The man who would bring professional baseball back to Columbia comes across as casual but driven.
Jason Freier, who owns a multimillion-dollar minor-league company in Atlanta, wears open-collar shirts and drives a dusty Honda Odyssey minivan. On the van are weather-worn decals for his Sand Gnats team of Savannah, and the TinCaps, of Fort Wayne, Ind.
But the 43-year-old Freier’s nonchalant appearance and middle-class background belie the degrees from Harvard, then Yale law school. And his rapid-fire, authoritative speaking style reflects a hard-nosed business sense.
“He’s a very bright, very good negotiator, very good attorney and very knowledgeable about the business of baseball,” said Mark Becker, who as deputy mayor of Fort Wayne eight years ago was the city’s point man across a negotiating table from Freier.
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“There are things he would not back down on, but that’s to be expected in a complicated negotiation like that,” said Becker, now director of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., a group that works for economic expansion in that city and surrounding Allen County. “But throughout this process, there was never an adversarial atmosphere.”
That assessment of Freier and his Hardball Capital team-ownership company holds true, too, in Savannah, where Freier bought the Sand Gnats in 2008, locals there say.
“What I like best about them is they’re honest,” said Joe Shearouse, the recreation and cultural director for the Georgia port city. That contrasts with some previous owners of the minor-league team who were slow to pay their vendors and preferred to pressure city officials for a new stadium through the media, Shearouse said.
“When we disagree, we disagree. I don’t read about it in the newspaper,” he said of Freier. “It’s all very professional.”
And Hardball welcomes local high schools and civic organizations to use Savannah’s ballpark, Shearouse said. “I don’t know of any case of anybody calling in and saying, ‘They’re not being accommodating.’ ”
Reed Dulany, whose family has been in Savannah for generations and owns a nearly 140-year-old industrial holding company, agrees that Freier is upfront in his business dealings.
“He’s done a great job with what he has,” Dulany said of Grayson Stadium. “He does what he says he’s going to do. He puts out his vision (for a well-run stadium), and he follows through. I’ve never asked a question where he didn’t have data-driven answers.”
His experiences with Freier and the Sand Gnats have converted him into a supporter of year-round, city-owned stadiums for baseball, Dulany said. “ I can’t imagine dealing with anybody (who’s) better.”
Hardball Capital has gone to Savannah City Council asking for a modern, year-round, riverfront ballpark to replace aging Grayson Stadium, which is inside a large city park and surrounded by a neighborhood.
Many people in Columbia and Savannah say Freier will move that team here if Savannah officials do not build a new stadium. Savannah officials are seeking bids to determine if they will conduct a feasibility study. Columbia has completed its study and council here has cast the first of two votes required to build a $35 million stadium and sign a 30-year contract with Hardball Capital to run the facility.
A final vote is likely next month, perhaps as early as April 1.
Brought up in the boroughs
Freier was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens. He graduated from The Bronx High School of Science, he said.
His parents were school teachers in the New York City public school system.
“They met at Francis Scott Key Junior High in (Brooklyn’s) Bedford-Stuyvesant,” Freier said. “My father taught social studies in junior high. My mother taught children who had trouble reading.
“I grew up with modest means,” Freier said.
But his smarts won him admission to two of the nation’s elite universities.
Freier graduated from Harvard in 1993 with a degree in government and political philosophy, he said. Freier returned home for a year before he continued his Ivy League education at Yale Law School. He was selected for the university’s Law Journal, according to his biography, and graduated in 1997.
He began his legal career working for former U.S. Solicitor General and Harvard law professor Charles Fried and then with a law firm in Washington, D.C.
Freier began to specialize in the areas of complex business matters and sports law, where he would grow to represent owners and those aspiring to become owners in the National Football League, the National Basketball Association , the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, his biography states.
Not all of his law career was focused on sports, however. Freier said he was lead attorney for the AARP, NAACP and a Hispanic business group, all of which filed a friend of the court brief in a major property rights/eminent domain case that landed in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ultimately, he was drawn to baseball management.
“Part of the reason that I got into baseball was so I didn’t have to wear a tie anymore,” he said, chuckling.
He ended up in Atlanta because that is where is wife is from. They met at Harvard, but she wanted to return home to be close to an ailing parent, Freier said. The couple, who have a 12-year-old daughter and a 11-year-old son, have lived in Atlanta since 1999.
Research and proximity
Freier said he began scouting the Columbia market about the time the Capital City Bombers were leaving town in late 2005 and early 2006.
He immediately began studying Columbia’s demographics to learn whether it would support a larger stadium and a new team. Freier also followed the USC Gamecocks baseball team’s rise to become back-to-back national champions in 2010 and 2011.
What sealed his interest was learning that Hughes Development Corp. of Greenville was close to reaching an agreement with City Council to develop the state Mental Health Department’s sprawling site in the city center.
He read newspaper accounts of council’s fight over zoning the property and signing a contract with developer Bob Hughes that included a ballpark.
“Wow!” Freier remembers thinking of the prospects of owning a team in that location. “This is obviously a tremendous baseball market.”
He views the success of the University of South Carolina team and the strength of area high school and youth baseball program as a plus. Those show the depth of the area’s appetite for baseball, Freier said.
“It was a market that we would ultimately like to be in,” he said, adding that Hardball had turned down projects in other cities.
Columbia offered another feature that neither Savannah or any other available, comparable Southern market had.
“It’s extremely close to home for me,” the Atlanta resident said.
Freier has driven to town scores of times as he studied Columbia and lobbied for the stadium to dozens of government, civic and neighborhood groups.
He’s keenly aware of opposition in Columbia to a taxpayer-funded ballpark.
Freier points to private investment that has sprung up around the Fort Wayne stadium as well as in Greenville, Durham, N.C., and other similar markets.
“You have to look at it as an investment ... in the city’s future and also an investment in the city’s present,” Freier said of a stadium in the yet-to-be-constructed Bull Street neighborhood.
“In a relatively short period of time, it is also an investment where the city will see a return.”