Minor League parks, stripped of American pastime, await new fates

Elementary student artwork adorns the office windows behind the welcome plaque at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark in Staten Island. Residents are encouraged not to throw litter. Another drawing, from the stadium’s infamous Staten Island pizza rat mascot, reads: “Better days are coming!” “

But empty liquor bottles litter the hall next door, and dandelions and other weeds grow in the outdoor field.

For the first time in 20 years, the stadium is not the home of the Staten Island Yankees. In fact, nothing is happening in the city-owned stadium, which covers around six acres and offers views of the Lower Manhattan waterfront.

Many on Staten Island are hoping that better days are coming soon. Like dozens of other places across the country, New York will have to decide how much of that future includes baseball.

In December, Major League Baseball completed a long-awaited overhaul of its farming system, stripping 40 municipalities of their minor league affiliations. These towns had to find other baseball options or explore a long-term solution through redevelopment.

Stadium facelifts are often expensive – around $ 5 million for full-scale renovations. Even demolition can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Officials in the city of Huntsville, Alabama, for example, estimated that demolishing their stadium would cost $ 800,000.

Most of the abandoned stadiums have temporarily joined summer leagues serving college prospects or independent leagues, said Kevin Reichard, editor-in-chief of Ballpark Digest, a website devoted to baseball news.

For others, youth tournaments have emerged as a profitable option. Youth sports have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, and since 2017 more than $ 550 million has been spent developing resorts for them. Hamilton, Ohio, transformed 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,” Reichard said, noting how Jackson, Mississippi, recently converted an unused minor league park into a youth sports academy.

Hagerstown, Md., City council member Kristin B. Aleshire sees the potential of youth sports beyond baseball, now that her town has lost its minor league affiliation.

Over the past decade, Mr Aleshire has advocated demolishing the 91-year-old Municipal Stadium – the former home of the Hagerstown Suns, a Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals – and replacing it with an indoor facility that could accommodate a wider variety of sports, such as football and flag football.

“These are economic engines that bring people to restaurants and hotels,” Aleshire said. “There are thousands of families who come to these sites for tournaments. He added that the estimated cost of $ 100,000 to demolish the municipal stadium was far less than the roughly $ 1 million needed for deferred maintenance.

Although they are dumped by Major League Baseball, some in Hagerstown and other cities remain fond of the idea of ​​hosting a baseball team. Much to the delight of the pro-baseball contingent in Hagerstown, Governor Larry Hogan signed legislation allowing the Maryland Stadium Authority to issue nearly $ 60 million in bonds to fund a new stadium in Hagerstown.

The primary use would be minor league baseball, most likely in the Independent Atlantic League. Founded in 1998, the league is best known as a domain for former major leagues after their prime.

Without state funds, the effort to bring baseball back to Hagerstown “would have been a dead problem,” Aleshire said. He added that the city had made it clear for decades that a new baseball stadium could not create any public debt for residents.

Before closing, the Suns had the lowest attendance in their league. The benefits of hosting an independent team are questionable. In a speech in Hagerstown earlier this year, Eric Menzer, president of the Atlantic League team in York, Pa., Boasted that a new stadium had created “more than $ 130 million in private investments “.

Cities like Newark, however, have built stadiums for the Atlantic League only to see their teams fold and the stadiums demolished.

That hasn’t stopped Staten Island, which looks set to try its luck with the Atlantic League, even after averaging just 1,848 fans at its 7,171-seat stadium in 2019 (The 2020 season has canceled due to the pandemic.)

The final years of Staten Island’s relationship with the Yankees seemed less than bright. It was reported that the parent club was complaining about the deterioration of the stadium and the anger over a rebranding to the name “Pizza Rats,” whereby the Staten Island Yankees focused their promotions on a viral video from 2015. of a rat pulling a slice in the subway. The Yankees did not respond to a request for comment.

These days at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark, which opened in 2001, rectangular sections of the outfield fence lie face down on the warning track, making the center field wall appear as if he was missing teeth.

Despite indications that the American pastime may not be best suited to Staten Island, the New York mayor’s office said in April that it wanted baseball to be the primary focus at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark. The town’s Economic Development Corporation, 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 upgrade the facility.

“He certainly needs more than tender loving care; he’s 20 years old, ”said James Oddo, Borough of Staten Island. “It appears that part of the interview has been dropped.”

The city’s influx of money would also allow for the installation of new land that could withstand the heavy and repetitive trampling by spikes that grassy outdoor fields cannot. An artificial surface could also support events such as concerts better. Rugby and football were discussed as other professional sports that could be played at the baseball stadium, and Mr Oddo said removing seats and reconfiguring the outfield wall was a possibility during renovations.

Ballpark Digest’s Mr Reichard estimated that covering an artificial turf pitch could cost as much as $ 1 million. He added that a new seat costs around $ 110 plus installation (although used seats in good condition can be resold). Six years ago, the total of new seats at McCormick Field in Asheville, NC was about $ 250,000.

“All of our dreams and ambitions of a fully living facility are based on synthetic turf,” said Mr. Oddo.

A busy and functional stadium on Staten Island is crucial to transforming the waterfront into a destination. Empire Outlets opened next to the stadium in May 2019, but the pandemic has slowed growth. Bordering the left side of the baseball field is a wasteland allocated for a giant Ferris wheel, with signage still indicating its arrival in 2017.

The Staten Island Yankees also gave up valuable parking space for these projects, which were meant to attract tourists to Manhattan.

Several cities are exploring similar entertainment complexes to rekindle local interest in minor league baseball. A proposed $ 142 million site in Knoxville, Tenn., Would feature a new $ 65 million stadium surrounded by retail and residential offerings.

The construction of such facilities is not without risk. When Major League Baseball reshaped minor leagues, teams found themselves locked into affiliations for just 10 years, apparently giving minor league teams that were left out a window to renovate their stadiums in case an uptime s ‘would open a decade later.

The 10-year deals could also give major league clubs leverage to demand more upgrades from current partners. Major League Baseball has already ordered the minor league team in Eugene, Oregon to build a new stadium where the franchise will be relocated by 2025.

Community leaders in Lancaster, Calif., Who lost the Class A Lancaster Jethawks after 25 years, are less likely to jump through such hoops. The City Parks Department, which owns the Lancaster Stadium, is working with an architectural firm to develop “concept designs of the highest standard,” said Sonya Patterson, director of parks, arts, recreation and services community in Lancaster.

A multi-purpose event center for concerts, an indoor gymnasium and an aquatic center are all possible new uses at the site, she said.

“It was a great loss for us,” Ms. Patterson said. “But once we got that advice, we then looked at that skyline and thought about what an amazing opportunity it is for the city to reinvent this space.”


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