When the Los Angeles Dodgers signed a two-year player development contract with the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts in September 2008, Dodgers officials cited Lookouts owner Frank Burke as the primary reason for making the move.
The Dodgers and Lookouts extended their agreement this past summer for four more years through the 2014 season, and again Dodgers officials lauded Burke.
Now there is a possibility the Dodgers may have to move on without Burke, who is gauging interest in the storied franchise due to the declining health of his father, Daniel Burke. The Lookouts were purchased by Burke, his father and Charles Eshbach in 1995, and Burke said earlier this week that there are "estate issues" that are having to be addressed.
"We like Frank, and this is a very unfortunate situation," Dodgers farm director De Jon Watson said Wednesday from baseball's winter meetings in Orlando. "If something like that does come up, then obviously we'll have to sit back and re-evaluate where we're going to go as far as direction from an organizational standpoint if there is a new potential buyer. Right now, we're looking at this as business us usual and that he's our guy.
"He's the one who got us into Chattanooga, and we're excited to be there with him."
The Lookouts partnered with Los Angeles after a 21-year affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds. The Dodgers have won a record 21 National League pennants but now have to share that standard with the rival San Francisco Giants, who not only pulled even several weeks ago but won the World Series.
Burke met in length with Dodgers officials Tuesday night.
"The Dodgers are great friends and are right there with me," Burke said. "They've been unbelievably supportive in every way, and this has been no exception."
So what can Los Angeles do should Burke have to sell the Lookouts?
Nothing if Dodgers officials get along well with new ownership and the dozen or so remaining Lookouts employees such as vice president John Maedel and marketing director Chrysta Jorgensen, each of whom accompanied Burke to Orlando. Yet if the Dodgers decide they want to go in a new direction, Watson said they do have the right to adjust the payer development contract.
"Frank is a great guy who can relate to the Dodgers, and we can relate to him," Watson said. "He has always made us feel at home. You look at the ballpark, and he has custom-fitted it for us and our needs.
"We hate to see him in this situation. He has dedicated himself to the city of Chattanooga and has made it a quality experience for the fan base."
Burke said interest in potentially acquiring the Lookouts has been plentiful, adding "I can't go anywhere in this hotel without people talking to me about it." Such interest would be understandable considering the accomplishments of the team since moving to AT&T Field in 2000.
The Lookouts won the 2002 Bob Freitas Organization Award, which Baseball America gives out annually to the top franchise at each classification based on long-term business success. That same year, they won the Southern League attendance title over teams from significantly larger cities such as Birmingham and Jacksonville.
Chattanooga's attendance title was its first since 1977.
In 2009, the Lookouts won the Larry MacPhail Trophy, which recognizes the top franchise in terms of promotional effort throughout all of Minor League Baseball. Burke and his staff were honored for timeworn events such as "Used Car Night" but also for newer concepts, such as advertising in knight costumes and adding the diminutive Blooie to the mascot lineup.
The Lookouts were awarded the MacPhail Trophy at last December's meetings in Indianapolis, which was a happier time for Burke.
"This has been very, very emotional for me," he said. "I've lived in Chattanooga longer than I've ever lived anywhere, and I've made a lot of good friends. Coming to these winter meetings has been torture knowing that this one could be my last."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.