Red Barons caught in political limbo
by Will Lingo
Six of the 14 teams in the International League have some form of community ownership, which makes for an amazingly stable league.
Indianapolis, Rochester and Syracuse are locally owned by shareholders, much like the Green Bay Packers of NFL fame. Columbus, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Toledo are owned by local governments and run by stadium authorities.
At least two of them are. In Scranton, local officials are making a push to get rid of the Lackawanna County Stadium Authority in an effort to make government more efficient.
And we all know how those efforts usually work out.
This would put a governmental body in direct control of a minor league team, which doesn't have to be a disaster but raises the possibility of all kinds of bureaucratic nightmares. Can you imagine a team having to get every one of its sponsorship deals approved by the county commissioners?
It wasn't supposed to be this way. When Scranton joined the IL in 1989, the operating structure was copied from Columbus, where the Clippers have been a model for governmental ownership since they started up in 1977.
But while the Clippers and Toledo Mud Hens have been almost immune from politics, the Red Barons have not. "There has always been greater political activity there," IL president Randy Mobley said. "County governments there have always had more involvement than either of the other two situations."
Politics were at least partly to blame for the departure of the team's first two general managers: Bill Terlecky, the original GM, and Rick Muntean, another original Red Barons employee who took over when Terlecky left in 1997. Muntean resigned last fall to become GM of the Kansas City T-Bones of the independent Northern League.
"The team has lost two general managers to the infighting and backstabbing that is as much a part of the franchise as September callups," columnist Jerry Kellar wrote in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader after Muntean's resignation.
Playing Baseball Politics
Politics have been with the Red Barons from their first game, as a matter of fact. Best to let Kellar tell the story of the pregame festivities for Opening Night 1989.
"After seemingly dozens of the area's most boring people were introduced prior to the first-ever ballgame, the commissioners and other officials gathered around the mound," he wrote. "Feigning concern, the adults questioned each other as to who was responsible for bringing the ball to be used for the evening's ceremonial first pitch. As many in the sold-out house fought to stay awake, one of the officials' kids came running out of the Red Barons bullpen, the jewel tucked away in his mitt."
Politics also nearly cost Muntean his job, but fans rallied around him with an outcry and popular support and he stayed on--at least until last November.
That kind of turmoil could be tame compared with what lies ahead, however. The current stadium authority was appointed by a Democrat-controlled board of county commissioners, but it's now under Republican leadership. The new leadership wants to get rid of several governing boards, including the local railroad authority and transit authority.
The stadium authority is fighting the move in court, which means the resolution to the battle will takes months.
If the county is successful, though, it puts the Red Barons in limbo. There's already a certain amount of uncertainty surrounding the team just with the threat of the authority being dissolved. For example, the man hired to replace Muntean, Tom Van Schaak, was hired by the stadium authority and is working without a contract.
Vote For The Chicken!
Mobley doesn't ascribe any bad motives to local officials in Scranton, and he doesn't expect any major changes with the operation of the Red Barons. But the simple fact is that if the authority goes away, no one knows what will happen. The franchise will be in uncharted waters.
First, at least for a short time the team would have no owners and would revert to IL control. The franchise would presumably go over to the county, but there are no guarantees.
"If the authority ceases to exist, in the interim it's going to come back to the league," Mobley said. "I personally see no reason for the league to insert itself (in the operations of the franchise) to any significant degree.
"But so much of it is just hypothetical at this time. We don't have the answers."
And when the operation of the franchise has already been politically charged with a structure designed to insulate it from those problems, establishing direct control by a group of elected officials seems like a bad idea.
Will the GM be replaced every four years, depending on where he stands on tax cuts or abortion? Will lobbyists start roaming the concourse, trying to influence the next big vote on whether to bring in The Famous Chicken or Myron Noodleman?
"It's easy to imagine onerous situations," Mobley said. "If it comes to that, we will need to be assured that such a situation will not occur."
We know the elected officials will be willing to make promises. The problem, as always, will be delivering on them.