published Friday, June 6th, 2014

Chattanooga area group makes pitch for Lookouts as McCormick, others ready to buy if current deal fails

NASHVILLE — While the Chattanooga Lookouts are under contract to be sold to a Warner Robins, Ga., businessman, a group of investors led by state House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, stands ready if the deal doesn't go through.

McCormick, a commercial real estate broker, confirmed the interest in an interview Thursday.

He said the group includes himself and Nashville businessman David Freeman, an owner of the Nashville Predators in the National Hockey League, as well as Richard Mashburn, an Ooltewah native who heads Mashburn Outdoor and lives in Atlanta.

"We've got a group of people with ties to Chattanooga whose interest is to purchase the Lookouts," said McCormick, noting that Freeman's father grew up in Chattanooga and was a Lookouts fan. "Certainly if that [current] deal goes through, all power to them. It belongs to the Burke family. They have every right to sell it to whomever they want to."

The Times Free Press reported last month on owner Frank Burke's plan to sell Chattanooga's Class AA franchise to businessman John Hughes. Hughes was considering bringing minor league baseball to his own community as recently as March, but he is said to not be interested in moving the Lookouts out of Chattanooga.

A sale would have to be approved by Major League Baseball, Minor League Baseball and the Southern League. The purchase would include AT&T Field, which was built in 2000. Similar Double-A franchises have sold in recent years for between $12 million and $15 million.

Hughes did not return texted questions Thursday and Burke declined comment.

McCormick said that if the sale goes through, "I certainly hope he [Hughes] is successful with it. I really hope he keeps it in Chattanooga, and I don't have any reason to believe he wouldn't. I don't know him.

"What I know is we would love to have an opportunity if that doesn't work out, and we have a commitment to keeping it in the community," McCormick added.

The Lookouts are "part of the Chattanooga renaissance and downtown," McCormick said.

Burke purchased the Lookouts in a group that included his late father, Daniel, and Charles Eshbach, in 1995. Financial terms were never released, but other Double-A franchises sales at the time ran from $3.5 million to $4 million.

Hughes last year hired a firm to study the idea of bringing minor league ball to Warner Robins. Media reports indicate that the City Council there offered moral support but no financial backing.

Hughes ended his pursuit of a minor league team for Warner Robins on March 28, according to a letter he wrote to the Houston County (Ga.) Board of Commissioners obtained by the Times Free Press.

Former Lookouts General Manager Bill Davidson, who is now with National Sports Services, worked with Hughes on the Warner Robins effort and is believed to be active in the deal to purchase his former club. He did not return a message seeking comment.

Freeman is no stranger to sports teams, including Minor League Baseball. After founding and selling Commodore Medical Services Inc. in 2007, the one-time Knoxville lawyer and a group of partners bought the Nashville Predators as the team was about to be sold and moved to Canada.

He was chairman of the Predators until 2010.

In 2008, he and fellow Nashville businessman Reese Smith paid $13 million for a minor league baseball team -- the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx, also part of the Southern League, and changed the name to the Jackson Generals, the Memphis Business Journal has reported.

Professional baseball in Chattanooga dates back to 1885 and has been played continuously in the city since 1976. The Lookouts were partnered with the Cincinnati Reds from 1988 to 2008 and are in their sixth season as Double-A affiliates of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Chattanooga last won the Southern League title in 1988 but has not lacked since then for talented players, most notably first baseman Joey Votto, pitcher Johnny Cueto and outfielder Yasiel Puig.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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