Back in August, the Ottawa Citizen reported that “two serious local bidders with deep pockets” were trying to put forth a proposal to bring a minor league baseball franchise back to Ottawa with hopes of affiliating with the Blue Jays.
Yesterday, however, a report was released from the Finance and Economic Development Committee recommending that Council direct staff to solicit “best offers to lease” Ottawa Stadium, with the main stipulation being that the facility is used for either professional or semi-professional baseball.
Could the Jays really see another one of their minor league affiliates in Canada as soon as 2013?
Ottawa Stadium is a 10,332-seat baseball field located in the nation’s capital that was built for the Ottawa Lynx baseball club and opened April 17, 1993. The Lynx were the Triple-A affiliate of the Montreal Expos from 1993-2002, the Orioles from 2003-2006, and the Phillies in 2007. It was the only International League franchise based in Canada, and the IL’s roots ran deep in the city from a previous franchise in the 1950s. Many former Lynx players went on to play in the Majors, like Matt Stairs, Brandon Phillips, Javier Vazquez, and Orlando Cabrera.
The franchise wound up folding not because of fan attendance at all, though, but rather parking issues.
The city owns Ottawa Stadium, and owned the two large parking lots nearby that were vital to a baseball franchise’s success. These lots were eventually sold off to large retailers where fan parking was either limited or banned outright, so the stadium’s parking capacity plummeted to only being able to accommodate 4,500 fans in the Lynx’s final few years at the park. With these parking issues eliminating the stadium’s ability to draw an attendance anywhere near their 10,000 capacity, it’s no wonder the Lynx ranked last in the league in average attendance in 2006. In fact, the team’s owners issued a lawsuit against the city in October 2006 on the grounds that they failed to provide enough parking spaces.
Ottawa Stadium is conveniently located right at the Vanier Parkway/Highway 417 ramp, which is not only one of the busiest stretches in Ottawa, but the site of a proposed multi-use bridge path connecting Coventry Road, where the stadium is located, directly do the VIA Rail station and future light-rail station across the highway. Ken Gray of the Ottawa Citizen also mentions that any owners of a new franchise could create an additional parking garage and negotiate pay parking in nearby office buildings that would be empty at night when games are played.
However, the stadium would require an estimated $2.5 million to $7.6 million in both necessary and suggested improvements in order to be deemed ready for minor league baseball.
After housing the Ottawa Rapidz of the Can-Am League in 2008, Ottawa Stadium did not have a permanent tenant in 2009. In 2010, the Intercounty Baseball League voted in favor of an expansion team, the Ottawa Fat Cats, to play at the stadium, and the team continues to play there to this day. They have been operating on year-to-year leases, and their current one expires in May 2012, with the likelihood of it being extended until the end of the 2012 season.
That “end of the 2012 season” target date is an important one, as that’s when the Jays have a few notable player development contracts coming to an end with some of their existing minor league affiliates.
The Jays and their current Double-A affiliate, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, extended their relationship in 2008 through the 2012 season, meaning the franchise could swiftly migrate north without any hiccups if they wanted to play in Ottawa starting in 2013. What’s even more interesting, though, is that the lone confirmed potential owner, Beacon Sports Capital Partners LLC, has met with city officials in Ottawa twice already. Why is that important? Because the group not only has experience, money, and ties with other professional franchises, but they list the Fisher Cats as one of their clients on their website.
There’s also rumblings that the possible team moving to Canada might not even be the Fisher Cats at all. Ballpark Digest hints that there have been serious negotiations for Beacon Sports to buy the New York Mets’ Double-A Eastern League affiliate, the Binghamton Mets, and move them to Ottawa in time for the 2013 season. This move also makes sense, as the B-Mets finished last in the Eastern League in both average and total attendance this past season.
Even with Ottawa surfacing as a potential site for a Blue Jays minor league affiliate, the Jays love their relationship with the Fisher Cats, and it’s very much a possibility that they decide not to sever ties with the club. However, with the Jays’ player development contract with their current Triple-A affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s, finishing at the end of the 2012 season as well, here’s where things really get interesting.
It’s known that the Jays would love to get their Triple-A affiliate out of Vegas and back closer to home, perhaps in Buffalo, but Ottawa, having previously hosted Triple-A baseball for 15 years, would be an even better option. Gray, however, adds this little juicy tidbit in another blog post:
“However, there has been much talk about their successful New Hampshire Fisher Cats Double-A team wanting to move up to Triple-A or changing affiliations,” he says in the article.
I’m unsure if the Fisher Cats could even move up to Triple-A as Gray suggests, but it would be interesting to have Jays affiliates reading “Double-A Ottawa” and “Triple-A New Hampshire” in 2013. Triple-A Buffalo would also be interesting, considering the Mets’ contract with the Buffalo Bisons only runs through until the end of the 2012 campaign as well.
The benefits of the Jays having another minor league affiliate in Canada, let alone one so close to their big league team, are obvious. The team would ease the travel time for prospects regarding roster moves while promoting their brand in another section of Canada.
Fans would get to see future MLB stars close to home, and opening an affiliate in Ottawa would draw French Canadian baseball fans in the nearby area. Doing so could even spark enough interest to have the Jays establish a Triple-A affiliate in Montreal in the future.