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Limbo in Batavia continues

Batavia MuckdogsRochester is back to manage the still-for-sale Batavia Muckdogs for 2011, but none of the underlying financial problems have changed.

Seemingly out of the blue, a press release appeared on Tuesday, announcing that Rochester Community Baseball (RCB) has come to terms with owner Genesee County Baseball Club (GCBC) to operate the money-losing Batavia Muckdogs for a fourth season in 2011.

I say “out of the blue” because late-season comments by RCB chairman Naomi Silver made it clear that RCB, owner/operator of the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, had reached the breaking point in losing money operating the Muckdogs.

“It truly breaks my heart to think about the people that will suffer in this loss,” said Silver in July. “…We cannot be expected to continue to take $100,000 losses. We’ve been left with no alternative.

“This is really serious,” said Silver. “We would love to stay, but we really need to see improvement in attendance numbers.”

Silver had already taken considerable heat from unhappy RCB stakeholders at their annual meeting about the financial drain caused by their management of the Muckdogs.

If anything changed attendance-wise since Silver’s July warning, it was only for the worse, despite the Cardinals having done their part by providing a playoff entrant for the second time in the last three years. Fans still remained home in droves.

Batavia’s 1,016 regular season average gate in 2010 was dead last in the 14-team New York-Penn League. In fact, the Muckdogs drew an embarrassing total of just 601 fans for what became their final game of the 2010 post-season.

In the same August release that announced the team was officially being put up for sale, GCBC’s president, Brian Paris, seemed resigned to the fact that RCB was planning to walk.

“We thank the Red Wings for these last three years, which included the memorable 2008 championship season,” Paris said. “They have indicated that they are probably going to move on, and we respect their decision.”

By September, Silver’s comments had moderated and here in October, she invoked civic duty as an explanation for remaining linked to the Muckdogs for another year.

So what might really have been behind the abrupt change in heart by RCB?

A wild guess. What else? Money.

One official with whom I spoke suggested the marriage continues because RCB needs to protect its ownership stake in the team until it can be sold.

RCB had reportedly accrued a 15 percent share of the Muckdogs, five percent for each of its first three years of operation, redeemable if/when the club is purchased.

The financial arrangement between RCB and GCBC going forward has not yet been announced, but The Batavia Daily News reports RCB’s ownership share is 20 percent and reminds the reader that if the Muckdogs’ franchise was to be revoked by the league, the equity in the team would be lost.

That last point is crucial. If the New York-Penn League saw the Muckdogs without a management structure in place for 2011, they may have had no choice but to pull the franchise. That would have left both owners high and dry. In RCB’s case, all they would have left to show for their efforts is three years of losses reportedly totaling a half million dollars.

With seemingly time running out to sell, move the team and still prepare for the 2011 season, Tuesday’s announcement by RCB does seem to signal that no changes are likely expected for next year. Not coincidentally, on Wednesday, the Muckdogs followed with the release of their 2011 schedule.

Publicly at least, Paris is still holding out hope that a benefactor who doesn’t mind pouring large amounts of money into a perennially-losing proposition will magically step forward and rescue the Muckdogs from fully sinking into their financial muck.

“Our hope is that a local sale will occur, or that an individual or company will step forward with an interest in spending substantial sponsorship dollars, allowing the financial picture to improve,” Paris said in the Tuesday release.

More realistically, the best RCB’s return can probably accomplish is to buy more time for a new owner to be found – one who would most likely move the club to an area with a better hope to draw customers and with an improved facility for fans and players alike. It looks like that will occur no sooner than the 2011-2012 off-season, however.

From an on-field perspective, there will be short-term continuity as well. The Cardinals recently signed a two-year extension of their Player Development Contract with the team, which will follow if ownership and/or the location of the club change.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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