The Atlanta Braves have reached a preliminary "understanding" to buy the Lynchburg Hillcats, with an eye toward moving the team to Wilmington, N.C. But the deal is contingent on construction of a new stadium in the North Carolina city and another Minor League franchise moving to Lynchburg.
"There are numerous contingencies and no definitive purchase agreement has been signed," the Hillcats said in a statement, noting the Lynchburg Baseball Corp. is committed to keeping professional baseball at Lynchburg City Stadium.
On Tuesday, the Wilmington City Council voted unanimously to begin negotiations with the Braves. According to the Wilmington Star-News, the city has until July 31 to investigate the cost of building a stadium and potential locations along with gauging public support of a project expected to cost upwards of $40 million.
"There's been a lot of discussion about this and it was about time we brought it out to the open," Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo told the newspaper. "We're going to pursue a process in the next six months to see what this looks like, what the funding might look like. ... We have a lot of work ahead of us."
Among those who attended Tuesday's council meeting were Braves general manager Frank Wren and former Braves manager Bobby Cox. Cox visited Wilmington last November and met with local elected officials to discuss the proposal, the Star-News reported.
The Lynchburg News & Advance speculated that the move could occur as early as the 2014 season, assuming Wilmington approves a stadium project.
"The dominoes have to all fall in place before it would come back to us to finalize the deal," Hillcats general manager Paul Sunwall told the newspaper.
The LBC board of directors was assured by the Braves that the team will help Lynchburg secure another affiliated Minor League team if the Hillcats are moved, he said.
"We want to make sure that the fans realize that we wouldn't have done this had we not been guaranteed of having another team come in here," Sunwall said. "After nearly 50 years of business, there's a time for a change. And the majority of the ownership group felt that way. The timing is right."
The Hillcats are entering their second year as a Braves affiliate. Last year, the team set a single-season attendance record with more than 169,367 fans passing through the turnstiles at 72-year-old Calvin Falwell Field. According to the News & Advance, Lynchburg is the only Braves affiliate that is not owned by the parent club. Its player development contract with the Braves runs through 2014.
"If [the sale] doesn't happen, we're still in business," Sunwall told the newspaper. "And we're going to continue on the same as we've been."
Daren Smith is an editor for MLB.com.