Making the 2021 120-team cut isn’t a guarantee for long-term survival in the new world of Minor League Baseball. That’s why this year will be key in the future of the Richmond Flying Squirrels (Class AA; Eastern League), as the team continues work on a new ballpark.
Flying Squirrels owner Lou DiBella has been working on a replacement for The Diamond for over a decade now; back in 2010 we posted this story:
There’s no doubt that all sides consider The Diamond to be a temporary facility for the Flying Squirrels; the team signed a two-year lease before this season because it didn’t want to make a long-term commitment to the ballpark; the game plan was to come in, invest in the ballpark (to the tune of $2 million) and show Richmond the team was for real.
It worked: the Flying Squirrels clearly caught the imagination of the community, leading the Eastern League in attendance. And that seems to have impressed Richmond city leaders, who now are talking favorably about public funding of a new ballpark. That’s a departure from past years, when internal squabbling over a proposed ballpark for the Richmond Braves (Class AAA; International League) caused that team to leave.
Since that 2010 (!) article, the Flying Squirrels have been singularly successful at the box office and unsuccessful in obtaining consensus for a new-ballpark plan in the Richmond area, putting some $5 million into The Diamond in a band-aid approach to operations. Since 2016 the Flying Squirrels have been working on a new ballpark with Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) as part of a larger university athletic development. Right now there’s talk of a 2023 ballpark opening. Yes, big projects take big chunks of time to complete, but with the adoption of new facility standards for Minor League Baseball as part of MLB’s takeover of the industry, there will be some real consequences to playing in a substandard facility. And it certainly are in the case of Richmond, with an estimate that it will take at lest $10 million to bring The Diamond to conformity with the new standards. With talk of provisional five-year licenses granted by MLB contingent on facility upgrades, the time to act is now–and that’s something recognized in Richmond, per Richmond.com:
“Major League Baseball is no longer willing to accept substandard facilities,” said Joe McEacharn, the Double-A Eastern League president since 2003. “There may be grace periods: ‘You’re going to keep your Double-A team [for now], but we’re going to revisit that in three years, five years,’ whatever it may be. And if something isn’t done, you’re going to be in jeopardy.”
There is also something larger at stake here as well: a new ballpark could also mean the return of Triple-A baseball to Richmond. The Washington Nationals made a last-minute play to place a Triple-A team in Richmond as MLB determined the 120 teams invited under the new system, but the condition of The Diamond, along with some domino effects opposed by other MLB teams, led MLB to reject the request.
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