Professional baseball’s return to Columbia moved another step closer to reality Thursday with a little old and a little new.
Standing on the construction site of the $37 million Spirit Communications Park in the Bull Street development called Columbia Common, team owner Jason Freier announced Hardball Capital is moving its minor league franchise from Savannah to begin play here next April.
Construction started on the new ballpark in January. As for the old, the team will be a Single-A affiliate of the New York Mets in the South Atlantic League, like Columbia’s previous incarnation of professional baseball at Capital City Park from 1983 to 2004.
“We’re extremely excited to be able to continue our partnership with the New York Mets and bring a tradition of quality baseball and first-class, affordable family entertainment to the Midlands,” said Freier, who grew up in the shadow of Shea Stadium, the Mets’ former home in New York. “We look forward to a long bright future at Columbia Common.”
The ballpark will serve as the centerpiece of the 165-acre Bull Street development. The team’s contract to stay in Savannah’s aging Grayson Stadium expires Sept. 30, and city officials there rejected Freier’s request to build a new ballpark. Columbia has committed $30 million toward building the ballpark, with Hardball Capital kicking in the other $7 million.
The Mets are pleased to be moving their Single-A team to a new facility. Three years will be remaining on the Mets’ agreement to supply players to the Columbia team. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, who was on hand for the announcement, said Columbia is fortunate to be dealing with Freier and Atlanta-based Hardball Capital.
“You are in partnership with one of the outstanding individuals and groups within professional baseball,” Alderson said.
Alderson said the Mets like everything about coming here, both on the field and off.
“It’s about having a great facility that motivates players. Even professionals need to be motivated, and the facilities certainly can do that,” Alderson said. “Outside the ballpark, this is a place where players feel comfortable and welcomed and have access to good housing and an appropriate lifestyle. With the college community and the number of young people here, it’s the perfect plan for us.”
Hardball Capital also runs teams in Chattanooga, which plays in the Double-A Southern League, and Fort Wayne, Ind., which plays in the Single-A Midwest League.
Columbia is a good geographic fit for the 14-team South Atlantic League, which is the home to teams in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. Of the two other teams in the Palmetto State, the Greenville Drive are a Boston Red Sox affiliate, and the Charleston RiverDogs are a New York Yankees affiliate.
“It’s the right set of cities we are grouped with here. They’re natural rivals,” Freier said. “There’s a healthy competition between the cities as is, and we view our baseball team as an extension of that.”
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who has pushed hard to bring professional baseball back to Columbia, said the team can galvanize the Bull Street development.
“These are very exciting times for our city and for this region. The impact we’ve seen professional baseball have on economies of so many cities across America can’t be overstated,” Benjamin said. “(Columbia Common) will be a multipurpose (retail and entertainment) venue that I expect to be active from dawn to dusk almost every day of the year. It’s going to become a gathering place.”
Freier said the team’s name and colors will be unveiled next month. A name-the-team contest produced more than 2,000 submissions, and Freier said the final choice will reflect Columbia’s uniqueness.
Construction on the surrounding development around the ballpark also is ongoing. Bull Street developer Bob Hughes’ group is building a 120,000-square-foot retail and office building down the first base line, with restaurants or sports bars that would overlook the park.
SOUTH ATLANTIC LEAGUE
The current teams:
West Virginia Power
Savannah Sand Gnats