Guerry Clegg commentary: Minor league baseball could work here but not in near future

sports@ledger-enquirer.comApril 12, 2014 

Had an interesting conversation the other day about something near and dear to my heart.

An Auburn journalism student, Justin Ferguson, was working on a paper about minor league baseball in Columbus and wanted some perspective from someone who has spent a few evenings -- and unmercifully hot afternoons -- at Golden Park.

We chatted about a number of topics, from childhood memories of baseball to young players who came through Columbus, either as visitors such as the skinny Chipper Jones and the bomb Andruw Jones hit or the long list of players for the home team who went on to The Show. Luis Gonzalez was one of the nicest kids I ever met.

Inevitably, the conversation turned to the future of minor league baseball in Columbus.

Would Columbus support minor league baseball?

Under the right circumstances, yes. But it's a relative. With few exceptions, minor league ball is a tough sell everywhere, especially below Triple-A. With 70 home games a year, there will always be nights with near empty ballparks.

So what are those right circumstances?

To start with, clever and tireless marketing, committed ownership, community involvement and a major league affiliate that would bring talented young players through Columbus. Some of that depends on luck. Teams don't always have a steady flow of hot prospects. Players develop at different paces and that development is not always evident by statistics. John Smoltz had a 5.68 earned run average in his second year of pro ball when he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in 1987. One year later he was starting in the big leagues.

If Columbus returned to the South Atlantic League, much would depend on that organization's development strategy. The Braves liked to bring their most talented prospects through the Sally League. Many other organizations, trying to rush their players, would send their best talent to their high-A team, bypassing the Sally League.

Is a new ball park in north Columbus essential to the team's success?

I used to think so. Now, I'm not so sure. For one thing, there's no perfect location. Midtown around Cross Country might be the only other site that could work.

But I do believe people would make the drive to South Commons if they felt it was worth it. Again, a lot of it has to do with marketing. One of the drawbacks before was that Golden Park felt so isolated. But there are more restaurants downtown than ever.

What would it take to make Golden Park work?

At a minimum, new seating. And maybe a complete overhaul. It's not a comfortable place to sit and watch a ball game. The seats are cramped. It's also inconvenient that the concessions are located under the stands. If you go stand in line waiting to order you miss so much of the game. I took the family to a Braves spring training game this year and the concession stands were located facing the field.

What would it take to make it happen?

The political will to bring baseball back isn't there. It's not politically advantageous to make that cause among candidates for office. It's a problem that needs a long-term solution so there's no political gain to be made. So the push would need to come from civic and corporate leaders, who would have to be sold on the benefits of having minor league baseball.

I think the community is ready to welcome back baseball, but only if it's done right.

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