- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2005

HARRISBURG, Pa. — If minor league baseball is a slice of Americana, then the Harrisburg Senators’ ballpark is the Norman Rockwell landscape for that image.

Ignore the name Commerce Bank Park. The atmosphere surrounding the home of the Washington Nationals’ Class AA affiliate is as noncorporate as you could find.

The ballpark is located on City Island. It is an idyllic setting, a city park with a minor league field in the middle of it. Fans can ride a bike, walk around the paths, play miniature golf, have a picnic in a grove, take horse-drawn carriage rides and ride a small train around the island.

And in the middle of all this, they can take the family to see a Harrisburg Senators game, with the state capital just across the Susquehanna River.

“The ballpark is great,” said Rich Lane, a Senators infielder from Southern California. “I like how it is on the island. It is a really cool effect.”

For Washington Nationals fans looking for a chance to see the team’s prospects, it is a wonderful day outing just two hours away — and another chance to see a team called the Senators.

But you better move quickly because it may not last long — the minor league affiliate with the longest connection (since 1991) to the Nationals/Expos organization might be the one with the shakiest relationship.

The Harrisburg franchise could be another battleground between the Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles, who, according to industry sources, covet the location as a future home for the club’s Class AAA franchise. And the mayor of Harrisburg believes that is where the future of this minor league team lies.

“I’m not a betting man,” Mayor Steve Reed said. “It may happen or it may not happen. But I think the odds are that we will be a Triple-A Orioles affiliate.”

The mayor is pretty knowledgeable about the situation. After all, the city owns the franchise — a unique arrangement that came about to save the team, Reed said.

“We bought the franchise to keep it from moving to Springfield, Massachusetts,” he said. “The team had been sold in early 1995, and the new owners had bought it to move it. The team was out the door. The Eastern League had already approved the plan to relocate it. We stepped in and bought the team for $6.7 million.”

It has been a good deal for the city, Reed said, as the franchise has netted a profit every year. Harrisburg is the only team in league history to hit the 200,000 mark in attendance for 18 consecutive years, and the team’s total of 255,978 in 2004 was the fifth highest in its history.

Now the city has visions of going from Class AA to Class AAA, with a $28 million renovation to the ballpark (which was hit hard by flooding last year and required more than $1 million of work to restore the field and add a new drainage system) that will include skyboxes, enlarged clubhouses and more amenities. In addition, the seating capacity will be increased from about 6,300 to more than 8,000.

“It will look like a new stadium,” Reed said.

The changes are being made regardless of whether the franchise moves up to Class AAA.

“Triple-A is a possibility in the future,” Reed said. “If it happens, fine. If it doesn’t, that is also fine. We have done well with Double-A and have no complaints.”

That is not exactly true. Reed has some complaints, particularly with the ownership of the Nationals by Major League Baseball for the past four seasons.

“We have had a long and generally good relationship with the major league team,” Reed said. “But we’ve had some issues with Major League Baseball owning the organization. There is a clear conflict of interest there, and the best evidence is that other organizations have been able to cherry pick from their player development system over the years, and as a result there was a corresponding decline in the performance of the team on the field. We have had our two worst seasons in the last two years.”

From 1996 through 1999, with young stars such as Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro, the Senators were Eastern League champions.

Reed is hoping that when owners are selected for the Nationals, it will improve the franchise. He called the Expos’ move to Washington “welcome news,” but it is not clear if the move has drawn any more fans.

“I can’t say there has been an influx of fans because of the parent organization being [that close],” Reed said. “Ask me at the end of the season. I do know there have been fans from here going to see the team in Washington.”

That can’t be good news for the Orioles, because south central Pennsylvania is one of their key fan bases and the area where they likely will have to make inroads to bring new fans down to Camden Yards.

The Orioles have struggled with their Class AAA franchise for several years. They were booted out of Rochester after more than 40 years and have suffered by having their affiliate in Ottawa. That club plays in a cold, antiquated facility so bad that the Expos cut their ties with it three years ago.

Harrisburg is attractive to the Orioles on many levels, as it is to the Nationals. But Washington isn’t the favorite major-league club of most Senators fans.

“Public opinions show that the Phillies and the Orioles are the top fan favorites here,” Reed said. “We believe it would be important for one of those teams to be the parent organization for any Triple-A team here. If it was any other team, I would advise against it.”

That would be a shame — especially since Rick Tomlin’s baseball career has just come full circle.

Tomlin, the Senators’ pitching coach, was a 17-year-old pitching prospect from Richmond when he was selected in the 14th round by the Washington Senators in 1971, the franchise’s last draft class before moving to Arlington, Texas.

“I am tickled pink that we are a Washington affiliate,” said Tomlin, who never did sign with the Senators and eventually embarked on a coaching career that included several years with the original Senators franchise, the Minnesota Twins, and nine years in the New York Yankees organization.

“I grew up watching the Senators play, going to Washington games,” he said. “When I got drafted, they took me up to Washington and I met Ted Williams and the people up there. It was exciting.”

One plus if the Nationals were to leave Harrisburg is that their prospects wouldn’t be so close to the site of the worst nuclear power plant accidents in American history. City Island is just a few miles up the river from Three Mile Island, where on March 28, 1979, the core of one of the reactors came close to melting down and sending radiation out over parts of the Middle Atlantic and northeastern United States.

Hardly any of the Senators players were even born when the accident occurred. Pitcher Rich Rundles was born more than two years after the incident and when asked about Three Mile Island said, “No, I never heard of it. … Oh, the nuclear power plant. I just didn’t know the name of it. I’ve heard rumors about it. Do I need to worry about it?”

Worry? Not in a Norman Rockwell painting.

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