There is growing concern over the future of Phillies baseball in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area. Lackawanna County Stadium, which hasn’t changed much since I last visited in 1989, is in need of some serious upgrades. Although Lackawanna County is supporting the financing of a $2.5 million clubhouse expansion project there are still several signs pointing to the Phillies disengagement with their longtime AAA affiliate. The Phillies have already cut ties with one Lackawannanian baseball franchise, namely former GM Ed Wade. More significant however are the plans for a new minor league stadium in Allentown.
Despite closing all the factories down, Allentown is keen to raise its profile in the baseball industry. The county of Lehigh recently signed a 29-year lease for the new with Grace Baseball – a consortium of Reading Phillies owner Craig Stein and Lakewood BlueClaws boss Joe Finley. The $34.3 million stadium, scheduled to open in 2008, is slated for a capacity of 7,000 and will receive $17 million in state funds. Although confidentially agreements prevent the group from disclosing the level or affiliation of the team they intend to occupy the park, there have been widespread rumors that it could be Orioles affiliate, Ottawa Lynx. In response to hearing of Canada’s last AAA team’s potential defection, local Ottawa politician Peter Hume elequoently replied, "Crap." Equally, peeved was Red Barons GM Jeremy Ruby who said his team might ask the International League to keep a team out of Allentown. Eight of the fourteen IL owners would need to approve the deal of moving the Lynx.
Normally this would not be much of an issue, Baltimore gets a club closer to home and the Red Barons get a plush new clubhouse. However, there are several more issues that add to this perfect storm. First of all, as much as the O’s would like a team closer to home, so too would the Phillies – and the Yankees for that matter. The Phils and Red Barons are under contract to remain affiliated through 2006, so keep an eye on how those negotiations turn out. A short-term deal will almost certainly mean the Phils are moving south to the home of Crayola and Eagles training camp. Likewise, rumor has it that the Boss, George Steinbrenner, has been shopping around for an AAA affiliate and stadium closer than his Clippers of Columbus, OH. Scranton would be a logical choice there.
So where does that leave the Red Barons? Well, without any unforeseen problems, they should be getting a new clubhouse within the next year. Nothing else substantive will happen at least until 2008 when the new stadium opens. But again, we’ll monitor the length of the Phillies-Red Barons contract extension as that will be a good indicator as to the Phillies future plans. Although the Clearwater Threshers had a terrible season, the team’s new stadium has been a resounding success and a source of pride for the Phillies organization. This may have whetted the appetite for another upgrading in ballpark facilities; and a stadium an hour closer is even more appetizing.