Whither the Lynx? To update a previous story:
As was reported last year, the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate, the Ottawa Lynx, will move to Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2008. But it appears that the Lynx will no longer be an Orioles farm team by then. Recent reports have confirmed that Ottawa's owners-in-waiting have decided to switch the Lynx's major-league parent to the Philadelphia Phillies as soon as this September. So in all probability the club will be a Phillies affiliate when it ultimately arrives in Allentown.
That means the Orioles must find a new franchise to be their Triple-A extension in 2007 and beyond. The most likely candidate to replace Ottawa is the Phillies' current Triple-A outpost, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons. The Red Barons are an International League club in northeastern Pennsylvania, about a four-hour drive from Baltimore. Lackawanna County, which owns the Barons, retains a Triple-A license and plans to keep a team in Lackawanna County Stadium for the foreseeable future.
But the Orioles likely will face competition for the Red Barons from other major-league teams seeking a Triple-A club closer to home. Rival suitors for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre may include the Washington Nationals, whose AAA affiliate is in New Orleans; the New York Mets (AAA team in Norfolk, VA); and the Yankees (Columbus, OH). The Chicago White Sox (Charlotte, NC) also are a possibility.
Out of the running for the Red Barons are the Pittsburgh Pirates, who recently renewed the contract with their Triple-A club in Indianapolis through 2008. Ditto for the Cleveland Indians (Buffalo, NY), Detroit Tigers (Toledo, OH), and Cincinnati Reds (Louisville, KY), all of whom have player development agreements through 2008. The Toronto Blue Jays (Syracuse, NY) and Boston Red Sox (Pawtucket, RI) already have Triple-A squads nearby, so they are unlikely to be in the hunt when their contracts come due at the end of the summer.
(Player development contracts between a major-league franchise and a minor-league affiliate are signed in even-numbered years and typically last two or four years. For more information, see the list at Mike McCann's Minor League Baseball Page.)
News from upriver
Here are links to stories about the Lynx's impending change in affiliation and relocation to Allentown, and the uncertain future affiliation of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons. I've added some relevant excerpts as well.
From The Express-Times, Lehigh Valley, PA:
“New Allentown stadium brings Phils' affiliate” (June 10)
“‘The Lehigh Valley will be home to the AAA Philadelphia Phillies,’ [Lackawanna] County Executive Don Cunningham said....
“‘The Red Barons would still in all likelihood be called the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons,’ Finley said. ‘You're guaranteed an affiliation. It's just that the Phillies would no longer be there. They could have the Orioles.’”
From The Morning Call in Allentown, PA:
“[Joseph] Finley and [Craig] Stein are buying the Ottawa Lynx franchise, which is affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles. A shuffling of franchises could put the Baltimore affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and will bring the Philadelphia affiliate to Allentown, Finley said.”
“Plans for a $34 million minor league ballpark in east Allentown got the go-ahead from the city Planning Commission Tuesday [June 13]....
“The Phillies' Triple-A club, currently playing in Lackawanna County as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Red Barons, will play in Ottawa, Canada, next year and in the new Allentown ballpark in 2008. Franchise owners are guaranteed a major league affiliation. Although it's considered likely that Lackawanna County would become affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles, that outcome will only be known for certain by the end of September, according to Finley.”
“Although fans expressed support for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre baseball, Red Barons per-game attendance has been dropping in the last five years.... For 2006, the Red Barons rank 10th of the 14 teams in the International League, according to official minor-league attendance figures.”
“.... The Phillies are far from a unanimous favorite in northeast Pennsylvania. The New York Yankees and Mets, in particular, have strong fan followings as well....
“The team's general manager, Jeremy Ruby, said a new affiliation would give the Red Barons a ‘fresh start’ after 18 years. The Red Barons recently built a new home clubhouse, and the team is looking at new artificial turf — two upgrades aimed at attracting big-league teams and their Triple-A franchises.”
From The Times-Tribune, Scranton, PA:
“Phillies moving Triple-A” (June 10)
“[Red Barons] officials can’t start looking for a new partner until this season ends. Lackawanna County officials have been pulling together a plan to attract possible suitors. Upgrades to the stadium’s home clubhouse and completion of the left-field party deck will be two major selling points.”
“Red Barons GM answers pressing questions” (April 23)
[Jeremy Ruby, Red Barons GM:] “Your hope is to have someone within a drivable distance. Somebody within about a five, six hour window. Obviously everyone would like to see the Yankees come here because this is a Yankee-rich community in this corner of Northeast Pennsylvania.... Everybody wants to have the ultimate franchise here and that’s the New York Yankees.
“If that doesn’t work out, I think the Mets would fit in here. I thought the Pirates would fit in here but obviously they’re off the table. The Orioles are a possibility. Toronto Blue Jays, I don’t know if things are going that well with Syracuse, but the Blue Jays may be another possibility. I know that the Washington Nationals are trying to get into our league just for travel reasons alone. There’s potential for a bunch of teams....
“I think once the beginning of August rolls around, we’ll have a pretty good idea of who’s in the pot. Hopefully by August you’ll see five or six teams and affiliates remain unsigned, then hopefully by the end of that month there are still three or four that are out there for us to talk to when it’s time to talk.”
From the Ottawa Citizen:
“Lynx left in tough spot,” a lament by columnist Wayne Scanlan (June 13)
“Enough has been said and written about the reasons for the demise of International League baseball in Ottawa over the past several years.
“Suffice to say the culture of minor-league baseball didn't fully take hold. Called on to establish our own tradition, fans didn't heed the call....
“Just to the north and east, along the Queensway, sits the lovely forsaken ballpark, perhaps the future home of some short-season or independent-league team, though the place was hardly built for the lower bush leagues.
“Professional sports franchises tend to run in cycles. Welcome to Ottawa's outdoor downturn.”
What's a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre?
Scranton and Wilkes-Barre are adjacent cities with a long history as former coal-mining centers. Scranton (pop. ~75,000), the seat of Lackawanna County, is in the Lackawanna River valley. A few miles southwest in Luzerne County, Wilkes-Barre (pop. ~40,000) sits in Wyoming Valley, straddling the Susquehanna River. Both cities have moved away from coal mining in recent decades, shifting to industries such as manufacturing, retail, and knowledge-based services. (Perhaps the most famous local business is the fictional Dunder Mifflin paper supply company.) Among the local attractions is the Steamtown historic site, which celebrates the area's railroad heritage. To the east, the Poconos provide all-seasons recreation and respite for Northeasterners. Several smallish institutions of higher education dot the region.
Grammatical/etiological note: The hyphenated place name Wilkes-Barre honors two colonial-era heroes, John Wilkes and Isaac Barre. To avoid confusion, a slash is usually used to separate Wilkes-Barre from Scranton (i.e., Scranton/Wilkes-Barre or Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) when the two cities are mentioned together. I suppose an en dash (–) could be used instead of a slash if you have a thing for en dashes.
Nearby road connections are Interstate 81 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike's northeast extension (I-476). The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport (AVP) is a few miles away in Avoca, but it offers no direct flights to or from Baltimore as far as I can tell, so the quickest way there is probably by car.
The Red Barons play their home games in Lackawanna County Stadium in Moosic, a town on the outskirts of Scranton on the way to Wilkes-Barre. The stadium, which opened in 1989, is sort of a miniature replica of Philadelphia's old Veterans Stadium, mimicking the artificial turf and symmetrical outfield dimensions. While that type of ballpark design has been out of vogue for a while, the stadium is still relatively new and provides a decent fan experience, based on reports I've read. Seating close to 11,000, the venue is also used for other local events such as football and soccer games. The home clubhouse was renovated last winter at the cost of $2.5 million, and a left-field party pavilion was to be completed during the 2006 season.
While the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre region has shown a decent amount of interest in minor-league baseball, it hasn't been outstanding by Triple-A standards. According to attendance figures on minorleaguebaseball.com, as of June 16 the Red Barons have been the 10th-best draw in the 14-team International League at 4,849. The Red Barons' attendance figure was 20th out of 30 Triple-A teams, but still far ahead of the Lynx, who were drawing a mere 1,260 fans per home game, last in Triple-A and nearly 2,500 fans behind the next lowest-drawing team, Colorado Springs. (Ottawa trailed all Double-A teams and most Single-A teams in attendance as well. To use a racing analogy, Ottawa is being lapped by the field, so it's difficult to make an argument for keeping a Triple-A team there.)
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, on the other hand, has shown that it can support a Triple-A baseball team. But its market upside is relatively limited. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metropolitan statistical area, encompassing Lackawanna, Luzerne, and Wyoming counties, is home to some 550,000 people. That's about one-third less than the 750,000-odd residents of the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton MSA, and it's roughly half of the 1.1 million that reside in the Ottawa metro area. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is at the lower end of Triple-A cities as far as population; most Triple-A cities are located in MSA's of close to a million people. The only other MSA's of around 500,000 in population that have Triple-A teams are Durham, Des Moines, and Colorado Springs. (Durham is out if you lump in neighboring Raleigh, which also serves the Double-A Carolina Mudcats.) And according to Census estimates, those three cities have grown over the past decade and a half, whereas the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre population has been ebbing slightly in that period.
The implication here is that Lackawanna County should not take its Triple-A baseball status for granted. If current trends continue, other urban areas will surpass Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in population and vitality, and they may look upon the Red Barons with increasing covetousness.
Breaking up is ... so easy?
Given a choice, the Orioles would probably rather have a bigger, more promising market than Scranton/Wilkes Barre for their top minor-league affiliate. And the Red Barons' GM sounds like he'd prefer to be associated with a New York team. But the two parties may not have much of a choice—the inertia of relationships between clubs and affiliates is strong, and those bonds are rarely broken willy-nilly. And Lackawanna, compared to Ottawa—well, it's a no-brainer. Combine Ottawa's distance from the home base in Baltimore, the complications of crossing the border, the frigid Canadian springs, and the anemic fan support for the Lynx, and you have a place that the O's would love to leave. Lackawanna County, while not perfect, is no Ottawa. This fall, we'll see if the Birds' Triple-A players migrate there or further south, but either way an improvement is in the offing as far as the Orioles are concerned.