Bakersfield, Richmond Take Steps Toward New Ballparks

Two of minor league baseball’s ballparks most in need of facelifts may soon be going under the wrecking ball.

The Bakersfield Blaze (California League) and Richmond Flying Squirrels (Eastern) each recently took a step closer to landing new or renovated ballparks, as the Blaze were sold last Friday to a local ownership group intent on keeping the team in town, and local leaders in Richmond have identified funding to contribute to a new facility.

It’s been a long road for both franchises, whose aging ballparks have threatened keeping baseball in town.

The Braves spent eight years trying to replace the Diamond in Richmond, before moving its Triple-A affiliate in 2008 out of frustration—and for the lure of a new facility—to Gwinnett, Ga. In Bakersfield, more than one owner of the Blaze has failed to replace Sam Lynn Ballpark since the early 1990s, leaving the team to play in a facility that no longer meets facility standards and is considered the worst among full-season clubs while facing rumors of a move to the Carolina League.

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, for an undisclosed amount. The deal has been approved by California League owners but still needs to be passed by Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball. Though not official, a new ballpark seems to be in the works—and there would be little incentive to buy the team without one.

“After we gain final approval for the sale and get the season started, we will be evaluating opportunities for a new stadium,” Voiland told the Californian (Bakersfield, Calif). “(Sam Lynn) is not up to standard. We’ll be looking at what we should do. Sam Lynn is just not it. But I’m not at liberty to say anything else.”

Hathaway told the newspaper that he can’t discuss plans for 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 while finding a way to keep the team in town has been at the top of California League president Charlie 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 Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner in 2008—and Blaney has often described Bakersfield as potentially the best market in the league.
But Blaney has also recognized the need for the sport to serve its major league partners—which has supported the idea of moving two teams to the Carolina League to create a better geographical match for big league affiliates—and had said a resolution would have to come this year.

It appears Blaney got his deal.

“They know the territory,” Blaney told the Californian of the new owners. “They have contacts in the community. They’re here full time. They’re right on top of the scene. It’s the ideal way to go. We’re so happy Gene and Chad were interested in being a part of this.”

Meanwhile in Richmond, mayor Dwight C. Jones announced that he has identified funds to contribute to a proposed new ballpark. Jones said that the city will help finance a ballpark by using interest rate savings from paying off old debts, 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 partnering with the region on a ballpark and that it would not be funded solely with public money.

“The team is absolutely committed to partnering with the jurisdiction and standing up as an equal partner,” McEacharn said in early 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, the jurisdictions can be 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.”