Red Barons Hope For Better Days Ahead

The Scranton Wilkes-Barre Red Barons have a magic number of four to clinch the North Division of the International League. Their on-the-field success belies the problems that face the organization off-the-field.

The Red Barons have all but clinched a playoff spot in the International League. Even if they were to lose all eight of their remaining games, they would still have at least a decent shot at winning the wild card. Of course, they're thinking more about the division title than the wild card.

If there are any obvious signs of concerns for the Red Barons these days, it would come from the IL attendance numbers. Scranton ranks tenth in the 14 team league in per game attendance at just 5, 521 fans per game. The number is just under 1,000 per game under the next highest team (Rochester) and just about 200 per game ahead of number eleven Syracuse.

Digging deeper, there are even more issues. The ballpark that was built as an attraction for the Philadelphia Phillies by mirroring the dimensions and turf of Veterans Stadium has too quickly become outdated. Syracuse and Scranton remain the only two stadiums in the IL still using artificial turf and the dimensions of Lackawanna County Stadium come nowhere near the looks of Citizens Bank Park. In many respects, the Red Barons built their existence on the Philadelphia Phillies, only to see the organization look to walk away from their baby 18 seasons.

In 2007, the Phillies will move their AAA affiliate to Ottawa. Consider it a scenic route to a closer location in Allentown, Pennsylvania, just about 60 miles up the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Philadelphia. A new stadium will be built in Allentown and won't be ready until the 2008 season. However, the owners of the team that will call the Lehigh County Ballpark - the working name for the park - home, already have the means of buying the Ottawa franchise and moving them out of Canada and into Allentown once the stadium is finished. The final blessing came Monday when the International League gave the go-ahead.

An artist's rendering of the Lehigh County Ballpark to be built in Allentown, PA and ready for the 2008 season.

For the Phillies, it will mean that their players closest to helping at the major league level will be just an hour away from Philadelphia. For Allentown, it's a return to minor league baseball after a long absence. At one time, the Allentown area was home to a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate, playing where today a mall stands.

Like Allentown, Scranton went a long time without minor league baseball as well. The Red Barons seemed like the perfect fit. They gave the Phillies a relatively close place for their AAA team to call home, they agreed to build a stadium modeled after The Vet to give players a true feel for what their home park in the majors would feel like and to give Philadelphia scouts a fair assessment of how players would perform in somewhat of a mini-Vet. Plus, the team and stadium would be owned by local government entities, insuring that the team wouldn't move. Now, with the chance to move even closer to home, the Phillies are pulling their AAA team out of Scranton after this season, leaving the Red Barons in limbo.

Nobody is worried about Scranton not getting another team; that's guaranteed. However, there are concerns about how fans might react to going out to see a team filled with prospects from the Baltimore Orioles or Washington Nationals, rather than future Phillies.

Now, there are reports that the Red Barons are up for sale or that there is at least an interested buyer for the team. A New York based company is said to have offered $14 million for the franchise and is willing to sign a 20 year lease to keep the team in Northeastern Pennsylvania, which would be a necessary component of any sales agreement. That money could go a long way toward clearing up a lot of financial discrepancies between the agency that runs the team and the Lackawanny County government, which says the agency owes them in the area of $10 million.

If the team is sold, they would remain in the region, but would they eventually abandon Lackawanna County Stadium? The county uses the stadium for winter events, such as an ice skating rink that is placed over the field and they're reportedly in no hurry to rip out the artificial turf.

One scenario has the Orioles going hard after the Richmond franchise during the minor league affiliate shuffle that takes place every two years and is set for this winter. There have been rumors of the Mets having interest in Scranton rather than their team in Virginia. It stands that the teams in Tidewater and Richmond would be much more attractive to the Orioles and Washington Nationals and that Scranton would be much more valuable to the Mets.

So, while the future is cloudy, at best, the Red Barons continue their pursuit for the International League post-season. Thankfully, all of the off-the-field issues haven't come anywhere near reaching the product that's producing on the field for Scranton.


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