Savannah facing ballpark issues

rseibel@macon.comMay 22, 2014 

Luther_Williams

Luther Williams Field, the home of minor-league baseball in Macon until the South Atlantic League’s Braves moved to Rome following the 2002 season.

WOODY MARSHALL — Woody Marshall

The ownership of a minor-league baseball team, stuck playing in a ballpark from the 1920s, is wooed by interests from another city.

Despite outreach from the ownership to keep the team in the current city, the current city is unable to come up with a plan for a new stadium. The result? Ownership moves the team to the other city.

It happened in Macon more than a decade ago with the South Atlantic League’s Braves. And the story is playing out right now in Savannah.

The South Atlantic League’s Savannah Sand Gnats currently play in Grayson Stadium, built in 1926. It’s a park that is three years older than Macon’s Luther Williams Field, which saw the Macon Braves depart for a new stadium in Rome following the 2002 season.

Interests in Columbia, South Carolina, have approached Sand Gnats ownership, Hardball Capital, about a potential move. The city entered into an agreement with Hardball Capital to put a team -- but not necessarily the Sand Gnats -- in a new stadium for either the 2015 or 2016 season.

Hardball Capital owns two other teams besides the Sand Gnats, both Single-A franchises.

The Fort Wayne (Indiana) Tincaps, which play in a five-year-old stadium and is among the attendance leaders in the Midwest League, isn’t moving. An argument could be made for a move by the Salem (Virginia) Red Sox, a team that plays in a nearly 20-year-old park and is toward the bottom of the Carolina League attendance standings. But that team is still drawing more than 2,500 fans per game.

So, unless Hardball Capital wants to buy another team, it appears that the Sand Gnats, average attendance 2,251, is the likely target for a move.

Hardball Capital, however, is giving Savannah’s political leaders a chance to come up with a plan. Last week, Savannah’s city council agreed to spend $55,000 on a feasibility and impact study regarding a new stadium in exchange for the Sand Gnats remaining at Grayson Stadium through the 2015 season.

According to a report by television station WSAV, the results of that study -- and an answer on where the Sand Gnats will play in 2016 -- should be known in three months.

This sounds a lot like the prelude to the Braves’ move to Rome. The question is, will Savannah city leaders have the foresight to keep the Sand Gnats in Savannah, or will they lose minor-league baseball to a more willing community?

Very little has been done since the Braves’ departure to bring minor-league baseball back to Macon. The occasional independent league team has come and gone, but nothing with any sort of permanence. Leaders in Macon and Warner Robins have talked on occasion about bringing teams here, but, again, we’ve never seen any concrete plans.

Unless Savannah’s leaders act quickly, that city will join Macon as a community that has an old ballpark -- let’s not use the euphemism “historic” here -- and no team. And it could potentially lead to more competition down the road should Macon, Warner Robins or a combination of the two come up with a real plan to bring minor-league baseball back to Middle Georgia.

Contact Ron Seibel at 744-4222 or rseibel@macon.com.

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