Playing hardball? 

Atlanta-based ownership group to buy Sand Gnats; local investors to be identified later

Hardball Capital, an Atlanta company that specializes in owning minor league baseball franchises, is the lead investor in a new ownership group that is buying the Savannah Sand Gnats.

Some details of the agreement were announced Thursday at a press conference held at Grayson Stadium. The group is buying the team from current owner John Simmons, a lawyer based in Illinois, who also owns the minor league team the Southern Illinois Miners.

Hardball Capital specializes in the ownership and operation of Minor League Baseball franchises. The company currently operates the Fort Wayne Wizards, Class-A Midwest League affiliate of the San Diego Padres, and previously owned and operated the Salem Avalanche in Salem/Roanoke, Va.

Five local investors will be involved in the purchase, but were not named at this time. Hardball representatives said those local owners are committed to seeing the Sand Gnats flourish.

“We are avid baseball fans, we love Minor League Baseball and are thrilled to become part of its rich tradition in Savannah,” says Chris Schoen, chairman of Hardball Capital. “We look forward to working with our local partners to make the Sand Gnats a great source of entertainment for the citizens of Savannah and a positive force in the community.”

The Sand Gnats is a Class-A South Atlantic League affiliate of the New York Mets. Before the sale is finalized, the purchase must be approved by both Major and Minor League Baseball and the South Atlantic League.

There is an extensive vetting process for new owners. Hardball Capital is working with its local partners to complete that process. Once it has been completed, probably in about 90 days, the local owners will be announced.

Two other investors also will be involved. They are Scott Polhemus and Grant Morain, both of Atlanta-based Backstop Ventures. “The combination of our experience operating minor league franchises and our partners’ knowledge of the local community should make a great package,” said Jason Freier, Hardball Capital CEO. “Our immediate goal will be to do everything in our power to upgrade the fan experience at Historic Grayson Stadium.

“Some exciting changes have taken place since the end of the 2007 season,” Freier said. “The entirely new playing surface and lighting system and the removal of the old bleachers will significantly improve the fan viewing experience and really open up the stadium. Operationally, we will be adding several new concessions items and will look to improve the quality of the concessions items while decreasing the wait time for fans.”

Polhemus and Morain say they will be active in the operation of the Sand Gnats. “We’ll be spending a lot of time in Savannah, working with our staff, helping to get people out to the ballpark and making sure that they have a great time once they are here,” Polhemus said.

“We’re really looking forward to getting involved in the community and getting to know the fans,” Morain said.

Current General Manager Bradley Dodson and his staff will continue to run the team’s day-to-day operations. “Brad has been great throughout this transaction and we look forward to continuing to work with him and his staff to make 2008 a great season for the Sand Gnats and the baseball fans of Savannah,” Polhemus said.

The 2008 Sand Gnats season will open Friday, April 11, at Historic Grayson Stadium against the Columbus Catfish. Mayor Otis Johnson will throw out the first pitch of the season.

Dodson says the sale of the Sand Gnats will have no effect on the upcoming season. “We’ve been working to make this deal happen for some time now,” he says.

“It won’t affect the Mets or opening day or anything like that. The thing we’re going to focus on most is for people to come and have an experience,” Dodson says. “I think you’ll notice a lot of changes at the ballpark this year.”

Seats are available for the entire four-game series with the Columbus Catfish, April 11 through the 14, and can be purchased by calling the Sand Gnats at 351-9150 or on the web at www.sandgnats.com.

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