Minor League Realignment Moves Closer for Phillies

Pennsylvania's third largest city is looking to enter the baseball business. Allentown officials hope that they'll get state funds for a baseball stadium, which would bring a Class-A franchise to the city that was a former home to St.Louis Cardinals prospects more than forty years ago.

Craig Stein – owner of the Reading Phillies – has joined forces with Trenton Thunder owner Joseph Finley to help bring affiliated baseball to Allentown, Pennsylvania. The city, which along with the cities of Bethlehem and Easton and surrounding ares, is known as the Lehigh Valley, was home to a minor league club belonging to the St. Louis Cardinals in the late fifties and very early sixties.

Stein and Finley have a purchase agreement in place to buy a team and move them to Allentown, contingent on the construction of a suitable stadium. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has dangled $12 million in front of the Lehigh Valley if they can come up with concrete plans and matching funds for a stadium project. There are preliminary plans to raise the matching funds through a local hotel tax or possibly from potential casino revenues should casino legislation pass. Planners also have a site in mind. The plan is to use property owned, but vacated by Agere, just outside of the downtown area.

Finley told the Allentown Morning Call, "I can tell you it's going to be a full-season team," but declined to name the specific team. He pointed out that the deal to purchase the team is dead if Allentown doesn't get the state funds and approve the Agere site for a stadium.

State Representative T.J. Rooney (D-Lehigh/Northampton) is closely involved in the process and confirmed that the team would become an affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. "It's a minor league team and it would be affiliated with the Phillies," Rooney told the Morning Call. "This is the closest we've been in a very long time."

Rendell's deadline to have a full plan submitted to him is Friday (October 15) and Stein and Finley plan to meet that deadline. Officials have said that Rendell will consider any proposals that are submitted and hoped to make a decision within a week and definitely by the end of the month. The only other proposal that the area might submit would be for a stadium in Williams Township, which would house an independent team from the Atlantic League. That stadium construction had been started, but lack of funds halted the construction and the team that was slated to play there has been playing as a traveling team in the Atlantic League. The team – the Pennsylvania Road Warriors – would have been known as the Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds. The proposal for the Williams Township stadium is much murkier and appears to be less attractive than the Allentown project.

The confusing part of the situation is just how the Phillies would realign their minor league system. While Rooney announced that the team would be a Class-A affiliate, it seems unlikely that the Phillies would be interested in moving or dropping either their high-A affiliate in Clearwater, Florida or their low-A affiliate in Lakewood, New Jersey. Both teams draw well and both have new or fairly new faciliaties. The intriguing part is that neither Stein or Finley were ever quoted as saying the team would be a Class-A team. In fact, Finley declined to confirm the level of the team. Finley did confirm that the stadium would be built to AA standards – approximately 7,000 seats – and would also be built in such a way that it could be easily expanded to house a AAA club.

It is highly unlikely that Stein would look to move his very popular Reading Phillies team out of their facility. The R-Phils are one of the more successful franchises in minor league baseball and while they play in an older stadium, the facility has been constantly updated and renovated. Recent renovations over the past few seasons have included a party deck in left field and a pool just past the right field fence.

The prospects of moving the AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre Red Barons to Allentown is interesting. The team is owned by a government entity and there have been political squables over how best to operate the team. They also play in a stadium with artificial turf, which the Phillies would prefer to have converted to natural grass. The Phillies just renewed their player development deal with Scranton to run through the 2006 season. The timing would be perfect, since the Allentown stadium would be slated to open in time for the 2007 season.

Allentown is approximately 60 miles from Philadelphia. In recent years, the Phillies have sought to move their minor league affiliates closer to their big league club.

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