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Offseason full of transition in Minors
Relocation, renovation, reinvention are hallmarks of downtime
03/30/2012 10:09 AM ET
Manny Banuelos will begin the season with nomadic "Empire State."
Manny Banuelos will begin the season with nomadic "Empire State." (Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com)
Opening Day is less than a week away, and when this long-awaited occurrence finally arrives, the book will officially close on that easily neglected time of year known as "the offseason."

But, though the ballfields have lain barren over the past six months, it doesn't mean that nothing's been happening. Throughout the course of fall and winter, news of all kinds makes its way out of the Minor League landscape. And often, this news has had something to do with one (or more) of the three R's: renovation, reinvention and relocation.

Road Warriors

The offseason's most persistent story revolved around the once (and, presumably, future) Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, who are spending the entire 2012 season on the road while PNC Field undergoes an extensive $40 million renovation project. The team was given a Sept. 20 deadline by the International League to find a temporary home, but, when that date came, the club still had no solution. One of the reasons for the delay was that the Yankees had hoped to set up shop in Newark, but the New York Mets exercised their territorial rights and nixed the plan.

The situation was resolved later in the month, with the announcement that the Yankees would play their home games in six different parks: Rochester, Syracuse, Lehigh Valley, Batavia, Buffalo and (gasp) Pawtucket (Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox).

"I think it's going to work out fine," International League president Randy Mobley told MiLB.com at the time of the announcement. "One of the goals for us was to try and create as much of a home-field situation as you can at a single location, but there wasn't a single location that could do that. But geographically, it played out as well as I could hope, with so many games being played in New York."

Sixty of the club's 72 home games will indeed be played in the Empire State, and to commemorate and clarify this anomalous happenstance it was announced earlier this month that -- why not? -- the team would be unofficially called the Empire State Yankees in 2012. The new name comes accompanied with a new logo, of course, providing fans with a chance to display their adopted home state pride.

The Empire State city bearing the brunt of the hosting duties is Rochester, whose Red Wings hold the distinction of being the oldest team in all of Minor League Baseball. The Red Wings will house the Yanks for 37 games, and that's the closest to a feeling of permanence the erstwhile Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise is going to get.

"We'll only be playing 20 extra games where we're not in our home base; it's not like we'll be constant nomads," Mandalay Baseball president Art Matin told MiLB.com in February (the Mandalay group owns the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise). "For a lot of players, this will be their first time at Triple-A, so it will probably feel normal. They'll just be moving from [Double-A] Trenton to Rochester."

And stay tuned, as this Scranton/Wilkes-Barre saga might not be over yet. The sale of the team from Lackawanna County to Mandalay Baseball has not yet gone through, and the $40 million renovation project will not begin until it has done so.

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Pending

But Scranton Wilkes-Barre isn't the only Minor League market where uncertainty exists. The City of Ottawa is on the verge of landing an Eastern League franchise for the 2013 season, which would mark the return of affiliated baseball for the first time since the 2007 departure of the International League's Lynx. But as to which EL club would move to Ottawa -- that information won't be divulged for quite some time.

Meanwhile, the Lynchburg Hillcats announced that their nearly 50-year run as a Carolina League franchise may soon come to an end. As MiLB.com reported in February: "The Atlanta Braves have reached a preliminary 'understanding' to buy the Lynchburg Hillcats, with an eye toward moving the team to Wilmington, N.C. But the deal is contingent on construction of a new stadium in the North Carolina city and another Minor League franchise moving to Lynchburg."

The Braves are eyeing 2014 as their target date to relocate to Wilmington, but construction of a new stadium has yet to be approved by the city council.

The fate of the Pacific Coast League franchise currently known as the Tucson Padres is similarly up in the air. When San Diego Padres owner Jeff Moorad purchased the club prior to the 2011 campaign, it was with the long-term intention of moving to a new ballpark in nearby Escondido, Calif. But funds for that park will likely never materialize, and Moorad's uncertain status with the Padres -- he stepped down as CEO earlier this month -- complicates matters further. El Paso, Texas, has been reported as one of the interested markets should Moorad sell the Tucson Padres.

Resolved

After all of the speculation contained above, perhaps it would be now be best to move into a matter of utter certainty -- the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. The team will play its inaugural season in 2012 as the Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds and the tenants of brand-new Maritime Park. The team has been in the news throughout the offseason as it prepares for its first Opening Day.

The Blue Wahoos' "tenacious" logo (designed by recently rechristened design firm Brandiose), was unveiled in November, and mascot Kazoo came into being some three months later. Ticket sales soared amidst this atmosphere of giddy anticipation, as evidenced by the team's recent announcement that 2012 season tickets were sold out.

The Blue Wahoos aren't the only new kids on the scene in 2012, however. The Pioneer League entity previously known as the Casper Ghosts has left their Wyoming environs and now will play in Colorado as the Grand Junction Rockies. These Rookie-level Rockies will call Suplizio Field home, a facility heretofore best known as the long-time home of the Junior College World Series.

And on the topic of new, the Birmingham Barons have broken ground on a ballpark that is slated to open in 2013. The downtown facility will replace 25-year-old Regions Park, which is located in the neighboring suburb of Hoover, Ala., and despite this vastly different location, the name remains (almost) the same. The Barons' naming-rights partnership with Regions Financial continues, and hence the new ballpark will be known as Regions Field.

While the Barons were breaking ground on a new ballpark, the Indianapolis Indians were radically reconfiguring theirs. Victory Field was transformed into nothing less than "a beach inside an airplane hangar" in order to host the DirecTV Celebrity Beach Bowl one day before the Super Bowl took place at neighboring Lucas Oil Field.

In Memoriam

In the interim between 2011's final out and 2012 Opening Day, the baseball world lost some individuals whose impact had been particularly felt in Minor League Baseball.

Daniel Burke -- CEO of Capital Cities Broadcasting, who in 1994, brought Minor League Baseball back to Portland, Maine in the form of the Sea Dogs.

Danny Clyburn Jr. -- The former top outfield prospect who played parts of three seasons in the Major Leagues was shot to death during an argument. He was 36.

William S. Cutler -- A well-respected executive who spent a half-century working within professional baseball, Cutler was best known for his 18-year tenure at the helm of the venerable Pacific Coast League.

Greg Halman -- A rising outfielder in the Seattle Mariners organization, Halman was stabbed to death in his native Netherlands at age 24.

Don Mincher -- A true baseball jack-of-all-trades, Mincher transitioned from a successful playing career to one of the most influential figures in Alabama baseball history. He was the first general manager of the Huntsville Stars and, from 2000-11, served as president of the Southern League. The league has yet to name his replacement.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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