Richmond Decision May Take A While

Minor League Baseball remains in the early stages of finding a replacement team in Richmond for the International League’s Braves, who are ending 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 in late April, 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 its 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 do not appear to be any International League clubs in the market to move. 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 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 moving to Richmond, but he declined to 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 New Hampshire (Eastern) and has an agreement with the city of Bowling Green, Ky., to move a team to play in a still unbuilt ballpark for the 2009 season. The team has not been named, but all indications would point to Columbus.

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

Rumors of a Hagerstown move are 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.

Purpura said 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 it. “The Richmond market is a very good market,” Purpura said. “It is a very strong market. There are certainly clubs that are interested.”

New Look In Vegas

New ownership is on the verge of making one much-needed change in Las Vegas and hopes an even bigger one is on the horizon.

In its first full season since acquiring the 51s from Mandalay Baseball Properties, the Stevens Group decided that after eight years it was time to abandon a nickname intended to embrace minor league baseball’s wacky nature but drew quizzical responses from the local fan base.

So the team plans to abandon the 51s moniker after this season, and hold a name-the-team contest prior to next year. The name was derived from the famed military base in southern Nevada considered by conspiracy theorists to be involved in UFO and alien research.

“It never really caught on with our core, our diehard fans, the people who come out here to support us the most,” veteran Vegas general manager Don Logan said. “The name really has no connection to Vegas. (Area 51) is 200 miles from here.”

Perhaps even more important is Logan’s belief that his long quest for a new ballpark is nearing fruition. The 51s’ lease at Cashman Field—a 25-year-old relic considered among the worst stadiums in Triple-A—expires in three years, and Logan doesn’t expect the team to re-new it. He think they’ll have a new home by then.

Logan has been banging the drum for a new home for many years, but thinks several new circumstances have improved the chances of the project getting done. In-state rival Reno will make its minor league baseball debut in a brand new, private/public funded ballpark—a fact that Logan believes could persuade local politicans to follow suit.

“There is a north/south rivalry here in Nevada,” Logan said. “I think our legislators and politicians think that if the north part of the state gets something, then the south part should too.”

The increasing popularity of minor league baseball has allowed many locals to get first-hand looks at other ballparks around the sport, Logan said, and realize that Cashman Field is significantly behind the times.

Cashman Field lacks amenities to please both the customers (there are few concession locations and restrooms) and players (batting cages are located beyond the stadium’s right-field wall and the lone weight room is on the opposite side of the stadium). Though a new video board was installed prior to the season, the ballpark still lacks many of the features, including luxury suites and group seating destinations, to help the franchise turn a profit.

“I think the politicians understand that this is a legitimate cause, something that needs to get done where before they may have paid lip service to us and believed this place isn’t that bad,” Logan said. “It’s not like we have been crying wolf.”