Cities Without Minor League Baseball Teams Find Other Paths

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Bert Parsley’s vision was bold and unusual: a 35,000 square foot restaurant and event space attached to a Harley Davidson dealership. It would only work in the right place, however, and the one he found on El Jobean Road in Port Charlotte, Florida looked perfect.

“We’re right across from the Charlotte County Sports Complex,” recalls the owner of Twisted Fork Restaurant. “How could this go wrong?” “

Even before the restaurant opened, the minor league baseball team that had called the stadium was gone.

When Major League Baseball removed 40 teams from their membership in a drastic minor league reshuffle last winter, most were offset by a top-tier alternative club, such as a summer college league team.

Port Charlotte was one of a handful of exceptions.

The Charlotte Stone Crabs – formerly a Class A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays – have closed their doors completely and there are no plans to replace them. Their departure has left businesses, nonprofits, youth baseball leagues and others in the community looking for ways to replace income and to rejoice in the provided ball club.

“It has become an integral part of the structure of our organization,” said Lynn Dorler, director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Charlotte County. “We miss it.”

Parsley had hoped that fans entering and exiting the stadium would provide big deals for his unusual space, but since Twisted Fork finally opened last September, he has had to adjust his expectations to the reality that the minor league ball could disappear forever from this city. Florida Gulf Coast.

“I can only imagine what the games would have done for us,” he said.

The community ties of the Stone Crabs were large and small. Some losses are regrettable but hardly overwhelming – the Port Charlotte Little League, for example, received the remaining baseballs each season in the Stone Crabs batting cages.

“They were generous,” said league president Lou Agosto. “We miss them in so many ways. I wish they weren’t doing that gesture, but it’s something we have to live with.”

Dorler’s Boys and Girls Clubs relied heavily on Stone Crabs. The Florida State League team hosted games starting at 10 a.m. to welcome kids attending Boys & Girls Clubs summer camps, and players were frequent visitors to the organization’s headquarters. Two Stone Crabs general managers have even sat on the association’s board of directors.

“Our kids knew Blake Snell even before Blake Snell was in the big leagues,” Dorler said of the 2018 AHL Cy Young award winner with the Rays. “Willy Adames, when he was in the minor leagues he was so good with our kids, playing wrestling with our kids on the pitch. He just went out of his way to be friendly with the kids in our community.”

The parties have coordinated to hold a big fundraising gala for Boys and Girls clubs each spring, known as BaseBALL. The Rays were also involved in the event, and Dorler is optimistic he will continue with help from Tampa Bay. And with the MLB team still hosting their spring training in Port Charlotte, area kids aren’t entirely deprived of baseball.

Dorler knows there will be a void for the summer months, however – and the lost chance for the kids to see what it looks like up close when someone pursues their ambitions.

“It’s priceless,” Dorler said. “It’s the opportunity to see a dream or to set a goal, to say, ‘I want to be like this, I want to be successful.’ Interacting with baseball players helps them dream, it helps them see something for their future.

While spring training will keep professional baseball at the Charlotte County Sports Complex, other cities that have lost minor league franchises are exploring ways to reuse their stadiums.

Officials in Lancaster, Calif., Are trying to figure out what to do with the Hangar, the former 7,000-seat home of the Lancaster JetHawks. Lancaster City Manager Jason Caudle told the Los Angeles Times the city is looking for options, which could include converting the park to an amphitheater.

AP Photo of Mark Humphrey / Matt Malone, turf manager and director of ballpark stadium operations in Jackson, sets the stage ahead of a home game for the American Association’s Winnipeg Goldeyes on Tuesday in Jackson, Tenn. With the Jackson Generals around, the Goldeyes are playing their home games in Jackson due to COVID-19 restrictions in Canada. (AP Photo / Mark Humphrey)

Jackson, Tennessee, took a similar approach after losing the Double-A generals. The team’s license for The Ballpark at Jackson expired on May 31, and city officials began soliciting proposals on how to use the 6,000-seat stadium.

Mayor Scott Conger told The Associated Press he sees a significant financial opportunity for Jackson in finding a new use for the city-owned facility.

For starters, said Conger, baseball’s biggest impact on his community has never come from the generals – they competed in the Southern League with the Chattanooga Lookouts, who were spared and are now part of Double-A South. – but instead of the tournaments of teams selected for young people. held on the sports complex of 17 fields nearby. These still bring families to the area in droves.

The city had paid around $ 1.3 million a year for the stadium’s operations as part of Jackson’s deal with the generals, and Conger said that “the annual return on investment was not at all close to what it should be “.

“We have a great and great asset to the city of Jackson in a prime location on Interstate 40, and people want to be a part of it and use the stadium,” he said. “I think for us this is really the first time that we are in charge of our own destiny with this stadium. And so we have the opportunity to maximize the use of the stadium to its full potential.”

This does not mean that there is no disappointment. Josh Smith, a 45-year-old marketing manager in Jackson, said the community is deeply missed by the Generals.

The Ballpark in Jackson was his family’s favorite gathering space, and he cherished the idea of ​​sharing that with his niece and two nephews. Area residents are used to driving to nearby Nashville or Chattanooga for concerts, the zoo, and other forms of entertainment, but Smith said they’ve grown accustomed to having baseball in their backyard.

“It was what baseball was always meant to be,” he said. “Your whole community is having a blast.”

Sad as those who spoke to the AP were on the verge of losing their minor league club, all were equally sympathetic. Charlotte, Jackson and Lancaster all placed in the bottom third of all minor league teams attending in 2019.

“I want to believe minor league baseball will come back to Charlotte County,” said Dorler, the Boys & Girls Clubs executive. “I don’t know from a business perspective if this makes sense for MLB.”

Parsley, the restaurant owner, echoed that sentiment. When the Rays hosted 14 spring training games this year, it didn’t matter that COVID-19 restrictions were still limiting capacity – the crowd always spilled out and filled the Twisted Fork, leaving Parsley wondering what could have been. to be.

“I always wear my Stone Crabs hat and shirt,” he said. “It would be cool to see another team come back here someday. There is support with the community.”


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