Another Christmas has come and gone, and Joel Westbrook once again received the gift at the top of his wish list: Season tickets to the Chattanooga Lookouts.
But Joel, 13, who was born with spina bifida, might have to revise his shopping list next year.
The Lookouts, the Class AA Southern League affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, are one of 42 teams – and one of six in Tennessee – in danger of losing their Major League Baseball affiliation following the 2020 season. The other teams that would be affected are the AA Jackson Generals and four East Tennessee teams in the advanced rookie Appalachian League – Johnson City, Greeneville, Elizabethton and Kingsport.
“I was shocked. I was just real shocked. I was real sad,” says Joel, a U.S. Karate Open champion who is also active in the Miracle League baseball program in Chattanooga. He knows all the players, coaches and team staffers.
“It is a shock. Yeah, my son just loves going to the Lookouts games,” mother Wendy Westbrook says. “That’s what he’s put on his Christmas list the last three years is season tickets to the Lookouts. So we go all summer. He’s the one that absolutely, really loves going.”
‘Huge blow for Tennessee’
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s recent proposal to reduce the number of affiliates from 162 to 120 has met with a lot of blowback from both Minor League Baseball officials and more than 100 members of Congress who signed a letter signaling their disapproval of contraction.
The two sides have been locked in what has been described as intense negotiations, reportedly discussing everything from upgraded facilities to travel, housing and low wages, and a number of other issues – including a “Dream League” that affected teams could join. Such a league would feature undrafted players and have some financial support from MLB.
They met at the 2019 Winter Meetings earlier this month in San Diego, trading barbs and digging in on their stances. The current Professional Baseball Agreement is set to expire in September.
“This is a huge blow for the state of Tennessee,” Rich Mozingo, president of the Chattanooga Lookouts and 2019 Southern League’s executive of the year, said at the recent Winter Meetings in San Diego. “You’re talking about almost from one side of the state to the other where this is going to affect. It’s not just one little spot here, so it’s a crushing blow for the state of Tennessee.
“But we’re all sticking to the same thing – it’s early in the process and we’re going to have to let this thing play out a little bit.”
The MLB contraction proposal comes after minor league baseball set a attendance record of 41.5 million fans this year.
Lookouts co-owner Jason Freier says he remains optimistic that the team will still be playing in Chattanooga beyond the 2020 season.
“I mean, you see your name attached to potential contraction, you obviously need to be concerned,” he says. “That being said, looking at it from both a macro and a micro perspective, the concept just doesn’t make a lot of sense. So my hope is, you know, sort of reason and right prevail on this.
“To me – whether you’re on the major league side of things or the minor league side of things – both of us want to be growing the game of baseball, and how better to grow it than have teams in all these communities, provide opportunities for kids and families to see games as they grow up? Getting rid of teams would be bad for baseball, bad for the communities, for the fans.”
Noting Chattanooga’s long history of professional baseball, Freier says the Lookouts shouldn’t be on the list.
“If you told me ‘hey, teams are definitely going away, it’s going to happen regardless of whether it makes sense or not’ then it doesn’t make any sense for Chattanooga to be among those teams,” Freier continues.
“Chattanooga is a great city, a thriving and growing market. It’s a place baseball should certainly want to be. Last year we were named the Southern League Organization of the Year. We were in the top half of our league in attendance. Chattanooga has a history – over 130 years – of professional baseball, which is close to unmatched across the country.”
Jeff Lantz, senior director for communications for Minor League Baseball, says his organization’s goal is “to keep all 160 teams that we currently have and basically we’ll do whatever we need to do to try and make that happen. We don’t want any of our current cities to lose their teams and that’s our main goal and focus.”
Tennessee lawmakers are understandably hot about the National Pastime disappearing from communities. Some are taking a wait-and-see approach while others have been more vocal.
“I think minor league teams are really important to our communities,” Gov. Bill Lee says. “Our towns in this state that have minor league teams, both big and small, it’s a part of what makes the uniqueness of those towns, so we are very interested and will follow closely any change in the way minor league baseball’s structured. It matters a lot to us.”
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe is among several Tennessee politicians who signed the letter to Manfred stating he wants “to be active in ensuring America’s pastime is preserved for generations to come.” U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty says “it would be devastating for our communities. … It is my hope that MLB reconsiders its plan and works with these teams to remain home in Tennessee.”
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke adds: “The value in having a minor league baseball team, like the Lookouts, is that they provide entertainment and recreation for Chattanoogans and those visiting our city. They are an important option for families in our area, and we hope and expect the MLB to reconsider their plans.”
The national issue of contraction has led to a more local question of whether the Lookouts need a new state-of-the-art stadium to replace AT&T Field, which opened in 2000. The Lookouts played nearly seven decades at Engel Stadium.
Freier’s Atlanta-based company, Hardball Capital, has opened new stadiums in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Columbia, South Carolina, in the last dozen years that have drawn huge crowds and spurred economic growth in the surrounding area. He envisions similar development for Chattanooga, but support for such a project seems underwhelming, both politically and financially.
“It’s certainly what we hope to do at some point, yes,” Freier points out. “We’ve shown the ability … if the major leagues say that one of their primary concerns is facilities, not only is Chattanooga a great market where I think something like this is feasible, but beyond that, our ownership group, we’ve shown that we have the ability to work with municipalities and build award-winning facilities.
“(AT&T Field) is still a relatively modern stadium,” he adds. “It’s in compliance with all the current facility standards, every standard that’s in the current agreement between minor and Major League Baseball. We’ve held off making more improvements in that facility simply because we think at this point probably the wisest expenditure is going to be toward a new ballpark, not the existing one.
“All that being said, the ballpark itself is entirely serviceable and, as the situation evolves, whether it’s significantly improving the existing ballpark or – as we think would be wiser – building anew, the facility situation in Chattanooga is certainly capable of and likely to improve in the relatively near future, hopefully.”
Tim Morgan, president of the Sports Committee for the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the Lookouts are a good “partner organization” in bringing baseball events like the 2013 Gulf South Conference tournament and the 2016 Tennessee-Memphis season-opening series to the city.
“It would be a significant loss if we were to lose this franchise,” Morgan notes. “They’ve always demonstrated that it’s not just about the Lookouts, it’s what’s best for our destination and how they can play a role on maximizing that experience for what we do in sports tourism.”
Morgan also says he sees the benefits a new stadium could bring for the city.
“I really can’t talk about the politics around an investment of that nature because I’m not directly involved in those conversations,” Morgan adds. “I will say, though, there are many case studies out there have demonstrated exactly what you just presented to me, where when a project like this has gone into an area that has traditionally had minimal to no economic activity, it has kind of changed the dynamic of that area when these type of investments are made.”
Media, fans weigh in
David Carroll, anchorman at WRCB-3 since 1987, is a self-described lifelong baseball fan and avid Lookouts supporter, saying some of his greatest memories involve taking his sons to Lookouts games.
“My sons are out of town now, Nashville and Washington, but every time they’re home in the summer and the Lookouts are there, that’s where we are. So it’s a big part of our lives and, frankly, I can’t imagine life without them,” Carroll says.
He thinks a new baseball stadium would be a boost for the city, but understands why people are skittish.
“That’s one of those things that if I won the lottery and had way more money than I knew what to do with, it’s one of those things I’d do with it – is help make that possible,” Carroll says with a laugh.
“Taxpayers are understandably concerned about going in on a professional baseball stadium when we have one that’s 19-years old. I mean, if you’re not a baseball nut and you don’t go there all the time, all you know is that it still looks like a new ballpark.
“Unfortunately, it does have some deficiencies that we don’t really see as far as (lack of) batting cages and workout and clubhouse locker and the things that professional baseball really values these days,” he adds.
“And to be honest, that ballpark was built on a very tight spot that used to be the high school football field for Kirkman, so they really didn’t have a lot of flexibility on a lot of the things that will sometimes be a part of a professional baseball stadium these days. So, ideally, there would be one on Chattanooga’s Southside. There’s property right near I-24 that is in serious need of redevelopment and could frankly do for this city just what the Aquarium did 25 years ago.”
Chattanoogan David R. Eichenthal, managing director for PFM Group Consulting, recently wrote an opinion piece on MLB’s contraction proposal for The Hill. Like Carroll, he roots for the Lookouts.
“I didn’t go to any games this year. I usually try and get to a half-dozen or so games during the year,” Eichenthal says. “Minor league baseball’s terrific and I certainly have a personal interest in hoping the Lookouts stay in Chattanooga. And hopefully what’s good for national economic policy will also be good for my baseball-watching policy for years to come.”
Eichenthal notes it may take the threat of Congressional intervention – threatening to repeal baseball’s antitrust exemption – to break the ice in negotiations.
“I think the reality is that this is one of those cases where Congress really can play an effective role,” Eichenthal says. “So I’m hopeful that the sort of bipartisan caucus that has come together around this could really make the case to Major League Baseball that not only is this approach not necessarily in the interests of the states affected, but it could have a real impact on Major League Baseball going forward.”
Recently retired Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman says Chattanooga and smaller Tennessee cities will be affected not only by the economics of contraction but by the emotional impact as well.
“I am frankly stunned (MLB leaders) have taken the hardline position that they’ve taken, shocked that it’s a proposition that has wholly been endorsed by Rob Manfred, who is the commissioner,” says Brennaman, who will be guest of honor at the Nashville Old Timers Baseball Association banquet Jan. 14.
“Attendance was down across the board in big league baseball in 2019, and you’re constantly talking about acquiring new fans and generating renewed interest. And by contracting the number of towns that have minor league baseball, many of whom have had them for decades and decades, the only thing it says to me is that it’s all about money. It’s all about saving money.
“I’m opposed to it. I think it’s something that baseball is going to regret if they carry through with it. But apparently, every indication is the commissioner has taken about as hard a position about it as you can possibly take. This is just going to continue to create one of the many problems this game has right now.”
Brennaman says some form of contraction is inevitable.
“There are going to be some cities and towns that lose professional baseball,” he says. “I don’t think that the position the major leagues have taken on this topic, that all of a sudden they are going to make an about-face and say, ‘well, we have thought about this again and we’ve decided not to do anything.’ I think they’ve traveled down a road now that they can’t retrace their steps on.”
That would be a sad day for fans like author Leah Bailey, who for several years helped organize the Chattanooga Readers and Writers Festival.
“For me, it would be really sad because it was always something that kind of represented Chattanooga to me and we could go out and have a fun night out in the downtown area and really connect with the community,” Bailey says. “I think a new stadium would be great. I personally don’t have any problem going to the old stadium. It’s fun, it’s right there here you kind of see it when you’re driving into town and represents Chattanooga to me.
“But a new stadium could be really fun and I think they could do a lot more with it.”
Joe Varner, who hosts a daily sports talk show on radio station WGOW with Scott McMahen, says Chattanooga will not only survive MLB contraction but eventually get the new stadium that Freier is touting.
From everything I’ve heard it is about the stadium. It’s just not up to major league standards as far as minor league stadiums are concerned,” Varner points out. “Now are (the Lookouts) truly worried about it? Do they really think this is a possibility? They won’t say. I don’t think they really know right now.
“But I think for me, personally, the Chattanooga Lookouts – they’re going to be around. I just don’t see them getting the ax, so to speak. I think they’ll be OK but you know, you never know about Major League Baseball.”
And Varner thinks the contraction talk could speed up a timetable for a new stadium.
“Yeah, I think it will happen. Obviously with this news, the contraction news coming out, obviously they want to get that going a little bit quicker than it is now. And it’s not up to them,” Varner adds. “They’re ready to go. There’s some major players here in Chattanooga that are ready to go, but they’ve just got to figure out a way to get it done. That’s really the holdup right now and I think it’s going to happen.
“Now will ground be broken next year or the year after that? I don’t know. But obviously with this news they want to get it done as quickly as possible – get started on that because you talk about a multiuse venue, and with the Chattanooga Lookouts stadium as it is now, and game nights you’re going to make some money but for the rest of the year it’s just sitting there not making money.
“But as we both know, multiuse venues, they’re raking in cash day after day. There’s always something go on. So I think it would be smart for Chattanooga and all the players involved to get on this and get it done quickly.”
Meanwhile, Joel Westbrook hopes he’ll be able to ask for Lookouts season-tickets again next Christmas.
“Yeah, it would be terrible,” Joel says. “I’m looking forward to (the 2020 season).”
Hopefully, it won’t be the Lookouts’ last.