Thursday, August 18, 2005

The battle between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals is not taking place just between the Beltways. There is another front in this fight about two hours northwest of RFK Stadium in the state capital of Pennsylvania.

Harrisburg has been nearly as much of a source of contention for the Orioles as Washington, D.C. The Orioles want their Class AAA affiliate in Harrisburg, but there is a Class AA affiliate already there: the Senators, the Eastern League farm club of the Nationals.

That is galling to Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Not only does he want that area for his farm team but of all teams, the rival Nationals are blocking him.

It’s bad enough that the Orioles have competition near their major league home. But it is insult to perceived injury to have that same competition represented in the central and southern Pennsylvania area — up the Interstate 83 corridor — in which the Orioles must market their team in order to grow.

Angelos is so frustrated he asked Major League Baseball to intervene, but MLB refused, according to industry sources.

The Orioles, with the permission of the Class AA Eastern League and the Class AAA International League, struck a deal to make Harrisburg their Class AAA affiliate, according to mayor Steve Reed.

“The Orioles have a signed agreement with us to bring a Triple-A team here,” he said. The Orioles did not respond to a request for comment about the agreement.

One of the hangups, though, is what to do with the Class AA franchise playing at Commerce Bank Park on City Island.

“We have to find a buyer for the Double-A team here,” Reed said.

That would seem to put the future of the Nationals in Harrisburg in doubt. However, there are options to consider once the Nationals are sold and the club’s new owners are in place: make a deal to have the Potomac club, which is scheduled to move into a new ballpark in two years, go up to Class AA or hook up with the proposed minor league team Maryland Baseball is trying to establish in Charles County.

The Orioles fouled up their Class AAA situation so badly after the 2002 season they were evicted by their longtime partners in Rochester and forced to sign a deal in one of the nightmarish locations in the business, Ottawa. They may yet have their plans for Harrisburg undone, and the Nationals’ presence there may continue to be a source of angst.

The plan was for the Orioles either to buy or find a buyer for the Ottawa franchise and move it to Harrisburg. But difficulty with the second half of the deal — finding a buyer and a new location for the Class AA Nationals club already there — has stalled matters.

Ray Pecor, the owner of the Ottawa club, became frustrated with the Orioles’ inability to close the deal, according to industry sources, and has shopped his team elsewhere. Pecor could not be reached for comment.

The Ottawa franchise is now believed to be headed to Allentown, Pa., as a Class AAA team of the Phillies, who are unlikely to let any other team put a Class AAA farm club so close to Philadelphia.

Craig Stein, who owns the Phillies’ Class AA team in Reading, reportedly has an agreement to buy the Ottawa franchise and move it to Allentown. Stein said he couldn’t comment on any such agreements. But when he learned I used to work in the Lehigh Valley, he asked how I thought a Class AAA team would do there. (For the record, I think it would do well).

That would mean Scranton/Wilkes-Barre — currently a Phillies farm club — would open up as a Class AAA market. Even though it is more than four hours from Baltimore, it still would be an upgrade for the Orioles from Ottawa. But both the Yankees and the Mets covet that market as well because both teams have a strong fan base there.

Reed said he doesn’t believe the deal to move the Ottawa club to Allentown is final.

“It is by no means a done deal,” said Reed, who is holding out hope the Orioles somehow can get the Ottawa club moved to Harrisburg. And the funding for a ballpark in the Allentown area has not been finalized. It is conceivable another Class AAA club could be bought and moved to Harrisburg, though there are no other obvious candidates.

Reed insists that if they cannot attract a Class AAA team, they can live with their Class AA club. But he is critical of the way MLB has allowed the Expos/Nationals farm system to deteriorate and is hopeful the eventual owners will rebuild it.

Whoever winds up owning the Nationals should be perfectly happy to keep the Class AA team in Harrisburg. It is just a two-hour drive, and Harrisburg baseball fans can make the drive to Washington to see the major league team almost as easily as to Baltimore. In fact, they are making it now, according to Mayor Reed.

That drive drives Peter Angelos crazy.

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