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Batting Around: Squirrels fight for future
Richmond ballpark debate drags on; Yard Goats hope to open earlier
02/10/2016 10:00 AM ET
The Diamond in Richmond opened in 1985 and has a seating capacity of approximately 9,500. (Richmond Flying Squirrels)

When the International League's Richmond Braves relocated from Virginia to Gwinnett County, Georgia, following the 2008 season, the move was motivated primarily by dissatisfaction with Richmond's ballpark, The Diamond. When an Eastern League club began playing there two years later as the Richmond Flying Squirrels, it was with the steadfast belief that a new stadium would be forthcoming.


"I look forward to giving the Diamond a facelift as we re-energize fans in the short run while efforts begin to give a city with the status of Richmond what it deserves, which is the best new Minor League ballpark in America," Flying Squirrels chief executive Chuck Domino said prior to the team's inaugural 2010 season.

Suffice to say, things have not gone as planned. This year marks the Giants' Double-A affiliate's seventh at The Diamond, a hulking concrete facility located on Richmond's heavily trafficked Boulevard. The Flying Squirrels have led the Eastern League in attendance for the last two seasons and have perennially been one of the circuit's top two draws, but their long-term future remains up in the air. A long-gesticulating and controversial plan to build a ballpark in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom neighborhood ended up going nowhere. And the dearth of progress toward a new home has left the club frustrated with city leadership.

"It's pretty ironic to be enticed back with a lot of promises and to feel like, in effect, you're being booted out," Flying Squirrels president Lou DiBella told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in November.

The following month, Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner appeared as a guest at the Flying Squirrels' Hot Stove Dinner. Speaking to the local media, he did not mince words.

"The problem here is not the fan support. It's not the corporate support. If the problem doesn't change, fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you," O'Conner said, in an interview with Richmond's NBC affiliate. "There is a distinct possibility that they'll lose baseball in Richmond."

The city plans to develop 60 acres that it owns on the Boulevard but has not yet determined if a ballpark should be part of that development. At a public meeting last month, which the Flying Squirrels asked fans to attend, there was near-unanimous support for building a new ballpark. A spokesman for Mayor Dwight C. Jones downplayed the support, remarking, "I think there are a lot of special interests that want one result."

The Flying Squirrels got a key endorsement in late January, when Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told radio station WRVA, "We cannot lose the Squirrels. ... I'd love to get everybody in a room and see if we can't hammer this out."

The team released a statement in the wake of the governor's comments.

"The Richmond Flying Squirrels welcome Governor McAuliffe's enthusiastic support for keeping the team in Richmond in a new stadium," read the statement, in part. "We want nothing more than to work with all the interested parties to find a solution that makes that a reality for our fans."

Yard Goats' yard update

As reported in the previous edition of this column, the Hartford Yard Goats' home opener at brand new Dunkin' Donuts Park is scheduled for May 31. It was originally scheduled for April 7, but disagreements over financing temporarily stalled construction.

"The project is moving steadily," Jason Rudnick, president of the Centerplan development company, told the Hartford Courant. "There's no more 'stop, go, stop, go.' We reset the bar and we're on schedule."

The construction schedule calls for a "substantial completion" date of May 17, and all structural steel is expected to be installed by March 9. After touring the facility, Hartford City Council President T.J. Clarke called Dunkin' Donuts Park, "the Yankee Stadium of the Minor Leagues." Perhaps the most distinctive feature is a giant Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup that will let off steam to celebration a Yard Goats home run. This cup has yet to be installed.

The Yard Goats, who relocated from nearby New Britain, Connecticut, are the Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.

Concerns in Columbia

This year's other new Minor League stadium is Spirit Communications Park, home of the South Atlantic League's Columbia Fireflies, Class A affiliate of the Mets. Construction on the facility has proceeded on schedule and with comparatively little controversy. Recently, however, local residents have expressed concern regarding the light and noise that will emanate from the facility.

According to coladaily.com, a recently released report found that "baseball games would have a minimal effect on nearby neighborhoods."

"It's obviously critically important for us to be good neighbors," Fireflies president John Katz told the website.

The report was greeted with skepticism by some in the community, who raised concerns regarding the delay in releasing the report (it was completed in July). Some also have pointed out that the report did not take into account sound resulting from postgame fireworks or concerts. Columbia's The State reported that the city has little authority in this matter, as it already granted the Fireflies the right to operate the stadium. Furthermore, any noise ordinances passed by the city council would have to apply not just to the Fireflies but to Columbia at large.

Lowell Spinners: Still on the market

Following the 2015 season, Lowell Spinners owner Drew Weber announced that he was selling the team. Weber, who has owned the Spinners since 1997, made it clear that his priority was to keep the team in Lowell.

In November, The Lowell Sun reported that a group of local investors had signed a letter of intent to purchase the Spinners. At the time, Weber expressed optimism but also said, "There have been many, many business deals where the principals were confident, but it didn't work out in the end."

It didn't work out in the end.

Earlier this week, the Sun broke the news that the deal had fallen through. Michael Kuenzler, one of the businessmen involved in the failed attempt, told the newspaper that another local group is interested in buying the team and is "doing due diligence."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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