Today, it finally became official: The Connecticut Defenders will be relocating to Richmond in 2010.
The announcement was made jointly by the Richmond Metropolitan Authority and the Eastern League at a press conference Wednesday morning. The Diamond, a 25-year-old facility that will house the franchise for at least the next two seasons, was the site of the announcement. The Diamond had previously been the home of the International League's Richmond Braves, who relocated to Gwinnett County, Ga. following the conclusion of the 2008 campaign.
Since the departure of the R-Braves, speculation has been rampant regarding Richmond's professional baseball future. The Defenders, a San Francisco Giants affiliate who had ranked near the bottom of the Eastern league in attendance, had often been mentioned as a prime candidate for relocation. In February, it was reported in the Richmond press that a local ownership group led by businessman Brian Bostic was in the process of purchasing the club. These rumors picked up steam the following month, when the Norwich (CT) City Council reassigned the lease of the Defenders' Dodd Stadium to Bostic's ownership group.
Bostic's sales application was eventually rejected, however, as his ownership group was unable to raise the $16 million needed to purchase the franchise. Nonetheless, Defenders owner Lou DiBella opted to go ahead with the relocation while remaining in control of the team.
The most pressing issue facing the franchise remains The Diamond, which is owned and operated by the Richmond Metropolitan Authority as part of a regional partnership with Henrico County, Chesterfield County and the City of Richmond. Dissatisfaction with the aging facility was the motivating factor behind the R-Braves move, and a new stadium is considered crucial to the long-term success of professional baseball in the Richmond area. The current arrangement obligates the club to play in the Diamond for the next two seasons, with three one-year club options.
On the positive side of the equation is the fact that the franchise will be run by a veteran team of respected Minor League executives. Chuck Domino relinquished his presidency of the Reading Phillies and Lehigh Valley IronPigs in order to assume the role of chief executive manager, and he will be joined on staff by vice president Todd Parnell and general manager Bill Paperniak.
While acknowledging that a new facility was the ultimate goal for the ballclub, Domino announced that the franchise would be spending approximately $1.5 million on improvements to the Diamond (including 3,200 new seats, a new press box and suite windows, a new videoboard, and a new team store). The team also plans on upgrading player amenities, installing an indoor climate-controlled batting tunnel, and refurbishing the locker and weight rooms.
"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," said Domino.
Parnell made it clear that he and his staff would put a premium on ballpark atmosphere, emphasizing that "fun is the key word." He also announced that the club has launched a three-tiered "Name the Team" contest in conjunction with the Richmond Times Dispatch. Fans can submit their name ideas beginning today, and the winner will be announced on October 15.