The ballpark debate that ultimately caused the Richmond Braves to pack their bags continues today, six years after the Braves departure and five years into the Flying Squirrels' tenure in the River City. The current franchise moved to Richmond with the promise of a new ballpark, and while there have been several proposals and ideas, we seem no closer to a new park now than we were six years ago. But what does all this mean for the future of baseball in the city?
Yesterday Squirrels' President and Managing General Partner Lou DiBella told NBC12's Laura Geller that the team had no intention of leaving Richmond. He says the team has no desire to leave and that Richmond is its home. He also says that just because this ballpark plan fell through doesn't mean the Squirrels won't get a new one.
We're not close to a new stadium in Richmond right now, but I do think eventually it will happen. The Diamond is falling apart, which nobody will argue, and the team has put money into upkeeping and fixing the out-dated facility on an annual basis.
But as we wait for the stadium, I don't see the Squirrels splitting town for another city. Consider this... the team leads the Eastern League in average attendance by about 2,000 fans per game, and consistently ranks in the top 20 in all of Minor League Baseball annual attendance. People are paying to go to games, and those same people are spending money on parking, merchandise, concessions, etc.
Playing at The Diamond certainly has some benefits for the team, once again in financial terms. The fact of the matter is, unless fans grab a bite to eat at Buzz and Neds before first pitch, the Squirrels are on their own little island. Fans are likely to spend more money at The Diamond because there's really nowhere else to shop, eat or hang out within walking distance.
And then there's the "does Richmond really need baseball" argument that some present. First, the attendance numbers show there's a demand for it. People come out to the games and enjoy the environment, but let's also not overlook the team's community involvement. The Squirrels take their role in the Richmond community very seriously, striking up numerous partnerships with local businesses, donating money to many charities and reaching out to families in need.
Do I think we need a new stadium in Richmond? Absolutely. Baseball has become a big part of where we live, and Flying Squirrels games are something that many people enjoy, from the die-hard fan on down.
No, I'm not suggesting that a ballpark is more important than schools, roads or economic growth. I do, however, think there has to be a way in which city officials can work together to develop a successful plan.
With all of that said, while I think the Squirrels don't have immediate plans to leave, it's important to help the franchise that's given a lot to the people of Richmond, both on and off the field. An effort needs to be made to keep baseball in the city, because if we lose this team, chances are we won't get another one.