Despite public assurances by its owner that the team is not on the move, several baseball sources say the Eastern League's Binghamton Mets are the team that has been targeted for a renovated ballpark in Ottawa.
Binghamton hopes to keep minor league baseball in town, however, with a short-season New York-Penn League franchise. Sources said city officials have already inquired about purchasing the Batavia Muckdogs.
Several sources confirmed that Binghamton would indeed be the team on the move to Ottawa, a scenario first reported by the Ottawa Citizen early in the year and denied passionately and repeatedly by Binghamton owner Michael Urda to local media.
A source familiar with the negotiations also confirmed the Citizen's report that Nolan Ryan-owned Ryan-Sanders Baseball is the ownership group that plans to purchase the B-Mets. Ryan-Sanders CEO Reid Ryan declined to comment. Urda did not return a pair of interview requests from Baseball America.
The city of Ottawa announced in early September that it had reached an agreement in principle with the Eastern League to bring one of its franchises to town for the 2014 season.
League president Joe McEacharn said several hurdles still need to be cleared before a deal is finalized, including a satisfactory plan to renovate 19-year-old Ottawa Stadium and a lease agreement that would not put an excessive financial burden on the club. McEacharn, who has declined to identify which team is considering the move since Ottawa began seeking a team more than a year ago, said negotiations will continue at the Winter Meetings in Nashville and that time is running out to get a deal done in time for the start of the 2014 season.
"We continue to hope that this can be resolved with some certainty by year's end, because we will be running out of time for 2014," McEacharn said. "We are getting closer and closer to that area where we need certainty and a finished, finalized agreement."
Binghamton's interest in a New York-Penn League team would be contingent upon the EL deal being completed.
But sources said Binghamton officials have contacted Rochester Red Wings CEO Naomi Silver—whose International League franchise has operated Batavia since rescuing its neighbor from bankruptcy four years ago—about purchasing the Muckdogs. Silver described the conversation with Binghamton as "preliminary, basic discussions as to whether it is something the Batavia ballclub would consider."
"We have had some communication, but it has been a while," Silver said. "I honestly don't know what the status is. I'm curious myself to know if anything is happening. We're proceeding as if we will have baseball in Batavia next year, and I think we would."
The Muckdogs are for sale and Silver said other groups have inquired about purchasing the team, but that Binghamton is its most promising possibility.
"It is something we would be willing to entertain if a serious offer had come our way," Silver said. "Binghamton is somewhat unique currently because it appears that there is a viable city, a viable stadium. The circumstances would seem to be right for a move like this to be made, whereas a number of other people I have spoken to have had interest in the ballclub but it was not obvious where they would move the ballclub to if they were to purchase it. Binghamton would be in a better position than some of the others who would own a ballclub."
While Urda has steadfastly denied that Binghamton may be on the move, he also left the door to open to the possibility of a New York-Penn League franchise coming to town. In early November, Urda told the Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin that B-Mets ownership has not had any discussions with potential ownership groups about buying the team—including the Boston-based Beacon Sports Capital group that is negotiating the sale.
In the same interview, however, Urda would neither guarantee that Binghamton would remain a Double-A franchise—"Anything is possible. We could put a major league team here as well"—nor deny interest in bringing a New York-Penn League franchise to Binghamton—"I don't know. It would depend on what the situation would be at that point in time."
Urda previously dismissed rumors of his team leaving for Ottawa by noting that the franchise is run by local ownership concerned with keeping baseball in town. The B-Mets recently extended the lease on NYSEG Stadium.
He passionately refuted these rumors in February, telling the Press & Bulletin, "The Binghamton Mets have not been sold, and we have not been contacted by anyone interested in our club. There's 12 teams in the Eastern League and we have to address it every single week . . . Enough's enough."
The Binghamton market may now be better suited for a short-season team than a Double-A one. The B-Mets have long brought up the rear in Eastern League attendance and have been on a steady decline since drawing 259,183 fans in their 1992 debut season. Binghamton averaged 2,983 fans a game in 2012, a 5.81 percent dip from 2011.
Like many Rust Belt cities, Binghamton, which is in southern New York near the Pennsylvania border, has seen its population decline steadily over the last 50 years. According to census data, the city's population peaked at 80,000 in 1950 and had dwindled to 47,000 in 2010.
The B-Mets could follow the lead of Norwich, Conn., which struggled to support an EL franchise. That franchise moved to Richmond in 2009, and a New York-Penn League team moved from Oneonta, N.Y., to take its place, becoming the Connecticut Tigers.
Ottawa was home to an IL franchise from 1993-2007, and the Ottawa Lynx were one of the league's better draws in their early years, before ballpark issues and a conflict with the city over stadium parking led to sagging attendance. The franchise was sold and moved to Allentown, Pa., where it has thrived as the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
Beacon Sports CEO Richard Billings said he hopes the deal can be completed during the Winter Meetings and the sale of the team closed by the end of the year. "We're hoping to have something done fairly soon," he said. "We're going over the final bits and pieces."
Those bits and pieces include a renovation of Ottawa Stadium that would cost at least $10 million, Billings said.
The agreement announced by the city calls for the team's lease to begin on Jan. 1. McEacharn said construction would need to begin by the spring in order to be completed in time for the 2014 season. Noting the failures of the Lynx, McEacharn said, "We want to go to Ottawa and be successful. We don't want to go up there in a risky situation . . .
"We watched what happened there before, so there is a history. They came out like gangbusters, then fell off and then collapsed. We don't want to be an Eastern League team drawing 100,000. We need to create a new experience, a new standing in the community."