Atlantic League Builds On Success With Westward Move

Joe Klein and Sparky Lyle remember one of their first meetings with a major league farm director to promote their fledgling Atlantic League. It didn't go according to plan.

"The guy fell asleep on us," Klein, the executive director of the league, recalled from that meeting in 1997. "Sparky said, 'What are we going to do now?' I put my finger to my mouth and said, 'Shhh.'

"But I made sure I slammed the door on our way out."

No one is slamming doors to the Atlantic League now. The eight-team league, with modern ballparks in a fan-friendly environment, is considered a successful model for independent baseball. The league drew more than two million fans last season, and has returned more than 500 players to affiliated organizations, including Rickey Henderson, Ruben Sierra and Jose Canseco, since its inception 15 years ago.

"It has become an easier task for our teams to recruit because players and their representatives understand where MLB teams go looking for players when they are needed," said Klein, the former general manager of the Rangers, Royals and Tigers.

The league is the brainchild of Frank Boulton, who gave up his 25-year career as a bond trader on Wall Street to focus on the new league. Boulton was already a familiar face in baseball as owner of the Peninsula Pilots, a Carolina League franchise that he moved to become the Wilmington Blue Rocks in 1993.

"There needed to be a boutique league to give players a platform to stay in baseball," Boulton said of his decision to start the Atlantic League.

His first hire was Klein, a baseball lifer who held just about every position you can think of in baseball after getting released from the Washington Senators organization in 1969.

"There were no independent leagues when I left baseball," said Klein, who operates out of the league office in Camden, N.J. "When I got released by Washington, I used to pick up the phone three times a day to make sure I had a dial tone. Now all the players' agents know us. We can put a guy on a plane on the East Coast and get him to a game that night in the (Pacific Coast League) if we have to."

The model for the Atlantic League features just three well-respected businessmen of varying interests and backgrounds staking majority ownership in the eight teams.

Boulton has stakes in the Long Island Ducks, Bridgeport Bluefish and Camden Riversharks. Steve Kalafer, who operates one of the largest car dealerships in New Jersey and was nominated for an Academy Award for his production of the documentary "Sister Rose's Passion," owns the Somerset Patriots. Peter Kirk, the CEO of Opening Day Partners and himself a longtime owner in the affiliated minor leagues, runs the Lancaster Barnstormers, York Revolution, Southern Maryland Blue Crabs and the league's latest addition—in Texas?

The Sugar Land Skeeters represent the Atlantic League's first foray into going national. The goal, according to Kirk, is to add four teams—three more in the Southwest and one in the Mid-Atlantic or Northeast. That would give the league 12 teams. When pressed for a timeline for the additional clubs to be added, Kirk responded, "I am fond of saying baseball is a game without a clock."

Knowing How To Build

The expansion into Sugar Land is being overseen by Kirk, who knows something about the development of ballparks. Opening Day Partners, together with various architects, has successfully designed Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster, Pa.; Sovereign Bank Stadium in York, Pa.; and Regency Stadium in Waldorf, Md., all of which have opened since 2005.

Yet the 7,500-seat Constellation Field in Sugar Land, an affluent suburb of Houston, could be the gem of them all. The ballpark includes a seven-story scoreboard in the shape of Texas, a carousel and a water park. At a cost of $35 million, Constellation Field, like the other Opening Day Partners ballparks, came in under budget.

"The only unknowns are if you hit rock or water," Kirk said of keeping costs down. "These ballparks are not difficult to build."

Constellation Energy paid almost $4 million over 10 years for the naming rights. The stadium was paid for with a portion of sales tax revenues used for economic development purposes.

In an effort to enhance its ties with Major League Baseball, Opening Day Partners has also added former longtime Astros executive Tal Smith to their group.

"Tal will be a significant factor in assuring the success of the Sugar Land Skeeters and also in helping ODP and the other owners of the Atlantic League as we progress with the leagues recently announced national expansion," Kirk said.

From the beginning, it was a priority of the Atlantic League to not inherit vacant, run-down ballparks. The oldest park in the league is Bridgeport's Ballpark at Harbor Yard, which opened in 1998—the first year of the Atlantic League.

"The major difference is the old parks were built around baseball and the fans were given what was left over," Kirk said. "The fans were left with small restrooms and not many concessions. None of our ballparks require our fans to walk up a ramp or steps to their seat. It's the idea of once you're in the ballpark you can always see the games."

Although Sugar Land expands the reach of the Atlantic League, there are issues with the complexities of a 140-game regular season schedule that features one team separated from the other seven by 1,500 miles. The plan is for the East Coast teams to travel to Sugar Land for a four- to six-game trips twice during the season. Kirk said Sugar Land will subsidize the difference in the cost of air travel for the rest of the clubs.

Few Errors, Many Hits

Though the outlook in Texas appears good, everything the Atlantic League has touched has not turned to gold. The league had to operate a travel team called the Road Warriors off and on for seven seasons because of various franchise problems.

In eastern Pennsylvania, a prospective ownership group fell apart and filed for bankruptcy. Despite attracting former big leaguers like Canseco, Henderson and Tim Raines, the Newark Bears failed to make a go of it and moved to the Can-Am League. The Atlantic City Surf and the Nashua Pride, both original league members, folded due to declining attendance. An attempt to usurp affiliated ball in Frederick, Md., fell flat.

In part because of the lessons learned in those markets, the league gradually has shifted to a small ownership model. When the Atlantic League began, it followed the traditional minor league model, with different teams owned by different, usually locally based, ownership groups. But in the past seven years, the league has consolidated to the three longtime owners.

"The model of the Atlantic League works very well because it's about stability," said Kalafer, whose Somerset front office has remained largely intact since day one. "You're only as strong as your weakest link. We've had factions, like any league whether it be in Texas or in Los Angeles. But it's the strength of the people behind the league that makes sure it's straightened out and that's why we work so well.

"Compared to other leagues, where people have been in and out and want to join the circus and own a minor league baseball team, that's all well and good, but you need the financial and professional structure for sustainability, and that's why the Atlantic League is one of the most successful leagues in the history of baseball."