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August 15, 2012

Morris: Columbia needs a pro team

BILL SHANAHAN’S hand-held microphone would not operate properly. It did not matter. His voice could be heard without electronic assistance Sunday evening to the smattering of fans at Capital City Stadium.

Shanahan, the owner of the Columbia franchise in the Coastal Plain collegiate summer league, spoke in the middle of the ninth inning of the Blowfish’s championship playoff game against the Fayetteville SwampDogs. His message was succinct.

“Get excited. Get pumped up,” he shouted to the crowd. “We’re going to come back one more year.”

Talk has been rampant of late that the Blowfish were done in Columbia, taking with them the last vestiges of family-affordable baseball in the Midlands. When you no longer have a home, you no longer have baseball, and Capital City Stadium eventually will be leveled, the field paved over and replaced by a Walmart.

There is every reason to believe, though, that Capital City Stadium will be standing next summer, and every baseball season that the Blowfish remain in operation enhances the chances that professional baseball might some day return to the Midlands.

Minor-league ball left Columbia, a city with little foresight at the time, following the 2005 season for Greenville, a city with enough vision to recognize the value of professional baseball. The Greenville Drive baseball club has served ever since as the spark to a revitalization of that city’s downtown.

Meanwhile, Shanahan promised Columbia he would bring college summer league ball to town, and the club would serve as a best-we-can-do stopgap until he could get the city back on the professional baseball map. Seven seasons later, and Columbia’s chances of getting minor-league baseball appear to be dwindling.

There basically are two options for pro baseball’s return to the Midlands.

One is for the city of Columbia to cross its fingers and hope the developer of the proposed Bull Street property incorporates a baseball stadium into its plans. Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin believes the city needs pro baseball and would offer support for that project.

But new baseball stadiums are expensive, beginning in the $25 million range. Any project of that nature would include a huge financial commitment from both the developer and the city of Columbia. Frankly, in these economic times, it is much more pipe dream than reality.

The other option appears to have stronger legs, although it might take years of development before it comes to fruition. This plan, which Shanahan will not discuss publicly, involves building a 2,500- to 3,000-seat stadium in Lexington County at a cost of between $6 million and $8 million.

The initial plan for the multi-purpose facility would be to house the Blowfish. Eventually, the stadium could be expanded to attract a Class A minor-league franchise in either the South Atlantic League or Carolina League.

In the interim, the facility would offer a couple of selling points to Lexington County. First, it could be used year-round for recreational football, softball, lacrosse, soccer and for concerts. Second, it could serve as the anchor stadium for the annual Dixie Youth Baseball World Series.

“We have discussed making South Carolina the home of the Dixie Youth World Series every year,” says James Thompson, president of Lexington Dixie Youth Baseball. “If you nail down a location and you know they are capable of handling an event of this size, why not have it in one place every year?”

Thompson envisions Lexington — and, by extension, Columbia — being the Williamsport, Pa., of Dixie Youth Baseball. Williamsport is widely known as the annual home of the Little League World Series.

Lexington recently was named host site for the 2014 Dixie Youth World Series to include championships at the minors, majors and ozone levels. That event could be the litmus test to see if Lexington is capable of becoming the permanent home.

In garnering the 2014 Dixie Youth World Series, Thompson received the support of the Town of Lexington, Lexington County and the Lexington County Recreation Commission. He and Shanahan would need the same support to add the larger, multi-purpose stadium.

For now, keeping the Blowfish alive and partnering with Dixie Youth Baseball appears to be the best option and best opportunity for the Midlands eventually being home to professional baseball.

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