The Richmond Times-Dispatch delved into the Richmond situation over the weekend, with John O’Connor’s interesting sit down with Minor League Baseball COO Tim Purpura and a not-so-well-informed column by Paul Woody.
There has been talk of local ownership in Richmond, and Purpura seems to second the idea by discussing the merits of having management in town.
"You always prefer local involvement, particularly in ownership, but maybe more particularly, in management. It is important to have local owners involved who understand the community, who can get things done in the community, quite frankly. But in many ways, local management can be the key to success for a franchise."
Purpura goes on to point out that the level of play should not be the most important factor in deciding upon a team—a statement that Woody seems to dismiss. Woody scoffed at the idea of the Carolina League coming to Richmond, preferring to go dark for a season than drop down to Class A baseball.
To go from competing in the International League with Charlotte, Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville and Norfolk, to playing in the Class A Carolina League with Salem, Lynchburg, Kinston, N.C., and Wilmington, N.C., is not a step up.
Salem, Lynchburg, Kinston and Wilmington are fine places, each with its distinct character and attributes.
But the combined population of those four towns is less than that of the city of Richmond.
We do not live in a Single-A region.
Never mind the fact that the Wilmington affiliate is in Delaware, not North Carolina as Woody wrote, and has nearly matched the great city of Richmond in attendance the past two seasons despite playing in a ballpark half the size of the Diamond. In fact, if Richmond is looking to identify with any town, it should consider Ottawa and Wichita: two other cities that recently saw Triple-A baseball disappear.
Purpura is absolutely correct to point out that the success of a franchise is based around fan experience, not level of play. Low Class A Dayton (Midwest League) has sold out every game since opening Fifth Third Field in 2000 while low Class A South Atlantic League affiliates Greensboro and Lakewood each drew over 440,000 fans last season and ranked in the top 30 of domestic minor league average attendance last season.
Discounting the importance of a ballpark and fan experience is what got Richmond into this mess.
Woody continued . . .
If a Triple-A team is in your town, you can take your children to the games and say, "Watch him. He’ll be in the major leagues soon."
Or, "Watch him, he already has played five seasons in the major leagues, and he’s trying to get back."
It is far less exciting to go to a Single-A game and say, "Let’s go to the ol’ ballpark tonight. We can see some guys who were playing at VCU last year."
Certainly, the level of play in Triple-A and Double-A is higher than Class A. But it is also worth noting that seven of the top 10 picks in last year’s draft are currently playing in low or high Class A leagues—including four in Woody’s much-maligned Carolina League. And none of them went to VCU.
Triple-A baseball is not coming back to Richmond, certainly not anytime soon. If Richmond focuses its attention on what level of play it "deserves" rather than the more pressing problem of building a new ballpark, it might find itself without any baseball players to watch for quite awhile.