An ownership group led by Reston, Va., based lawyer John “Jack” Lavoie and Peter Kirk will attempt to place an Atlantic League team in Frederick, Md.
That’s right, the Atlantic League will attempt to take over a territory long held by the Baltimore Orioles Class A affiliate.
It’s an unusual situation for the league. But the league may provide the best long-term option for the city to keep a minor league team in Frederick.
By JIM SEIP
Daily Record/Sunday News
It reads like the perfect business model for minor league baseball. The Class A Frederick Keys have played 22 seasons in the Carolina League, including the last 21 seasons at Harry Grove Stadium. The Keys’ major league affiliate is the nearby Baltimore Orioles. It appears to be an ideal pairing.
The Keys can attract casual baseball fans, families or young people who grew up with the Keys. The team also attracts diehard fans who want to see the Orioles’ potential future stars.
Yet this is not an impeccable partnership between city and team — owner and community. At least not right now.
The city and the team have negotiated one-season lease agreements for at least the last three seasons, creating intrigue in the baseball world: Will the Keys return once the latest one-season lease expires? Published reports have detailed that the price of the lease could also be a sticking point. The Keys rejected a $50,000 lease proposal by the city in 2009 before agreeing to pay $30,000 in each of the last three one-season lease agreements. A city official told the Frederick News-Post in September that the price of the lease seemed “low.”
Still the partnership continues. The Keys and Frederick once again agreed to a one-season lease earlier this month, but this lease will last six months instead of the customary March through April. Since the lease expires in September, the city will be able to entertain offers from other interested parties.
And the Atlantic League is definitely interested.
The city of Frederick now holds some leverage, because one of the Keys original owners and the York Revolution’s current owner, Peter Kirk, wants to place an expansion Atlantic League franchise at Harry Grove Stadium. Kirk does not have to buy the Keys. His group does, however, need to convince the city of Frederick that an Atlantic League franchise would be a better option.
The Atlantic League has no major league affiliation, but Kirk and a group of potential local team owners are willing to offer a long-term commitment to the stadium and the city of Frederick. Kirk is willing to offer to pay more to lease the stadium than the Keys’ current commitment of $30,000 per season, and his group is willing to help fund improvements to the stadium.
“I’m very interested in seeing that franchise being straightened out,” Kirk said. “All of us watching Frederick are saddened by the fact they have an absentee owner (Ken Young) — who happens to be a good guy by the way. … But it’s no secret he’s looking to sell the team. And the team has been drifting along on one-year lease extensions.
“Frederick is a great community and they deserve some local owners to keep a team there permanently.”
Kirk, who resides in Annapolis, Md., is working in connection with John “Jack” Lavoie, a commercial real estate lawyer who works in Reston, Va., to place an Atlantic League team in Frederick. Lavoie would serve as the controlling owner of the proposed independent Frederick franchise, and Kirk would be a partner. Lavoie said the York Revolution and Sovereign Bank Stadium will serve as one of the models of what his group wants Frederick officials and fans to see.
“We would be happy to host anyone and introduce them to the operation in York,” Lavoie said.
Kirk orchestrated a similar move in negotiations with city officials from Sugar Land, Texas. Sugar Land’s mayor and city officials toured York’s ballpark, and the city eventually decided to pursue building a ballpark for an Atlantic League franchise. The Texas franchise is scheduled to join the Atlantic League in 2012.
Frederick Mayor Randy McClement told the Frederick News-Post the city would issue a request for proposals for the 2012 season “in the near future.” McClement could not immediately return messages left with his secretary, but requesting proposals is the first step in gauging the interest of prospective teams in leasing Harry Grove Stadium. And Lavoie and Kirk expect to submit a proposal.
“I think it’s important to point out that we’re not anti-Frederick Keys,” Lavoie said. “We’re pro Frederick. We want to see baseball stay in Frederick. This is an opportunity that has become available, and we just favor the Atlantic League.”
It’s an unusual situation for the Atlantic League.
Ever since its re-emergence in the 1990s, independent baseball has had its critics. Fans and employees in affiliated baseball have pointed to its lack of affiliation with Major League Baseball and its willingness to push entertainment — not just the game.
The Atlantic League has excelled, however, when it comes to building new ballparks and bringing minor league baseball back to cities that haven’t had teams for decades — including York and Lancaster. It has also been active in placing teams where Major League Baseball has blocked the creation of new minor league franchises because of territorial rights. Blocked from moving his Yankees affiliate to Long Island because of the Mets territorial rights, Atlantic League founder Frank Boulton built the Long Island Ducks in Central Islip, N.Y., developing one of the best draws in minor league baseball. Sugar Land was not eligible to attract a major league affiliate because the Astros blocked any such move. Without independent baseball, those two markets would remain dark.
So attempting to place a team in a market that already has a major league affiliate is somewhat unique. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad move.
“It’s hard to say what the Keys really want out of this,” Boulton said. “Frederick is a great market and I don’t know what the Keys are angling for. I know they’re for sale and I know it makes the team more marketable if it can be moved by a new owner.
“Potentially it’s a good market for us. We don’t typically go into markets like that because they already have an affiliated team. But there’s no reason Frederick should lose their team.”
A former owner of the Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks and the Prince William (Va.) Cannons — two Carolina League franchises — Boulton attended the Keys’ franchise opener. And he’s prepared to answer one of the big questions Frederick officials will need to answer in the coming months.
What team would the people of Frederick want to watch?
“I’ve owned both kinds of teams, but I’m going to go with the Atlantic League,” Boulton said.