This story was updated Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, at 7:27 p.m. with more information.
The fight to save the Chattanooga Lookouts is on, but it's not clear how that fight will unfold.
With Major League Baseball proposing to cut 40 Minor League Baseball teams, including Chattanooga of the Class AA Southern League, Lookouts co-owner Jason Freier was ready Monday to state his case.
"We think Chattanooga is a tremendous market, and that's why we bought the team to begin with," Freier said. "This situation being imposed by Major League Baseball may change our time frames on things, but I think everybody in the Chattanooga market wants to see professional baseball continue here.
"We just need to figure out how to work together to make sure that happens."
Freier, the CEO of Hardball Capital in Atlanta, and co-owner John Woods, who grew up in East Ridge and is an Atlanta banking executive, bought the Lookouts in December 2014 from former owner Frank Burke. Freier said after the 2016 season that AT&T Field was dated, and the 6,340-seat facility now has weathered 20 years of professional games.
Major League Baseball's disappointment with several minor league facilities has led to the idea of contracting, with Woods admitting they have known about this situation "for about a month." As a result, Freier and Woods feel a new sense of urgency when it comes to a nicer, longer-lasting facility that would be partially funded by Hardball Capital and mostly funded by taxpayers — the same model Freier used for stadiums in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Columbia, South Carolina.
"Our position for the last five years that we've owned the team has been that we know that eventually a new ballpark would be something that would be good for both the team and the community, and that we have been able to be very patient on that," Freier said. "Were it our choice, we would certainly continue to be patient, but I do think this circumstance is going to pose an outside restriction on us that will make the time frame to make those sorts of decisions more compressed than if it would be left up to us."
Both Chattanooga Mayor Andy 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. But until local governments receive a request for financial support or see a plan for what the team's owners might propose, it's too early to speculate on how or whether public finds might be part of the solution, Coppinger said.
"The public is always reluctant to put tax dollars towards athletics, if you will, particularly as it relates to facilities," he said. "To give serious consideration to it would require that ask, and we haven't had that."
Lookouts officials had viewed 2021 as a best-case scenario for a new stadium, but that no longer appears to be the case.
"I think that were we to have a plan together and try to move forward as quickly as possible, the soonest a new ballpark could be opened at this point would probably be 2022 and not 2021," Freier said.
The land where AT&T field sits is owned by River City Company, and it will revert to the company if the stadium shuts down, said Amy Donahue, director of marketing and communications for River City. But there are no plans to do anything with the land because there's no expectation things will change any time soon, she said.
"If the team does move or do something differently, the property reverts back to River City, and we'll make a plan to put it to the best use," she said. "Until that day comes, it's a ballpark."
A proposed plan for the 141-acre site of the former Wheland Foundry on South Broad Street includes a multi-use sports and entertainment venue that had been discussed as a potential future site for the Lookouts. Mike Mallen, a partner in the foundry property, said Monday he didn't have any comment on the potential to locate a new stadium there.
Chattanooga and professional baseball have a history that dates back to the 1880s, and pro baseball returned to the city when the Lookouts joined the Southern League in 1976.
The Lookouts have been affiliated with the Oakland A's, Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins in their Southern League tenure, and they won league titles in 1988, 2015 and 2017. Each of the past two Hall of Fame classes have contained former Lookouts players, with Trevor Hoffman getting inducted in 2018 and Edgar Martinez earlier this year.
"We were in the top half of Southern League attendance this past year," Freier said, "and if we were to build a new ballpark, it would be right up at or near the top. Major League Baseball also said one of its concerns is reducing the travel time for players, but Chattanooga is very centrally located within the Southern League and within minor league teams generally.
"We have more than 125 years of history with baseball in Chattanooga, so baseball has been supported for a long time, and I think that's another point weighing in our favor."
Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball have a Professional Baseball Agreement that will run out after the 2020 season, and a new one has to be ratified by both sides before the 2021 season starts. The two parties are expected to discuss the issue at next month's winter meetings in San Diego.
"This is just a preliminary proposal, and from our perspective as a Minor League Baseball team, any plan that eliminates affiliated professional baseball in 40 or so markets around the country is obviously bad for baseball," Freier said. "It's bad for communities, and it's bad for fans, so our first thought is that as this becomes discussed and thought about more broadly that contraction is not where things wind up.
"To the extent that there is contraction, even down to 120 teams, we think Chattanooga should clearly be in that group [that remains]. Chattanooga is a great and thriving market that we think baseball should want to be in, but instead of saying we should be getting rid of baseball in 40 communities, hopefully they will be discussing how we keep professional baseball in the most communities possible."