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After some nasty curveballs, Red Wings, County touch home plate

scottteaser-215x160Some of my friends were losing sleep in recent weeks over the possibility the Rochester Red Wings might soon be going, going, gone! Outta here like some ball rocketing off the bat of hulking slugger Aaron Judge. Never to be seen or heard from again.

Though a tad concerned, my anxiety never plummeted to the despairing levels of one Facebook friend who contemplated leaving town if the ball club did. I believed somehow, some way, these occasionally acrimonious negotiations between the Wings and Monroe County would eventually result in a lease extension. And, happily, that’s what happened, with the announcement of a new agreement late Monday afternoon.

Wings President and CEO Naomi Silver became emotional during the new-lease news conference in the home team clubhouse at Frontier Field. Her eyes welled and her voice quavered. And that was understandable because this extra-inning slog transcended business for her. This was not only about dollars and cents. It was about family—hers and so many others that have made the Wings, and their predecessors, an inextricable part of our community since the 19th century.

Naomi’s late dad, Morrie Silver, saved baseball in this town 61 years ago by spearheading a community shareholders’ drive that resulted in the purchase of the team from the St. Louis Cardinals. And like father, like daughter, Naomi had recorded a few Mariano Rivera-like saves of her own along the way, overseeing the move from dilapidated Silver Stadium to brand-new Frontier in 1997 and a bold affiliation switch from the Baltimore Orioles to the Minnesota Twins 16 seasons ago.

She was resolute in not allowing things to deteriorate to the point where the Wings would become baseball nomads, playing their home games in Syracuse, Buffalo or Scranton this spring and summer. She also wanted to ensure that Wings games remained affordable options for families.

County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo had to realize the flight of the Wings would have been political suicide. Yes, she played hard ball in an effort to squeeze more money from the franchise in order to lighten the burden on taxpayers, but she also knew the burden would have been even greater if Frontier lost its primary tenant and suddenly joined nearby Capelli Sport Stadium as a white elephant.

The 10-year lease—with a mutual option for an additional 10 years—calls for the Wings to pay $100,000 per year in rent. The county also will continue to receive revenues generated from the naming rights agreement and from parking. Compared to other teams and cities, it is hardly a sweetheart deal.

In return, the county has agreed to make any stadium upgrades required by the International League. I would hope the county would go beyond the minimal league requirements and do some major upgrades, including the addition of a long, long overdue Rochester baseball/sports museum in the old firehouse on the premises. This would add greatly to the fan experience, and give us a chance to properly celebrate and showcase our city’s rich sports heritage.

I’ll leave it to the bean-counters to argue the economic benefits of sports teams on communities. I understand that the financial impact can be dubious and overstated. Less quantifiable, but every bit as important, is the psychological benefit. One of the positive things about professional sports teams is their ability to galvanize a community, to bring people together. And there’s something to be said for that in an age when technological advancements designed to connect us have contributed to even greater social isolation.

You don’t have to know the difference between an RBI (run batted in) or an ERA (earned run average) in order to enjoy a baseball game at Frontier. In the minor leagues, unlike the majors, it’s more about the total experience than the game. And I know of no sports organization, at any level, that does a better job providing wholesome, affordable, entertainment experiences than the Red Wings. The prices are reasonable. There are numerous food and drink options. The staff is friendly and helpful. The on-diamond drama can be captivating.

My wife and I go to several games a year, for reasons similar and different. We enjoy whiling away a summer’s eve among friends. And while I’m looking for the next Cal Ripken Jr. or Byron Buxton, my wife is chuckling at the zany antics of visiting mascots like the Zooperstars. There’s a little something for everyone.

I know of many long-time season ticket-holders who have formed lasting friendships with those seated near them. These ballpark bonds often extend beyond Frontier’s red-brick confines. These folks wind up inviting one another to weddings and birthday parties and christenings. For them, these baseball experiences are about much more than games.

There clearly would have been a tremendous void if the Wings flew the coop. It would have been a bummer of a summer in Rochester, and our community, which has suffered the losses of too many iconic businesses in recent decades, would have been poorer for it.

Fortunately, both sides came to their senses. And we can applaud IL President Randy Mobley for helping bring the negotiations to a palatable conclusion. His imposition of a March 1 deadline created a sense of urgency. The league had prepared contingency plans for where the Wings would play their home-away-from-home games.

Instead, on April 6, professional baseball will officially return to where it belongs—Frontier Field, continuing a tradition that dates to the start of the Rutherford B. Hayes administration in 1877. Thankfully, my stressed-out friends can exhale and catch up on their sleep, while visions of peanuts and Cracker Jack dance through their heads.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. He has been writing about Red Wings since 1985 and authored two books about the Rochester baseball history.

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