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Shift Of Cal League Franchises To Carolina League Appears Likely

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North Carolina already has nine minor league teams. If circumstances break correctly, it could add two more clubs before long.

The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer reported Thursday that Astros officials, including team president Reid Ryan and owner Jim Crane, visited the city to meet with local representatives about the potential moving a high Class A franchise to the North Carolina city.

The newspaper also reported that Crane and Ryan toured Fort Bragg, the site of a new, temporary stadium where the Marlins and Braves are scheduled to play a game on July 3, as well as another site for a potential downtown ballpark.

But that’s not all.

The Rangers would also love to have the opportunity to have their high Class A affiliate in the Carolina League. The Rangers are currently tied to the High Desert Mavericks, a franchise that has struggled for years and is currently locked in a lease dispute with the city of Adelanto, Calif., which owns its ballpark.

The Rangers have been rumored to be interested in moving a franchise to Kinston, N.C., which was home to a Carolina League franchise from 1978 until 2011. The problem had always been finding another market for another franchise to move to, as odd-numbered leagues aren’t workable from a scheduling standpoint.

With both Fayetteville and Kinston in play, though, the possibility looks much more likely.

Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner, reached by phone on Thursday morning, indicated that both scenarios have legs.

“It’s a fact-finding to see what it was and how serious it would be,” O’Conner said about the visit to Fayetteville. Regarding a potential move of High Desert to Kinston, he said: “It’s possible, yeah. It’s realistic, but nothing’s been decided.”

California League president Charlie Blaney was mum on the subject on Thursday.

“That’s something that you would have to talk to the Astros about, but I really don’t have any comment,” he said, before replying similarly in regard to the Rangers’ situation. “I have no comment on that either. Nothing’s finalized or resolved on that, so there’s just speculation at this point.”

It’s worth noting that neither the Astros nor the Rangers owns a high Class A franchise. The Astros currently are affiliated with the Lancaster JetHawks of the Cal League, with a player-development contract that runs through 2016. The JetHawks are owned by Jake Kerr and are one of the league’s better franchises, and unlikely to move.

The Rangers are in High Desert, which is owned by Dave Heller. Whether Heller would sell the franchise or move it himself, getting out of High Desert seems to be one thing that everyone can agree on.

The other target market for a move would be Bakersfield, where historic Sam Lynn Ballpark fails to meet Minor League Baseball standards and plans for a new park have continually faltered. Bakersfield is owned by Dave Elmore, almost as a ward of the league. Elmore is also a principal in the Inland Empire ownership group, and technically no one is allowed to own two teams in the same league. So the sale of the Bakersfield franchise would not be a problem.

Bakersfield is currently affiliated with the Mariners, and their player-development contract expires after this season as well.

Fayetteville city manager Rochelle Small-Toney confirmed the city’s interest in building a stadium and eventually bringing in a minor league team, but noted that everything was subject to the results of an economic feasibility study.

“The city is very much interested, I think, in pursuing the construction of a minor league stadium. And that hasn’t even actually been determined to happen,” she said. “We’re in the process now of receiving, we hope, the first report of the feasibility study. (City) council, from the information that will be provided from that report, of course, will make a decision as to whether to continue with the process of considering a minor league baseball stadium in the city.”

Small-Toney said she and other representatives from Fayetteville have toured numerous ballparks and cities over the  last year. Those sites included Durham, N.C.; Columbia, S.C.; Sugarland, Texas; Charlotte and Nashville. Of those ballparks, only the Durham Bulls Athletic Park--which received a $19 million facelift after the 2013 season--was built before 2012.

The stadiums in Durham, Columbia, Nashville and Charlotte also were built downtown, with the goal of triggering an influx in business and development. Small-Toney said that this is also something Fayetteville wants to achieve if it gets the go-ahead to build a new park.

“That all is attractive. In other words, we have a redevelopment plan that includes a minor league baseball stadium,” Small-Toney said. “The site that we would like to consider for that is very adjacent to our downtown.”

Small-Toney said the estimated cost of the new stadium would be determined as part of the feasibility study. The average cost of the four new stadiums Fayetteville representatives visited is $43.5 million. Fayetteville last had a minor league team from 1987-2000 in the low Class A South Atlantic League. The franchise moved to Lakewood, N.J., for the 2001 season.

The return of pro ball to Kinston, which most recently had a Carolina League franchise in 2011, has been talked about almost since the Indians left. Historic Grainger Stadium is old but well maintained and could quickly be whipped into shape to welcome back a team.

Most recently Kinston was mentioned as part of a three-way swap that would have involved the Binghamton Mets (Eastern) and the Wilmington Blue Rocks (Carolina), with Wilmington getting the Double-A franchise, Kinston getting back in the Carolina League, and Binghamton getting left out in the cold. Since then, though, B-Mets have changed ownership, and new owner John Hughes has vowed to keep the team in Binghamton’s NYSEG Stadium, with a new name and rebrand starting in 2017.

Adelanto, Calif., where High Desert plays, voted this past offseason to evict the Mavericks over squabbles with the team’s lease with the city. The team’s ownership, Main Street California, won an injunction in court just before the season started, however, which kept the team in High Desert for the time being and sent the matter to arbitration.

The Observer reported that the results of a fact-finding mission regarding a potential new stadium in the city would be revealed at a city council meeting on June 20.

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If a team wanted to move to the city before a new ballpark is in place, it could find a temporary home at J.P. Riddle Stadium, the former home of the Sally League team and current home of the Fayetteville SwampDogs of the summer college Coastal Plain League. Small-Toney said that hasn’t been considered an option at this point.

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