03/10/2008 – Daily News Record
Written By Brent Johnson HARRISONBURG — When the new Memorial Stadium opens next year, it’s already set to have two tenants. A budding minor-league baseball circuit might make it three. The South Coast League, a six-team independent circuit in its second year of existence, hopes to add two to four clubs for the 2009 season, chief development officer J.D. Hardin said. Harrisonburg is on a list of about a dozen Virginia cities that fit the league’s size and location criteria. “It’s one of the largest towns in Virginia without any professional sports,” Hardin said. “Maybe it was hidden.” The fact that the city — metro population: 114,000 — will have a suitable stadium makes it attractive. But two questions remain unanswered: How many teams can Memorial Stadium house, and does the new ballpark’s owner — James Madison University — want to share its facilities with a third club. JMU has already promised the Turks — who play in the Valley Baseball League, a summer circuit for college players — that they can use the new stadium. The Turks have played in the existing Memorial Stadium since 1948. Madison plans to demolish the old ballpark, located at the former Harrisonburg High School, this summer and build a new $5 million, 3,000-seat stadium in its place. The JMU baseball team will play there and the school plans to lease the stadium to the Turks in the summer. “A stadium like Memorial Stadium, needing only minimal upgrades to make it viable, is a gem to our league,” Hardin said. The Conyers, Ga.-based South Coast League’s season, however, lasts from mid-May through August. That means it could cut into the end of JMU’s season and overlap with the Turks for much of the spring and summer. “I don’t know if it would be a drawback,” Hardin said. “We’re not in any stadium that has to split the field with a team. That would be something we’d have to look at. … I hope it would be an opportunity for both of us.” Hardin said he sent letters to Harrisonburg officials in October gauging their interest. But, he said, he never heard back. Mayor Rodney Eagle said he has “talked about minor league baseball sometimes, got things in the mail,” but that the city isn’t “actively” discussing bringing minor league baseball to Harrisonburg. As city officials noted, though, this would be JMU’s decision because the university will own the stadium. Hardin said last week he has yet to contact Madison, but planned to do so soon. JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne said he would not comment until he had more information. “It would be hard for me to make a commitment at this point,” Bourne said. “… Obviously, we have a relationship with the Turks. We very much want to make sure we honor that.” Dukes baseball coach Spanky McFarland said his main reservation would be the negative grounds-keeping impact three teams would have on Memorial’s playing surface. But, he added, that might not be as big a problem if JMU installs artificial turf, as it hopes to do. “I guess other than the wear and tear of the facility, I like the idea of a minor league team in town,” McFarland said. “The wear and tear would be a concern. We’d have to take care of that.” Hardin said the league owns all its teams, so cities do not need to pay franchise fees, nor is there a need for a local owner. “It’s based on the interest of the city,” Hardin said. “We can only push so far, gauge interest so far. … We come in, work out a favorable lease for both sides. … “If the town doesn’t like it, guess what? We’re flexible enough where we can go elsewhere. If they love it and we love it, we just sign a longer-term lease.” The Last Time The idea of bringing minor league baseball to Harrisonburg has struck out before. It was last proposed in 2005, when a developer wanted to build a $100 million stadium, hotel and retail complex on Port Republic Road. The city council shot it down, saying the plan “does not work in the best interests of the city.” Still, Larry Rogers — who was mayor at the time — said the latest proposal would be easier, since there’s no need to build a new stadium. “I think it would be fantastic,” Rogers said, “if the leaders could have the vision and courage to make it happen.” Rogers said it could benefit the city’s “quality of life.” “It would bring different people together, regardless of color or economic background,” he said. “ … Families could come down and have a nice day at the park. It’s a family event. I’ve always supported that.” Eagle said he’d be “open to hear any proposition anyone would have.” But he stressed that he would not want it to affect JMU and the Turks. City council members have a similar view. “I think we’re a city that likes our baseball,” Carolyn Frank said. “As long as we don’t run our Turks out. The Turks are our favorite team. They’ve been here for a long time.” Charles Chenault said he would want to make sure a minor league team wouldn’t cut into attendance for the Turks or the Rockingham County Baseball League, a high-quality recreational circuit whose rosters are dotted with high school stars, college players and a few former minor leaguers. But Chenault said he’d be open to the idea, largely because the closest minor league team is the Hagerstown (Md.) Suns — about two hours away. Also within two hours are the Salem Avalanche and the Potomac Nationals in Woodbridge. Another nearby team, the Richmond Braves, will be moving to Georgia next season. “A lot of people in Harrisonburg drive to minor league games,” said Chenault, who along with Eagle, was one of five council members who did not support the 2005 plan. “My brother does. He lives in Broadway. “The point is: [A minor league team] does bring in a temporary population. They go to games, they may shop here, eat here, and then they leave. They tend to drop some money here.” The League The South Coast League’s pitch focuses on entertainment. “It’s going to add to the quality of life,” Hardin said. “You don’t have to travel away in the summer to do something enjoyable and affordable during the summer. That’s the biggest thing: affordable family entertainment.” Currently, the SCL has teams in Aiken, S.C.; Anderson, S.C.; Macon, Ga.; Albany, Ga.; Bradenton, Fla.; and Port Charlotte, Fla. Other Virginia cities on its target list: Alexandria, Arlington, Blacksburg, Charlottesville, Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Portsmouth, Pulaski, Richmond, Roanoke, Virginia Beach, Suffolk and Waynesboro. “While some may have teams currently,” Hardin said, “these are all markets we feel our league would fit nicely into in the event that one of the towns loses their current team or is looking for its first team.” The league is independent, meaning its teams are not affiliated with major league clubs. Hardin equates it to being a High Class A league — “maybe even right on the cusp of AA affiliated.” The players, he said, are a mix of minor league lifers and former pros. A team in a college town such as Harrisonburg also means players right out of school could join the team. “They can come play with us,” Hardin said. “Keep the hometown circuit going.” The league’s teams play in stadiums built as long ago as 1929 and as recently as 1987, Hardin said, with capacity ranging from 2,500 to 6,000. One club does play at a college facility: The league has a three-year lease to play at Division II South Carolina-Aiken. Four stadiums are city-owned, former affiliated baseball stadiums. One is county-owned and another is a former spring training complex.