As many of you know, I live in Richmond. Born here, raised here, schooled in DC, worked in DC, more-schooled in Richmond, work here now.
Actually, that's not entirely true. I was born in Wilmington, Delaware. But I only lived there the first six months of my life and consequently don't remember it too well---for instance, I remember taking a train through there when I was eighteen, but . . .
At any rate, I might as well have been born in Richmond. It's where I grew up and where I live now. It's a fine place; if you're into the "two hours from everything else" kind of place, then this is your place. The murder rate's even gone down in the last decade, at least a little bit.
There was a time when this was the Richmond-Nationals blog. Then there was a time when there were two Richmond-Nationals blogs. But I'm not sure what happened to that other one, and to be more precise about it, my first blog, Nationals Inquirer, was my Richmond-themed Nationals blog. For instance, there was this post from February 2005; then, there was this other post from February 2005, occurring two days after the first post from February 2005. By comparison, the second-generation incarnation of my baseball blog is more of a Die Hard-themed Nationals blog.
This is all to say that when people talk about the Nats parking a Triple-A club in Richmond, I listen. Often, I also shake my head a bit, because sometimes people fail to recognize that:
- Richmond has served as Atlanta's top affiliate for over four decades; and
- Richmond's Braves are owned by Atlanta's Braves.
This top-down ownership relationship is unique in today's professional baseball, and it complicates any discussion of Richmond becoming a Washington affiliate. This article from today's Richmond Times-Dispatch ably provides the necessary context. As the article discusses, the Braves' relationship with Richmond is rather strained. As you might have guessed, the topic is a new ballpark. The Diamond---yes, that's the name of Richmond's baseball diamond: get it?---is stunningly ancient. I mean, the thing was built in the mid-80s. The 1980s. Sheesh. And its model, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, hasn't hosted the big Braves in a decade. (And yes, The Diamond in recent years has had pieces of concrete fall from its roof and has invited four feet of standing water in its outfielder, but that stuff just adds personality.)
It's been five years since the Braves first floated the idea of a new downtown ballpark. The last three years or so have seen separate proposals---first by a group of businessmen whose cabal was as secretive and stumbling as the Stonecutters, and then by the Braves themselves---and neither proposal has matured into the "project" stage. Now, as the article discusses, the Braves have broken off talks with Richmond on a new park, pending completion of the Liberty Media sale.
Many people from outside of Richmond seem rather informed concerning the ballpark situation here. They know that the Braves want a new park, and they know that the Braves have threatened to leave. Both of these statements are true, although the Braves tend to nuance their threat to depart. The next step---perhaps even a logical step---is that, when the Braves skip town, Richmond's there for the taking and the Nats would be inclined to take it.
However, there are two factors one must consider before attempting that next step:
First, there's The Diamond itself. I'd suspect most people who've caught a game there recognize the venue needs renovations. Many of the park's deficiencies are plainly apparent: the sound system stinks, the scoreboards are in an embarrassing state of disrepair (I'm kind of partial to the "HARDEF'S K MAN," actually---the light for the second "E" is dead), there's not a single comfortable seat in the park, and the run-up to the stadium is ugly and, shall we say, overly-vertical for many people. Additionally, the locker rooms are reportedly beyond cramped and, glaringly, the tall upper deck is ridiculously antiquated for a minor league park. Despite being built only two decades ago (on the site of the old ballpark, Parker Field), The Diamond has very little of the ground-level, wrap-around seating options that modern minor league parks feature. Instead, approximately three-quarters of the (potential) 12,500 paying customers sit high above---high for a minor league park, but that's precisely the point. Personally, I prefer---love---sitting high up and directly behind home plate. But The Diamond definitely lacks homer-perch and outfield berm seating, which the newer parks offer.
I don't know if a renovation could solve all of these deficiencies, but it would certainly help. For instance, a past renovation plan involved removing much of the upper deck and fanning the seating around the outfield areas.
But, in Richmond's case, a renovation is something of a balancing act. The Diamond, like some local highways, is owned and operated by the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, a partnership of Richmond city and surrounding Henrico and Chesterfield counties. (In Virginia, cities and counties are completely distinct political entities.) In 2004, after Richmond city began talking about a new ballpark, Chesterfield County's Board of Supervisors backed out of a moral commitment it had previously passed which would have provided $10 million over the next twenty years toward a renovation of The Diamond. One of Chesterfield's supervisors, Remy Humphrey, previously expressed that she dislikes The Diamond's location---The Boulevard, just off West Broad Street, right off Interstate 95 and a mile or so away from downtown---considering it unmarketable to her county's population and unsafe to take her children.
I would support a renovation of The Diamond; if you ask me, it doesn't even need to be a radical renovation. But the Braves (and many Richmonders) are still in a downtown ballpark mode. I suspect that any team inhabiting Richmond, should the Braves leave, would also be keen on a new ballpark. Now, the Braves have an extra incentive for an exciting new ballpark, considering they own the Triple-A club, but I'd have to think that the Lerners or anyone else would love the nicest possible facility, too. Simply stated, The Diamond possesses a black mark. I don't know of many people who regard it a viable Triple-A park in this day and age. While I disagree, I do acknowledge the perception exists.
Second---and more importantly---there's the issue of the franchise itself. As the Times-Dispatch article notes:
That means the Nationals could be a free agent again in two years. Before anybody gets excited about the possibility of Washington hooking up with Richmond, there is a major stumbling block that makes the partnership unlikely.
If Atlanta left Richmond, it would take its Triple-A franchise with it. The only way Richmond could get another Triple-A club would be for an owner in one of the other 29 cities to move his franchise here.
Simply stated, the Braves want a new ballpark in downtown Richmond and might leave if they don't get one. And that's pretty much the only reason the Braves would leave. They've been here for forty-one seasons and have built a following commensurate with that duration. At the risk of simplifying, this is a Richmond Braves town and part of Atlanta Braves territory. That might change, to one degree or another, now that the Nats have arrived up the road; however, the Braves have no real motivation to see the situation change.
Something similar happened with the Braves two seasons ago. For twenty seasons, their Double-A affiliate was in Greenville, South Carolina. The Greenville Braves were owned and operated by the Atlanta Braves; well, they still are, except they're now known as the Mississippi Braves. Take one guess for the reason beyond the change: Greenville's park was not suitable to the Braves, a new ballpark deal couldn't be reached, and say hello to Trustmark Park . . . in downtown Pearl!
In case you're wondering, the Braves didn't merely "trade" Southern League locations. Mississippi joined the league---or, more accurately, "relocated"---and Greenville downshifted to the Sally League, after the owner of the Columbia (S.C.) team received permission to relocate his team to Greenville. Oh, and the good citizens of Greenville are now enjoying spanking new West End Field.
That's all too confusing for me, to be honest. The salient points are that the Braves:
- didn't merely move to another in-league location, but
- relocated their existing franchise to a new location, because
- the new location built 'em a new ballpark.
Now look at it from another perspective: Let's say the Braves found a fitting new home for their Triple-A team; what then? Well, from our perspective, as Nats' fans, an existing Triple-A owner would need to move his franchise to Richmond and decide to align with the Nats. And what would it take for that to happen? A new ballpark in Richmond, probably. Why else move? (Alternatively, the Nats could decide to buy a Triple-A franchise---which, given they're run by Stan Kasten, ex-Brave executive, might not be totally far-fetched. But, assuming they bought one, what would motivate them to move to Richmond? A new ballpark, of course.)
Anyway, I'm not saying Richmond will never be a Nationals affiliate, but what I am saying is that it's not as easy a prospect as a simple trade. In fact, if the Braves do move away from Richmond at some point, it is possible the Nats will align with Richmond . . . but it might be with, say, a new Richmond entrant in the Southern League.
* * * *
Speaking of the minor leagues, the Nats named their player- and pitcher-of-the-year. Kory Casto repeated as top position player, and 2006 draftee Zech Zinicola took home the pitching hardware. No offense to Zech, who pitched quite well at three levels, but when you have to audible down to a relief pitcher who wasn't even a professional four months ago, your organization isn't exactly deep. Granted, it's deeper then it was, but there's still much work to be done.
You can find more about Casto and Zinicola, as well as all Natty prospects, at Nats Farm Authority. Speaking of NFA, I highly recommend the in-depth affiliate year-in-review series; for instance, here's the entry for High-A Potomac.