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New team owners look at other markets

February 10, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

As it awaits final approval of its purchase of the Hagerstown Suns, Mandalay Sports Entertainment is talking baseball with several cities that might want a team.

The most publicized discussions were with the city of Evansville, Ind., which was shopping for a team for its new 6,600-seat stadium.

Mandalay was one of three finalists in Evansville, said Dave Knapp, a member of the committee choosing a team. The committee knew Mandalay was buying the Hagerstown Suns, but the team never was mentioned specifically during the negotiations, Knapp said.

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Ultimately, Evansville chose to bring in the South Georgia Waves, probably starting with the 2004 season. Former Major League stars Cal Ripken Jr. and Don Mattingly, an Evansville native, are minority owners in the new team.

"We could have been equally as happy with Mandalay," Knapp said.

Suns owner Andrew Rayburn announced Dec. 5 that he was selling the team to Mandalay Sports Entertainment. The South Atlantic League's owners approved the sale at the winter baseball meetings in Nashville, Tenn., in mid-December. Minor League Baseball's approval is required next.

Minor League Baseball, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., received immediate notice of the South Atlantic League's approval, but the league office was closed then. The office reopened Jan. 2, said Jim Ferguson, director of media relations for Minor League Baseball.

Ferguson said there is no estimate on how long it will take to review the sale.

Major League Baseball would be the next and final step.

Sylvia Lind, the senior manager of minor league operations for Major League Baseball at its New York City headquarters, said several factors, such as the number of owners buying or selling a team, affect how long a review might take.

Major League Baseball studies every management transaction in every league, from a sale of a team to a transfer of interest in ownership, Lind said.

Approval likely

Baseball officials wouldn't predict when the sale of the Suns might become final, but Mandalay spokesman Kevin Mortesen of Wills Communications would.

"We expect to get approval within a month," he said.

Minor League Baseball's recommendation carries enough weight that Major League Baseball's approval is "practically a rubber stamp" and happens quickly, Mortesen said.

The bigger question is what will become of the Suns after next year.

The team is committed to play in Hagerstown for the 2003 season, which begins April 3. But without a new stadium and with low attendance, the team's future might be elsewhere.

Rayburn and the previous owner, Winston Blenckstone, each declared they would move the Suns unless a new stadium were built.

The trend throughout team sports today is for stadiums to be sleek and new, neither of which describes Municipal Stadium, the Suns' home. The stadium is about 70 years old.

Plans to build a new stadium in Hagerstown fizzled more than two years ago as the cost estimate ballooned. Rayburn's chances diminished further after the November Washington County Commissioners election, when key stadium supporter Paul Swartz was defeated.

Mandalay has not threatened to move the Suns without a new stadium. However, Mortesen said, "I don't know of any sports franchise that wouldn't love a new stadium."

Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said a Mandalay representative met with city officials about two weeks ago to discuss the sale of the team. Mandalay expressed interest in a new stadium, but didn't press for one, Breichner said.

Team move discussed

Rayburn has acknowledged that he met with other cities about taking the Suns last year. The only city Rayburn confirmed was Montgomery, Ala. Rayburn spoke to officials there last May.

On Tuesday, Montgomery reached an agreement to bring in the Orlando (Fla.) Rays for the 2004 season.

Coincidentally, Mandalay was one of the other team owners reportedly talking to Montgomery officials. At the time, Mandalay owned the South Georgia Waves, which are bound for Evansville.

Rayburn said Mandalay didn't talk to him during the Montgomery negotiations about selling the Suns. It wasn't until October, when Mandalay called him unexpectedly, that Rayburn decided to sell the team, he said.

Mandalay owns three other teams, but all are more secure in their surroundings than the Suns.

The Dayton (Ohio) Dragons, a Cincinnati Reds affiliate that started in 2000, play in a state-of-the-art stadium that's part of a $30 million complex, according to Mandalay. By attendance, the Dragons are one of the most successful teams in the minor leagues.

The Las Vegas 51s, a Los Angeles Dodgers affiliate, have fared well, too.

The Frisco (Texas) RoughRiders, a Texas Rangers affiliate, will begin playing this season in a new ballpark.

Which leaves Hagerstown as the most likely Mandalay team to move, if Mandalay is so inclined - which it may be. Mortesen said the company is talking to about a dozen cities at any given time about bringing a team. He wouldn't identify any, but acknowledged that Evansville was one.

Mandalay is said to be interested in acquiring other baseball teams, too.

"We're always looking at potential markets," Mortesen said. "Always."

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