Monday, September 29, 2008

The Baseball Issue

Thought to be dead and buried, the crazy idea of building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom walked like a zombie though news stories during the past week.

In a squirrelly move that should surprise no one, Mayor Doug Wilder reversed himself, once again, and opened the door to the notion of building a new home in The Bottom for the Richmond Whatevers to play in the Who Knows? league.

Last week the five mayoral candidates were asked about baseball at a public forum. While none of them showed much enthusiasm for building in any area other than where the Diamond is now located, three of the them appeared to rule out other parts of town. They were: Paul Goldman; Bill Pantele; Lawrence Williams.

Which means Robert Grey and Dwight Jones are still willing to consider building somewhere other than where the Master Plan says a baseball stadium should be.

This is an election-year political issue that should concern voters in all nine of Richmond’s voting districts, as well as citizens of the region, in general. Much has been and should be said against the baseball-in-the-Bottom push. In this post I will confine my effort to two points:

1. Most of the proponents of building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom seem to have been focused on the development aspect, when they have tried to sell it to the public. Visions of suburban shoppers, tourists and bar-hoppers throwing money at retailers all around the stadium have been painted.

They have sounded like people in love with a design. People who want to see their plan carried out, come hell or, ahem, high water. They haven't seemed much phased by the problems such a shoe-horned-in development and its heavy traffic would visit upon the homes and businesses surrounding it.

Moreover, they have not sounded like people who care enough about the general welfare of Richmond's residents; nor have they sounded like planners who know much about baseball and its fans.

A person who’s been going to Richmond Braves games, over the years, knows who else goes to games. So, I can tell you that mixed in with plenty of fair-weather fans, there are lots of regulars. There are always veterans, some in wheelchairs. There are always kids dressed in their Little League uniforms. There are always neighborhood and church groups. Lots of families.

In my view, at least half of any R-Braves crowd would not be happy attending a game in Shockoe Bottom, given its ambiance. If I’m right, you’d have to replace those fans with a lot of new fans. Fans who will come to 20, 25 games a season.

As a longtime baseball fan, I have to say I wouldn’t bet a nickel it can be done. Given how much Big League baseball in available on television, and how many entertainment options there are these days, Minor League baseball is a tough sell. To bet taxpayers’ money, large money, on a baseball stadium in a part of town a lot of baseball fans are probably scared to visit is crazy.

2. If the deal that builds a new baseball stadium includes public money to finance the construction, then it makes all the sense in the world for Richmond and its regional partners -- the counties of Henrico, Chesterfield, and perhaps Hanover -- to decide where it should be.

It’s pie in the sky to continue to dream that a private developer is going to come in and drop a new stadium on Richmond.

On top of that, I think the majority of baseball fans who went to R-Braves games at the Diamond would vote against moving professional baseball to Shockoe Bottom.

Whether Richmond needs a new stadium, at all, is something to reconsider. In the current business climate, I’m not at all sure most Richmonders believe committing to spending a lot of money on baseball makes sense.

The old idea of sprucing up the Diamond is making more and more sense. Knock down the crumbling superstructure, build more modestly around the field that’s already there, etc.

-- Words and photo by F. T. Rea

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