Cubs, Smokies on Affiliation

The Tennessee Smokies officially became the new Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs on Thursday. The Player Development Contract between the two sides runs through the 2008 season.

The partnership with the Smokies ended a nine-year affiliation between the Cubs and West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx.

Southern League president Don Mincher said, "I know Tennessee is a great organization, so I think it will be a good match. I hate to see West Tenn lose the Cubs, but I'm looking forward to having the Cubs remain in our league."

Cubs Director of Player Development Oneri Fleita noted that there were "about four or five things" that impressed the organization with regards to the Smokies when deciding on the club's new Double-A affiliate.

The first was obvious.

"Number one, we wanted to have our players play in front of fans," Fleita said. "We wanted to make sure they were exposed to dealing with media."

"We wanted to see our players have a chance to play over the course of a season where there's a change in weather," he said. "When you start off the season, it will be kind of cool and then warm up like most places."

Fleita added, "It's an hour and a half direct flight from Chicago. And lastly, it's a great facility. We've got great hitting facilities here, a great weight room, and it's something that the community in East Tennessee should be very proud of."

Three teams in the Southern League had Player Development Contracts expire earlier this month: Tennessee, West Tenn, and Mobile.

Fleita said the Cubs never had an interest in locating their Double-A club to Mobile (a San Diego Padres affiliate since 1997), but added that it was difficult cutting ties with the Jaxx – previously the organization's affiliate since 1998.

"I'm sure they were disappointed," Fleita said. "They're great people. We'll miss those guys – Bob Lozinak, Jeff Parker. I know they made every effort they could to make sure they took care of our players. They did a lot of good things for our players over the years and it's something we'll never forget."

Among other things, Smokies General Manager Brian Cox was impressed by the Cubs' national following that will appeal to his community.

"When you look at having an opportunity to be affiliated with the Cubs, we're hoping it's a win-win situation for both sides," Cox said Thursday. "It's been very obvious as of this morning and even throughout the regular season how many Cubs fans are out there in East Tennessee."

Cox said that he'd already received a generous quantity of e-mails and phone calls from Cub fans "sort of welcoming us to the family."

"There were probably about 35 or 40 people at the press conference today, many of them season ticket holders," he said. "It's a very positive sign for us and it shows what I think everybody already knows: that the Cubs have a nationwide draw, a nationwide respectability, and a nationwide fan base."

The Smokies were previously the Double-A home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks wanted to remain affiliated with the Smokies, but the Cubs had more appeal to the club.

Perhaps the biggest draw to having the Cubs as a Double-A affiliate, Cox said, was "a mileage factor."

"What it all comes down to," Cox explained, "I think the biggest issue that we looked at was really a mileage factor. [Arizona] was a long way away from our team. Their games were played at 10:30 or later every night. We heard constantly from the fan base that they didn't know who even made it to the big leagues from here.

"I think it was seven or eight guys from here that played in the big leagues for Arizona. Most of our fans had no idea. That's tough when you look at it and start to realize that they're so far away that maybe we need to look closer to home. You start to think maybe you should look at a closer team in the Central or Eastern Time Zones."

Cox has worked for the Smokies for 17 years. The team had previously affiliated with three different parent club's in that span: Toronto, St. Louis, and Arizona. The Cubs will be the first affiliate in which the Smokies will have a direct flight to its parent club, he said.

"Toronto was usually about two or three exchanges, St. Louis was never a straight flight, and I can promise you I wasn't getting a direct flight to Phoenix," Cox joked.

The Cubs' past success at the Double-A level also appealed to the Smokies. The Jaxx won the Southern League championship in 2000 and made playoff appearances in 2002 and 2005. They finished just one game back of the first-half champion Smokies this past season.

"It's extremely hard when the final goal is to move guys to the big leagues," Cox said. "It's a compliment to the Cubs that they've been able to keep their teams competitive. Arizona did that for us this year, too, so it comes and goes. But you look down the line and see a lot of kids from those West Tenn club's that are going to make it to the big leagues."

Cox said the Smokies won't make any major alterations to their current logo to recognize the Cubs' affiliation. The team will look to incorporate the Cubs' logo somewhere on their uniform, likely on their sleeve.

"We're a Cubs affiliate now and there's no reason not to promote that," he said.

The team plays all home games at Smokies Park in Kodak, Tenn. The park's official capacity is listed at 6,000 seats, but Cox said the stadium can hold as many as 7,000 fans. The park opened in 2000.

The field is also slightly larger in dimensions than West Tenn's Pringles Park, with 330 feet to left field as opposed to Pringles' 310'; 400 to straight-away center as opposed to 395'; and 330 feet to right field as opposed to 320'.

All 140 of the Smokies' scheduled broadcasts were available online and on two separate FM radio stations in the area this past season.

"It's an outstanding facility and I feel like we're the lucky ones here," Fleita said. "I'm glad they wanted to take us in because they're quality people. Brian Cox, [team president] Doug Kirchhofer, these guys are awesome guys and baseball guys. We really lucked out."

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