Batting Around: Rock Cats' future uncertain

Delays involving Biloxi stadium creating problems for Huntsville Stars

The Stars left Huntsville last month but could be forced to return if their Biloxi ballpark isn't ready. (Huntsville Stars)

By Benjamin Hill / | September 25, 2014 10:00 AM

Welcome to the first 2014-15 offseason edition of Batting Around, returning to after a three-month hiatus. This column is a monthly curation and analysis of Minor League baseball off-the-field news from around the country, locally sourced whenever possible. If you have an item to contribute for inclusion in a future edition, please email Ben Hill.

Controversy in Connecticut

On June 4, Hartford mayor Pedro Segarra and New Britain Rock Cats owner Josh Solomon held a news conference on the steps of Hartford City Hall to announce that the team planned to move to Connecticut's capital city prior to the 2016 season.

Some three months later, that timeline seems unrealistic. The secret meetings held by the city of Hartford and Rock Cats ownership prior to the announcement alienated the city of New Britain as well as many Hartford residents. After receiving intense criticism regarding a proposed $60 million public funding plan for the ballpark, the city announced on July 11 that private investment would be sought instead. As an alternate plan, city leaders solicited larger-scale proposals for a downtown redevelopment project that included the ballpark as well as residential, office and retail establishments.

At a Sept. 1 city council meeting, developers pitched its vision and Segarra announced that the city had chosen a $350 million proposal submitted by Centerplate Construction. The council still must approve funding for this ambitious proposal, and a vote has not been scheduled. On Tuesday, the Hartford Planning and Zoning Commission gave an unfavorable recommendation to the ballpark plan, with chairwoman Sara Bronin sharply criticizing the lack of transparency in the process.

The Rock Cats' future very much remains an open question and, as a result, the Minnesota Twins opted not to renew their affiliation with the club. General manager Terry Ryan remarked that the uncertainty surrounding the Rock Cats is "about the only reason" the team decided not to continue the relationship. In the wake of the announcement, the Rock Cats reached an affiliation agreement with the Colorado Rockies.

Columbia creeps closer

It hasn't always been a smooth process, but the city of Columbia, South Carolina, continues to work toward its stated goal of fielding a Minor League Baseball team in 2016. Jason Freier, who owns the Savannah Sand Gnats and Fort Wayne TinCaps, had guaranteed he would be able to locate a team in the city if funding for a stadium was secured, and on July 16 the city council approved the necessary money. Approximately $29 million will be provided by the city, with the stadium serving as the centerpiece of a much larger downtown development project.

Less than a week later, Freier's Hardball Capital group filed a relocation application with Minor League Baseball. Given that the TinCaps are one of the Minors' most successful teams, it stands to reason that the team that Hardball Capital is seeking to relocate is the Sand Gnats.

In August, the Columbia city council hired architectural firm Populous to design the new stadium. As part of an article on the topic, The State newspaper also reported that Freier will make a public announcement regarding which team will move after the relocation paperwork is approved.

Behind in Biloxi

The Huntsville Stars are moving to Biloxi, Mississippi. That much has been known for quite some time. As for exactly when the move will happen, that remains an open question. When the Stars' relocation was announced, the plan called for a new ballpark to be built in Biloxi in time for the opening of the 2015 season. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in January, somewhat prematurely, to say the least. It wasn't until July 22 that the Biloxi city council approved a $29.1 million contract to build the facility, which will be called MGM Park. The pact included a variety of cost-cutting measures designed to keep the project within its budget.

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Construction finally, mercifully, began in earnest in August, with a target completion of August 2015. Though it's possible the stadium could be finished earlier than that, the franchise still known as the Huntsville Stars faces a dilemma as far as the 2015 season. Possibilities include returning to Huntsville for a second "farewell" season or perhaps playing home games on the road in the spirit of the 2012 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.

Floundering in Fredericksburg

The effort to relocate the Hagerstown Suns to Fredericksburg, Virginia, has been in a period of stasis due to a significant budgetary shortfall. The cost to acquire land, then build a new privately financed facility, which would include a youth baseball complex, is estimated at approximately $53 million. That's some $18 million more than the partners involved (Diamond Nation as well as members of the Suns ownership group) were willing to spend. Efforts to have the city of Fredericksburg make up the shortfall via a revenue-sharing proposal went nowhere, but hope is not lost. Per

Diamond Nation offered to finance the full cost of the stadium and sports facility and asked that the city pay the increased cost of the parking lot. The City Council unanimously approved a resolution that gives the baseball partners one year to obtain financing for the project.

The Suns' lease at Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium runs through the 2016 season. Barring some sort of financing miracle, they will remain there for at least that long.

Waylaid in Winter Park

In May, reports surfaced that the Brevard County Manatees might relocate to the Orlando suburb of Winter Park in time for the 2016 season. That possibility is dead, as those efforts were abandoned on Aug. 14. The ballpark project was a four-way effort involving the city, Rollins College, the Manatees and the Ravaudage development group, but those parties could not work out a so-called "win-win-win-win effort."

Salinas Suggestions

The Bakersfield Blaze play in an ancient stadium and have been last in the California League in attendance for eight consecutive seasons; relocation rumors have surrounded the team for years. The latest involves the city of Salinas, located about 200 miles northwest of Bakersfield on the Central California Coast. A partnership with the city of 150,000 people is being actively courted by Blaze owner D.G. Elmore, who met with the Salinas city council Tuesday to implore members to consider hosting the Blaze in 2016. A new stadium would be needed, of course, which Elmore said would be privately financed at a cost of approximately $15 million. Salinas last hosted Minor League Baseball in the form of the Salinas Spurs, who played in the California League from 1982-92.

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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