Replacing Braves in Richmond a Slow Process

Minor League Baseball remains in the early stages of finding a replacement team in Richmond for the Braves, who in January announced they were severing their 43-year relationship with the city in favor of moving into a new ballpark in Gwinnett County, Ga.

Tim Purpura, the national association’s chief operating officer, said that several teams have expressed interest in relocating to Richmond and that ideally a replacement will be selected by the end of the season. However, Minor League Baseball is limited in what it can do until the Braves, who have an option to remain in Richmond in 2009, release their rights to the territory. That decision will be based on the Braves’ confidence that construction on their new ballpark in Gwinnett, which just broke ground roughly two weeks ago, will be completed in time for Opening Day 2009.

One industry insider said it would not be surprising to see the Braves back in Richmond considering the short time frame Gwinnett has allowed to build the ballpark.

"In a perfect world you might have a decision by the end of the season, but it may not work that way," said Purpura, the former Astros general manager who came on board with Minor League Baseball after Pat O’Conner took over as president in January. "I think as you get toward the end of the season, you (as a baseball team) have to have an idea of where you are going to be situated for the next season for sales and marketing standpoints in the new market. On the other hand, we’re not going to tie our hands with a date. Until the Braves release the territory, there is nothing to talk about."

Purpura said teams have been encouraged to contact their league presidents if they are interested in the Richmond territory. League presidents can then contact officials at Minor League Baseball headquarters in St. Petersburg, Fla. The process, Purpura said, has not progressed beyond that point. No set guidelines on selecting a team to replace the Braves in Richmond have been revealed by Minor League Baseball, and it is unclear if any have been created.

"There are only a few leagues (that would be a good fit in Richmond)," Purpura said. "There is only one, at the Triple-A level, that would fit that footprint. And at the Double-A level there are two that might, and that could be considered a stretch. At the A level, there are a few."

There does not appear to be any Triple-A International League clubs in the market to relocate. Richmond would sit on the outskirts of both the Double-A Eastern and Southern Leagues; Bowie is currently the southernmost Eastern League club while; Carolina (located in Raleigh) is the northernmost Southern League club. The best geographic fits for Richmond would be the high Class A Carolina League and low Class A South Atlantic League—and both have expressed interest in the territory. Carolina League president John Hopkins said one team approached him about relocating to Richmond; Hopkins would not reveal the identity of the club.

Hopkins thinks Richmond has the potential to be a very good market and that "geographically we would fit best."

"It’s almost dead center in our league," he added. "The issue for us is we don’t have any markets we want to get rid of. But we have interest . . . We have interest but we don’t know how we would utilize it if we had the chance. We don’t know which team, if any, we would try and put in it."

South Atlantic League president Eric Krupa said that he has been contacted by at least one team owner about the Richmond territory, but would not discuss the names or number of teams. The SAL has been arguably the most active league in terms of stadium construction, with seven ballparks built since 2001 and 13 of the 16 affiliates playing in facilities constructed since 1992. The three remaining teams (Columbus, Hagerstown, Savannah) each play in ballparks built prior to the 1951 season.

Columbus was recently sold to Art Solomon, who also owns Double-A New Hampshire and has an agreement with the city of Bowling Green, Ky., to relocate a team to play in a still unbuilt ballpark for the 2009 season. No team has been named for relocation, but all indications would point to Columbus.

The recent sale of Savannah to Atlanta-based Hardball Capital still needs to be finalized by league owners, Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball. However Hardball Capital CEO Jason Freier said they have no intentions of relocating the team from Savannah, which he describes as a thriving market and the reason they purchased the Sand Gnats, despite playing in one of the minors’ oldest parks still in need of significant upgrades after city-funded renovations last offseason.

"Savannah is a booming market economically. There have been a lot of good things going on in Savannah the last 5-to-10 years," said Freier, whose organization also owns low Class A Fort Wayne, which is in the process of opening a new ballpark for the 2009 season as part of a $125 million downtown renovation. "We haven’t yet moved a team and it is not something we envision doing."

Rumors of a Hagerstown relocation is hardly news, but the Suns would certainly seem like a good fit in Richmond. The Suns play in Municipal Stadium, built in 1931, and are owned by Mandalay Baseball Properties, which owns six other clubs and has thrived in such markets as Dayton, Frisco, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Staten Island. A call to Mandalay Baseball officials was not immediately returned.

The Richmond Times Dispatch reported that league officials are expected to visit Richmond on May 12 for a fact-finding mission. MiLB spokesman Steve Densa refused further comment regarding the visit when contacted by e-mail.

Purpura said that there has been plenty of buzz about the Richmond market, but would not reveal the names or a specific number of teams that have expressed interest in relocating to it. "The Richmond market is a very good market," Purpura said. "It is a very strong market. There are certainly clubs that are interested."