STRANGE TO TALK about baseball at the end of football season. Stranger still to talk about the summer game when temperatures are so low.
But apparently it's time once again to talk about the Sand Gnats, Grayson Stadium, and most importantly where they fit into Savannah's plans for future economic development.
Full disclosure: I'm an unabashed fan of Grayson Stadium and believe 100 percent that any local ball club should remain in those historic confines, one of the oldest minor league ballparks in the country.
If it was good enough for Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, and Jackie Robinson, all of whom played there at one time or another, it should be good enough for us now in 2014.
That said, it's important to face the fact that Savannah has a really hard time supporting minor league ball to the extent it needs to be supported to make it viable.
A team's rank in the farm system is directly dependent on attendance, and declining attendance numbers over the years has meant a lower-and-lower tier team can be supported here.
Enter the Savannah Sand Gnats. No matter how beloved, our good ol' Gnats are a Class A team, the bottom rung, as are all the South Atlantic "Sally" League teams.
Not only that — they're a so-called "low" single-A team, the lowest tier of pro ball that plays a full season, the entry level to the entry level (in the Gnats' case, for the New York Mets).
Nothing wrong with that. Everyone's got to start somewhere.
The point is, Savannah's a small enough market that there's still a serious question whether we can support minor league ball at all, in any stadium, anywhere in town.
Enter Hardball Capital, the ownership firm that runs the Sand Gnats. They say even with extensive recent upgrades to Grayson Stadium performed by the City, Grayson still doesn't have the modern amenities needed to attract a well-heeled, substantial fan base to the park on a regular enough basis to make the team viable.
They're perfectly within their rights to say this, and perfectly within their rights as a business — albeit one within a sport which enjoys one of the only anti-trust exemptions in the U.S. — to pick up and leave for a larger market if things aren't working out.
Enter the City of Savannah. They face a minor league team for whom already-performed upgrades aren't enough, and more importantly they face the question of what to do with a huge swath of undeveloped land with its own underperforming tax district, Savannah River Landing.
Hardball Capital is lobbying the City to help establish a brand-new ballpark at the conveniently empty Savannah River Landing. The City of Savannah is, reluctantly I think, contemplating doing just that.
There's not much the City can do about sports teams always wanting bigger and better facilities and more and more help from governments. That's the way of the world.
And it's not the City's fault that Hardball is lobbying them (though Hardball boasts on its website that it's doubled Gnats' attendance since buying the team in 2008).
The City's problem isn't what to do with the Gnats, but what to do with Savannah River Landing. Therein lies the conundrum.
Savannah River Landing not only hasn't panned out as an investment spur for the eastside of downtown, it still costs us real money. Because of the tax allocation district created for it — which redirects revenue back into a specific fund rather than a general fund — the City still owes the local Board of Education $10 million in a negotiated quid pro quo for property taxes the BOE isn't getting from that land.
In addition, City taxpayers are still saddled with bond payments for Savannah River Landing, which has yet to generate any investment interest outside of the Gnats.
It's tempting to try and make that bank shot, to tell the Sand Gnats we'll give them a new stadium and at the same time fire a magic bullet at the much bigger problem that is Savannah River Landing.
It's tempting to say, hey, we wanted business to invest in Savannah River Landing and after all, baseball's a business, right?
It's tempting, but it's a mistake. It's a mistake because if Savannahians will barely support a team in one of the most historic venues in the country with dirt-cheap admission, they're unlikely to trek downtown to pay more. And please know that with any new stadium you can absolutely kiss those under-$10 general admission Gnats tickets goodbye.
So who will pay ten or twelve or fifteen bucks to see low single-A ball in Savannah, even downtown? I don't think locals will.
Will tourists? Consider that many of our tourists come from the Midwest, where there's no shortage of both major league and minor league ball in their own backyards.
I'd like to think those fine folks from Ohio, as they're seeing our many historic sites, will set aside two-plus hours inside a new stadium with no history at all in order to pay at least ten bucks to see 19-year-olds hit short hoppers or botch double plays, with most games played in the middle of a brutal Georgia summer.
I'd like to think that, but I just don't think they will.
The City's doing the right thing by being circumspect about a new park. The Gnats' threat to leave is no empty one, but nor is it one to particularly fear. Teams leave all the time, and others take their place. It's happened several times in Savannah already.
The City's job now is to focus on a workable plan for Savannah River Landing, honoring the original rationale for selling it to taxpayers who now wear it like an albatross.
Panicking and throwing more ill-advised money into it — especially after already upgrading Grayson – would be a short-sighted move with many ramifications.
In short, the City should play some hardball of its own.