0

Local Braves not sold on baseball stadium
Francoeur, Snitker don't see minor league team in county's future

ATLANTA - You won't find any bigger Gwinnett County booster than Jeff Francoeur, the former Parkview High School standout and the hometown right fielder of the Atlanta Braves.

Francoeur, however, doesn't foresee county residents turning out in enough numbers to support a minor league baseball team.

"Not unless it was a Braves farm team," the young slugger from Lilburn said Wednesday at Turner Field. "I don't believe enough people would come. Especially if it was an independent league team. I just don't know how it could work."

Because they have territorial rights within 75 miles of Atlanta, the Braves can block any regular minor league team affiliated with a major league franchise from coming to Gwinnett County and have said that they would.

"We have to protect our territory," Mike Plant, the Braves executive vice president for business operations, reiterated on Wednesday.

The Braves also have no interest at the moment in moving one of their own minor league teams to Gwinnett County after opening new stadiums in the past five years at Rome and Pearl, Miss., for Class A and AA franchises, respectively.

Plant, however, wouldn't rule out revisiting the Gwinnett situation if plans for the new ballpark progress.

"It's no secret that we are very happy with our stadium situations with one exception," Plant said.

That is Class AAA, where the Braves have been trying for years to get a new stadium in Richmond, Va., for their International League team.

Gwinnett County does have a population as large as some AAA cities, but none are as close to a major league team.

Before relocating the Southern League franchise from Greenville, S.C., three years ago, there was talk of the Braves moving the team to the Atlanta suburbs.

"Now, I was all for that," said Braves third base coach Brian Snitker, who lives in Snellville and was managing in AA at the time.

Like Francoeur, Snitker doesn't feel that an independent minor league team would work in Gwinnett County.

"I think the Braves are too close and there is just so much to do," Snitker said. "I know that there is a lot of baseball interest, but so many families are tied up watching their own kids play."

A feasibility study presented recently said that Gwinnett County has "one of the strongest markets in the country" for a minor league baseball team.

"It's doable," said Gwinnett County commissioner Bert Nasuti, who introduced the stadium idea late last year.

A stadium with a capacity of 7,000, however, would cost $25 million to $30 million and options for a Gwinnett County team are limited because of the territorial rights of the Braves.

Many independent franchises are successful, although a number of teams and leagues have failed. Clubs in the eight current leagues are made up of players not drafted or who have been released by affiliated teams, with a sprinkling of former major leaguers hoping for comebacks mixed in.

The closest independent league is the six-team South Coast, which has offices in Conyers and is in its first year. Macon and Anderson, S.C, are the nearest franchises.

Outside of the South Coast, the nearest independent franchise is Pensacola, Fla. It is in the America Association.

Most successful independent teams are in the Northeast or Midwest. Many are in the shadow of major league franchises. Examples include the St. Paul Saints (Minnesota Twins) and Long Island Ducks (New York Mets).

Despite having the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL just 25 miles away, the Gwinnett Gladiators have been a successful franchise in the ECHL, considered AA in hockey. The Gladiators, who play in the Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, are affiliated with the Thrashers, but not owned by them.

"The Gwinnett Arena is great for hockey and my daughter and her friends love going to games," Snitker said. "But I think it would be harder for a minor league baseball team. You have so many more games. I think the only way it could work was if it was a Braves team."

"It was great playing close in Rome," said Francoeur, who with National League All-Star catcher Brian McCann gives the Braves a strong Gwinnett presence. "The fans were great. But Rome is different. It's farther away (from Atlanta) and there isn't much to do. It isn't like Gwinnett."

SideBar: At a glance

The closest non-affiliated independent minor league to Gwinnett County is the first-year South Coast League. It has six franchises and hopes to expand, maybe by as many as six teams.

Franchise

City

Aiken Foxhounds

Aiken S.C.

Anderson Joes

Anderson, S.C.

Bradenton Juice

Bradenton, Fla.

Charlotte Redfish

Port Charlotte, Fla.

Macon Music

Macon

South Georgia Peanuts

Albany