Greenville's baseball fans land Bombers in West End

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Minor League Baseball called the game Friday, informing the Capital City Bombers as business hours ended that the single-A Red Sox affiliate from Columbia has the green light to move to downtown Greenville.

It means a new baseball stadium will take shape in the city's West End, not in Mauldin or Powdersville. It means local fans will have a game to watch this season, not a wait for next year. And it means the hometown team will supply the long-cursed and now world champion Boston Red Sox, not the long-cursed, non-world-champion Chicago Cubs or New York Mets.

On the lively downtown scene Friday night, bar patrons and sidewalk strollers greeted the news predictably well, but not for the same reasons.

What will be good for Cecil Lawson's Island Blend restaurant traffic is a relief for Mauldin residents Jim and Sue Chamberlin, who will be able to attend games without baseball traffic near their home.

"I'm thrilled to have baseball back," Sue said. "There's more to do downtown before and after the game."

"It's a great benefit," said Franky Erby, a Greer resident who talked up the associated activities and family functions. "You're talking about a whole lot of money for Greenville," he said.

In picking the Bombers, league President Mike Moore sent packing the AA Diamond Jaxx, which had proposed locating in Mauldin, and the single-A team that Mandalay Baseball Properties proposed establishing in Anderson County. Both of the other groups had trumpeted prime suburban locations and higher-priced stadiums.

Greenville Mayor Knox White said the Bombers' downtown stadium will do more than just put baseball near the city's epicenter -- it will be the last major piece of downtown's redevelopment.

Mandalay spokesman Kevin Mortesen said Friday the company was "disappointed" with the verdict but would move on with other options in other markets.

Diamond Jaxx officials issued a statement saying they lack fan support in Jackson, Tenn., and are consulting with attorneys to review their options on the decision.

The Bombers will begin spring training within weeks and will play in the Municipal Stadium on Mauldin Road until a $10 million to $15 million downtown stadium is built for the 2006 season.

The team's president and general manager, Rich Mozingo, said he received word of his team's selection at 4:55 p.m. Friday, four frenzied months after the team made its move to jump rival South Carolina towns, 63 days until opening day and a mere fortnight before pitchers and catchers show up for work.

The missive had little to say, other than to inform Mozingo that he had won and the other two groups hadn't. Aside from a few "housekeeping" matters such as requesting the stadium plans be submitted for league review, there was nothing else, Mozingo said.

"It's like a lightning bolt just shot down: This is the answer," Mozingo said. "There was nothing leading up to this that made me think we were or were not going to get this."

Asked if he anticipated any additional direction or feedback from Minor League Baseball, he said, "I would doubt it very seriously."

He added, "I'm not going to ask."

League officials couldn't be reached for comment late Friday.

End of a bruiser

With a terse two sentences, Moore ended what has been a marathon three-way competition whose catalyst came when the AA Greenville Braves left town, part of a three-year skid in which five minor-league sports teams decided to cease operations in Greenville.

There had been numerous opportunities to build the Braves a new stadium, yet when the two-decade Greenville mainstay declared it was moving to Mississippi, the city had soon cooked a new plan that entailed transforming an abandoned lumberyard downtown into a mixed-use complex with a baseball stadium as its centerpiece.

Retail shops, residential units and office space are all in store on the property, just up the street from the city's ambitious Riverplace development on the Reedy River.

Fans used to seeing AA teams from places such as Birmingham, Chattanooga and Jacksonville will soon root against single-A teams from South Atlantic League cities such as Asheville, Charleston and Savannah.

While Mozingo said he couldn't guess why his team's proposal beat out highly competitive and higher-priced offers from two other groups, City Councilman Garry Coulter was quick to offer a laudatory opinion.

Greenville had the most "complete package" with an attractive location, he said.

The other two proposals, however, also held what proponents believed were strong trump cards.

Mauldin had the AA team, a higher level of competition featuring players closer to the major leagues. Mandalay had the impressive credentials and proven success, with an attractive stadium idea for the interstate.

Reaction mixed

The news Friday night was a surprise to Easley resident Devin Hickerson, who thought Mauldin would get the league's blessing. But the former Denver, Colo., resident said having a team downtown is a key amenity.

Amy Gardner, also a former Denver resident, said she believes the stadium would bring more business to the area and enhance what has become a bustling downtown scene.

"We work downtown, and it will be nice to have it here," she said.

It was almost 11 months ago that City Council members gathered on the ninth floor of City Hall to announce that the city's 21-year relationship with the Atlanta Braves was over while vowing to bring a new team to Greenville.

City Manager Jim Bourey, whose first task when hired in January 2004 was trying to reach a stadium decision with the Braves, said Friday it's "wonderful" to have the league's approval. He declined to discuss specifics of the stadium plan Friday night but said the city and the Bombers will sign a 20-year lease.

White, on his way back from a trip with business and political leaders to Raleigh, N.C., said, "We wanted a stadium that will complement an extraordinary downtown. This fits the bill."

White said the stadium plan has had "overwhelming support" from the residents and businesses in the West End, but one vocal opponent to the plan -- the Rev. Caesar Richburg, the pastor at Allen Temple AME Church -- said he was disappointed with Friday's decision.

Richburg wrote a letter to Minor League Baseball last month saying a West End stadium would harm his church, which has been across the street from the proposed site for more than 75 years. Coulter said the city has met with Richburg and other residents numerous times to try to deal with their concerns.

Richburg said Friday he didn't know what his next course of action will be.

Mortesen said Mandalay, the latest comer to the race for local baseball, still believes it had the best proposal for the long-term health of the local market.

"But we're big boys, and business is business," he said. "We'll live to play another game."

Diamond Jaxx General Manager Jeff Parker said in a statement, "Obviously we cannot continue to play in front of empty seats and expect to be able to continue to operate the team in Jackson."

In a second press release sent to Greenville media, the team praised the efforts by Mauldin City Manager Russell Treadway and business leaders such as Sam Phillips, who helped bring the Braves to Greenville in 1984, for their support.

"We know for a fact that there are a lot of disappointed Chicago Cubs fans in the entire Upstate," the release said.

First steps

The next step for the Bombers involves the simple stuff -- hooking up phones, moving desks and getting comfortable in temporary digs in Municipal Stadium. Two employees will move to Greenville with Mozingo, and he said he's looking for more help immediately.

Pitchers and catchers will show up in Florida to begin their season within a couple of weeks, and opening day will be in two months.

While dirt will start to be moved on its downtown site by April, Mozingo said the team has a job to do in order to maintain fan enthusiasm until it can move into the new facility. It's already in a hole because it normally begins work on a promotions calendar in September.

He also said the $10 million to $15 million price tag on its downtown development should hold steady, even though it is well less than the $27 million Mandalay would have spent on a ballpark, and even the $20 million Mauldin proposed.

"We're going to build a stadium Greenville can be proud of," he said. "If it needs to be more than that to get something done, we will take care of it."

The team, he said, is on its own, with "no feedback at all" from the league.

The team that's coming to Greenville The Capital City Bombers, a single-A Boston Red Sox affiliate, will begin moving to Greenville next week. They will play in Municipal Stadium this coming season. A new stadium is planned downtown for the 2006 season.

The proposal:

  • Team pays all costs of building the stadium.
  • City is going to donate land and streetscape.
  • Condos and stores are part of the development.
  • The team will have 68 home games.
  • Parking will be at various locations downtown similar to Bi-Lo Center.

Ben Szobody, John Boyanoski, Julie Howle