Braves might move SAL franchise to Rome

By Bill Ballew
October 18, 2001

For the third time in less than two decades, Macon’s Luther Williams Field appears to have lost professional baseball to another Georgia city. This time, however, could be the deathblow for one of the minors’ oldest ballparks.

The Atlanta Braves have announced that the 2002 season will be the last campaign for their South Atlantic League franchise in the middle Georgia city. The move hinges on Floyd County voters accepting a 1 percent sales tax referendum on Nov. 6 to build a new $15 million ballpark in Rome, Ga. Should the vote pass, according to Bob Wolfe, Atlanta’s senior vice president of administration, the Braves will sign an 18-year deal to play in northwest Georgia, beginning in 2003.

The Braves, one of the few remaining major league teams that owns any full-season minor league clubs, have resided in Macon since 1991. Atlanta officials negotiated with several cities, including Macon and Rome, during the late 1980s after playing conditions at Riley Park in Sumter, S.C., became unacceptable.

Macon, meanwhile, had been without baseball since the end of the 1987 campaign. The St. Louis Cardinals left Luther Williams Field for former Double-A city Savannah following the 1983 season. Len Monheimer, who owned the Greenwood (S.C.) Pirates, filled the void immediately in 1984, only to move to greener pastures in Augusta after four years in Macon.

Luther Williams Field, built in 1929, was in need of extensive work prior to the 1991 season, and the Braves provided more than $1 million in renovations to the clubhouses, field and other areas. Since then, the city of Macon has spent between $100,000 and $400,000 annually on the ballpark’s upkeep. Several upgrades were mandated by the Professional Baseball Agreement. Others, including the building of a new outfield wall and improving the outfield lights, were necessary in order to remain a professional facility.

In recent years, the Braves have inquired about the possibility of a new stadium and asked for additional improvements at Luther Williams Field that would help generate more revenue, including expanded concession stands and increased signage. Macon mayor Jack Ellis and city officials said a new ballpark was unrealistic, but major renovations totaling as much as $2 million could be possible. Wolfe and the Braves extended the agreement for two years after the 2000 season with the hope upgrades would be made.

Yet, by mid-2001, nothing had been accomplished in Macon. The Braves started to receive calls from other cities in an attempt to gauge the team’s interest in relocating. Based on its previous negotiations with the Braves, Rome officials were the most aggressive. Rome had been a finalist for a SAL expansion franchise in the early 1990s, yet failed to finalize a site for the ballpark, leading Floyd County voters to turn down a sales tax referendum in 1992.

Rome officials had a more concrete plan this time, leading Wolfe to call Ellis in early September about the status of his renovation efforts for Luther Williams Field. Ellis reportedly told Wolfe he needed until early 2002 before he could give the Braves a firm answer. At that point, Wolfe told Ellis Macon could lose the team.

Ellis immediately spearheaded a group consisting of Bibb County, NewTown Macon and the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce that devised a $1 million plan to redirect downtown revenue bonds into Luther Williams Field. The mayor called Wolfe with the news Oct. 10, only to be told that it was too little, too late.

Braves general manager John Schuerholz has said on numerous occasions that the team feels being in Macon is advantageous to both parties. With Turner Field less than 80 miles north of Macon along I-75, the Braves have been able to keep a close eye on their low Class A affiliate. The proximity has also enabled several major leaguers to make rehab appearances in Macon, including pitcher Kevin Millwood this past season, with relative ease.

Rome is approximately 65 miles northwest of Atlanta and will be able to serve in a similar capacity regarding rehab assignments. A new ballpark would also provide the minor leaguers with better playing conditions–like the organization currently has with its working agreement with Class A Myrtle Beach and Coastal Federal Field.

“We are committed to providing our players with the best facilities possible,” said Dick Balderson, Atlanta’s director of player personnel. “This organization has always believed that providing our minor leaguers with first-rate facilities is a key component in helping them reach their greatest potential as players.”

Should the Braves depart for Rome, Luther Williams Field could have a hard time hosting professional baseball again. Albany lost its SAL franchise to Delmarva after the 1995 season and did not attract another team at the former Polecat Park until the Albany Alligators of the independent All American Association arrived earlier this year.

While Macon officials are hoping the Floyd County voters reject the sales tax so the city can get another chance, Rome officials are crossing their fingers that the third time will be the charm in their 12-year flirtation with the Braves.

“I don’t think Macon realized what they were losing until (the Braves) were potentially gone,” Floyd County commissioner Chuck Hufstetler told the Rome News-Tribune. “We have reached the best agreement possible that will require no annual output, and I certainly hope that we can attract (the Braves) up here just as we’ve attracted recent industries such as Suzuki and Pirelli.”