Winter Meetings Notebook: Rochester Hits The Ice; Blaze Stuck In Bakersfield

ORLANDO—Ballparks aren't just for baseball these days.

Minor league teams have made a goal of finding creative ways to convert their home stadium into revenue-generators when the team is on the road or during the offseason— from weddings and bar mitzvahs on the club level to haunted houses at Halloween.

The Rochester Red Wings (International League) will unveil a first in the minor leagues on Friday when they host the Frozen Frontier, a 10-day hockey tournament at Frontier Field. In the spirit of the NHL's Winter Classic—which has brought regular season hockey games to Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Citizens Bank Park—an outdoor regulation hockey rink has been set up on the Red Wings’ playing field. The Frozen Frontier will kick off with a home game for the Rochester Americans, the local minor league hockey team that is a partner in the event, and will continue over the week with games for the Rochester Institute of Technology men's and women's teams, and an exhibition of Buffalo Sabres alumni.

frozen-frontier-2013-2Residents of the in the hockey-mad community will get a chance to be more than just spectators. High school teams will be playing on the outdoor rink and several local companies have reserved ice team as part of holiday parties they will be hosting in the stadium’s club suites.

"It's a community endeavor," Rochester chairman Gary Larder said on the trade show floor at the Winter Meetings. "It gives us a chance to work with the hockey team on a joint venture."

Getting the ballpark ready for hockey involves more than just work on the playing field, where the pitchers mound and infield dirt was removed. The team has also had to invest in winterizing the suites—where the pipes are usually drained in the offseson to avoid bursting. But the investment, Larder said, should create future opportunities.

"We hope that by putting money into winterizing the suites allows to do more wintertime events in the future," Larder said. "Some of these things can carry over, which is great, because it is hard to do winter events in the north."

The community has responded. Larder said the Americans game was nearly sold out, and that they had received a lot of interest from locals for ice time. It's also kept the front-office pulling for cold temperatures.

"It gives us a reason to be more excited about the (cold) weather than in years past," Larder said. "And the forecast looks good—no snowstorms. We don't want any snow because then we would have to shovel out the seats."

Bakersfield Searching For New Home

D.G. Elmore discovered the same old problems after the first week of his second tour as owner of the Bakersfield Blaze. In particular, Elmore realizes that finding a new home for the California League franchise to replace 72-year-old Sam Lynn Ballpark is not going to be easy.

Elmore served as owner of the Blaze for seven years before selling the club in March 2012 to local entrepreneurs Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway, who promised to build a privately financed ballpark in Bakersfield. The duo had a project in the works but had to pull the plug when they raised just $18 million of the $30 million they said was needed to build a ballpark. Voiland and Hathaway then exercised an option in the purchase contract to sell the team back to Elmore at the original sale price if they could not secure a new home for the team.

So now Elmore is back to where he started but with the realization that the team's future is not in Bakersfield. "It has become evident that we are not going to be to do that," he said on Tuesday at the Winter Meetings.

Elmore is committed to keeping the team in Bakersfield this season, and most likely next, but he doesn't make any assurances beyond that. He also said he will not be investing any money to improve Sam Lynn Ballpark. Voiland and Hathaway spent roughly $250,000 on upgrades to the stadium—including significantly improving the playing field—but Elmore said he will not be following suit.

"It's nice to pretty it up," Elmore said, "but in the end they were just putting lipstick on a pig."

Elmore rejected any notion of revisiting a plan to relocate the Bakersfield franchise and another California League franchise across the country to the high Class A Carolina League. Blaney also denied that any such deal is in the works, as did Carolina League president John Hopkins.

"Nothing that we are pursuing," Elmore said of relocating to the Carolina League. "It's very complicated. There are NA (National Association) issues, major league issues . . . We're not moving that way at all."

Elmore said he will be joining California League president Charlie Blaney in a search for a new market for the team, which is a challenging proposition since the state's budget woes eliminated funding for local construction projects in late 2011. Blaney has scoured the state for looking for unoccupied, interested markets—Elmore said that search extended into Nevada and Arizona, also with no luck.

Further complicating the search is baseball's territorial rules, which link minor and major league teams to the counties they play in and any other counties connected geographically. That covers a lot of area in California, Elmore said, and leaves few markets not already connected to an affiliated team. It also requires Elmore and Blaney to get permission from Major League Baseball, Minor League Baseball and individual teams before they explore a territory linked to another club.

"Virtually everywhere you want to explore is someone's territory," Elmore said. "The Pacific Coast League touches almost everywhere. So does the California League. The Giants, the A's touch most everywhere."

And this, Elmore said, leaves the Blaze in the unfavorable situation of not knowing where to go next.