Three of minor league baseball's most outdated ballparks may soon get renovations or get replaced altogether.
The Bakersfield Blaze (California), Richmond Flying Squirrels (Eastern) and Vermont Lake Monsters (New York-Penn) all took steps toward landing new or renovated ballparks this spring.
The Blaze were sold in early March to a local ownership group intent on keeping the team in Bakersfield. Local leaders in Richmond finally think they have lined up the financing for a new facility that could replace The Diamond. And the Lake Monsters signed a 20-year lease extension at 90-year-old Centennial Field, reducing their rent from $40,000 a year to a dollar a year while agreeing to plow the savings into renovations.
It has been a long road for each franchise, and their aging ballparks threatened the long-term futures of baseball in those cities.
The Braves spent eight years trying to replace The Diamond in Richmond, before moving their Triple-A franchise to suburban Atlanta in 2008 out of frustration and for the lure of a new facility. In Bakersfield, more than one owner has failed in efforts to replace Sam Lynn Ballpark since the early 1990s, leaving the team to play in a facility that no longer meets Minor League Baseball standards and driving rumors of a franchise shift to the Carolina League. And Vermont owner Ray Pecor publicly lamented the possibility of leaving Burlington last year because the ballpark no longer met facility standards.
Bakersfield oil and gas tycoons Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway purchased the Blaze from D.G. Elmore, who has owned the team for three years. The deal has been approved by California League owners but still needs to be passed by Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball. Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner said he expects to interview Voiland, who purchased a 51 percent stake in the team, in the weeks leading up to Opening Day, and notes that "Voiland seems to come with pedigree. A local guy done good."
A new ballpark would appear to be in the works, as there would be little incentive to buy the team without one.
California League president Charlie Blaney said replacing the ballpark "is something (the new owners) have been thinking about and one of their options on the table. It's a bit premature yet. They're looking to get their feet wet and get ready for the season."
The new owners have signed off on a few cosmetic fixes to the current ballpark even before taking over operations, including improving restrooms, replacing deteriorated seating and fixing up the dugouts.
Hathaway told the Californian (Bakersfield, Calif). that he can't discuss a new stadium, "But I can assure you that if everything goes as planned, we will have a baseball experience that will be envied by the whole nation."
Settling Bakersfield's ballpark situation and keeping the team in town has topped of Blaney's to-do list since he took office in December 2009. Blaney has been adamant about not moving two franchises to the Carolina League—a scenario championed by his predecessor Joe Gagliardi and O'Conner in 2008—and Blaney has described Bakersfield as potentially the best market in the league.
"(The new owners) are certainly well-connected in the community, and I take my hat off to them because one of their motivations for buying the team is to do something good for Bakersfield," Blaney said. "There is no question this is a win-win-win situation for everyone. It's great for Bakersfield, great for the California League, great for the new owners, great for D.G. Elmore and great for minor league baseball."
Meanwhile in Richmond, mayor Dwight Jones announced that he has found money in the city budget to contribute to a new ballpark. Jones said the city will help finance a ballpark by using interest rate savings from paying off old debt, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch. Flying Squirrels owner Lou DiBella told the newspaper that the development is "very, very positive news."
Eastern League president Joe McEacharn previously told Baseball America that the team is interested in working with local government on a ballpark and that it would not be paid for solely with public money.
"The team is absolutely committed to partnering with the jurisdiction and standing up as an equal partner," McEacharn said in February. "When we get it done, I think it will be the type of public/private partnership that minor league baseball can be very proud of and the city of Richmond can be proud of. I've always said that if it's too good a deal for one party, then it is not a fair deal. I think this will be a good deal for both sides."
The Lake Monsters will take over operations of Centennial Field from the University of Vermont and will be responsible for its maintenance. The Lake Monsters had previously paid the university $40,000 annually in rent, and Pecor said that money will now go to improving the historic park.
Sellouts Coming To Lakewood
The Lakewood BlueClaws (South Atlantic) have never had a sellout in their 11-year history, though it's certainly not due to a lack of fans.
The BlueClaws drew 13,000 for their season finale in 2002, which was reportedly the highest total for a New Jersey minor league game in 50 years. They packed 10,000 into FirstEnergy Park for a Ryan Howard rehab visit a couple of years ago. The BlueClaws have never turned a fan away, as spacious lawn seating has allowed them to welcome many more fans than FirstEnergy's listed 6,588 capacity.
All of that is set to change in 2012, as Lakewood announced that it will cap attendance at 8,000 fans this season in an effort to provide a better game day experience. The BlueClaws topped the 8,000 mark eight times last season, which general manager Geoff Brown says is typical for most seasons.
The team spent much of the offseason surveying fans and conducting focus groups about their ballpark experience and discovered displeasure about long lines for restrooms and concessions on the busier days.
"The suggestion was to cap it and make it comfortable for the people that are here," Brown said. "We anticipate on Friday nights—those are the ones that we typically go over 8,000 and those are the ones that will go over again—we will have to turn people away."
Brown believes the change will force fans to plan ahead on the team's typically busier nights—Thirsty Thursdays, Friday fireworks and weekend dates—but otherwise should not create much of an inconvenience. However, not all BlueClaws fans appreciate the team looking out for their best interests and expressed concern about not being able to drop in for a game at their leisure. The team was forced into a bit of damage control after the initial announcement.
Brown posted a podcast on the team's website explaining the reasoning behind the decision and how it will affect fans, again urging everyone to plan ahead before coming out to the ballpark. The team's announcement on its Facebook sparked quite a debate, drawing numerous comments.
Some suggested that "crowds are part of the game" and that a loss in revenue from fewer people at the ballpark will lead to more expensive tickets. "The organization is going to take a bath on this one," one person wrote.
One voice of reason noted that people will "complain about anything. We have time to complain about this status update but not time to check to see if the game is sold out or buy tickets in advance?"