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Eastern League just a swirl of intrigue

Eastern LeagueThe current hotbed of intrigue in the baseball world? The Eastern League, where Ottawa’s desire for a team and Richmond’s wishes for a new ballpark are roiling the waters.

It appears as though there’s an excellent chance Minor League Baseball is returning to Ottawa for the 2013 season and beyond, as discussions between a potential ownership group and the city are picking up, with Beacon Sports expected to make a proposal for an Ottawa Stadium lease in December.

Eastern League President Joe McEacharn also confirmed something to the local newspaper that we reported two weeks ago: that the group received permission from the league to seek a deal in Ottawa. The Citizen also reports what we’ve been reporting for weeks: that the likeliest team to make the move north is the Binghamton Mets, as we’ve been told by several MiLB team owners and brokers with knowledge of sales discussions.  

The B-Mets owners say they’re not selling the team, and they also extended their lease for NYSEG Stadium. That’s not conclusive, especially with speculation that a NY-Penn League team would be purchased by the B-Mets owners — so they’d need the lease for the ballpark no matter what. It’s our experience that every team on the move denies the chances of a move for as long as they can, and with good reason. Deals fall apart, plans change, especially with multiple Eastern League teams on the market. We’re working off the best possible data available to us at the moment.

But moving to the NY-Penn League would be a smart move for the B-Mets owners. Let’s say the Mets sell for $12 million. Buying the Batavia MuckDogs would cost $5 million. The Binghamton owners would see a revenue drop, to be sure, but they’d keep the best dates of the baseball season: no more messing around selling spedies on a cold April night. Do the math. 

We’re happy to see the chances of baseball returning to Ottawa, where the Ottawa Lynx (Class AAA; International League) once thrived before attendance went south. Professional baseball in Canada has been an endangered species in recent years, limited to the Vancouver Canadians (short season A; Northwest League) and a few scattered, albeit successful, independent teams. That’s a shame: there’s actually a pretty decent baseball presence in Canada.  

By the way, we’ve heard that discussions of a new Montreal ballpark are heating up, with Mandalay Baseball receiving permission to explore the market for a possible Erie SeaWolves (Class AA; Eastern League) move. (Don’t fret, Erie fans: we hear there’s already a NY-Penn League owner already eying Jerry Uht Park should the SeaWolves leave.) Having both Montreal and Ottawa in the Eastern League makes a lot of sense when it comes to logistics; heck, it’s a two-hour Via train ride between the cities. 

One thing to note. The speculation has been that the new Ottawa team would be a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate. That would, of course, make sense. But don’t assume discussions have actually happened quite yet: MiLB takes affiliate deals very seriously, and technically the New Hampshire Fisher Cats of the Eastern League are the Blue Jays’ Class AA affiliate through the 2012 season. Of course, informal discussions happen all the time, but surely the Blue Jays wouldn’t be promising an affiliation yet. Surely. One thing we do know: the Fisher Cats will never be a Mets or Yankees affiliate.

Of course, having a new suitor for an Eastern League team give instant leverage to any other team in the circuit seeking a new ballpark. We don’t see much chance of Lou DiBello picking up stakes and moving north of the border, but that’s not stopping the owners of the Richmond Flying Squirrels from invoking the spectre of a move in talks with the city over a replacement for The Diamond. The city has been pretty explicit about needing to get its own finances under shape before it can tackle financing a new ballpark.

That’s not enough for the Flying Squirrels and McEacharn, who say the team has given the city three years to come up with a ballpark plan:

“I think myself and city leaders are in agreement that commitments were made and the understanding was in place that The Diamond was not a long-term solution. It was a short-term solution,” McEacharn told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “And we further defined short-term to mean three years. We understood we would be playing at The Diamond for three years, and we were not prepared to come to Richmond and play at The Diamond for five or seven years.”

To put some pressure on the city, McEacharn noted that an unnamed city (i.e., Ottawa) has approached the league about a team and that the Flying Squirrels ownership will be meeting with MiLB President Pat O’Conner at the Winter Meetings.

Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones says he shares the team’s frustration:

“I’m sure that if I was looking at it from their point of view, I could understand their frustration,” Jones said of the Squirrels. “But from the other side of the spectrum, everybody has their issues. This is a very, very soft economy. This is a terrible recession that we’re in. I certainly want to see (a new ballpark) happen, and will do everything I can to make it happen.”

These are exceedingly difficult times to get public funding for a ballpark. Local and state budgets are being slashed while expenses continue to rise. Many voters consider ballpark funding to be a frill that’s not affordable in bad times, though the logical approach would be to borrow when interest rates, labor costs and material prices are low. Richmond has always been a tough market when it comes to funding a new ballpark: the Richmond Braves (Class AAA; International League) moved to Gwinnett when ownership concluded a new ballpark was not in the offing.

Bringing up the possibility of a team move is a high-risk endeavor, because there’s always the possibility the city may call any bluff. If the Flying Squirrels leave, there’s the very real chance Richmond would be lost to affiliated baseball: Peter Kirk and the independent Atlantic League once made a pretty strong pitch to lease The Diamond, and we’re pretty sure he’d be ready to set up shop there 10 minutes after the Flying Squirrels vacate the ballpark.

RELATED STORIES: Richmond: Yes, we really do intend on building a new ballpark; Budget issues postpone Squirrels ballpark to 2015 at the earliest; New Richmond ballpark by 2014?; DiBella: Time to start talking new ballpark; Flying Squirrels throw out first offer on new ballpark; Baseball returns to Richmond’s Diamond — but for how long?; Baseball returns to Richmond tonight; Flying Squirrels unveil uniform designs; Flying Squirrels unveil logo, color schemes; Richmond contest yields another dreadful name; Five finalists for Richmond team name announced; Group seeks Ottawa Stadium lease for 2013 and beyond; Ottawa out of running for SWB Yankees — but in line for affiliated ball; NY Yankees making moves with minor-league teams; Fat Cats owners may seek affiliated team for Ottawa; Valcke: Baseball can work in Ottawa; Ottawa: Ballpark should be converted to concert venue; Affiliated ball may be returning to Ottawa


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