Fed up with the Richmond region’s inability to replace the crumbling Diamond, the owner of the Flying Squirrels baseball club penned a passionate open letter to the community June 3 venting his frustrations.
Lou DiBella insists that he isn’t threatening to take the Double-A minor league team elsewhere. “I have nowhere to go,” he told Style.
But there’s plenty of evidence that moving the Squirrels out of Richmond would be a relatively easy task.
“It would be very simple for the Squirrels because The Diamond lease is up next year,” says Kevin Reichard, publisher of Ballpark Digest, a sports news service that tracks baseball stadiums and has followed the local ballpark controversy closely.
To leave, DiBella would have to file papers with the Eastern League and Minor League Baseball. How are they likely to respond? “There is no opposition if there are no lease issues,” Reichard says.
The Squirrels “are one of the best operations in Minor League Baseball,” he says, “and I am not sure many other teams would have been so tolerant of Richmond.”
DiBella says he was misled by regional leaders. In 2009, they promised him a new stadium if he brought a team to replace the Richmond Braves, the Triple-A minor league affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. They left because they couldn’t stand conditions at The Diamond, and now play at a new 10,427-seat stadium in suburban Atlanta, built for them in 2009 for $64 million.
“If you’re going to screw around with us the same way you did with the Braves under false pretenses,” DiBella says, “and there’s no chance of regional participation or the city being creative in building a stadium — let me know now because I have to start thinking about the future.”
Mayor Dwight C. Jones didn’t respond to a request for comment, but his spokeswoman has said that the administration wouldn’t communicate with the Squirrels through news media.
Jones had backed a controversial plan to build a $79.6 million stadium in Shockoe Bottom. In that deal, the Squirrels agreed to pay $1.7 million annual rent for 30 years — among the highest in the minor leagues. But the plan flopped last year.
The Rebkee Co.’s plan last year to build a privately funded stadium on the Boulevard near The Diamond also dissipated. “The city declined to take a formal submission and it’s disappeared,” says Dan Gecker, a Chesterfield County supervisor and developer associated with Rebkee.
DiBella tells Style that his “first choice” for a new stadium is in the city: “We’ve had great success on the Boulevard.” Failing that, he says, “I’d look for county partners.”
Joe McEacharn, president of the Eastern League — of which the Flying Squirrels are a member — says the team moving isn’t an option right now, though “it might be.” A key short-term issue is that the team has no lease at the stadium past 2016, he says — something that must be addressed.
If there’s no resolution in Richmond, McEacharn says, one possibility is for the Squirrels to move to Spotsylvania County near Fredericksburg — “because they want a baseball team.”
Moving minor league teams because of bad stadiums is commonplace. In February, a Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox said it was leaving its 73-year-old stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, for a more modern one in Providence. In May, Hardball Capital of Atlanta said it was moving the Savannah Sand Gnats from a stadium built in 1926 and renovated in 1941 to a new stadium in Columbia, South Carolina.
Another option? DiBella could consider selling the Flying Squirrels, which are affiliated with the San Francisco Giants. Sports analysts say it’s a well-run operation and statistics bear that out. Last year, the Squirrels drew 418,147 fans, the most in the Eastern League and among the best records in minor league baseball.
Minor league teams used to be put up for sale on the cheap — maybe $1 million — but those days are over. Last year, the Dayton Dragons sold for a record $40 million.
If the Squirrels fly away, it doesn’t mean that Richmond will be without professional baseball.
“If they left, the Atlantic League would be there in a minute. It’s a great market,” says Reichard of Ballpark Digest. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based league, which has clubs in southern Maryland and Bridgeport, Connecticut, is independent and unaffiliated with major-league teams.
McEachern agrees that the Atlantic League may be a viable replacement.
In meantime, the Squirrels are stuck dealing with conditions at The Diamond. “When there’s a rainstorm my executives’ desks get wet,” DiBella says, and fans unable to navigate the towering stairs must use “one horrible, tiny elevator that is constantly on the blink.” S