Mets Affiliate Savannah Sand Gnats Might Be on the Move in 2016 | Astromets Mind

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Mets Affiliate Savannah Sand Gnats Might Be on the Move in 2016

This looks like it will be the last season of Mets minor league baseball in Savannah, but if so, they’ll be going back to their roots.

            The Mets have had a lot of minor league teams, playing in a lot of cities at the A-ball level over the years. Since 2007, the Mets A-ball team has been playing in the party city of Savannah, Georgia, and the team has a player development contract with the Sand Gnats franchise that runs through the 2016 2018 season. But the Mets do not own the Sand Gnats franchise, that distinction belongs to the Atlanta-based group Hardball Capital, which also owns some other minor league teams. Hardball Capital had been working with the city of Savannah on getting a new stadium for the Gnats, but the City Council rejected the new stadium proposal last fall. The group was previously successful working with the city of Columbia, South Carolina on a new $37 million baseball stadium – Spirit Communications Park – that had its groundbreaking ceremony earlier this year, but doesn’t have a team for 2016 yet. Although nothing official has been announced yet, it would appear that the days of minor league baseball in Savannah are numbered.
The Gnats play at Historic Grayson Stadium, which was built in 1926, and has hosted minor league baseball in more than 2/3 of pro seasons since. The Hardball Capital group, led by Jason Freier, bought the team in 2008 and had made some upgrades by the start of the 2009 season that were aimed at improving the fan experience. Unfortunately, Freier was already indicating frustration with the stadium, saying,

“We’re dealing with logistical challenges you don’t see anywhere else. There are larger issues we absolutely can’t deal with in this round.”

The clubhouse and other player facilities and amenities were outdated, and the group was planning to build a new office for management. It was around then that Freier began trying to convince the city that constantly renovating Grayson Stadium was a poor investment plan.
As a fan of the major league team associated with the franchise, while the stadium sounds nice, I’ve been frustrated with the constant caveat that comes with prospects (especially lefty power hitters) who hit at Grayson, which has one of the lowest homerun park factors in baseball. Many discussions about Dominic Smith over the past year have come with the questions of, ‘is that big park getting in his head?’ and, ‘will he bust out when he moves out of that league/home stadium?’ Smith did appear to go the other way more often, and only hit one homerun (and it was on the road) last season, but was that the stadium, or just an overmatched teenager in his first year of full season ball? Who knows, and why are we even having this discussion? It’s a minor league baseball stadium, which, unless owned and designed by their major league affiliate, should all just be fair. Also, as a Mets fan, it’d be nice to hear that prospects had a modern clubhouse that didn’t leak when it rained, and all other normal modern amenities available to them, if not more.
            Fast-forward a few years to 2012, and Sandy Alderson was endorsing the idea of Savannah investing in a new stadium with this ownership group.

“The Mets are pleased to extend our relationship with the Sand Gnats and the people of Savannah. Savannah is a wonderful city, and our players, coaches and scouts enjoy their time there. Grayson Stadium continues to present issues from a player development standpoint, but we are familiar with what the Sand Gnats ownership has accomplished in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and have monitored the efforts to partner with the City to create a new outdoor multi-use venue in Savannah. We hope and believe those discussions are headed in the right direction.“

A year later, the Hardball deal with Columbia started to become public, which started the rumors about the Hardball group taking the Gnats out of town. But the Hardball group had been talking with people in Savannah about a new stadium, and would make one last stadium proposal in December of 2013. Freier argued that the players and fans were not getting access to modern facilities and amenities, and that,

“[Ownership} have had to put money into this team every year… Attendance has doubled but it’s not enough for the team to break even every year.”

The group used its success with Parkview Field in downtown Fort Wayne as a model for the Savannah proposal, and the city would eventually agree to pay a consulting firm $55,000 dollars to do a feasibility study.
            While waiting for results of the feasibility study, Hardball Capital filed the necessary paperwork to move the Sand Gnats to Columbia in July, 2014 – just in case. With no resolution made by the end of the season, the ownership group extended their lease to play at Grayson one more season. Then, C. H. Johnson Consulting, Inc. presented the findings of their Savannah Multi-Purpose Stadium Market Feasibility Study to the City Council, recommending that they move forward with construction at a Savannah River Landing site east of downtown. Freier was pleased with the results of the study, saying,

“If this study is not going to get you to try and move forward, then I think no study would have.”

Of course, not everyone in Savannah was pleased with the conclusions of the consultants, one such individual calling shenanigans on the study. Michelle Solomon had a problem with the way the consulting firm calculated the economic impact of the stadium on Savannah, as it claims locals will spend an extra $34 on game days, and attributes too much potential Savannah tourism to the stadium.
            In the middle of October, MiLB gave Hardball Capital permission to move a team to Columbia, meaning that the only remaining piece of the Columbia baseball puzzle was naming the franchise moving there. The team name hasn’t been announced yet, but the competition ended in late October. Before the City Council voted on the new stadium plan, it came out that the Savannah City Manager and Council did not agree with the results of the study either. After the plan was rejected unanimously, Freier told WSAV that he was, “perplexed but not surprised.” And at least some locals were also perplexed by the Council’s decision to leave the door open for minor league baseball to just walk away, suggesting Freier deserved a hearing with the city manager after 5 years investing in baseball in Savannah. Freier would express his frustration with the decision to WSAV later in the offseason,

“We feel like a decision has been made without all the homework being done… This [stadium] is not expenditure, it’s an investment… I think we feel like the city is rejecting the conclusion of their own hand picked consultants along with what we have seen and what we have shown them in Fort Wayne and other cities, and we are not sure the basis on which that decision has been made, but it certainly hasn’t been made after getting all the information we can provide... For 5 plus years now, all we’ve heard is in 6 more months we might be willing to talk about this… You can’t make a business decision based on what a city may or may not do 5 years from now… Without [a clear path] we can’t make a decision to continue to invest here.”

Those are not the words of someone who wants to keep working with the city of Savannah.
            It came out in December that the City Council gave the Hardball group until January 1st to let them know their decision about baseball in 2016, but the owners haven’t said anything yet. The city understands that the Gnats are likely leaving unless the Columbia stadium doesn’t appear to be on schedule for 2016, but they understandably don’t want to wait around until the middle of 2015 to start making alternate plans. There haven’t been any announcements about the Gnats from the Savannah City Council or Hardball Capital since that deadline passed, but the Hardball group was back in the news last week when they purchased the Chattanooga Lookouts.

            Spirit Communications Park sounds and looks like it will be a nice new stadium for Columbia, and there was so much local interest in the stadium that Hardball started selling luxury suites in late February, which was ahead of schedule. Back in Mets fan mode, I can’t help but hope the Mets get the first chance to have their team in this new stadium, with new facilities. Also, the Mets had their A-ball affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina from 1983-2004, and they are the last franchise to host minor league baseball there, so it would be a nice reunion. Finally (and most selfishly), Grayson stadium is never going to get cameras installed, and it looks like it will be 6-7 years until Savannah would get a new stadium, but this new stadium in Columbia might come with cameras installed for coverage. It’s no guarantee, but there’s a better chance of coverage coming to Mets A-level baseball in Columbia than Savannah. Regardless, I would just like to see an announcement made on the decision about the future of the Sand Gnats franchise and the team in Columbia soon, as the 2015 season starts in less than a month and nothing is official yet.

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