Atlantic League Group Eyes Frederick Market

Follow me on Twitter

The best affiliations in minor league baseball are usually local ones, and since 1989 the Frederick Keys (Carolina) have reaped the benefits of partnering with the Baltimore Orioles, just one hour down the road from the hometown team.

That relationship may now be in jeopardy, as the Keys and the city of Frederick are at odds over their lease for Harry Grove Stadium, and a new group—advised by original Keys owner Peter Kirk—is clamoring to bring an independent Atlantic League team to town. The Keys' inability to extend their lease with the city of Frederick beyond the 2011 season has opened the door for independent baseball to make a run at one of the top Carolina League markets, and the Atlantic League may be stepping in.

A group headed by Northern Virginia real estate attorney Jack Lavoie and Kirk, who sold the Keys in 2001 and whose Opening Day Partners ownership group operates three teams in the Atlantic League, is making a push to bring an expansion team to town. Their campaign is hardly ceremonial. The city of Frederick recently issued a request for proposals to operate Harry Grove Stadium, with all offers due by April 15.

The Atlantic League group believes it has plenty to offer, including a willingness to sign a long-term lease for more than the Keys' current $30,000 annual rent payment, to contribute to ballpark improvements, to have both a local ownership group and a veteran operator familiar with the city, and to bring in a variety of former Orioles to help run (and publicize) the team.

"This literally has never been done before, for an independent league team to displace an incumbent (affiliated) team, so we realize that we need to get a 105 (percent) on our test and they may only need to get a 90," said Lavoie, who has been looking for several years to purchase a team in the Atlantic League, which he describes as "the Cadillac of the indy leagues."

"We are very much pro-Frederick," Lavoie said. "We want to see the long-term success of Frederick, and we are going to put forth a very viable proposal. Win or lose, we hope to put our best foot forward."

The Power Of Affiliated Ball

Current Keys owner Ken Young insists the franchise has no plans to go anywhere and would like to reach a long-term deal with the city. He declined to go into details of what has kept the city and team from extending the lease, other than to say "it has to do with expenses."

The Keys and city have renewed their lease three times since 2005, when the original lease that Kirk signed when the ballpark debuted in 1990 expired. The Keys rejected a $50,000 one-year lease with the city this offseason before agreeing to $30,000, the York (Pa.) Dispatch previously reported.

In a recent press release entitled, "This is Our Home," Keys general manager Dave Ziedelis wrote that the team has pushed for a long-term agreement only to have the city back off. He also notes that the Keys pay the second-highest rent in the Carolina League, pay a 10 percent admission tax, and pay all of the stadium's utilities. The team has also taken on more than $1.6 million in stadium expenses from the city over the last four years, Ziedelis said.

"We have pushed for (a long-term lease) in each of our last three negotiations with the city of Frederick, but the city of Frederick has pushed for a short-term lease," Ziedelis said in the release. "In fact, twice during the fall we believed we had reached an understanding on the terms of a long-term lease with the city of Frederick only to have the city take a step back."

Young said Frederick would be making a mistake to step away from affiliated ball and the security of a partnership with Minor League Baseball, the Carolina League and the Orioles. He also asserted that the Atlantic League group may be making false promises.

"We need to be able to demonstrate to the aldermen in Frederick the importance and difference between independent ball and affiliated ball," said Young, Baseball America's 2009 Minor League Executive of the Year who also owns the Orioles' Double-A Bowie (Eastern) and Triple-A Norfolk (International) affiliates, as well as Albuquerque (Pacific Coast). "All cities are looking at their finances. They are just not sure how to balance their budget. I think it is important we stay there.

"The independent (group) is coming in and discussing doing some things that I don't believe they'll do. They're painting a rosy picture. We're trying to be realistic with the city of Frederick . . . One of the things that Frederick needs to be aware of is the stability of being in the Carolina League has to offer, and none of that is offered by Atlantic League or any independent leagues. The stability of independent ball is lacking, not to mention the quality of play. Affiliated ball is better."

Kirk, who has helped open 14 ballparks over his career, insists that baseball is baseball and the ballpark experience is what counts most to fans.

"To me, it is all different flavors of ice cream," Kirk said. "They all have different things to offer. The Atlantic League, with a higher player payroll, it takes it a certain level of market to support it, and Frederick could do it . . . The market belongs to the Frederick Keys. The keys to the kingdom have been in their hands. It's been four or five years that they have been operating one- or two-year leases. All they have to do is reach a long-term deal and off they go. To me it is sad that the city feels its only option is offering an RFP."

Kirk also said he wants what is best for Frederick, even if that means sticking with the Keys—the team he brought to town more than 20 years ago.

"I always believe that the city and the team that is there should do everything they can to have a long, prosperous relationship," Kirk said. "I'm always in favor of existing teams and their communities not throwing out relationships, but sometimes these things come to an end and you have to start a new beginning."