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Game Over? - Nueces County Record Star: Featured

Game Over?

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Posted: Wednesday, June 29, 2011 12:00 am

Take a walk around Fairgrounds Field. There’s a special sound out there, a sound that hasn’t been heard in a good while. Eight years to be exact. As that time has passed, the 4,000-seat stadium has heard plenty. But this sound was never part of the plan.

Silence.

For the first summer since its construction in 2003, Fairgrounds Field has no team to play baseball for the City of Robstown and surrounding areas. Three teams have come to try and make good use of the park. All three have failed.

The most recent bust, the Coastal Bend Thunder, is in the midst of preparing for a potential lawsuit from Nueces County, for back rent and facility repairs. The Commissioners Court has authorized the County Attorney to prepare and file the lawsuit, but, as of press time, it has not been filed.

While the Commissioners Court has not been able to receive any type of response for the money owed, few are aware that Thunder owners John Bryant and Byron Pierce have re-established the team as the McAllen Thunder, sharing Edinburg Baseball Stadium with the Edinburg Roadrunners. Bryant and Pierce own both teams, and merged all the remaining teams of United League Baseball with the new North American League.

It took the ULB only two months to move in on the stadium after the Continental Baseball League’s Corpus Christi Beach Dawgs folded. Now it appears the ULB is taking the same two year path that the first team in the stadium took, the Coastal Bend Aviators.

Similar to the Thunder, the Aviators ownership also faced a lawsuit from Nueces County. Two years after it was served, $100,000 was paid to the county (about $14,000 less than what was sought) for the same issues of back rent and facility repair.

Each team that came to town had optimism that they could succeed. But three times wasn’t the charm in this case.

While people will vent frustrations on what has been a controversial lifespan for the stadium, the truth remains out on the field. There is no sound of bats cracking or gloves popping. You won’t hear any cheers for a home run. There are no employees yelling the word “Peanuts!” while carrying a hawking tray. And the organ breaking out “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch is a distant memory.

The only sound coming from the ballpark this summer, is silence.

“The ideal situation for that stadium is to have someone who uses baseball for its primary use,” County Judge Loyd Neal said.

While Neal’s wish is one that others may share, the future for the stadium remains uncertain. And while the judge and county officials would rather the stadium be used than just sit empty, there appears to be much more caution given the previous failures.

So why has the stadium failed? And what is the next step?

Overcoming Obstacles

It would have been hard to imagine the kind of events that would unfold following May 15, 2003. The Coastal Bend Aviators opened their season at the ballpark with a sold-out crowd exceeding 4,300. Five years later the Aviators were gone and the Beach Dawgs rarely brought in crowds near the 500 mark.

So, what happened?

One of the first notable complaints about the stadium is the fact that it is in such a remote location. Of the many facilities at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds, the baseball field was the first. Surrounding it was nothing but cotton fields and an overpass that essentially served as a border to the City of Robstown.

There were no stores or restaurants nearby, and there has been little development since. At the time the stadium was built, baseball was the only reason to visit. While there were plenty of baseball fans in the area, those who were not were better served driving to Corpus Christi for some weekend shopping and grab a meal at any number of restaurants.

The location problem was brought directly to the forefront when, in 2005, the Ryan-Sanders organization introduced the Corpus Christi Hooks, a Double-A baseball team that was affiliated with the Houston Astros. Their home was Whataburger Field, located in downtown Corpus Christi.

This was a different kind of baseball than the Aviators. First, the Hooks brought in higher levels of talent. Every player on the Hooks roster was a prospect that could one day play for the Astros.

Second, the entertainment aspect was much more attractive, with nicer luxury suites, playgrounds, basketball courts, pools and spas, and readily available Whataburgers inside the stadium.

Finally, a closer proximity to the Corpus Christi downtown area was arguably more attractive to people. Instead of looking out into the cotton fields, fans saw the Harbor Bridge and the bayfront.

The Aviators couldn’t overcome such competition, nor could the Beach Dawgs or the Thunder. As a result, Fairgrounds Field sits vacant, while a short drive away bats are cracking, fans are cheering and the Hooks are providing family entertainment for everybody.

Such obstacles continue to cloud the future.

Independent vs. Affiliated Baseball

All three teams who have occupied Fairgrounds Field were part of Independent Baseball.

These leagues have no affiliation with Major League Baseball and are not subject to MLB rules and regulations. Teams are often placed in convenient locations within metropolitan areas to provide an alternative to MLB teams, or they are seen in areas where affiliated baseball is absent and demographics can support such a team.

The area’s first taste of Indy-Baseball came with the Corpus Christi Barracudas in 1994. The team did not last more than one season. While three teams have called the fairgrounds home, the area as a whole has seen four different leagues. Of those four, only one, the American Association, is still in existence.

“Independent Baseball has got a tough future,” Neal said.

Four Independent Leagues folded in the 2010. As a result, the same carousel that the industry has seen since the 90s continues. Team owners scramble to find any league willing to take them, and league owners find locations of previous failure to set up new franchises.

Affiliated baseball sees its fair share of relocation and failed business. But there seems to be more commitment from communities that have such teams. The credibility factor holds a great weight over the independent circuit.

Further, affiliated teams provide a higher quality of talent. A player on an independent team can be anyone. He can be a 30-year-old man who is trying to hold onto his glory days, or he can be a 20-year-old kid who had some off-the-field troubles that prevented him from going to college.

However, every single Hooks player is playing for the same reason — the Astros. The big club in Houston pays all these players, and hopes they develop to one day play at Minute Maid Park. The Hooks have already had such success with some players, such as Houston Astro right fielder Hunter Pence.

This is one of the biggest gaps between the different leagues, both from a fan's perspective and a business standpoint. While Ryan-Sanders Baseball maintains expenses for stadium maintenance, marketing and front office personnel, the Astros are the ones who pay the players. This is a big expense that independent teams have to provide.

So can Fairgrounds Field host a second affiliated team? That’s a tricky question.

In Major League Baseball guidelines, there is a territorial restriction known as Rule 52. This rule states that there can be no other team within a 15-mile radius of another. The distance between Whataburger Field and Fairgrounds Field is roughly 17 miles apart, according to Google Maps. This rule has been subject to controversy in the past with such teams as the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s.

If that rule can be overcome, another difficult task is finding a way to bring more affiliated baseball teams to Texas. Of the 15 minor league baseball teams in the state, only five are affiliated. The Round Rock Express are the only Triple-A team, while the Hooks and three others play Double-A. Single-A and Rookie leagues have yet to come to the Lone Star State.

Collegiate Wood

Bat Leagues

A growing trend in the baseball world is that of Collegiate Wood Bat Leagues. In high school and college baseball, players use composite bats to play the game. At the professional level, players use wood bats. Collegiate Wood Bat offers amateurs the opportunity to play with the wood bats during their summer breaks, in order to prep for the possibility that they get drafted by MLB teams.

One such league that could serve as a potential suitor for Fairgrounds Field is the Texas Collegiate League. Founded in 2004, the TCL currently has eight teams. Recently, they have branched out with two teams from Louisiana. One of the Louisiana teams, the Alexandria Aces, converted from the independent format, and has seen success during its first two years.

League President Uri Geva believes that a team at the fairgrounds could be a good fit for the TCL.

“It’d be fantastic for our league to have a team with such a high-class facility,” Geva said. “It would be the newest ballpark in our league, should we ever have a team there. It’s just a matter of getting the right owner group, the right facility, in the right market. I think a team there would be a home run for everyone involved.”

Though they have no affiliation with MLB, there are a lot of parallels to affiliated baseball. First off, much like the minor league affiliates, Wood Bat Leagues do not have to pay their players. While an affiliated team’s players are paid by the parent team, Wood Bat Leagues don’t pay players because of their amateur status. Essentially, the players are practicing for the possibility of one day playing in the MLB.

With the lack of player salaries, leagues like the TCL save on their expenses. But it takes nothing away from the business aspect. Players still sign autographs, there are still firework nights, and Thirsty Thursday-type promotions.

Since its inception, the TCL has succeeded in their business model. In 2010, 35 former TCL players were drafted by MLB organizations. That number has grown each year. One of their most notable alums happens to be Hunter Pence. Yes, the same Hunter Pence from the Hooks.

Another incentive to their business model is that a majority of their players are local to the team they play for.

So, if any area graduates go on to play college baseball, they can keep fresh during the summer while visiting family and friends.

That alone could be a big incentive for Coastal Bend residents to see baseball at Fairgrounds Field.

What Now?

The future of Fairgrounds Field continues to be cloudy, and everyone involved appears to have a different opinion on how to proceed.

In the April 27 issue of The Nueces County Record Star, county commissioners Oscar Ortiz and Mike Pusley each expressed their opinions.

“I just think it’s unfortunate for that field to sit there vacant, but that may be what’s best for everybody,” Pusley said. He emphasized that he would not support any future leases with organized professional baseball unless a sound financial plan was in place.

Ortiz feels that outside-the-box ideas are needed in order to move forward, pointing to the semi-professional soccer team, the Corpus Christi Fuel, as an example.

“Having someone to utilize the facility and bring in revenue is better than it just sitting there,” Neal said. “We still have an outstanding bonded indebtedness from building the stadium. Not only are we sitting there with an asset that could deteriorate pretty rapidly, and will if we don’t take care of it, but we have a debt structure that is outstanding. It’s important for us to find as much meaningful activity as possible.”

While Geva and the TCL would like to have a team at the fairgrounds, they do not want to push anything through just for the sake of having a team in an empty stadium.

“We like to welcome good ownership,” Geva said. “All our teams are locally owned. We need solid business owners. We can’t have people say, ‘Hey there’s a stadium, let’s put a baseball team there.’”

Given the fact that the stadium is 0-for-3, Geva and the county appear to take the matter seriously.

In that regard, perhaps silence is a good thing for now.

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