We first heard rumors that the BayBears might be moving to Huntsville in July. Remarkably, that area just recently lost its Southern League baseball team due to low attendance. But the BayBears' likely new owners have said they'll file for relocation and move the BayBears there as soon as they can, but at a new stadium in the suburb of Madison, Alabama.
I can't say I blame them.
Since the Huntsville Stars and their league-worst attendance exited North Alabama, the Mobile BayBears have been at the very bottom of Southern League attendance numbers. You can blame it on the summer heat, the stadium's design and location, or Mobile's tendency to get excited about the shiny new thing (the BayBears were a major success in their first years) and then quickly take if for granted.
Chris Morgan, the team's general manager, has been doing a good job with the team he inherited; and he guarantees that the team will remain in Mobile for the 2018 season -- likely a lame duck season. It will be a tough sell to local baseball fans, knowing that any profits are going into the hands of a new ownership group that apparently cares nothing for our community. Of course, fan apathy will do that.
And the team's imminent departure brings up some questions:
1. What do we do with Hank Aaron Stadium? Without a minor league baseball team, do we really need the ballpark anymore? The facility cost a bit more $8 million when built in 1997, which isn't expensive by ballpark standards -- even minor league park standards. "The Hank" is not likely going to attract another team, because the trend is toward downtown stadiums like Pensacola's Community Maritime Park. (Huntsville is going with a suburban stadium, but you can color me pessimistic about their plans). Hank Aaron Stadium is a young 21 years old, but its time may be coming to an end. It wouldn't be the end of the world.
2. Do we try again? Huntsville's experience shows that it may not be the end of the line for baseball in Mobile. Keep in mind that the Huntsville Stars left their old stadium just three years ago (for Biloxi) because they had the worst attendance in the league. If they can get another chance in a new stadium, why not Mobile? It would take a concerted effort by city leaders and a plan forward.
I'd like to think that we figure this whole thing out. We're not exactly a small town, and unless a miracle happens, we'll soon be one of the larger cities in the country without a professional baseball team. We can certainly find other things to occupy ourselves. Baseball's biggest competitor for our time is always the beach, and the beach isn't going anywhere. Plus, we have local South Alabama Jags baseball -- and maybe that's all we need in a region obsessed with college sports. AFC Mobile, the area's new soccer team, is developing a fiercely loyal following in the community; and we expect its initial success to be the start of something much bigger. And there are always Southern League baseball teams in Pensacola and Biloxi.
Amenities are good for the city, good for the community. They give our kids something to look forward to and get excited about. Things that keep them out of trouble. Baseball gives families something to do on a beautiful spring evening. And of course, fireworks!
My hope is that the BayBears' departure will make the city and region start thinking about all of its stadium venues going forward, and actually figure out some sort of integrated solution. Hank Aaron Stadium is the best of the city-owned venues, but will likely never attract another baseball team if it loses this one. The Mobile Civic Center needs to be replaced, as well. There are few concerts and no sports franchise to be the Civic Center's anchor tenant and make it all work. Ladd-Peebles Stadium has the Senior Bowl and Dollar General Bowl; but one day, Jags football will move on-campus. Then what?
I'd love to see a new arena built somewhere downtown, and then a new baseball stadium built on the Civic Center property. Maybe a long-awaited soccer facility built on the Hank Aaron Stadium property -- including a small stadium where our AFC Mobile soccer team can play. I totally get it, that's a big ask. The city has plenty of arguably more significant issues to worry about. But it's apparently time to start the conversation.
[UPDATE: Is the city finally starting that conversation? Mayor Stimpson's office just announced a public meeting on Nov. 13th to talk about the future of the Mobile Civic Center].
Hank Aaron Stadium (Photo by Pat David on Wikipedia)