A Quiet Winter Meetings Is Worth Celebrating

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The Winter Meetings came and went without any sport-rattling developments in the minor leagues.

No franchise relocations. No realignment. No teams folding under the weight of a recession.

And while there are still plenty of developments coming baseball's way in 2012, closing out a challenging year with a drama-free week in Dallas was certainly worthy of celebration.

Much of minor league baseball's pressing issues were settled well before the industry gathered at the Hilton Anatole hotel. The highs of 2011 included: Minor League Baseball's extension of the Professional Baseball Agreement with Major League Baseball, a new five-year collective bargaining agreement with the umpires union, overall attendance dipping just 0.5 percent as average attendance increased nearly 1 percent, and gross revenue going up about 5 percent in 2010 (the most recent year tabulated) with early indications that 2011 will see another increase.

"Our last 12 months have been filled with devastating and record-setting weather events, continuing economic hardship in our communities, high unemployment, socio-economic issues with health care and government intervention, a jittery Wall Street and gridlocked Washington," Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner told an oversized conference room filled with minor league operators during the opening session of the Winter Meetings. "Despite these issues, our clubs continue the good work that is minor league baseball . . .

"As we look back on the past few seasons, we can look back on remarkable progress as an organization. Now is not the time to rest on these accomplishments, but use them as the springboard to bigger and better things as a group . . . Together we have accomplished much. Together we will accomplish much more."

Up next for minor league leaders is likely extending Minor League Baseball's relationship with Major League Baseball Advanced Media before the current three-year deal expires after the 2012 season. Three years ago, MiLB launched the Baseball Internet Rights Co., in which all but six minor league teams bundled their Websites under the umbrella of MLB Advanced Media to better market the industry as a whole.

BIRCO initially was met with skepticism from some teams, and that likely grew after a challenging first two years. But O'Conner and MLB Advanced Media CEO Bob Bowman said BIRCO turned a profit in 2011.

Minor league officials believe teams will be supportive of extending the deal with MLBAM, and that the two sides will make few changes other than tweaks on technical issues relating to team Websites. While some operators expressed some frustration with the website templates, most were pleased with the overall arrangement.

Five teams have yet to sign up with BIRCO, and Minor League Baseball met with them at the Winter Meetings.

Changes At The Top

While Minor League Baseball's president remains the same, the sport is without its executive vice president after Tim Purpura accepted a position as farm director with the Texas Rangers. Purpura had spent four years as MILB's chief operating officer after previously serving as the Houston Astros' general manager.

O'Conner said he will not immediately seek a replacement for Purpura but will instead spread out his duties among four MILB vice presidents: Tim Brunswick (baseball/business operations), Tina Gust (business development), David Nunes (finance) and D. Scott Poley.

Minor League Baseball vice president Stan Brand praised Purpura's contributions over the years—he most recently led the sport's negotiations with the umpires union—and noted the benefits of Purpura's unique background. While sad to see him go, Brand said Purpura's departure is not a complete loss. Having a supporter of the minor leagues at the major league level will only improve the sports' relationship.

O'Conner seconded the sentiment.

"He's another person who can sing your song and praise us because he has seen (how Minor League Baseball works) from the inside," O'Conner said.

Let's Get Ready To Renovate

The Rochester Red Wings have a bit of experience operating more than one team at a time. After all, the organization just completed its fourth season running the New York-Penn League's Batavia franchise, saving Muckdogs from bankruptcy after the 2007 season.

Rochester will up the ante in 2012 when it serves as the main home away from home for fellow International League franchise Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, which is set to play its entire home schedule on the road while its home ballpark gets a $40 million rebuild.

The SWB Yankees will play 37 of their "home" games at Frontier Field in Rochester, plus another seven in Batavia. Scranton will split its remaining games among four other International League parks.

Red Wings chairman Gary Larder said Rochester is preparing for life as a two-team town in 2012. To accommodate the Yankees, the Red Wings are converting their visitors clubhouse into a second home for Scranton, and they'll use the smaller staff locker room as the visitors clubhouse. The new visitors clubhouse will be a bit small, Larder said, but it was the best alternative as the team helps Scranton out of a tough situation.

Rochester is paying for the renovations, and it will cover the expenses for all of its Scranton games, as well reaping all of the revenue from those games. It's a risky proposition, Larder said, but one he believes has the potential to be profitable.

"If we draw 800 fans a night, we're in trouble," he said. "But if we bring in a couple thousand we should make a profit."

One of the keys, Larder said, is drumming up new business and not simply attracting fans who would have otherwise come to Red Wings games anyway. Getting a group that makes it out to only one game a year to see the Yankees instead of the Red Wings is simply spreading around money and not bringing in new business, he said.

Plans are still being finalized for the new Scranton ballpark and should become public in early 2012, said Craig Schmitt, principal for the architecture firm Ewing Cole. Construction is slated to begin in March, which allows 12 months for the project to be completed in time for Opening Day 2013. Schmitt said it will be a bit of a rush but the renovation should be completed with little hassle.

The $40 million project is financed by a $20 million state grant and $20 million from Lackawanna County, the majority of which comes from the proceeds of the $14.6 million sale of the team to SWB Yankees LLC—a partnership between the New York Yankees and Mandalay Baseball that currently operates the team. Roughly $28 million will go toward ballpark construction, which creates a rather tight budget with no room for overage. In addition to working with county officials, Schmitt said each meeting regarding ballpark construction has been attended by Mandalay Baseball and New York Yankees officials and that the group has worked cooperatively.

Judging by early renderings of the facility that Ewing Cole had on display at the Winter Meetings trade show, the ballpark could be spectacular. The existing PNC Field, which opened in 1989, is in a beautiful setting at the foot of Montage Mountain (and is actually in Moosic, Pa., rather than Scranton or Wilkes-Barre), though the park had become outdated.

The new park will feature a wraparound concourse that essentially cuts into Montage Mountain in the outfield. It will have a modern feel, with lots of glass, aluminum and steel instead of the brick design used at to create a retro feel at many new ballparks. There will of course be plenty of club seating and luxury suites, in addition to a multi-tiered picnic area and more group seating areas.

"The difference (from the current ballpark) is going to be night and day," Schmitt said.