The Chattanooga Lookouts, who spent several months not knowing whether or not they would be contracted by Major League Baseball, announced Friday that they have accepted a new 10-year player development license to continue as the Class AA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
Chattanooga's pact with Cincinnati begins with the upcoming season, which has a Lookouts starting date that has yet to be determined, and runs through the 2030 season.
"This is an incredibly exciting day for our team," Lookouts president Rich Mozingo said. "We are very proud to be a part of the Cincinnati Reds system and continue to do what we do best: create a best-in-class fan experience, develop big league ballplayers, grow our business and support our community."
Chattanooga is attractive in the eyes of Major League Baseball in that it is centrally located within the Southern League, and it's appealing to the Reds due to the five-hour driving distance from Cincinnati. The Lookouts were first mentioned by the New York Times in November 2019 as a potential contraction casualty, and that was due to the aging AT&T Field, which was privately funded by former owner Frank Burke for $10.2 million and was opened in 2000.
Current Lookouts co-owners Jason Freier and John Woods have made it clear that a new downtown park is needed to prevent MLB from taking professional baseball out of Chattanooga, and Friday's contract announcement did not include any opt-out details.
"As of this moment, we don't know what the opt-out is on the Major League Baseball side," Mozingo said. "We've signed a 10-year deal, and we're going forward with that. I feel sure that Major League Baseball and the Reds have the ability to get out on the back side of this thing if they want, whether that be three years or five years or whatever that is.
"The whole thing about this was making sure that stadiums were the way they needed to be for their guys."
Freier and Woods have targeted the 141-acre former U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry site as a potential location for a new park but could spend as much as $3 million in AT&T Field enhancements before revisiting the prospects of a future home, which would be in excess of $35 million and would be partly funded by Freier's Hardball Capital and mostly funded by Chattanooga taxpayers.
That revisiting was thought to be as far off as 2024 or 2025 once the coronavirus pandemic arrived, but the economic rebound on many fronts has been more stout than expected.
Chattanooga and Cincinnati were partnered 21 consecutive seasons from 1988 to 2008, with that affiliation yielding a 1988 Southern League title and notable developmental talents such as Hall of Fame relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman, 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto and Adam Dunn, who hit 462 career MLB home runs. The Lookouts were partnered with the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 2009-14 seasons and the Minnesota Twins during the 2015-18 seasons before reuniting with the Reds before the 2019 season.
There wasn't a 2020 Lookouts season due to the outbreak of COVID-19, and this ongoing pandemic will affect the start of the upcoming season as well. Mozingo said last month that he is optimistic of an early May start and stands by that, and he is hopeful of receiving Chattanooga's 2021 schedule from MLB within the next several days.
"We'll approach the 2021 season with extreme care and consideration," Mozingo said. "Every event at AT&T Field will put the health and safety of our fans, guests, staff and players first. We're hopeful that between now and opening day we'll see tremendous strides taken towards returning to some level of normalcy.
"Whatever the situation, when it's time to 'play ball,' we'll be ready as a staff and as a facility."