Baseball earned the distinction as the country’s national pastime because over time — many decades — the combination of the game and the sport became interwoven into the fabric of American society. The sport is so strong today because the game of baseball has developed a positive connection with so many segments of our society.
A baseball game involves athleticism, tactics, strategy, teamwork, competition, and especially the social element of a casual community gathering, which quietly and subtly binds people together. While the baseball threads may have loosened a bit as the fabric of society becomes less tightly woven, they’re very much intact and only in need of some repair and regular maintenance.
Most Americans consider baseball to be a positive component of their overall quality of life. In Richmond, baseball is in our DNA, having been played here by soldiers during the Civil War and with amateur leagues first organizing in 1866, the year after the war’s end. Such teams as the Church Hill Lone Stars, Union Hill Ashbys and the Manchester Alerts started a local tradition that now spans 150 years.
Yes, 2016 is the sesquicentennial year for organized baseball in Richmond.
Locally, the game is personified by the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the professional minor-league team that’s been playing on the Boulevard for the last five years. The Squirrels quickly wove themselves into the community and have become a box-office success, averaging more than 6,000 fans a game.
But the main reason the Squirrels are successful is that they’re maximizing the social and community benefits inherent to the game. Outings at The Diamond provide family-friendly fun and ways for friends and colleagues to connect. It goes beyond the ballpark, too. The Squirrels organization has intersected with Richmonders in many wonderful ways, led by the energetic duo of Nutzy and Todd “Parney” Parnell.
The longevity of baseball in Richmond and the community’s affinity for it has built a strong ladder. As the local professional team, the Squirrels occupy its top rung. Their relationship with the San Francisco Giants allows the team to offer local baseball players a direct connection to all aspects of professional baseball, including the sport’s crowning achievement — the World Series. The Giants have won two championships in the past several years and former Squirrels’ players made important contributions and are now wearing rings.
The rung under the Squirrels holds excellent collegiate programs including the University of Richmond, Randolph-Macon College, Virginia State University and Virginia Commonwealth University — which plays its home games at The Diamond.
The next rung offers a powerful collection of high-school teams across the region, some of which have won state titles. Follow that with a rung of popular and successful American Legion, Babe Ruth and Metropolitan Junior Baseball teams, with players who spent younger days on the diamonds of many regional Little League programs.
Like I said, baseball is in Richmond’s DNA.
And now Richmond is locked in a battle to keep organized professional baseball in our midst. The issue is wrapped around the highest and best use of the city-owned land on the Boulevard, where professional baseball has been played since 1954.
For more than a decade we’ve talked about the need for a new stadium because The Diamond has lost its luster. I am a member of the Save the Diamond Committee, at Savethediamond.com, which has presented a unique proposal to renovate the ballpark into a 21st-century facility. It gives the Squirrels what they want while saving millions of dollars versus a new stadium. The Squirrels have called our proposal “intriguing,” but they would rather have a new stadium because that’s what they were promised when they came to town.
Unfortunately, Mayor Dwight Jones is not a baseball fan and has gone in a different direction, deeming any stadium on the Boulevard, renovated or new, as unworthy. He seems to see no tangible quality of life value from the Squirrels’ organization. If Jones gets his way, Richmond will lose its top baseball rung, with The Diamond eliminated and the Squirrels forced to leave town because there’s no better place for baseball than on the Boulevard.
The answer involves showing Jones and City Council that the quality of life benefits from baseball are important to a lot of Richmonders, with an intrinsic value that trumps whatever tax revenue might be created on the footprint of a stadium.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe understands, and last week declared that Richmond must keep the team. If the local baseball community builds on this type of support and speaks as one, city leaders will hear loud and clear. But we have to move quickly and with purpose.
I propose that the Richmond regional baseball community celebrate the sesquicentennial of organized baseball in Richmond by immediately supporting the campaign to keep baseball on the Boulevard — hopefully for the next 150 years.
Step one: Flood the online petition with signatures at replenishrichmond.com/keep-baseball-on-the-boulevard.
Step two: Flood the Squirrels’ mailbox with letters from baseball organizations and baseball enthusiasts defining the importance of the sport to them.
Step three: Look to the future and invest the region’s government, business, nonprofit and faith subsets in an embrace of baseball as a strategic means to solve problems and strengthen the fabric of our community. For instance, let’s commit to using baseball as a means to alleviate poverty by supporting people like coach Lawrence Day at Armstrong High School, who’s building an East End baseball pipeline that would make Bobby Dandridge proud.
The power is in the hands of the people and now is the time for them to make their voices heard. If we unite in support of the Squirrels and keeping baseball on the Boulevard, we’ll honor our past and help to build a powerful foundation for Richmond’s future. There’s no time to waste. S
Rick Tatnall is the manager of Replenish Richmond, a local community development organization, and a member of the Save the Diamond committee.
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