This story was updated Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, at 7:45 p.m. with more information.
The Chattanooga Lookouts are eight weeks away from beginning their third decade of Southern League baseball games at AT&T Field.
Yet this is hardly a time to commemorate the 6,340-seat downtown facility that opened in 2000 with an exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds that included ceremonial first pitches from George and Barbara Bush. A lack of amenities at AT&T Field compared to newer, more extravagant ballparks has the Lookouts in danger of being among 42 minor league teams contracted by Major League Baseball following the 2020 season.
Lookouts team president Rich Mozingo, while proud of what has been attained the past 20 years in a stadium that was privately funded for $10.2 million under previous ownership headed by Frank Burke, realizes he is essentially holding a box of Band-Aids at AT&T when open-heart surgery is required.
"I feel like our clubhouses are probably our biggest issue," Mozingo said. "Our batting cages aren't as big as other batting cages or as roomy or as well-lit. Most stadiums now have indoor batting cages so you can hit in any kind of weather, so we've got issues with that and with our clubhouses."
Today's longer-lasting stadiums are now being built in the neighborhood of $35 million.
Mozingo and Lookouts co-owners Jason Freier and John Woods can take immediate steps to enhance the lighting at AT&T Field's batting cages in order to aid the Class AA players of the Reds, but that is a very small fix in a very big picture.
The lack of larger and updated clubhouses for the Lookouts and their Southern League visitors is a drawback that AT&T Field cannot overcome without becoming a venue more suitable for Little League contests.
"When you walk out of our clubhouse, there are four steps, and then you are down a cliff," Mozingo said. "There is no place out to go, so you can't go that way. If you wanted to come into the field and have a 280-foot home run, that's doable. A lot of things are doable in some way, shape or form, but we are really constrained by the piece of property we're on right now.
"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."
MLB officials and minor league representatives have discussed MLB's contraction list that was released in November. The MLB has not, however, provided the Lookouts and other teams on the contraction list any information as to what specific areas of their venues need improvements.
"Based on significant feedback from both major league clubs and players, we have identified more than 40 minor league stadiums that do not possess adequate training facilities, medical facilities, locker rooms and, in some cases, playing fields to satisfy the requirements of our clubs and players," MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem said in November. "We do not believe that our players should be compelled to play in substandard facilities because the minor league owners or stadium authorities are either unable or unwilling to make the required investments.
"The responsibility for providing facilities suitable for the development of major league players rests with the minor league owners."
Since MLB's contraction list became public, several members of Congress developed the "Save Minor League Baseball Task Force" and introduced a resolution stating that MLB should drop its contraction plan. Dozens of mayors across the country also formed a task force, with Chattanooga's Andy Berke serving among its leaders.
Contraction has been a chief sticking point between MLB and MiLB representatives as they seek to hammer out a new Professional Baseball Agreement to replace the PBA that expires after this season.
The Lookouts have earned two Southern League championships (2015 & 2017) at AT&T Field after winning just one (1988) from 1976 to 1999 at historic Engel Stadium, but there have been far more accomplishments away from the action.
Chattanooga won the Southern League's attendance title in 2002, which was a stunning achievement given the league has the notably larger markets of Birmingham, Jacksonville and Orlando. In 2009, the Lookouts received the Larry MacPhail Award, given annually for the top promotional efforts in all of minor league baseball.
Just last year, Mozingo was named the Southern League's top executive and Chattanooga the league's top organization after the Lookouts amassed a season attendance of 228,662 at AT&T Field, their highest total since 2014. Chattanooga also averaged 3,518 fans per home game, the second-highest average for the Lookouts since 2005.
"People talk all the time about loving to come here and the attendance being great," Mozingo said, "but Major League Baseball doesn't care about that. They care about what their players step into every single day."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.
Despite murky future for Lookouts, team president Rich Mozingo says fearful fans should hold off on 'letter-writing campaign'