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Baseball returns to Richmond tonight

Professional baseball returns to Richmond tonight in the form of the Richmond Flying Squirrels. Tonight's game is a sellout, and we're guessing the Squirrels will be a serious draw this season and next. But will The Diamond be the long-term home of baseball in Virginia's capital?

We're in Richmond for the debut of the Richmond Flying Squirrels (Class AA; Eastern League) tonight. The game is a sellout, and there's a pretty good chance there will be at least two more sellouts in the upcoming seven-game homestand, showing the pent-up enthusiasm for baseball in Virginia's capital city.

The Diamond has been spiffed up for the game: we drove by the ballpark earlier this morning to see how things looked. Banners were placed over the last nine rows of seating in the upper deck, decreasing capacity from 12,000-plus to just under 10,000. The banners add some needed color to a brutal concrete dominating the look at The Diamond; we're guessing the Squirrels crew has made plenty of other changes to the ballpark as well for tonight's game.

That there's been such an enthusiastic response to the return of the team certainly has to be encouraging for owner Lou DiBella, who suffered through one of the most tumultuous offseasons in baseball in 2009-2010. He and his partners paid $10 million for the Connecticut Defenders (Class AA; Eastern League) in 2005 and suffered through some lean times at Dodd Stadium before the Richmond market opened. A sale of the team fell through, but to his credit DiBella rallied and brought some some very talented folks — Chuck Domino, Todd Parnell and Bill Papierniak — to run operations.

Still, The Diamond is The Diamond: it's in a commercial part of town that's not likely to go upscale any time soon. There's considerable sentiment in the community for a new ballpark, but the issue is where it goes and who pays for it. The complex way The Diamond was built and funded (it's owned by the Richmond Metropolitan Authority and funded by the three counties comprising the greater Richmond area) is a detriment to ballpark development: getting three counties and the city to agree on anything when all are facing serious budget deficits will be a huge challenge, especially with no local ownership in the ranks. It will be a struggle, to say the least, and we're guessing a combination of a better economy and some local ownership will need to occur before a new ballpark is a reality.

We're not going to let this pessimism ruin the festivities tonight, however. The Flying Squirrels front office has done a lot to reestablish credibility in the community; a new affiliation next season (can we say Nats?) will do even more. For the baseball fans of Richmond, pro baseball is back — and that's always good news.

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