Braves moving Triple-A team in '09
Team accepts stadium offer from nearby Gwinnett County
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
ATLANTA -- Braves executive vice president of business operations Mike Plant has spent the past four years attempting to find a suitable facility for the club's Triple-A affiliate.
After countless battles with the city of Richmond, Va., and an untold amount of hours evaluating other potential locations throughout the United States, he came to the realization that his best solution would be in his organization's backyard.
Gwinnett County isn't exactly next door to Turner Field. But it is just about 30 minutes away and in the eyes of the Braves, this proximity won't prove to be a detriment as much as it will be a positive when they move their Triple-A team there from Richmond for the start of the 2009 season.
"It's going to be really successful," Plant said on Tuesday afternoon, after the Gwinnett County Commissioners unanimously approved the construction of a $40 million stadium that will be ready for the Braves around this time next year.
After coming to the realization that Richmond was never going to provide the funds to provide the necessary stadium upgrades, Plant and other members of the Braves management team began evaluating the positives and negatives of moving the club to Gwinnett County, which had been planning to build a stadium that would have been home to an Independent team.
While working with Bert Nasuti and other Gwinnett County Commissioners, the Braves came to the conclusion that it would be best to reap the financial advantages this new stadium will provide, while taking the gamble that having another professional team this close to Turner Field could prove to be a good thing.
"We feel like it's going to be a win-win [situation]," Braves executive vice president of sales and marketing Derek Schiller said. "We look at it as it's almost going to be a promo for fans in a similar way that it's a promo for players. "It's a situation where someone could get exposed to baseball for the first time at the Minor League level because of the affordability and all the other things here and then they could come down to Turner Field to experience baseball on a Major League level."
The Braves aren't going into uncharted waters with this decision. The Red Sox (Pawtucket) and Mariners (Tacoma) both have Triple-A affiliates that are located approximately the same distance from their Major League stadiums as the Gwinnett County team will be from Turner Field.
This proposed 7,000 seat stadium, which will also provide room for an additional 3,000 fans on the outfield berm will be constructed in the northern portion of Gwinnett County, near the Mall of Georgia.
While Gwinnett County will own the stadium, the Braves will manage the daily operations. Like the grand Minor League parks that they've constructed in Rome, Ga., and Pearl, Miss., over the course of the past five years, they want this park to stand as a blueprint for the others that follow in the Minors.
Since moving their Double-A affiliate to Mississippi before the start of the 2005 season, the Braves have been more reluctant to move many of their top prospects to Richmond, where they would have been subjected to worse field conditions and fewer amenities, such as indoor batting cages.
Braves president John Schuerholz and general manager Frank Wren both believe they'll now be more willing to send more of their better prospects to the Triple-A level. The players will have the benefit of playing in a great facility and have the opportunity to generate an interest that could lead to fans following them to the Majors and Turner Field.
"I think the dynamics will change based on the quality of the facility and the proximity," Wren said. "I think that will a natural-type of transition that we'll make."
Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who has called Gwinnett County home throughout his entire life, seemed excited about this decision while attending Tuesday's press conference. Jokingly, he announced that he's trying to get the Braves to allow him to play about 25 games at the Triple-A level so that he can limit his battles against Atlanta traffic on the way to Turner Field.
The proximity does provide plenty of potential positives. Players that need to go on rehab assignments now will have the opportunity to stay close to home and play against better competition than they have in the past, when many have chosen to make the hour-long drive to the Class A affiliate in Rome.
Also, in the event that the Braves need to make a late-afternoon transaction on the day of a game, they won't have to wonder if a promoted player is going to make his flight out of Mississippi or Richmond. They'll just have to hope he can beat the Atlanta traffic in time to get to Turner Field.
"I really think this is going to be a good thing," Francoeur said. "I think it will attract fans."
Richmond has been home for the Braves Triple-A affiliate since the 1966 season and in 1985, when they opened The Diamond, the city possessed one of the country's best Minor League stadiums. But, the stadium has become outdated and a cause for concern for most of this decade.
A combination of extended heavy rains and a bad drainage system forced the Richmond Braves to play each of the 2004 playoff games on the road. They ended up losing to Buffalo in the Governor's Cup finals.
"There just was never any clarity that the financial structure was going to work in Richmond," Plant said. "That left me with a lot of concern I knew what we were willing to put on the table and nobody else made any commitments."
Gwinnett County's commitment began with Nasuti's vision to bring Minor League baseball to his constituents. A recent study showed that the County as the most suitable area in the country for a Minor League baseball team. It has already shown great support for its teams in the East Coast Hockey League and Arena Football League team.
"What started out as a dream has now become a team," Nasuti said.
Fans wishing to place a $100 deposit for season tickets or others looking for employment opportunities can go to gwinnettbraves.com.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
Is this the first of the many changes we will see for '09? The Mets seem to be pushing for Syracuse and I doubt New Orleans would be the Jays' first choice. Columbus is supposed to have a new stadium in '09 which could prompt Cleveland to move there opening up Buffalo for the Jays?