It's official: The Savannah Sand Gnats are moving to Columbia, South Carolina, next season.
This information was revealed at a press conference held Thursday afternoon at Columbia's Spirit Communications Park, the under-construction stadium that will house the relocating Sand Gnats beginning in 2016. The Sand Gnats will change their name and logo as a result of the move to Columbia, but the South Atlantic League franchise will remain the Class A affiliate of the New York Mets.
The Sand Gnats' announced move from Savannah to Columbia had long been rumored. Hardball Capital, the ownership group responsible for relocating a team to Columbia, owns the Fort Wayne TinCaps and Savannah Sand Gnats. The Sand Gnats' current home of Grayson Stadium is among the oldest in Minor League Baseball, one lacking in both player facilities and fan amenities. With nothing on the table in terms of building a new stadium in Savannah, relocating the Sand Gnats became a forgone conclusion.
"We were 100 percent committed to bringing a team to Columbia," said Hardball Capital CEO and chairman Jason Freier, reached by phone Thursday morning. "An investment would have been needed to acquire another team so as to keep one in Savannah. We were willing to do so as long as was there was some plan in place for a suitable long-term facility. … Unfortunately we were not able to get that from the city [of Savannah]. They said we'll look again in another five to seven years, and at that point keeping a team at Grayson Stadium doesn't make much sense. It can continue to have a useful life, but it has outlived its day as a professional baseball stadium."
Freier said that he'd "wanted to make this announcement for a while," but that it had been delayed "largely out of respect for Savannah, to see if we could put a plan in place for use of the existing ballpark."
"But we felt that Columbia had to know which team would be coming," he continued. "We've started pouring the foundation [at Spirit Communications Park] and decided that it was time to do this. There was nothing special about this particular day -- it was more a matter of people's schedules."
Among the attendees at Thursday's press conference was New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson. The Sand Gnats have been the Mets' Class A affiliate since the 2007 season.
"Since we first acquired the [Sand Gnats], our very first conversation with the Mets was about 'How do we fix this stadium?'" said Freier. "[Grayson Stadium] was unworkable and unacceptable, and they wanted to know if we had a plan to make that better. I told them that we did, and I think we had credibility with the Mets from the start because of what we accomplished [building a new stadium] in Fort Wayne [for the Tin Caps]. It was not pie in the sky -- we'd get them in a suitable facility.
"Once Columbia played out as we had hoped, we wanted to give Savannah the chance to do the same thing," he continued. "But if not, we were committed to moving the team to this new ballpark. [The Mets] have stuck with [the Sand Gnats] in a difficult situation. Now they're going from one of the most difficult to one of the best -- a top-of-the-line brand-new ballpark."
The Sand Gnats' last game at Grayson Stadium is scheduled for Sept. 2, marking the end of the line for a franchise that began play in 1984 as the Savannah Cardinals. It also marks the likely end of affiliated professional baseball at Grayson Stadium, which opened in 1926. Spirit Communications Park, the $37 million centerpiece of Columbia's Bull Street downtown development project, is scheduled to open its doors in April 2016.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.