$13 million Lookouts sale "a relief" to Frank Burke

Lookouts' owner Frank Burke sits in right field with an oversize glove during a game against the Birmingham Barons. "I do it for luck," said Burke.
Lookouts' owner Frank Burke sits in right field with an oversize glove during a game against the Birmingham Barons. "I do it for luck," said Burke.

For Frank Burke, it's a weight that has been lifted.

For John Woods, it's a chance to reunite with his childhood team, and for Jason Freier, it's an opportunity to expand his reach throughout Minor League Baseball.

photo John Woods has made a bid to purchase the Chattanooga Lookouts.

Burke has sold his ownership of the Chattanooga Lookouts to Woods and Freier, who will serve as general partners of the storied Class AA franchise. Freier is the chairman and chief executive officer of Hardball Capital in Atlanta, which oversees operations of minor league teams, and he will be in charge of the overall operation of the Lookouts.

The purchase price has not been revealed, but it is believed to be between $12 million and $13 million.

"We have agreed to buy the team, and the agreement is pending the approval of the Southern League, Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball," Freier said by phone Wednesday night from baseball's winter meetings in San Diego. "We will certainly have an announcement and more details once we receive those approvals, which could take at least a couple of months with the holidays coming up."

Rich Mozingo will continue to serve as president and general manager of the Lookouts, who are now affiliates of the Minnesota Twins. Mozingo was appointed president and GM by Burke in August 2011 so Burke could focus on the sale.

photo Jason Freier, chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Hardball Capital, the main business of which is the operation of minor league baseball teams.
This marks the second time the sale of the Lookouts has reached this stage. John Hughes, a businessman from Warner Robins, Ga., signed a purchase agreement in May but backed out in June for personal reasons.

Burke has owned the Lookouts since 1995, when he bought them along with his father, the late Daniel Burke, and Charles Eshbach. The Lookouts played at Engel Stadium under Burke's ownership until the 2000 season, when the team moved into AT&T Field, a 6,340-seat facility that was privately funded for $10.2 million.

"Obviously it's not over until the approvals are done, but I have full confidence in Jason Freier as an operator and as someone who will be approved," Burke said. "I know John Woods is from Chattanooga and that the Lookouts mean a lot to him. It's nice to know the team will be in such capable hands, and we're very happy that we're where we are.

"There is definitely relief on my part, and I'm looking forward to getting on with my life after the Lookouts."

Woods, an East Ridge High School graduate and a former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga walk-on football player, made a bid for the Lookouts after the deal with Hughes fell through. The Atlanta banking executive hired Freier initially as a consultant before giving him a contract to operate the team.

"I'm excited to have the opportunity to sign a purchase agreement with the Chattanooga Lookouts, the team I grew up going to watch," Woods said. "I'm looking forward to working alongside Jason Freier, who really knows minor league baseball, to help improve the Chattanooga Lookouts in many ways."

Hardball Capital owns the Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps of the Midwest League and the Savannah (Ga.) Sand Gnats of the South Atlantic League, and it is overseeing the building of a $35 million ballpark in Columbia, S.C., that will house a team in 2016. Hardball Capital spearheaded the construction in 2009 of the $30.6 million Parkview Field in Fort Wayne, which has spurred more than $100 million in private investment and downtown development ,according to Hardball Capital's website.

"We are not buying the Chattanooga team to move it to Columbia," Freier said. "It is our intention to keep the team in Chattanooga and to keep it a success there. We will be acquiring the team and the brick and mortar of the stadium from the Burke family and from the entities that they have that hold that, so we will essentially be stepping into their shoes.

"We've been in this business, and everybody has their own ways they like to operate, so we will look to be adding our own touches in 2015, knowing that it will be a learning curve."

Freier believes it's premature to discuss the possibility of a new stadium in Chattanooga.

"For right now, we've got to focus on 2015," he said. "As we start to understand the city better and get the lay of the land, we'll start making some of those longer-term planning decisions. Every market is different, and our thought is to come in and figure out what the right answer is in this market."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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