Phillies Could See Shifting of Minor League Teams

A new stadium proposal in the Lehigh Valley – about an hour from Philadelphia – could mean some changes in the Phillies minor league system. Craig Stein, the owner of the Reading Phillies, will be a key player in what may potentially be the changing face of the Phillies minor league system.

Politics and baseball make for odd bedfellows. Nowhere is that more evident than in Lackawanna County, home of the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Red Barons. The stadium and the team are owned and operated by the Lackawanna Stadium Authority. Therein lies the problem.

As often happens in politics, political wrangling has become part of the minor league baseball landscape in Scranton. Some believe that the county should get out of the baseball business, while others worry that could lead to the exit of the team from Lackawanna County. The fight has gotten ugly at times.

Add to the political problems, the fact that the Phillies would like to see some changes at Lackawanna County Stadium and it gets even nastier. The stadium was originally built to the dimensions of Veterans Stadium, including having artificial turf, just like the Vet had. With the demise of Veterans Stadium and the addition of natural grass, the Phillies would like to see the players closest to making the majors playing on natural grass. That's not likely to be a concession that the Stadium Authority would make, since a chunk of their income from the stadium comes from a winter skating rink which is conveniently put over the artificial turf at the stadium. Switching to grass would kill those proceeds and politicians hate to see income dashed.

Wait though, because it gets even more intriguing. The commonwealth of Pennsylvania is close to officially awarding a $12 million grant to the city of Allentown, Pennsylvania to be used to construct a baseball stadium. Allentown, part of the region known as the Lehigh Valley, would build a minor league stadium and attract an affiliated team to play at the new park, probably beginning in 2006. Allentown is a little over an hour from Philadelphia, meaning that the Phillies top players would be on quick arrival status.

The question is what team would play at the new stadium?

Craig Stein, owner of the Reading Phillies, and Michael Finley, owner of the Trenton Thunder, are teaming up to bring affiliated baseball to the Lehigh Valley. It's not a far fetched idea to see that if Lackawanna County decides to sell the Red Barons, the Lehigh Valley could become their new home under Stein and Finley. Admittedly though, that would bring up more questions and a few concerns.

With Stein and Finley both owning minor league teams within driving distance of Allentown, would they want to bring a higher level affiliated team to the area as competition? That question hasn't been addressed. And, would the Phillies want to bring their AAA team that close to Philadelphia, worrying about fans passing up the big club to see the stars of tomorrow?

Having AAA teams in close proximity to the big league club has worked in other places. The Pawtucket Red Sox play about 40 minutes away from Fenway Park and the relationship has been great. Neither has suffered in attendance and are both in fact, flourishing. The turnaround of the Pawtucket franchise has been a true minor league success story. The Colorado Rockies AAA team plays in Denver's backyard of Colorado Springs. Much like the Boston and Pawtucket situation, the relationship has been a success. The bottom line is that the relationship can work well for all involved and with the Phillies having a new stadium of their own, fans will likely still make the trip to Philadelphia to see Jim Thome and the boys.

Another scenario is moving the Batavia MuckDogs closer to Philadelphia and putting them in the new Allentown stadium. The short-season New York – Penn League team is tucked away in a somewhat out of reach destination in upstate New York and the Phillies might like the idea of having a short-season team in the Lehigh Valley.

It's also possible that Stein and Finley could go out of the Phillies organization for a team, but the Phillies might consider blocking a move like that. The Phillies control the Allentown area as part of their territorial rights and a simple "no" from Dave Montgomery would end that thought.

Allentown is no stranger to minor league baseball. Most recently, the city was home to the Allentown Ambassadors of the independent Northeast League. The team played for seven seasons with attendance dwindling near the end of their run, leading to the team folding just prior to the 2004 season. Prior to that, the St. Louis Cardinals had a minor league team in Allentown during the 1950s.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has given Allentown time to work out a deal on securing a site for the stadium and to come up with matching funds for the project. If the city fails to do so, the stadium would still be built in the Lehigh Valley, but would likely be placed either in Williams Township, just east of Allentow, or in Bethlehem, which is also located just to the east of Allentown. All parties believe that the new stadium could be ready for the 2006 season.

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