An asterisk could have been included when we named Memphis’ Auto Zone Park the No. 1 ballpark in the minors this spring. After all, the bells and whistles featured throughout the downtown facility are unmatched in the minors — unfortunately so is its price tag.
No ballpark has matched Memphis’ $80.5 million cost since it was built in 2000. And that cost has finally caught up with the Redbirds, as the club was unable to make a $1.625 million bond payment on the ballpark in March, forcing the team to go in default on the facility and tap a reserve fund for the first time.
"Technically it’s in default, but the reserve fund is there for this occurrence,” Redbirds president Dave Chase told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. ”It’s the first time we’ve had to use the reserve fund. We’ve been openly talking to the bondholders about how we go forward from here."
The stadium debt has forced Memphis to put the team and ballpark up for sale, as their annual $5 million payment essentially wipes out the profits from one of the minors’ top grossing teams. It has also made it difficult to find an owner—the St. Louis Cardinals backed out of an agreement last winter.
Like sands through the hour glass . . . So goes the saga that is Richmond baseball.
There had been rumblings that the Bryan Bostic-led Richmond Baseball Club was having problems coming up with the capital to purchase Double-A Connecticut, and it looks like those have proven true. Word comes today that the deal is dead . . . and now Minor League Baseball is back to Square One.
RBC will not be able to meet the $15 million price tag for the Defenders, the Richmond Times Dispatch reports this morning.
This has to be a blow to Minor League Baseball officials, which essentially controlled a closed selection process and played a big role in selecting the ownership group.
MILB president Pat O’Conner said on Wednesday, before the announcement of the deal falling through, said that they will still have an Eastern League team in Richmond no matter what next season.
“We’re very committed to Richmond and we’ll get it worked out,” O’Conner said. “That’s our commitment (to bring the Eastern League to Richmond). That’s what the deal is on the table. If for some reason (Bostic and DiBella) can’t close that deal, we are committed to finding other solutions.”
A few questions, which I hope to have answered shortly, remain . . .
Is Richmond now an Eastern League territory or can another league, say the Southern League, step in? How firm is that Aug. 1 deadline (I’m betting not so hard, considering teams have relocated in the past much closer to Opening Day)? Who are the new players, and will Bostic’s group still be involved as a local operator/part owner?
Remember that shiny new ballpark that was supposed to open its doors to downtown Winston-Salem back in April?
It’s not coming.
At least not this season.
Winston-Salem finally announced the inevitable this afternoon: that after 19 home games, the new ballpark is going to have to wait ’till next year. The process of Billy Prim buying out longtime co-owner Andrew Filipowski has taken longer than expected and left the Dash without financing to finish the project.
"We have continued to hope and work towards opening the ballpark this season, but feel at this point that the best interest of or fans and the project for this year (and) beyond will be served by focusing on opening the new park in 2010 and providing the best family entertainment option we can at Wake Forest (Baseball Park) this year," Prim said in a statement.
There are few words that make minor league operators cringe more than rainouts.
After all, having a dark ballpark too many times makes it almost impossible to finish in the black.
"It is a pretty fine line between revenue and expenses," Iowa general manager Sam Bernabe said last year when poor weather combined with Midwest flooding made a mess of the I-Cubs’ schedule. "Whenever you are taking dates out of a calendar, that is another opportunity lost to pay the bills."
Bad weather and baseball haven’t mixed for years, and teams having to give up a chunk of their schedule is an almost annual event. Flooding of the Iowa River, and frigid and wet conditions in the Northeast made last year a challenging one for several teams.
However with the economy taking a toll on sponsorship dollars, minor league clubs are clinging on to steady attendance figures—and can afford even less to give them up.
Sad news coming out of State College.
The fiance of Spikes general manger Jason Dambach passed away after a brief battle with cancer. The Altoona Mirror reports that Kerri McEachern, a former ticket associate for Double-A Altoona, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in February, shortly after she and Dambach got engaged.
"She was my everything," Dambach, a former Curve broadcaster, told the Altoona Mirror.
"Those of us who work in baseball know that it is a tough business for females to break into, but Kerri was determined to succeed, and that she did. Along the way, she made countless friends both at the ballpark and outside, something that came very easy to her because of her outgoing personality and desire to make everyone feel important.
"She also managed to attract a selfish workaholic and teach him that there’s more to life than work and spending free time watching sports. We were engaged on Jan. 17 and were planning a fall 2009 wedding, but sadly less than a month later on Feb. 10 she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer."
The Curve held a moment of silence in McEachern’s honor before tonight’s game.
I took my family to a carnival and a baseball game broke out.
At least that’s how it felt Sunday afternoon when the Leventhal family of five went to catch a Durham Bulls game and arrived a couple hours early to check out the Principal Financial Group Family Fun Fest set up on Blackwell Street outside the DBAP.
The touring promotion, operated by Entertainment and Sports International founders Bert Gould and Joe Owens, ended up being the featured attraction for my kids—as my wife and I almost had to drag them into the ballpark after two hours of playing on featured activities like a pair of moon bounces and a giant inflatable slide. The boys each got temporary tattoos, had pictures taken for their own baseball cards, took swings at a T-ball batting cage and even had a try at Rock Star on the giant video game unit.
Perhpas most important, the event kept in tune with the "affordable family friendly entertainment" model that Minor League Baseball brass and team operators have preached will keep fans coming to the ballpark no matter the state of the economy.
After all the price couldn’t be beaten: Everything was free.
"It was important for us to keep it free," said Gould, who like his partner Owens, parlayed expertise developed in the business world with a passion for minor league baseball to launch ESI and the Family Fun Fest six years ago. "The fact that it is free and the things you get to do at the Family Fun Fest, if it was anywhere else in the country, you would have to pay for it. We wanted to do it and make it so it doesn’t cost anything for fans. That is the thing minor league baseball is all about: the affordable family entertainment."
The potential relocation of Double-A Connecticut to Richmond may not be a done deal, writes the Richmond Times Dispatch’s John O’Connor today, because Minor League Baseball would like to see firm plans for a ballpark in place before it approves a deal.
That has long been the stance of MILB when it comes to this project, however of late it sounds like the Defenders may be coming to Richmond whether a deal for a new ballpark has been finalized or not. The Times Dispatch has reported, and a source confirmed, that future Defenders owner Bryan Bostic has the framework of a two-year lease in place to rent out The Diamond beginning in 2010. And in a recent conversation, MILB vice president Tim Purpura backed off a previous hard-line stance that plans for a new ballpark and a lease structure would have to be in place for a relocation to be approved.
Purpura made it clear that they still want a new ballpark in Richmond and thinks one is necessary for the game to thrive. But when asked if relocation will be approved even if plans for a new ballpark have not been finalized, Purpura said:
"We have to face that when we get to that point. We don’t feel like we are at that point as of yet. That is something (MILB president) Pat (O’Conner) and myself will have to discuss: What is the future of organized baseball in Richmond? It is clearly our preference and strong desire to have a new facility there. For organized baseball to survive there that is what we have to have done . . . On a temporary basis (at The Diamond), on a long-term basis, I don’t know. That clearly would not be our preference.
"Our clear preference is for organized baseball to return to Richmond it should be in a new stadium. Whether that is immediately upon returning or at a later date, that is to be determined."
Buck Rogers couldn’t help but feel a little cursed as he sat in his office this morning and looked out at yet another rainstorm pelting Huntsville’s Joe W. Davis Municipal Stadium.
The first month of the season was not kind to the Stars.
Double-A Huntsville fought through poor weather during an early season 10-game homestand—a time of year already difficult to attract fans to the ballpark—an averaged just 1,626 fans in 11 openings.
Now, as the team prepares for a four-game series against Tennessee, Rogers was faced something in the air in addition to rain: the Swine Flu.
Or at least fear of the Swine Flu.
Huntsville joined the ranks of U.S. cities to shutter schools and cancel youth sporting events due to the spread of Swine Flu. The Stars planned to play ball as usual, but obviously fear of public gatherings is not good for business.
"We’re open for business," Rogers said, noting that all high school games in the area had been canceled as well as Little League games and the local Arena Football League team.
Minor League Baseball sent out a memo to teams encouraging them to be in touch with local health officials, MILB spokesperson Steve Densa said in an e-mail conversation. Rogers noted that the memo also dealt with what to do if teams are ordered to shut down by local officials. Rogers said they would treat the games in the same fashion teams in the Midwest did during flooding last year: play before empty ballparks.
Rogers said the team had not been contacted by local health officials, but that the phones have been ringing off the hook from concerned fans.
"My whole season has been a train wreck, if people are going to stay away I’m going to challenge them to come out," Rogers said.
Which is what he is doing for Monday’s day game. Rogers challenged his staff to get 1,000 fans out to the ballpark. If they succeed, he’ll shave his head on the field. It’s not looking good for the veteran GM’s hair, as his staff have e-mailed out the challenge to all their contacts, and a local TV station picked up on the challenge.
Anything to help the team, Rogers said.
"I was in the army for 14 years. If I can get a thousand people in the ballpark and it costs me my hair, I’ll do it every night."
The City of Biloxi is on the verge of finalizing a deal for a new minor league ballpark and bringing an affiliated team to town.
Tim Bennett, president of Jackson-based Overtime Sports and the leader of the movement that brought the Braves to Pearl, Miss., said the state is near approving a plan for an entertainment complex that would include a 6,000-seat, $20-25 million ballpark. He added that his company is near an agreement with an affiliated Double-A team to relocate there, likely in time for the 2011 season. Bennett would not comment on the league or team, but Biloxi obviously fits into the Southern League footprint.
A call to Southern League president Don Mincher was not immediately returned.
Bennett said state and local officials are behind a public/private partnership for funding a complex that would include a hotel overlooking the ballpark, a theater attached to the facility and a parking garage. The ballpark would include around 20 luxury suites to accommodate both the local gaming and corporate communities, Bennett said.
"We want to try and offer something to everybody," Bennett said.
Bennett points to the successful development around the Braves’ Trustman Park, and says they would follow the club’s model of hosting local college and high school baseball events as an extra revenue stream. He said the Braves’ biggest attendance figures at Trustman have been collegiate games.
We’ll follow up on this as more details emerge . . .
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