And it's getting very hard to stay
And we're moving on to Allentown
(Apologies to Mr. Joel.)
The Orioles' Triple-A affiliate, the Ottawa Lynx, could move to Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2008, according to an article in today's Morning Call (Allentown's local newspaper):
Allentown's minor league baseball stadium — all but certain to be approved today by the state Senate — would be home to a Class AAA team, one step below the major leagues.
Legislative sources have identified the team as the Ottawa Lynx, an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. If all goes as planned, the team will start playing in an east Allentown stadium in 2008.
Nearer my AAA team to me
If the deal for a new stadium and the Lynx sale go through as reported, what would it mean for Oriole fans? Because Allentown is much closer to Baltimore than Ottawa is, fans would actually be able to see the Triple-A squad's home games without taking a plane. The highway distance from Baltimore to Allentown is about 150 miles, or a 2½- to 3-hour drive. In contrast, driving from Baltimore to Ottawa eats up about 500 miles—an eleven-hour act of masochism.
Because of Allentown's relative proximity, it would not be impractical for a Baltimore-area baseball fan to take an afternoon off, drive up to Allentown, eat dinner, take in an evening game, stay overnight in a motel and return home the next morning. One could even bypass the motel and head straight home after the game, although that might require the assist of ingested stimulants.
For air travel, Lehigh Valley International Airport is nearby, although currently it does not have regular flights that connect directly with BWI—Washington's Dulles International is as close as it gets—so flying to Allentown from Baltimore would take about as long as driving there.
(I wasn't able to find a bus or rail connection from Baltimore to the Allentown area.)
We're waiting here in Allentown
Other than geography, one of the reasons the Lynx's owner wants to move or sell his team is that attendance has been unsustainably low in Ottawa—the worst in the International League, in fact. Would Allentown support a baseball team better than Ottawa has? That remains to be seen, but the potential is there. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Allentown has remained stable at around 105,000 for the past 50 years. The combined population of surrounding Lehigh County and adjacent Northampton County is about 600,000, and the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metropolitan statistical area (which adds Warren Co., NJ, and Carbon Co., PA) contains about 750,000 people. Ottawa, by contrast, is home to some 770,000 residents, and more than 1.1 million reside in its census metropolitan area, but apparently just 2,000 of them are interested in attending the Lynx's baseball games on an average day.
There are no minor-league teams currently playing in Lehigh Valley. The closest towns with MLB affiliates are Reading, Trenton, and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Philadelphia and its Phillies are also nearby. The most recent professional team to play in Allentown, the Ambassadors of the independent Northeast League, had a decent seven-year run beginning in 1997, but seasonal attendance faded from a high of 122,000 in 1998 to just 40,000 in 2003. After failing to win funding for a new stadium to replace aging Bicentennial Park, the Ambassadors declared bankruptcy before the 2004 season, then were reincarnated as the Aces and ended up playing the entire 2004 season on the road. The Northeast League dissolved after that, with a few teams (but not the Aces) surviving to form part of the new Can-Am League. This year, Bicentennial Park is hosting games consisting mostly of local amateur players.
The Ambassadors' attendance dropoff might be a bad omen. It suggests that locals initially flocked to the ballpark for the novelty of it, but quickly tired of the game and turned to other diversions. On the other hand, the quality of play in the indy leagues is a few notches down from Triple-A, and the quirky, cramped, 30-year-old Bicentennial Park has had its share of detractors.
- With a Triple-A affiliate in Allentown, the Orioles would save a few thousand dollars on employee travel each year. That's a drop in the bucket for a team whose annual revenues are approximately $150 million (Forbes magazine's most recent estimate), but every bit helps.
- The team's minor-league director might be inclined to take more scouting trips to the Triple-A affiliate if it is in Allentown. This could give him a better read on the progress of those players.
- Perhaps the proximity of Allentown could result in more prospects advancing all the way up to Triple-A, instead of being called up to the majors directly from Single-A or Double-A.
- Moving the Triple-A affiliate to the U.S. would mean no more problems with minor-league players crossing the border to work in Canada. For example, Eric DuBose should have started this year at Triple-A, but because of potential legal difficulties stemming from his drunk-driving incident in March, he was sent to Double-A Bowie, where he remains today.
- The spring weather is noticeably milder in Allentown than it is in Ottawa, so players would no longer freeze their, um, bats off early in the season.
- Nearly 25 percent of Allentown's population designated itself as Hispanic or Latino in origin in 2000, so perhaps Latin-American players would develop a connection with the local community there.
In all, this looks like a positive development for Baltimore (not to mention Allentown), as well as another strike against baseball in Canada.
A bird's-eye view of Lehigh Valley
Allentown is situated in Lehigh Valley near the New Jersey border. The valley has been a manufacturing center for over a century. A variety of products have been produced there, including textiles, chemicals, trucks, and food, but the region is most famous for its iron and steel output, which today are more a memory than a reality. Allentown is a neighbor of the not-so-little town of Bethlehem (pop. 72,000), the longtime corporate home of now-defunct Bethlehem Steel. (In its heyday, Bethlehem Steel churned out tons of material for America's buildings, bridges, vehicles, and warships. It operated a large plant at Sparrows Point in Baltimore before selling it a couple of years ago as part of its bankruptcy filing. The company had already shut down its plant in Bethlehem in 1995.) A few miles east down the Lehigh River is Easton (pop. 26,000), another industrial town and home of the Crayola factory.
But in recent years, as many of the area's industrial products have been overtaken by cheaper imports, the commercial focus has moved away from manufacturing and toward a more service-oriented economy. Lately, the region has attempted to build a reputation as a tourist, shopping, and entertainment destination. The service sector is still at an early stage of development—in addition to an outlet mall and several historical sites, the area hosts a symphony orchestra, a few other arts organizations, and many small museums—but the best may be yet to come. Construction recently began on a Smithsonian-affiliated National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem. The museum is part of a larger plan to convert Bethlehem's abandoned industrial complexes into a hub of entertainment, retail, and restaurants, not unlike the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Bethlehem is also hoping to obtain state permits to operate slot machines, although those may be a few years away. Other leisure attractions in the area are white-water rafting, mountain hiking, fishing, hunting, and skiing.
Lehigh Valley is also home to several post-secondary institutions, including Lehigh University (alma mater of Dave Ritterpusch, the Orioles' director of baseball information systems) and Moravian College in Bethlehem; Muhlenberg College in Allentown; and Lafayette College in Easton. (The latter three are small, private schools with religious affiliations.) Penn State Lehigh Valley, a modest branch of under 1,000 students, is in Fogelsville, on the outskirts of Allentown.
The transformation of Allentown and environs is far from complete, though it holds promise. Industrial production continues to recede from its once-preeminent position in the local economy, but the region's manufacturing heritage remains a source of pride as other income streams take its place. In a few years, major commercial developments such as the new baseball stadium in east Allentown and the industrial history museum in Bethlehem could make the area a vibrant, desirable place not only to visit but also to work and live. The decaying, moribund Allentown of Billy Joel's 1982 song is being pushed back into the past, and perhaps a decade from now it will be unrecognizable.