Lookouts must 'start over' for pro baseball to remain in Chattanooga

Staff photo / Fans make their way to their seats during a game between the Chattanooga Lookouts and the Rocket City Trash Pandas at AT&T Field on Wednesday, May 5, 2021 in Chattanooga.

Two seasons into his role as managing partner of the Chattanooga Lookouts, Jason Freier recognized there were significant drawbacks to AT&T Field, the 6,340-seat downtown facility that has housed the storied Class AA franchise since 2000.

"This ballpark had certain design flaws the day that it opened," Freier told the Times Free Press in October 2016. "The biggest one is the orientation, and the reason we have a harder time in July and August compared to April and May is very attributable to that orientation. Many teams have the best part of their season during that time because the kids are out of school, and the fact that it's harder for us is because the sun angle that causes us the issues there.

"We're having to work around the design problems that are inherent to the ballpark."

Those comments transpired four years before a new sheriff arrived.

(READ MORE: Here's the estimated cost for a new Lookouts stadium in Chattanooga)

In October 2020, Major League Baseball swooped in to announce it would be taking over minor league operations. It was no insignificant change for the sport, with Minor League Baseball having been established in 1901 to oversee the farm systems of big-league teams such as the Cincinnati Reds, the parent club of the Lookouts.

Major League Baseball assuming the reins turned a preference for a new Lookouts stadium into a requirement if professional baseball is to stay in Chattanooga, as AT&T Field does not have the amenities needed for today's players while they climb the developmental ranks.

"The ultimate issue is the footprint of the space," Reds Vice President for Player Development Shawn Pender said this past week. "It's a marvelously located ballpark, and that's why it draws well and they do such a good job of generating interest, but the footprint is such that I just don't think it's possible to expand that area. Things have changed. We have a lot more strength and conditioning necessities. We have nutrition.

"There is a lot more technology involved, so any ballpark that's more than 7 years old is outdated in some ways. We've just reached the point where I'm just not sure it's possible to do anything there other than to start over."

AT&T Field was privately funded for $10.2 million through former Lookouts owner Frank Burke and two other business partners, including his late father. It opened in April 2000 as BellSouth Park with an exhibition game between Cincinnati and the Baltimore Orioles that included ceremonial first pitches from the late George and Barbara Bush, and there have been plenty of notable moments since.

The Lookouts led the Southern League in attendance in 2002 over larger markets such as Birmingham, Jacksonville and Orlando. Chattanooga won the 2009 Larry MacPhail Award as recognition for the top promotional efforts in the minors, and as recently as 2019, the Lookouts were tabbed as the Southern League's top organization and Lookouts President Rich Mozingo as the league's top executive.

"People talk all the time about loving to come here and the attendance being great, but Major League Baseball doesn't care about that," Mozingo told the Times Free Press last year. "They care about what their players step into every single day."

Larger clubhouses and indoor batting cages are common in today's newer ballparks, and those are two significant obstacles Mozingo believes AT&T Field can't overcome.

"When you walk out of our clubhouse, there are four steps, and then you are down a cliff," Mozingo said. "At most places, if you want to do something to the clubhouses, you knock out the back wall and build. We just can't do that here."

A proposed new park that would be mostly funded by taxpayers at the 141-acre former U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site has the support of Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, and Reds officials are following this pursuit with obvious interest.

"We feel very blessed to have such a marvelous relationship with the ownership group of Chattanooga and the management group there," Pender said. "They've been incredibly cooperative, and obviously, they're very excited about what we hope will unfold here in the next several years. I know how hard everyone is working to make that happen. We're poised to kind of move forward with a great new facility and an opportunity to continue our experience in Chattanooga. Even with what is obviously a dated facility, it's been great."

Assuming operations of the minor leagues by Major League Baseball involved trimming the number of teams from 160 to 120 and renaming the Southern League to the Double-A South. It also resulted in 10-year contracts between big-league teams and their affiliates that began last February.

There are opt-out terms in those deals, and the lack of progress toward a new Chattanooga ballpark could result in Major League Baseball relocating Cincinnati's Double-A team to another community, but Pender doesn't know if there is a timetable on that front.

"We haven't discussed that yet, but I'm sure it will come up," Pender said. "Major League Baseball has taken over the responsibility of this and works as a buffer between ourselves and any ownership group or affiliate we work with, so Major League Baseball is responsible for that. I'm sure that they've reached out and given them parameters and expectations of those kinds of things. We have been offered potential opportunities to go elsewhere, but we really like Chattanooga.

"If we can get a new stadium there, we're all going to be incredibly satisfied. We don't even want to look at another option until all of this is exhausted in Chattanooga, which is where we want to be."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.