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Future of Fort Worth Cats in doubt; big decisions loom

The future of the American Association's Fort Worth Cats will be decided in the next few weeks, as owner Carl Bell decides whether to sell the team and the ballpark, suspend operations or shift to United League Baseball.

Days after news broke that owner Carl Bell had put the Fort Worth Cats (independent; American Association), LaGrave Field and some 60 acres of prime land along the Trinity River, word comes that the situation in Fort Worth is considerably more serious than first indicated.

While Bell hasn't quite locked the doors, he has laid off a significant amount of the staff and is exploring all options. One option will not be business as unusual, according to insiders we chatted with over the weekend. As structured now, the Cats and the LaGrave Field comprise a money-losing operation: despite being a decent draw (3,705 fans a game), the one-two punch of property taxes on LaGrave Field and high travel costs of playing in the American Association led Bell to conclude the status quo cannot hold.

One option is to sell the whole kit and kaboodle to a local investor, who then would decide how to proceed on the baseball front. What happens then becomes a point of conjecture: some within independent United League Baseball think they have a great shot at landing the Cats under new owners. ULB has a distinct advantage in the short term over the American Association: travel and league costs are considerably lower. In other words, no road trips for the Cats to St. Paul and Sioux Falls if the Cats shift leagues.

One other option that's not been revealed to date: selling the Trinity River land to a private investor and the ballpark to the city. Under that scenario Bell would retain the team and keep it in the American Association. How viable an option this is depends on how Fort Worth officials react; it would require a financial outlay of some sort for the city and take LaGrave Field off the tax rolls.

Currently the Cats are planning on attending the upcoming American Association league meetings this week in Pensacola, so no decisions regarding any league shifts have been reached. On a grander level, the Cats represent a challenge to the whole operating strategy of the American Association and independent baseball. A league stretching from St. Paul to Pensacola may not be a viable business strategy in the long term, and the indy model may need to morph to something on a more regional level if it is to survive. It's already been a rough offseason for flagship indy franchises, what with the Brockton Rox (independent; CanAm Association) locking out employees and other teams, like the American Defenders of New Hampshire, shutting down completely.

Still, it's hard to see Carl Bell walking away from indy baseball; we're guessing things must be really bad for him to take such a drastic step. Bell was both a fan and a businessman: he grew up watching the Cats in the original LaGrave Field, and his passion for baseball led him to dig up what was left of the original ballpark (chiefly, the original dugouts and remnants of the home-run fence) and build a new ballpark around those elements. If such a dedicated fan decides they can't make it in independent baseball, a second look at the structure of the sport is in order.

RELATED STORIES: Bell selling Cats, ballpark

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