Welcome to Batting Around, a biweekly look at local off-the-field news from around the country. If you have an item to contribute for potential inclusion in a future edition, please email Ben Hill.
The Tucson Chihuahuas?
Through the years, the city of Tucson has hosted a variety of professional baseball teams, from the Old Pueblos to the Cowboys to the Sidewinders. In 2014, one more name will be added to that list, albeit briefly: the Chihuahuas.
The El Paso Chihuahuas announced Feb. 7 that, due to stadium construction concerns, the team would play its first four home games of the season (April 11-14) at Tucson's Kino Stadium. The Chihuahuas relocated to El Paso after spending three seasons as the Tucson Padres, meaning they'll be returning to their old stomping grounds.
The Chihuahuas' downtown El Paso stadium is now slated to open on April 28. In a news release, the team said that the extra time was needed so that "[p]ublic safety components, concession spaces and state-of-the-art amenities" could be finalized.
"We have one chance to do Opening Day right, and we owe it to the community to make sure that first impression of every detail in the ballpark is unforgettable," said Alan Ledford, president of the Chihuahuas' MountainStar Sports ownership group. "This is as much about the whole ballpark experience as it is about playing baseball. April 28th will be worth the wait."
News of the delay came just days after the city of El Paso held a community meeting in which it informed residents that stadium construction would soon take place around the clock. The previous edition of this column included information on the stadium's just-completed "Sky Bridge," which offers views of the playing field on one side and of neighboring Mexico on the other.
Last week, the city of Biloxi, Miss., held a groundbreaking ceremony for MGM Park, which will host the franchise currently known as the Huntsville Stars beginning in 2015. But the shovels in the ground during that ceremony were a bit premature, as a sizable chunk of the stadium's funding had not been approved. That final hurdle was cleared Tuesday, when the Biloxi City Council voted, 5-2, to approve the issuance of $21 million in municipal bonds. Additional funding comes via $15 million of a BP grant awarded to the state of Mississippi in the wake of the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill.
Not mutually exclusive
Jason Freier, owner of the Fort Wayne TinCaps and Savannah Sand Gnats, has guaranteed that if the city of Columbia, S.C., builds a ballpark, he will be able to locate a team there. But the question remains: which team? Speculation has centered on the Sand Gnats, particularly since Savannah's interest in building a facility to replace 88-year-old Grayson Stadium has been lukewarm, at best.
But much is still to be determined. From Columbia's The State newspaper:
Freier ... said he would have to acquire a third team if Savannah and Columbia build the stadiums he's proposing.
"Having a team in Savannah and Columbia is not necessarily mutually exclusive," Freier said [Jan.31]. "If we have projects in both cities, we would be talking about a third team."
He said the rules of Major League Baseball bar him from publicly discussing moving teams while contractual obligations to current teams are in force. His contract with Savannah expires Sept. 30.
In other words: stay tuned.
Snap to it
The 16-team Midwest League has become a tale of two leagues, with multi-faceted baseball enterprises such as the Dayton Dragons and Great Lakes Loons co-existing alongside more rustic entities. The Beloit Snappers are at the latter end of that spectrum, averaging only 939 fans a game at Pohlman Field during the 2013 season (last in the league). Minor League President Pat O'Conner, in Beloit for the Snappers' Hot Stove Dinner, addressed the team's long-term outlook. From the Beloit Daily News:
"I look at cities in two ways," O'Conner said. "Those that are unable and those that are unwilling. I have little patience for those that are unwilling. I have a great deal of tolerance and respect for those that are unable. The difference is that they want to do things better, they just aren't able to given the circumstances."
O'Conner ... places Beloit firmly in the "unable" category as it relates to procuring a new or updated facility.
"It's a critical time for Beloit, not today, but in the next few years," O'Conner said. "It's not something that's imminent, but it's something that they are going to have to sit down and talk about what they want to do as far as their baseball future."
In the meantime, Pohlman Field remains a charming -- albeit low-frills -- place to visit. Look carefully and you might even see the Whitewall Ninja.
- Orlando's 100-year-old Tinker Field might be torn down, but efforts are underway to have it declared a local landmark. In addition to its rich Minor League and Spring Training history, the facility once hosted a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.
- The Richmond Flying Squirrels announced Feb. 10 that "eight prominent members of the Richmond community have been approved by Minor League Baseball as minority partners of the Flying Squirrels." More than 20 percent of the team is now under local ownership, a fact that can only help the Flying Squirrels in their long-simmering quest to have a new ballpark built.
- The city of Virginia Beach, Va., has approved a plan to build a new professional baseball stadium. The stadium will host a team in the independent Atlantic League, competing directly with the nearby Triple-A Norfolk Tides.