Could an indy league revive Hagerstown’s stadium after MLB consigned the Suns to oblivion?

Reporting on plans for what to do with stadiums in the 18 cities that were completely jettisoned from minor-league baseball (separate from the 25 additional cities that are having their paid players replaced by college interns) has been sadly lacking since last months’ hit list announcement, likely because most news media in 2021 has the attention span of a gnat and the budget of one as well. But yesterday there was some news from Hagerstown, where the Suns have been dematerialized after 40 years, leaving behind a stadium that has hosted pro ball on and off since 1930, with several renovations along the way.

The Hagerstown city council held a work session on Tuesday to explore the options, and they are, in order of appearance in the Herald-Mail, the newspaper of the Maryland-Pennsylvania-West Virginia conjunction:

  • Host some “cost-neutral local events, such as high school baseball games” or concerts.
  • Build an indoor turf facility there (likely looking something like this), so locals don’t have to travel elsewhere for sports like youth soccer.
  • Bring in a baseball team in an independent league, two of which have contacted city officials already about using its existing stadium.

All these are reasonable ideas, as is surveying local residents about their preference before moving ahead with any of them. Mayor Emily Keller said that she doesn’t want to cost local residents more money, which also sounds good; there’s also the issue of who would staff games or concerts, since the city doesn’t have staff available. (Hopefully event organizers could either bring their own staff or pay enough of a fee for the city to hire some workers.)

The indy-league baseball option is especially interesting, not so much because it’s necessarily the best one, but because there’s been so much speculation that running unaffiliated minor-league teams wouldn’t be sustainable; one exec of an eliminated minor-league team told me his organization’s research showed it would take a guaranteed 3,000 tickets sold per game just to break even. If two independent leagues are at least sniffing around — the Atlantic League has to be one, thanks to its geography and the fact that it only has six teams currently including the newly created Gastonia Honey Hunters — that’s a good sign that maybe indy leagues will fill some of the vacuum left by the contraction of the affiliated minors.

All this would be significantly easier if North American baseball ran more like European soccer, with promotion and relegation, so that Hagerstown could just find some local willing to sponsor a semi-pro team and then watch it try to win its way back up to the professional ranks. That still wouldn’t be perfect, though — somebody has to buy enough tickets to pay the ticket takers and pay for turning the lights on — so if indy leagues can fill a similar role, that’s better than nothing. It will be very interesting to see how this unfolds as the season approaches, depending on when and if coronavirus levels decline enough for that to even happen.

 

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MLB just killed 18 minor-league teams that got $249m in public stadium funding

MLB issued its final list yesterday of which 120 minor-league teams will get to continue as farm teams for big-league clubs, and which will be left to join a series of independent or amateur leagues or disappear altogether. While a few teams got official notice that they’d be switching levels — the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp jump from Double-A to Triple-A, the San Antonio Missions drop from Triple-A to Double-A, the Frederick Keys are bounced from Single-A to the new MLB Draft League where players will have to play for free to showcase their skills for the annual player draft, and the Fresno Grizzlies just yesterday afternoon accepted their demotion from Triple-A to Single-A once they saw what the alternative was — let’s focus on the truly SOL franchises, those that USA Today listed under the heading “No Current League” (state and former affiliation in parentheses):

  • Lowell Spinners (MA, Red Sox)
  • Hagerstown Suns (MD, Nationals)
  • Burlington Bees (IA, Angels)
  • Clinton LumberKings (IA, Marlins)
  • Kane County Cougars (IL, Diamondbacks)
  • Lexington Legends (KY, Royals)
  • Charlotte Stone Crabs (FL, Rays)
  • West Virginia Power (WV, Mariners)
  • Florida Fire Frogs (FL, Braves)
  • Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (OR, Giants)
  • Staten Island Yankees (NY, Yankees)
  • Batavia Muckdogs (NY, Marlins)
  • Auburn Doubledays (NY, Nationals)
  • Norwich Sea Unicorns (CT, Tigers)
  • Tri-City ValleyCats (NY, Astros)
  • Vermont Lake Monsters (VT, A’s)
  • Lancaster JetHawks (CA, Rockies)
  • Boise Hawks (ID, Rockies)

That is a whole lot of intercaps being thrown to the wolves, not to mention both of the minor leagues’ Burlington teams. (The Lake Monsters played in Burlington, Vermont.) And while some of these franchises may yet end up joining an existing non-affiliate league — the MLB Draft League has two spots available, according to the Washington Post, and the indy Atlantic League is currently down to just six teams and could add more — many will almost certainly follow the Staten Island Yankees into oblivion.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how much public money was spent on stadiums for teams that have now been annihilated by MLB fiat:

  • Lowell Spinners: $11.2 million (construction, 1998)
  • Hagerstown Suns: $1.06 million (construction, 1930; renovations, 1981 and 1995)
  • Burlington Bees: $3 million (renovation, 2005)
  • Clinton LumberKings: $4.35 million (construction, 1937; renovation, 2006)
  • Kane County Cougars: $19.5 million (construction, 1991; renovations, 2008 and 2015)
  • Lexington Legends: privately funded
  • Charlotte Stone Crabs: $32.2 million (construction, 1987; renovation, 2009)
  • West Virginia Power: $25 million (construction, 2005)
  • Florida Fire Frogs: $45.9 million (construction, 2019)
  • Salem-Keizer Volcanoes: $6.8 million (construction, 1997)
  • Staten Island Yankees: $71 million (construction, 2001)
  • Batavia Muckdogs: $3 million (construction, 1996)
  • Auburn Doubledays: $3.145 million (construction, 1995)
  • Norwich Sea Unicorns: $9.3 million (construction, 1995)
  • Tri-City ValleyCats: $14 million (construction, 2002)
  • Vermont Lake Monsters: privately funded
  • Lancaster JetHawks: $14.5 million (construction, 1996)
  • Boise Hawks: privately funded

A couple of caveats: The Stone Crabs and Fire Frogs played at their big-league affiliates’ spring training sites, so those stadiums will still be in use on a lesser basis; and a couple of other stadiums get use as high school or college fields. Still, that’s $249 million in tax money down the toilet, with little hope of finding replacement teams in the future.

Little hope, I should say, without throwing more public money at the situation. You’ll note that a lot of those stadium construction dates above are from the 20th century — Centennial Park in Burlington, Vermont opened way back in 1906! — which is ancient in the what-have-you-built-for-us-lately world of pro sports. One of the reasons MLB gave for seeking to cut teams when it was first announced last year was to “improve Minor League Baseball’s stadium facilities,” and in fact the Boise Hawks owner specifically said he was told his team was marked for death because it was an age-defying 31 years old:

“We were told our current facility ultimately led to the decision,” [Hawks president Jeff] Eiseman said in a statement. “As we have stated since the day we purchased the Hawks, the venue is a challenge. The failure to not have replaced it in all of these prior years led to this move.”

Not having to pay as many minor-league salaries — in part by forcing minor leaguers to play as amateurs, whether in the new MLB Draft League or the conversion of the entire Appalachian League to a “college wood-bat league” — was obviously a prime reason for MLB’s restructuring of the minors, but increasing leverage for new or renovated stadiums could turn out to be the far more lucrative result. If Boise or Lexington or Batavia wants a new team, they will almost certainly be asked to upgrade their stadiums first; and if the cities that do get rewarded with teams, that will allow MLB to cast existing teams onto the scrap heap, in an endless cycle of stadium shakedowns.

Even now, the new minors structure isn’t 100% finalized: MLB and the surviving minor-league teams still need to work out a player-development contract that will determine exactly what each side will pay toward minor-league team costs; the Tacoma Rainiers owners have already released a statement that they “cannot accept the invitation until we’ve had time to review the deal that will govern our sport, and this relationship, for decades to come.” And there is still the possibility of antitrust lawsuits to fight the elimination of teams, since MLB has effectively taken control of all of its competitors for baseball fan dollars and ordered a bunch of them to shut down — recall that last year an unnamed MLB official told the New York Daily News’ Bill Madden, “My God, we’ll be sued all over the place from these cities that have built or refurbished ballparks with taxpayer money, and this will really put our anti-trust exemption in jeopardy.”

Still, a whole lot of minor-league baseball fans are about to lose their teams, and a whole lot of cities are about to see their investments in stadiums go up in smoke. And a whole lot of minor-league players are about to be, in essence, redefined as unpaid interns. Thus has it always been.

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Hagerstown losing baseball team, officials still want new stadium to “get back to business,” whatever business that might be

The Hagerstown Suns have lost their affiliated South Atlantic League team as part of MLB’s crusade to stop paying as many minor-league players as possible. (The Suns still technically exist, with no league to play in, but their Wikipedia page has them in the past tense, which is never a good sign.) Hagerstown officials who have been angling for a new stadium still want one, even though there’s now no team to play in one. How do they reconcile these two facts? Let’s watch!

“I think right now the possibilities are endless,” [Hagerstown Mayor Emily] Keller said. “It’s all up in the air, but that’s not a bad thing. It gives us time to decide where we want to go as a community.”

This is more or less true, though the possibilities are not so endless as to include “let’s build a new stadium and have an affiliated minor-league team play in it,” which was the plan that made the most sense. (Along with “let’s keep the old stadium and have an affiliated minor-league team play in it,” which is also now off the table.) But yes, breakups can be opportunities, and when God closes a door he opens a window, and are we able to crawl out of bed yet?

Moving on:

[Councilmember Bob] Bruchey agreed that it is sad to lose minor league baseball in the city.

He said if an updated facility existed, however, the team might have kept its affiliation with the Nationals.

“It just never came about,” Bruchey said.

It might have! Sure, tons of teams playing in newer stadiums are being snapped out of existence, and the entire South Atlantic League has disappeared (bits of it will reportedly merge with the remnants of the NY-Penn League as a new Mid-Atlantic League in 2021), but it there is a non-zero chance that the Suns could have taken the place of another surviving team if the city had built them a new stadium. So definitely let’s blame that.

Bruchey said the goal now is to find a way to bring more people into Hagerstown to live and to patronize businesses, possibly with some sort of downtown venue for sports and potentially music.

He said it would be “foolish” to scrap talks of a new facility given the amount of funds available from the state for such a venture.

The amount of funds available from the state is, Delmarva Now reports, $300,000. That’s not going to go very far in paying for any sort of downtown venue for sports and potentially music or maybe sports musicals.

“We’re going to dust ourselves off, find an independent team, build a new ballpark and get back to business,” [Visit Hagerstown President Dan] Spedden said. “We’re continuing with this effort.”

Building a new ballpark for an independent team is never a great gamble, given the number of cities that have done that and then wound up with no team and an empty ballpark because indy-league teams come and go like mayflies. In a time when there are suddenly dozens of cities scrambling for teams and the viability of minor-league sports as a whole is uncertain thanks to the pandemic and the pandemic economy, it’s an even worse gamble.

Spedden said Visit Hagerstown worked with Suns General Manager Travis Painter at the end of the 2018 season to measure the team’s economic impact.

The team contributes nine full-time jobs and a number of part-time positions to the economy, along with $235,000 in purchases of food and other necessities, Spedden said. He estimated an impact of $53,000 in sales taxes and about $40,000 in charitable donations. Fans and visiting teams also booked rooms at hotels.

On the bright side, this is one of the few sports economic impact statements that actually sounds believable and based in actual tax receipts. On the other hand, $53,000 in annual tax revenues and nine full-time jobs is terrible economic impact, especially if it requires spending $30 million or so on a stadium; you’d be better off building a small supermarket, or maybe a large dentist’s office.

If I were mayor of Hagerstown, which I am not (checks election results, confirms this), I would start out by seeing if I could find a new baseball team to play in my old stadium, which has the advantage of having already been paid for back in 1930. (The stadium’s Wikipedia page claims it was built by the federal Works Progress Administration, which would be a neat trick seeing as that the WPA didn’t come into existence until 1935.) Or maybe find another kind of sports team — lacrosse, rugby, pesäpallo — to play there. Or see if amateur players want to rent out a historic stadium with a cool manually operated scoreboard. Depending on how that all goes, maybe a new stadium would be something to consider; in the meantime, there are far better and cheaper ways to convince people to live and spend money in Hagerstown.

Finally, a fond farewell to Woolie B., the Suns’ monstrous snaggletoothed caterpillar mascot. Won’t anyone think of the hideous chimeric mascots? Maybe they can form a Mascot League — I bet that would create at least nine jobs.

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