Batting Around: Florida ballpark news

West Palm Beach ballpark will alter Grapefruit League landscape

MLB's Rob Manfred, Astros owner Jim Crane and Nationals owner Mark Lerner help break ground in West Palm Beach. (AP)

By Benjamin Hill / | March 9, 2016 10:00 AM

Spring Training is in full swing and it's business as usual in Florida's Grapefruit League. Changes are on the horizon, however, which will likely have an impact on the world of Minor League Baseball.

The Sunshine State's biggest Spring Training development, mentioned in previous editions of this column, is that construction is underway at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. This complex, located in West Palm Beach and being built at an estimated cost of $144 million, will serve as the Spring Training home of both the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros (replacing their current Florida locales of Viera and Kissimmee respectively). Slated to open in January 2017, the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches occupies an area that previously had been a massive trash dump. Thus, the construction site has been unusually fragrant.

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The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is important not just for the Nationals and the Astros, but for the long-term future of Spring Training baseball on Florida's southeast coast. The complex is a short drive south from Jupiter's Roger Dean Stadium (home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins), which in recent years had become isolated as the larger Spring Training landscape shifted elsewhere.  

Local leaders are betting that using public money to cover most of the tab will be worth the new businesses and jobs expected to follow," reported South Florida's Sun-Sentinel, following the groundbreaking ceremony. "And baseball officials see the planned Ballpark of the Palm Beaches as a way to bolster spring training in Florida."

Last month Brady Ballard was hired as Ballpark of the Palm Beaches' general manager. Ballard previously served as GM of the Florida State League's Daytona Cubs, and most recently, as vice president of Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach.

Roger Dean Stadium hosts the Class A Advanced affiliates of both its Spring Training tenants, but it remains to be seen whether the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches will become a Florida State League facility. Like anything else in Minor League Baseball, it comes down to a numbers game. Eleven of the FSL's 12 teams already play in a stadium that also hosts Major League Spring Training; nine of them are owned by their Major League affiliate. Washington and Houston currently have their Class A Advanced affiliates in the Carolina and California Leagues respectively.

The Rookie-level Gulf Coast League constitutes a much simpler situation as the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches will serve as the home for both organizations' GCL teams.

2016 marks the Nationals' final Spring Training season at Viera's Space Coast Stadium, which also hosts the FSL's Brevard County Manatees (Class A Advanced affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers). As reported in a previous edition of this column, the U.S. Specialty Sports Association is slated to soon take over operations of the facility on a 20-year lease. Against the backdrop of change, the Manatees' long-term future remains unclear. Amid the ongoing uncertainty, it was announced last week that GM Kyle Smith had stepped down and would be replaced by former assistant GM Chad Lovitt. 

Blue Jays seeking fresh Grapefruit

Dunedin's Florida Auto Exchange Stadium has served as Toronto's Spring Training home since 1990, but the Blue Jays have made it clear they want an upgrade. Team president Mark Shapiro met with Dunedin city officials last month, advocating for a new complex or major renovation. Shapiro told Sports Net Canada "we're trying to get a deal done with Dunedin," but should that fail then "the search would be wide." One option would be to partner with the Atlanta Braves on a new two-team complex, a la Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Florida Auto Exchange Stadium also serves as the longtime home of the FSL's Dunedin Blue Jays.

Redbirds reshuffle the deck

On Tuesday, the St. Louis Cardinals announced that, pending the proper approvals, they are selling the majority share of their Triple-A affiliate Memphis Redbirds to Peter Freund of Trinity Baseball Holdings. Freund also owns the short-season Williamsport Crosscutters and is a co-owner of the Class A Charleston RiverDogs. The Cardinals will retain a minority share of the Redbirds. 

"While we were not actively looking to sell a stake in the team, after meeting Peter we immediately knew that partnering with him would strengthen the Memphis Redbirds and be a win for everyone involved," Bill DeWitt Jr., chairman and CEO of the St. Louis Cardinals, said in a press release.

The move is surprising in that it comes less than three years after the Cardinals purchased the Redbirds as part of a complex "strategic agreement." That deal called for the City of Memphis to purchase the Redbirds' home of AutoZone Park and make it available to the Redbirds via a lease running through 2030. A spokesman for Memphis mayor Jim Strickland told the Memphis Flyer that "we don't anticipate any changes to our current contract" with the Redbirds.

Grand Opening update

The Hartford Yard Goats made more than their share of unwanted headlines this offseason as funding shortfalls temporarily stalled construction on brand-new Dunkin' Donuts Park. As such, it soon became clear it would not be ready by Opening Day. A series of negotiations and compromises resulted in a new plan that would see the ballpark open on May 31. As the Hartford Courant reports, this new timeline is proceeding apace. The Yard Goats, Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, relocated to Hartford from nearby New Britain.

2016's other new Minor League facility is Spirit Communications Park, which will be the home of the Columbia Fireflies (who formerly existed as the Savannah Sand Gnats). All is currently well in Columbia; on Tuesday, the Fireflies began the turf installation process. On Wednesday, they are scheduled to pour the final stretch of concourse concrete. The Fireflies -- Class A affiliate of the New York Mets -- are scheduled to play their home opener on April 14 against the Greenville Drive. 

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for 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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