Smokies purchase almost finalized

By Geoff Wilson
December 15, 2001

BOSTON–Much of baseball’s Winter Meetings, especially on the minor league side, revolves around the meet-and-greet routine. And for Bill Haslam, that’s doubly true.

The 43-year-old president of Knoxville-based Pilot Corp. came to Boston to attend the meetings and introduce himself to Southern League owners. He heads a group that is close to finalizing its purchase of the Tennessee Smokies from Don Beaver.

“We’ve been talking with Don Beaver’s group for a while now and are close to finalizing an agreement,” said Haslam at the Winter Meetings gala at Fenway Park on Friday night. “We don’t have a final agreement yet, but we’re close to it.”

The Knoxville News-Sentinel reported the purchase price at roughly $7.5 million. Haslam appeared at the Southern League’s meeting Friday afternoon to introduce himself to his fellow owners.

“We just told them who we were and what we were about and why we’re interested in buying the team,” Haslam said. “It was a great chance to meet all the other owners.”

Pilot Corp. builds and operates convenience store and travel centers near interstates. The 45-year-old company was founded by Haslam’s father Jim.

The franchise he’s buying set its second straight overall attendance record in 2001, not coincidentally its second season in the new Smokies Park in Sevierville, Tenn., 20 miles east of Knoxville. In 2002 the team will become the first in league history to host the all-star game two seasons in a row.

“It’s all about making a great experience for fans, and the great park makes it easier,” Haslam said. “We feel like some people did some hard work to get it where it is now, and we look forward to adding to it.”

Two prominent members of last season’s Smokies staff–general manager Dan Rajkowski and media relations director/radio announcer Tim Grubbs–have already moved on to Triple-A New Orleans, a franchise Beaver also owns. And though Haslam indicated his father and brother, Jim Jr., would also be involved in running the franchise, he doesn’t foresee overhauling the Tennessee front office.

“We think it’s a great organization, so we don’t see any great reason to make wholesale changes,” Haslam said.

In other Winter Meetings news:

• Though an agreement in principle was in place before the Winter Meetings for the Ripken Group to purchase the New York-Penn League’s Utica Blue Sox and move them to Aberdeen, Md., for the 2002 season, the sale has still not been finalized. League presidentBen Hayes declined to comment on the situation, but the hang-up appears to come not from his league but from the Carolina League. The Wilmington Blue Rocks are claiming territorial rights to the area where Cal Ripken is building a baseball complex that will include a minor league stadium, and the two sides have been unable to iron out a compromise.

• The Jacksonville Suns broke ground on their new stadium on Tuesday, and the park should be ready by Opening Day 2003. The new park will replace Wolfson Park, at 56 years old currently the oldest in the Southern League. The Florida Times-Union reported that the park was being reduced from its original 10,000-seat plan, to 8,500 seats. But Suns general manager Peter Bragan Jr. said the difference wouldn’t be enough to drop the park below Minor League Baseball’s Triple-A standards. “It’s not going to have 10,000 hard-back seats, but with the berm and the grass areas, it will have at least 10,000 capacity.” Part of the argument for including the new ballpark in The Better Jacksonville Plan, a massive renovation project, was that the city might be able to lure a Triple-A franchise down the road if it had a stadium capable of hosting one.

• The International and Pacific Coast leagues had hoped to announce a Triple-A game of the week package with CNN/Sports Illustrated at the Winter Meetings, but changes in the cable network’s structure–it will become AOL Sports soon after the new year–have forced a delay in the announcement. “We talked to the CNN/SI folks this week, and they’re basically on hold until things clarify themselves with their negotiations with the NBA,” said IL president Randy Mobley. “We’re hoping that it will move forward, but we have had to back up a bit.”

• Quad City River Bandits owner Kevin Krause, whose deal to sell his Midwest League team to a group of investors from Eastlake, Ohio, fell though in October, is negotiating with another group of investors from the same town. “I think that he wants to get out of baseball at this particular time, and I know he feels he should,” said MWL president George Spelius. “I wish him and the buyer the very best of luck in their negotiations.”