The tide finally came in for the Orioles in their search for a new Triple-A affiliate. Or rather, the Tides came in, as in the Norfolk Tides of the International League. Yesterday, the Orioles agreed to a four-year player development contract with the Tides, who replace the Ottawa Lynx atop Baltimore's farm system. The Lynx, as reported earlier, will switch their parent to the Philadelphia Phillies for next season before moving to Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2008. Meanwhile, the Orioles' most advanced minor-leaguers will reside at the foot of the Chesapeake Bay from 2007 until at least 2010.
Best for both worlds
The Baltimore-Norfolk pact makes winners out of both teams financially and logistically, yet the pairing came as a surprise to many (including me). The Tides had been the Triple-A squad of the New York Mets since 1969, making for the second-longest affiliation in professional baseball, and little evidence of a rift emerged until the last few weeks.
Norfolk officials recently said they had become disenchanted with the lack of attention shown them by the Mets' management, namely General Manager Omar Minaya and assistant general manager Tony Bernazard. But they had a far more compelling reason to end the relationship: namely, the ripe opportunity to associate with a geographically closer club, such as in Baltimore or Washington, that would offer better cross-marketing possibilities. The Mets' games once were viewable nationwide on cable TV superstation WWOR, but that has not been the case since 1995. So for Tides followers, keeping up with the parent club in New York had become difficult without a subscription to MLB Extra Innings. (The Mets also had a tendency to treat prospects as trade bait for more established players.) Meanwhile, the Orioles have had a media presence in the Norfolk area for years—this season, many Orioles games can be seen there on Comcast SportsNet and over the air on WSKY, and for the upcoming season, the Orioles are expected to make their MASN channel, with a full slate of Orioles and Nationals games, available on Cox, the main cable provider in the region.
A key development came in July, when the Tides' president and part-owner, Ken Young, formed a partnership that purchased the three Oriole minor-league affiliates in Maryland—Low-A Delmarva, High-A Frederick, and Double-A Bowie—from Comcast-Spectacor. Consequently, it seemed to make business sense to align Triple-A Norfolk with Baltimore as well, although contractual rules prevented negotiations or public speculation from the two parties until this month. (Young has a lot on his plate. He is also president and partner of the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Florida Marlins' Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League; and of the Norfolk Admirals, a minor-league hockey team. Young's background is primarily in the recreational food business; currently he is president and part-owner of Ovations Food Services, which supplies concessions for entertainment venues across the country.)
The Orioles, for their part, saw the many potential benefits of partnering with the Tides. For starters, the southern Virginia weather promises to be more hospitable to players and coaches than Ottawa's often snowy springs, and the elimination of Canadian border crossings should minimize customs and immigration holdups.
Another big plus for the players is Norfolk's Harbor Park, which overlooks the Elizabeth River and has been called one of baseball's top minor-league stadiums since it opened in 1993. It was designed by HOK Sport not long after that company revolutionized the stadium business with Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and the brick facades of the two ballparks have a more than superficial resemblance to each other.
In an Associated Press report, Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo mused that the new Triple-A location might put the Orioles in better position to sign experienced minor-league free agents who could provide depth to the major-league team—depth that in recent years has been frequently tested and found lacking.
A significant advantage gained by the Orioles is reduced travel time and costs for staff and players, as Norfolk is a 4½-hour drive from Baltimore and has daily direct flights to BWI and many other major airports. The Orioles now have most of their minor-league affiliates within a relatively close orbit—the farthest is rookie-level Bluefield, West Virginia, which is about 7½ hours away by car. Such "clustering" is an increasingly widespread practice among major-league clubs, as detailed in a September 20 Wall Street Journal article (reprinted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), because of the economies of proximity:
Now, a number of major-league teams are hoping to consolidate their baseball operations -- including their handful of minor-league teams -- in closer proximity to the city where the major-league team is based. The idea is that that will it easier both to move players up and down between the majors and minors, and that it will help build fans' interest by exposing them to players earlier in their careers.
"A lot of teams have gone in that direction," says Jeff Luhnow, vice president of player procurement for the St. Louis Cardinals. Mr. Luhnow says "clustering" minor-league affiliates is not only "a good way to build up the regional fan base," but also allows major-league executives to spend more time with their player prospects. ....
As major-league clubs have come to rely more on team-owned television networks and the revenue they generate, they've also realized it pays to have their minor-league clubs within the areas those networks reach. That's another big reason why the Orioles and Nationals are aggressively pursuing Norfolk, the Mets and Yankees are considering Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and the Phillies will relocate their Triple-A operation to Allentown.
The Norfolk partnership is important to the Orioles in that gives them a tangible presence in Virginia and, to a lesser extent, North Carolina. In the past two years, more than a few baseball fans south of the Potomac have turned their attentions toward the Washington Nationals in lieu of the Orioles. (The number could have been greater if Comcast had not so stubbornly pursued its lawsuit against MASN, preventing many Nats games from being seen on cable TV.) Had the Nationals affiliated with the Tides, the attrition of O's fans in Virginia likely would have accelerated. But with Oriole farmhands playing in the Old Dominion, the Baltimore connection is strengthened, as fans will be able to watch prospects graduate from the minors to the big leagues. MASN may allow Baltimore-area fans to keep up with the Tides by showing Norfolk scores, highlights, or even complete games if sufficient demand exists. A proposed annual exhibition between the Orioles and the Tides at Harbor Park also could improve visibility of the Baltimore club in southern Virginia.
For all those reasons, the two sides took a full swing by agreeing to a four-year contract instead of a more conservative two-year deal.
Independent coverage of the Tides can be found at the web site of the local paper, The Virginian-Pilot.
Many major-minor moves
The Orioles and Tides were two of the beneficiaries of the busy Triple-A shuffle that took place in the past two weeks, but they weren't the only ones. The Phillies did well for themselves by acquiring a movable property in the Lynx and arranging to bring them to nearby Allentown, which is practically an exurb of Philadelphia, after next season. When the Yankees snapped up the Phillies' former affiliate, the Scranton/Wilkes Barre Red Barons, the substantial Yankee fan base in northeastern Pennsylvania responded by buying thousands of Red Barons tickets for the 2007 season.
Who ended up on the short end of the stick? The Mets had hoped to compete with the Yankees for the Scranton/Wilkes Barre Red Barons, but lost that battle, then found the Tides and the Columbus Clippers had hitched their wagons to other teams. Thus the Mets ended up with the New Orleans Zephyrs of the Pacific Coast League—hardly an ideal situation for the Mets.
Left behind by the Yankees, Columbus signed a two-year agreement with the Washington Nationals, forming an arrangement viewed by both sides as a stopgap. In 2008, the Clippers plan to reassess their options, particularly if the Cincinnati Reds or Cleveland Indians have openings.
Baseball America has written three synopses of this month's affiliation changes:
- “Shuffling Officially Starts” (September 20, 2006)
- “Major Changes In Triple-A Fall Into Place” (September 21, 2006)
- “Mets, Orioles Complete Triple-A Movement” (September 25, 2006)
- Current O's manager Perlozzo managed the then-Tidewater Tides to a 74–66 record in 1986. (The team changed its name to the Norfolk Tides prior to the 1993 season, when they moved into Harbor Park.)
- Jim Duquette, the vice president of baseball operations for the O's, knows the Tides from his thirteen years as a member of the Mets' front office. He began his tenure with the Mets as a minor-league assistant in November 1991. From there he was promoted to assistant minor-league director, serving in that capacity until 1996. Then, after a one-year detour to oversee the Houston Astros' farm operations, he returned to the Mets as minor-league director in 1998 and ascended to assistant general manager in charge of player development. In 2003 he became general manager, serving until the end of the 2004 season. He concluded his tenure in New York as assistant GM in 2005.
Covering the waterfront
The city of Norfolk anchors the busy Hampton Roads region on the southeastern coast of Virginia. Encompassing Newport News to the north, and Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach on its southerly end, Hampton Roads is one of the largest commercial seaports on the eastern coast of the U.S. Situated at the intersection of the James, Nansemond, and Elizabeth River estuaries, with the Chesapeake Bay to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the port serves as a major hub for shipping and naval vessels. Besides commercial shipping, major industries include shipbuilding and tourism. The area is a historical treasure trove of sites: Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown are a few miles up the James River from Norfolk. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC metropolitan statistical area was about 1.65 million in 2005.
(If you detected a vulgar double meaning in the title of this piece, then shame on you. Or should I say, shame on me?)