Real Estate

Mobile baseball team may be sold, Southern League president says

Early work is shown on the Town Madison site south of I-565 in May 2017. (AL.com file photo)

The minor league baseball team in Mobile is on the market and the Southern League, of which the Mobile team is a member, is evaluating a potential buyer.

Lori Webb, president of the Southern League, told AL.com on Wednesday about the potential sale.

That information comes a day after a Huntsville television station reported that the Mobile team, the BayBears, are possibly relocating to Madison.

If such a development was true, Webb said it would be far down the road.

The league’s vetting of a potential buyer for the BayBears could take about two months, Webb said. The sale approval process would then require the OK of the league’s board of directors – which is made up of one representative from each of the league’s 10 teams.

Once that hurdle is cleared, Minor League Baseball would have to sign off on the sale of a team then, ultimately, Major League Baseball.

The approval process for a team to relocate is separate from the sale approval process, Webb said.

“What I can tell you is the Mobile franchise has been on the market for a while and we do have some potential buyers,” Webb said. “At this time, we have not approved a sale yet. We’re just starting the process and, really, that’s all I can tell you at this time. We have a potential sale. It’s up to the league at this point to do our due diligence and see if we want to approve the potential buyers. It’s a process that could take a couple of months. That’s what we’re working on now.”

Could the Huntsville area steal the BayBears away from Mobile? The team’s owner called such talk “nebulous” on Wednesday, but declined to address whether or not he was seriously entertaining a specific proposal that came to light on Tuesday.

AL.com news partner WHNT-Channel 19 reported on Tuesday that the BayBears were possibly headed to Madison to anchor the under-construction Town Madison retail district off I-565 west of Huntsville.

Madison Mayor Paul Finley said in a statement to AL.com that interest is high in Town Madison but he declined to go into specifics.

“You can imagine the interest that’s happening over there,” Finley said. “There’s all different types of economic development opportunities coming our way. At some point, we certainly look forward to having more specifics.”

Joey Ceci, spokesman for Town Madison, also said there is nothing to be announced at this time.

Speculation about the return of professional baseball to Huntsville has lingered since the Stars — which called Joe Davis Stadium home for 31 years – were sold and relocated to Biloxi in 2015. Most of that speculation, however, has focused on the prospect of a new baseball stadium being built in Huntsville to replace the aged and outdated Joe Davis Stadium.

The new stadium in Biloxi cost more than $36 million and a similar, if not higher, investment would be required to build a new stadium in the Huntsville area.

“There’s been talk about baseball in Madison County all the time for years,” said Steve Haraway, who represents the area where Town Madison is being developed on the Madison County Commission. “Baseball in Madison is a new twist on it.”

With a population of about 48,000, Madison is the state’s 10th-largest city. That would be small by Southern League standards but would be a similar scenario to the Tennessee Smokies, which play their home games in the unincorporated Knoxville suburban community of Kodak. The Mississippi Braves also play their home games in the Jackson suburb of Pearl.

The Huntsville metro area is also the state’s second largest.

Should the Mobile franchise go through the gauntlet of approvals that would secure a sale and relocation to Madison, it would perhaps be a point of redemption Rocket City pride after losing the franchise that briefly provided a minor league home for such future stars as Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Ryan Braun.

While the Stars had a spectacular beginning in Huntsville – with the roster including Canseco for part of that inaugural 1985 season and McGwire following in 1986 that helped the parent Oakland A’s win the 1989 World Series – the ending was just as forgettable.

Attendance eventually dwindled at Joe Davis Stadium until it became the worst in the Southern League at a bare-bones stadium that never saw significant improvements for fans. The stadium’s malfunctioning video board in left field sat dark during the Stars’ final seasons.

The ownership group led by Miles Prentice also came under criticism during the Stars’ final seasons for failing to improve the fan experience. When the Stars left town, they played in the oldest stadium in the league.

For contrast, their Southern League rivals in Birmingham moved into two new stadiums during the Stars’ existence in Huntsville.

Another challenge the Stars faced would not necessarily be eliminated if the BayBears came to Madison. The Stars had major league affiliations with the distant Oakland A’s and, later, the Milwaukee Brewers – two franchises that had virtually no connection to the baseball fan base in north Alabama.

The BayBears currently face the same dilemma in being affiliated with the Los Angeles Angels in a contract that runs through the 2018 baseball season.

All pros and cons aside, the prospect of minor league baseball returning to north Alabama is far from becoming reality.

The owners of a franchise moving to Madison would almost certainly be looking for taxpayer dollars to help build a new stadium and those public discussions with local governments have not yet begun. And the Southern League is not going to approve the relocation of a franchise until stadium funding is secured.

“Our league, we respect all of our members and in the end, when we do decide to approve a sale or a relocation or whatever it may be, we always do it in the best interest of the Southern League,” Webb said. “And that’s what we will do here. We will take the time we need to go through the process in an intelligent manner. When we’re ready to make a decision, it will go to the full board and we will go from there.”

AL.com reporter Lucy Berry contributed to this report.

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