The Cardinals' current league home is Dwyer Stadium in Batavia, New York. The Batavia Muckdogs had been affiliated with the Philadelphia Phillies before the Cardinals moved their short-season Class-A New York-Penn League operations into town for the 2007 season.
Despite Batavia having fielded a league entry since its inception in 1939, financial problems have put the club's immediate future in the Genesee County locale in serious question. There are multiple open issues regarding debt, both locally and with the New York-Penn League.
The 10-year-old, $3 million Dwyer Stadium is owned by the City of Batavia and operated by a governmental entity called the Batavia Regional Recreation Corporation, partly with the past help of subsidies from the city that have now been cut off due to local budget crises.
The ownership of the team, a citizens' group known as the Genesee County Baseball Club, turned over operations of the franchise to the same Batavia Regional Recreation Corporation a dozen years ago. Use of the stadium is provided by the city rent-free, but the club has been at risk for the last two years, operating without a lease.
The BRRC has rung up more than $100,000 in debt with local vendors in 2007 after the Corporation lost a reported $60,000 the season prior. The Muckdogs owe a $20,000 franchise fee to the New York-Penn League which must be paid to keep the team in Batavia. There are also apparently non-compliance issues with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.
The club is being told it needs to establish $250,000 escrow account to remain afloat. According to The Buffalo News, an anonymous donor has offered to bail out the club and settle the debts with an interest free, open-ended loan. But the primary condition to secure the loan will not be satisfied until there is a lease in place for Dwyer Stadium.
Reports out of Batavia indicate that the City Council is not expected to take timely action on the lease, as several deadlines set by the club have already been missed. The City has asked for a plan that will convince them the team can operate in the black in the future, something recent history would seem to refute.
The league is running out of patience before they step in to take the team away. Their deadline is reportedly today, December 14. All signals point to this date for the final showdown as water is filling the club's proverbial cellar.
"I got notices for the gas, electric and phone being shut off," Muckdogs General Manager Dave Wellenzohn told the paper recently. "I'm going to make some phone calls and ask for mercy. I asked the phone company to give us until December 14. I told them by then we'll either have the money or we'll be out of business."
Caught in a downward spiral of uncertainty, the regular sources of revenue for the club have apparently been reduced to a trickle. Sales of 2008 season tickets and advertising as well as group sales for nights at the ballpark reportedly have all been affected by the Muckdogs' unclear future. 44,000 fans attended games at Dwyer last season.
I called Wellenzohn this morning to get an update. The good news is that the phones are still connected. However, apparently due to the sensitivity of the situation, no one contacted this week – team, city or league officials – will speak on record.
The Muckdogs franchise could be worth from $3 to 5 million due to significant buyer interest in purchasing minor league clubs and relocating them to larger towns. Batavia is currently the second-smallest market in the 14-team league.
Despite their recent history, the Cardinals haven't always been league nomads. They fielded a team, the New Jersey Cardinals, in Augusta, New Jersey for 12 years starting in 1994 and ending in 2005. Financial problems and facility concerns led to that club being put up for sale and moving to State College, Pennsylvania for the 2006 season.
It was generally understood that would be just a one-year stop for the Cardinals as the new ownership of that franchise had strong ties to the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. The two sides, the new State College Spikes and the Cardinals, had one year remaining on their Player Development Contract (PDC) which carried over from New Jersey.
Free from the Cardinals following the 2006 season, the Spikes ownership did affiliate themselves with the Pirates as expected, requiring the Cardinals to find a new home. They selected Batavia, signing a new two-year PDC one year ago. Until its term expires, that player development agreement will follow the franchise to wherever it relocates.
Perhaps resigned to the seemingly-inevitable, two weeks ago Wellenzohn told the News this: "We've been ordered by minor-league baseball to fix it or they'll take it away. And if baseball leaves Batavia, it's gone forever."
If the moving trucks haven't shown up yet, they must be circling the block.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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