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Base closings even affect minors

by Will Lingo
June 22, 2005

Minor league teams tend to avoid getting involved in politics. But when a political issue lands right in your backyard, it's hard not to jump into the fray.

The Department of Defense is trying to save billions of dollars by closing or reducing the size of some military bases, to consolidate operations into fewer, larger bases. A Pentagon committee has studied the issue and presented a list to an independent committee in May, which will make a final recommendation to President Bush in September. The president and Congress must both sign off on the final decision.

The Pentagon plan would affect hundreds of bases, but perhaps none more dramatically than the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn. On the Thames River in southeastern Connecticut, it is the Navy's first submarine base, receiving its first four submarines in 1915 and now serving as the home of 16 nuclear submarines.

The Pentagon commission has recommended closing the base and moving the submarines to a base in Georgia, and that has local officials in Connecticut up in arms. The decision would eliminate about 10,000 military jobs in a county of 400,000 people, but the Connecticut governor's office estimates 31,500 jobs would be lost overall, with an economic impact in the billions of dollars.

Just up the river from the submarine base is Dodd Stadium, home of the Norwich Navigators. General manager Keith Hallal said the team started talking about ideas to rally the community around the base last fall, when rumors first circulated about the base being targeted for closure. "We decided not to do anything preemptive," he said.

Eastern League On Firing Line

Then Friday the 13th came. The commission announced its recommendations on May 13, and the Groton base was on the list. So the Navigators moved forward with their plans. They schedule a Save Our Sub Base rally before a June game against Altoona.

"We're not the average military town," Bud Fay, a local businessman who leads the overall Save Our Sub Base campaign, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "We're a town that's blended with the military community. There is no dividing line."

Another Eastern League team, the Portland Sea Dogs, has a similar event scheduled to rally the community to save two Maine naval installations. The Pentagon commission has recommended closing the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and reducing the size of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, which would eliminate about 7,000 jobs in the state.

The Sea Dogs are holding a Save Our Bases Night, and they will donate half of all their ticket sales for three weeks in June leading up to the game to the local groups working to keep the bases open. Political leaders will attend the game, representatives from both bases will throw out the first pitch, and fans will sign a giant card to show their support.

"It has always been our belief that we are more than just a baseball team, but also a strong contributing member of the community," Sea Dogs president Charlie Eshbach said. "When our community is forced to deal with the reality of this hardship, we want to show support for those who have supported us in so many ways."

Navigators Need A Break

The Navigators are focusing more on boosting community support than raising money, opening their gates a 5 p.m. and letting everyone in free for a pregame rally and the game that follows. Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell is scheduled to attend, and the team is encouraging everyone who comes to wear red and bring signs of support for the base.

"This is really for people who want to help, but aren't sure what they can do," Hallal said. "We want to send the message that this is an extremely important issue for everyone in eastern Connecticut, and we want to do whatever we can do to make the difference."

Hallal said he hopes the rally will draw a record crowd to Dodd Stadium. The existing record is 8,009 fans, for the last overall Double-A all-star game in 2002. "Basically, we're going to let in anyone who wants to come until the fire marshal cuts us off," he said.

These teams aren't without self-interest in their efforts, of course. If the local economy takes a big hit, the local minor league baseball team is likely to suffer as well.

The Navigators in particular face a potentially uncertain future, having just changed ownership and still working to hammer out a new lease for their ballpark. Attendance has gone down steadily since the team debuted with 281,473 fans in 1995. The Navigators drew 168,559 last season, an average of about 2,500 fans a game, last in the Eastern League. The team was averaging 2,342 fans a game after 26 home dates this season. While that should pick up as the weather improves, it still puts Norwich at or near the bottom of Double-A attendance.

But owner Lou DiBella has said the team can make a go of it with a commitment from the community. Before that can happen, though, the team may need a commitment from the Navy.

You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to

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