Minor League Parks, Stripped of America’s Pastime, Await New Fates

Minor League Parks, Stripped of America’s Pastime, Await New Fates

Elementary school artwork adorns the office windows behind home plate at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark in Staten Island. The residents are encouraged not to leave any rubbish behind. Another drawing of the infamous Staten Island pizza rat mascot in the stadium reads: "Better Days Are Coming!"

But empty liquor bottles litter the nearby hall, and Dandelions and other weeds grow in the outdoor field.

For the first time in 20 years, the ballpark is not home to the Staten Island Yankees. In fact, nothing happens in the city's own stadium, which is six acres and overlooks the Lower Manhattan waters.

Many in Staten Island hope that better days will come soon. Like dozens of other places around the country, New York will have to decide how much that future includes baseball.

In December, Major League Baseball completed a long-awaited overhaul of its farm system, depriving 40 communities of minor league membership. These cities had to find other baseball options or seek a long-term solution through redevelopment.

Stadium facelifts are often expensive – around $ 5 million for large-scale renovations. Even demolition can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. For example, city officials in Huntsville, Alabama estimated that their ballpark would cost $ 800,000 to demolish.

Most abandoned ball parks have temporarily joined summer leagues that serve college-goers or independent leagues, said Kevin Reichard, editor of Ballpark Digest, a website dedicated to ballpark news.

For others, youth tournaments have proven to be a profitable option. Youth sports have grown into a multibillion dollar industry, and as of 2017, more than $ 550 million has been spent developing complexes for them. Hamilton, Ohio, has turned an aging paper mill into one of the largest indoor sports complexes in the country.

"I think that's going to happen at a lot of these facilities," said Mr. Reichard, noting how Jackson, Miss., Recently turned an unused minor league park into a youth sports academy.

Kristin B. Aleshire, a Hagerstown, Md. City council member, sees potential for youth sports beyond baseball after his city lost its minor league membership.

For the past decade, Mr. Aleshire has campaigned to demolish the 91-year-old Municipal Stadium – the former home of the Hagerstown Suns, a Class A subsidiary of the Washington Nationals – and replace it with an indoor facility that offers greater variety could accommodate from sports such as soccer and flag soccer.

"They are economic drivers that bring people to restaurants and hotels," Aleshire said. "There are thousands of families who go to these venues for tournaments." He added that the estimated $ 100,000 cost of demolishing Municipal Stadium is well below the roughly $ 1 million the ballpark would need for delayed maintenance.

Though dumped by Major League Baseball, some in Hagerstown and other cities love the idea of ​​hosting a baseball team. Much to the delight of Hagerstown's pro baseball contingent, Governor Larry Hogan signed a bill allowing the Maryland Stadium Authority to issue nearly $ 60 million in bonds to fund a new stadium in Hagerstown.

The primary bet would be minor league baseball, most likely in the independent Atlantic League. The league, founded in 1998, is best known as a domain for former major leaguers who have seen their heyday.

Without government funding, trying to bring baseball back to Hagerstown would have been "a dead topic," Aleshire said. He added that the city had made it clear for decades that a new ballpark could not create national debt for residents.

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June 29, 2021, 3:50 p.m. ET

Before they closed, the Suns had the lowest attendance in their league. The benefits of hiring an independent team are debatable. In a pitch given by Hagerstown earlier this year, Eric Menzer, president of the Atlantic League team in York, Pennsylvania, boasted that a new stadium had created "more than $ 130 million in private investment" there.

However, cities like Newark built stadiums for the Atlantic League only to see their teams collapse and the baseball stadiums demolished.

That didn't stop Staten Island, which appears to be seizing its opportunities in the Atlantic League, even after averaging 1,848 fans in its 7,171-seat stadium in 2019. (The 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic.)

The last few years of Staten Island's relationship with the Yankees seemed less than brilliant. There were reports that the parent club complained about the stadium's deterioration and anger over its renaming to "Pizza Rats," with the Staten Island Yankees targeting a 2015 viral video of a rat slicing a disc by the U -Brain grinds. The Yankees did not respond to a request for comment.

Nowadays, at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark, which opened in 2001, rectangular sections of the outfield fence lie face down on the warning lane, making the midfield wall look like it is missing teeth.

Despite indications that America's pastime may not be the best fit for Staten Island, the New York Mayor's office said in April that baseball would be the main focus of the Richmond County Bank Ballpark. The city's economic development company, which oversees the property, has already approved $ 567,873 to cover recent utility and maintenance costs. The city has pledged more than $ 8 million to modernize the facility.

“It definitely takes more than loving care; it's 20 years old, ”said James Oddo, president of Staten Island. "It appears that some of the maintenance has been kicked down the street."

The influx of city funds would also allow the installation of a new field that could withstand the heavy, repetitive trampling through tunnels that grass outdoor fields cannot. An artificial surface could also withstand events such as concerts better. Rugby and soccer were discussed as other professional sports that could be played at the ballpark, and Mr Oddo said removing seats and reconfiguring the perimeter wall during the renovations were an option.

Ballpark Digest's Mr. Reichard estimated that a pitch could cost up to $ 1 million to cover a pitch with artificial turf. He added that a new seat costs around $ 110 plus installation (although used seats can be resold in good condition). The total amount spent on new seating six years ago at McCormick Field in Asheville, N.C. was approximately $ 250,000.

"All of our dreams and ambitions for a living facility are based on artificial turf," said Oddo.

A busy, functioning Staten Island stadium is critical to turning the waterfront into a travel destination. The Empire Outlets shopping mall opened next to the stadium in May 2019, but the pandemic has slowed growth. On the left side of the field of the ballpark there is an empty space for a giant Ferris wheel, the signage of which still indicates its arrival in 2017.

The Staten Island Yankees also gave up valuable parking spaces for projects that were intended to attract tourists from Manhattan.

Several cities are exploring similar entertainment complexes to reinvigorate local interest in minor league baseball. A planned $ 142 million location in Knoxville, Tennessee would include a new $ 65 million ballpark surrounded by retail and residential properties.

The construction of such plants is not without risk. When major league baseball reshaped the minor leagues, teams were only tied by affiliations for 10 years, seemingly giving minor league teams a window to renovate their stadiums in case availability opened a decade later.

The 10-year contracts could also allow major league clubs to request more upgrades from current partners. Major League Baseball has already contracted the minor league team in Eugene, Oregon to build a new stadium or the franchise will be relocated by 2025.

Lancaster, California community leaders who lost the Class A Lancaster Jethawks after 25 years are less interested in jumping through such hoops. The city's parks division, which owns Lancaster Stadium, is working with an architectural firm to develop "very high-level conceptual designs," said Sonya Patterson, director of parks, arts, recreation and community services for Lancaster.

A multifunctional event center for concerts, an indoor sports hall and a water sports center are possible new uses at the site, she said.

"It was a great loss for us," said Ms. Patterson. "But when we got this hint, we looked to that horizon and thought about what an extraordinary opportunity this is for the city to redesign this space."


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