For the second straight year, the Nationals’ top prospect won’t be suiting up for high Class A Potomac.
And for a second straight year, speculation has been rampant that the condition of Potomac’s ballpark influenced the big league affiliate’s decision.
Longtime Potomac owner Art Silber has a solution for that problem. After years of unsuccessful attempts to work out a deal with local officials for a new ballpark, the Carolina League franchise is ready to unveil plans for a new, privately financed facility in a prime Northern Virginia location.
Silber said the team will hold a press conference around the end of July, and he declined to offer many details on the project until then. He did confirm that, unlike previous failed projects, no public money will be involved. The stadium will remain in Prince William County, and the team has been working with local officials to expedite acquiring the necessary permits.
Silber expects the new ballpark to be ready in time for the 2013 season.
“We are hopeful that within the next 30 days we are going to have a press conference with some renderings on a new ballpark and location,” said Silber, a retired commercial banking CEO who described the project’s financing as “very do-able.” “It’s been a joint effort between ourselves and a developer. We couldn’t have picked a better location.”
Silber has come up with plans to build a new ballpark several times during his 21 years of ownership, only to see the plans fall apart every time. One plan included building a ballpark along Interstate 95 in Virginia—similar to the positioning of the Aberdeen Ironbirds’ (New York-Penn) Ripken Stadium north of Baltimore. The Ironbirds have sold out every game since debuting in 2002.
In 2007, the P-Nats appeared close to a deal to renovate Pfitzner Stadium, but county officials balked at the project’s $22.5 million price tag as the economy began to take a turn for the worse. That rejection led Silber to question the team’s long-term future in its current location.
Silber said this project is different and that the team has structured a deal with private developers for the land, the location of which he said “is so strong—what we are next to and the visibility that we are going to have—we believe that we will set a naming-rights deal record (for the minor leagues).”
The Nationals’ current home hardly draws such superlatives.
Pfitzner Stadium was built in 1984 and sits off the beaten track, among recreational baseball diamonds and a motorcross course in a sports complex.
Ownership has upgraded the facility over the years, adding a new scoreboard last year and an expanded home clubhouse and new kids’ zone this year, projects that cost more than $1 million.
“We have been doing things to improve the fan experience and player experience,” Silber said.
Still, the ballpark features metal bleachers and lacks the amenities of the many new ballparks that have turned minor league baseball into a booming industry.
“We’ve been in a certainly less-than-adequate facility by today’s minor league standards,” Silber said. “Today, a minor league ballpark is a miniature major league ballpark with suites, club level and fan and player amenities we just don’t have now.”
Pfitzner has also had its share of field issues. A new drainage system the team installed during the offseason was left partially exposed when, during a cool spring, the outfield sod did not grow back properly. Silber said the problem has been resolved and that “the outfield is fine. The playing conditions are fine.”
Nationals brass seconded that statement publicly when asked why top prospect Bryce Harper was bypassing Potomac on his recent leap from low Class A Hagerstown to Double-A Harrisburg.
A year ago, the Nationals surprised Potomac by debuting phenom Stephen Strasburg in Harrisburg, after Potomac had already announced a special ticket package to see the ace pitch.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Potomac’s field did not have an effect on the team’s decision to send Harper to Harrisburg.
“Absolutely none,” Rizzo told The Washington Post. “This is a developmental issue. We’re happy he progressed as much as he did in that league. We feel he’s ready to take the next (step) to Double-A. This is a plan that I had in place in my mind for a long, long time.”
That reassurance did little to soften the blow of missing out on Harper, who certainly could have provided an attendance boost to Potomac, which plays just 25 miles down I-95 from Nationals Park. Potomac has averaged 3,071 fans a game this season, sixth in the eight-team Carolina League.
Was Potomac disappointed that Harper won’t be coming to town?
“Unless somebody thinks that we are not concerned about how many people are in the ballpark,” Silber said. “It was a major disappointment to us. It was a major disappointment to our fans. We have great fans who have been incredibly loyal to us for 27 years . . . We would have loved to have our fans be treated to a player who potentially could be a superstar one day.”
Silber, who has owned the team for 21 years, is looking forward to the day when they become a destination—for players and fans.