When Major League Baseball in February announced a 10-year partnership between the Cincinnati Reds and the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts, no opt-out details were provided.
There is a strong desire among both Reds and Lookouts officials to never find out.
"I think what I know is only in theory, and I think we'll find out what the practice of it looks like in the years moving forward," Reds senior director of player development Eric Lee said. "What I can say on this is that our commitment to the city of Chattanooga and the Lookouts is one that we don't make lightly. As long as the Lookouts continue to remain great partners to us and we remain great partners to the Lookouts and all efforts are made to make this partnership grow, I'm hopeful and optimistic that none of that language becomes relevant in the future.
"I'm hoping that I never have to find out, and I feel good about that hope."
The Reds and Lookouts had a 21-season partnership from 1988 to 2008 and reunited after the 2018 season, which followed Chattanooga's six-season affiliation with the Los Angeles Dodgers (2009-14) and four-season stint with the Minnesota Twins (2015-18). All minor league baseball games were shelved last spring and summer due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, and the ongoing pandemic has resulted in Chattanooga's 2021 season being trimmed from 140 to 120 games.
Chattanooga's AT&T Field is the elephant overlooking the Tennessee River, with the 6,340-seat facility having been built in 2000 and not matching up to today's newer and pricier stadiums that offer more amenities to minor league players working their way up the developmental ladder. AT&T Field was the primary reason the Lookouts were listed among the minor league franchises facing contraction in a November 2019 New York Times article.
The Lookouts were obviously spared from that — the former Jackson Generals of the Southern League were not — but Major League Baseball will be watching to see whether Lookouts owners Jason Freier and John Woods can enhance AT&T Field or produce a new stadium that could serve this community potentially to 2100 and beyond.
"The facility is only part of the equation, but it's a big part of it, and it's an important part of it," Lee said. "We know that Jason Freier and everyone with the Lookouts is doing what they can to address it, but there is far, far more that goes into this kind of partnership, and that's what this is for us — a partnership.
"We don't walk away from partners easily as the Reds."
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 in the interim. A new park would be in excess of $35 million and would be partly funded by Freier's Hardball Capital and mostly funded by Chattanooga taxpayers.
Taxpayers were not needed for AT&T Field, which was privately funded under previous ownership at a cost of $10.2 million.
The 10-year agreement between the Reds and Lookouts will start May 4, when Chattanooga hosts the Rocket City Trash Pandas. Lookouts president Rich Mozingo referred to the February announcement as "an incredibly exciting day," and the Reds are expressing a similar exuberance.
"This is a good fit, and it was a good fit a couple of years ago when we made the decision to come back," Lee said. "Chattanooga is an incredible community that is supportive of the Lookouts and supportive of the Reds."