This story was updated at 5:54 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, with more information.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke will join the mayors of Dayton, Ohio, and Columbia, South Carolina, to co-chair a task force to save minor league baseball in the face of plans to cut 42 teams, including the Chattanooga Lookouts.
The mayors will make the announcement Wednesday from Washington, D.C., where they are attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting. The task force will be co-chaired by Berke, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.
In November, Major League Baseball proposed its minor leagues be reduced from 160 teams to 120, beginning with the 2021 season. Both Baseball America and The New York Times reported on the MLB proposal, with the New York Times listing four Class AA franchises on the chopping block: the Lookouts and the Jackson (Tennessee) Generals of the Southern League, as well as Binghamton (New York) and Erie (Pennsylvania) of the Eastern League.
Lookouts co-owner Jason Freier, who is also an owner of the minor league baseball team in Columbia, South Carolina, said long-running conversations about replacing the Lookouts' home field have been both accelerated and complicated by this issue.
The Lookouts have played the past 20 seasons at 6,340-seat AT&T Field, which opened in 2000 and replaced Engel Stadium as Chattanooga's home for professional baseball. The field has design flaws that make the Lookouts a target of Major League Baseball, Freier said.
"The facility is 100% of the argument," he said. "They do not have any other complaint about Chattanooga."
But there's no way to negotiate the establishment of a new facility without assurance the team will remain in place, he said.
"We may need to move more quickly but nobody is going to invest in a ballpark without a guarantee the team will be there for a long time," he said. "We're trying to solve the first problem first and assure the long-term stability of the team."
Though the mayors of Dayton and Columbia will co-chair the task force, their cities' teams are not on the list of proposed cuts. But every city with a minor league baseball team has a vested interest in this fight, Freier said.
"All 160 teams are in this together," he said. "If an agreement isn't reached with all the teams, no team has an agreement."
The Lookouts' roots date back to 1885, and the team has been part of the community for generations. In November, both Berke and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said they were disappointed to see the Lookouts on the list of teams that might be on Major League Baseball's chopping block. On Tuesday, Mayor Coppinger said he was unaware of the creation of the mayors' task force.
On Wednesday, Berke and the other mayors who will co-chair the group will discuss the formation of the task force, which follows the creation of a congressional task force established in December, and the strategy to continue the momentum on this issue.
The Lookouts have been in the Southern League since 1976, winning championships in 1988, 2015 and 2017. The Lookouts were recognized after the 2019 season as the Southern League organization of the year, with team president Rich Mozingo named the league's executive of the year.
Contact Mary Fortune at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.
Staff Writer David Paschall contributed to this story.