All signs for the identity of Columbia’s new professional baseball team continue to point in the direction of Savannah.
At Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony for Spirit Communications Park in the Bull Street development, Columbia team owner Jason Freier said an official announcement wasn’t forthcoming until this spring, but his Atlanta-based company Hardball Capital owns the franchise in Savannah.
Freier has lobbied for a new ballpark for the Sand Gnats of the Single-A South Atlantic League, but Savannah’s city council has taken no definitive action. Columbia has committed $30 million, with $7 million more being contributed by Hardball Capital, to build Spirit Communications Park.
That could lead to Savannah’s team landing in Columbia for the start of the 2016 season, when the new ballpark will be complete.
“The (Savannah) city council has said they want to do a new ballpark, but they want to do it as part of a project that they will start to plan with more specificity in five years,” Freier said. “Our position with Savannah all along is that we needed some level of certainty. ... We’re no closer to having certainty than we were when we bought the team six years ago.”
Freier said the Chattanooga, Tenn., team in the Double-A Southern League that Hardball Capital purchased at baseball’s winter meetings in December will not be moved to Columbia.
“We bought the team in Chattanooga to keep it there,” he said. “That’s not in play for here. We’ve put it in writing that we’re not planning on moving that team.”
If the Savannah team moves to Columbia, it would be in the South Atlantic League along with two other South Carolina teams: Greenville, home to a Boston Red Sox affiliate Drive, and Charleston, home to a New York Yankees affiliate RiverDogs.
The Sand Gnats are affiliated with the New York Mets, who also supplied Columbia’s teams in minor league baseball’s previous stint here from 1983 to 2004.
Freier, who gathered with city leaders at the 165-acre downtown site on the former State Hospital campus to turn the first dirt for the new ballpark, also said the team’s name, colors and logo will be revealed in several months.
Team officials have reviewed many suggestions for a team name, which will incorporate something uniquely related to the Columbia area.
“It’s still in the hopper. We got well over 2,000 names in the public name-the-team contest. We read every single submission,” Freier said. “We’ve spent a fair amount of time whittling it down to a dozen or so names that we thought deserved meaningful consideration. We’re not down to one yet.”