Carolina League president John Hopkins were not immediately returned.
In addition to finding suitable markets, Minor League Baseball will need to get a majority of California League owners to approve the planned shift, a deal that will center around financial reimbursement for losing two teams. A source familiar with the negotiations recently said that O’Conner has not offered a proposal to Cal League owners since their initial July 18 meeting.
A previous plan that included moving Bakersfield or High Desert into Richmond has lost momentum. "That is less likely than more likely at this point," O’Conner said, adding that a replacement team for the Braves should be identified within the next 30-to-45 days.
O’Conner admits that the Richmond situation has gone slower than expected—MILB chief operating officer Tim Purpura had identified the all-star break as the initial date to announce a replacement team—and that the Braves’ and International League’s failure to release the territory has been a factor. The Braves announced earlier this week that it had terminated its lease with the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, assuring the team will not return to The Diamond next season even if ballpark construction in Gwinnett County, Ga., is delayed. It is also an indicator that a release of the territory is likely not far off.
Minor League Baseball’s recent announcement of the transfer of low Class A Lake County and Bowling Green from the South Atlantic League to the Midwest League should not be viewed as an isolated incident but rather as part of a broader openness to realignment. That shift had been in the works for quite some time—the Captains relocated from Columbus, Ga., in 2003 with the understanding that it would eventually join the Midwest League.
Though there are no specific realignment plans beyond the Cal-Carolina shift, O’Conner said the current administration is going to be more considerate of both the concerns of Major League Baseball and the economic impacts of playing in certain markets. O’Conner noted that the rising gas costs had yet to have significant impact on most teams because were already locked into one- or two-year contracts with bus companies, but that it is a factor in long-term realignment considerations.
"Realignment is not a taboo subject," the first-year president said. "We have to be open to the idea. I think everyone needs to take a look at where we have a concentration of clubs and at league overlap. As far as a plan, we’re not that far down the road. It is something we need to talk about, feel guys out and their opinions. What we are doing now more than before is that we’re going to be inclusive (in our decisions). We’re not going to hand down edicts that have not been discussed."
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