In what looks like the start of a beautiful relationship, a suitor sets up the object of his affection in a humble nest.
The nest is a fixer-upper at best, but the suitor promises to move her into more luxurious digs someday. But this fellow is fickle and has a roving eye. He seems to be holding out for a sexier or more lucrative option, even as his steady remains faithful. He publicly humiliates her by heaping lavish gifts on a wealthy socialite, squandering cash on an unrequited love affair. He courts another dream girl in a relationship that ends before it begins. His steady voices her impatience and demands that he put a ring on it.
Ultimately, the guy refuses to commit and takes steps to remove his girlfriend from the premises.
Roll the credits on this romantic farce and the suitor would be played by Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones. The Flying Squirrels would be the woman being kicked to the curb. The Washington pro football team would be the expensive object of unrequited love; the children’s hospital venture, the dream girl who got away.
The removal of the children’s hospital from the development equation on North Boulevard has done nothing to enhance the prospects of a new ballpark there.
“Let’s be clear that our starting point of the Boulevard conversation is what is the best use of that property for the citizens of Richmond, not whether it is the best site for baseball,” Tammy D. Hawley, press secretary for Mayor Dwight C. Jones, wrote in an email this week.
A majority of Richmond City Council members have signed on to the mayor’s timeline and steps for redeveloping the property. It’s difficult to see how any of this ends well for the Squirrels. The team appears headed for an exit similar to that of the Richmond Braves, who wearied of our dawdling over a new stadium and left for Gwinnett County, Ga., in 2008.
Lou DiBella, president and managing general partner of the Squirrels, says that without an alternative stadium site, the team could become homeless after the 2017 season. And frankly, the prospects for an alternative site have been exhausted. Even the mayor has abandoned Shockoe Bottom as a potential baseball venue. The team’s recent search for a suburban ballpark site turned up nothing.
“It’s pretty ironic to be enticed back with a lot of promises and to feel like, in effect, you’re being booted out,” DiBella said.
Hell hath no fury like a baseball team scorned.
Of course, the Squirrels preferred remaining on North Boulevard, the home of minor league baseball in Richmond since 1954. In a survey two years ago, two-thirds of respondents preferred that baseball remain at that site. As outmoded as The Diamond is, the team led the Eastern League in attendance in 2015, averaging 6,055 fans a game.
Among them was Greg Blake of Chesterfield County. He has held season tickets at The Diamond since the team began playing here in 2010. For him, the idea of minor league baseball anyplace but North Boulevard “is almost an anathema.”
“I think the development and the new stadium could happily co-exist on the Boulevard,” with baseball sharing parking with retail, he said. “To me, putting it on the Boulevard and putting really cool stuff around it, including tons of retail, would really work. Just look at the Bow Tie Cinemas. It’s packed.”
If this situation doesn’t work out, he’d hate to see the team leave, he said. “My wife and I have been doing this since Day 1. ... We bring our kids and grandchild. It’s just super fun, it’s super reasonable and it’s family oriented. ... We’ve even gone to San Francisco to see a game, so we could see some of the Flying Squirrels who’ve gone up there.”
For him, baseball is a unifying force, bringing people to The Diamond from all walks of life — lunch-pail types, men in Dockers, young folks with tattoos, “all together, having a ball. Why wouldn’t we want that?” And the Squirrels have been good corporate citizens, he said, with mascot Nutzy a constant fixture at elementary schools, shopping centers and community events.
Richmond leaders were so enamored of the revitalizing potential of ballparks during a 2013 visit to Denver, organized by the Greater Richmond Chamber, and a 2014 trip to Durham, N.C., arranged by Venture Richmond. Yet oddly, they see no place for a stadium in a redeveloped North Boulevard. It’s unclear why a ballpark built closer to the aforementioned Bow Tie Cinemas, as part of an entertainment zone in the increasingly vibrant Boulevard-Scott’s Addition neighborhood, would be incompatible with retail elsewhere on the 60 acres of city-owned real estate.
Richmond needs to think hard before showing another minor league franchise the door. With two strikes against us, we won’t get another swing at a team — a curious dilemma for a region with our size, demographic, corporate heft and history of fan support.
As for the Squirrels, the organization’s patience has not been rewarded. In hindsight, the team misplayed the situation when it left its fate to the political whims of the mayor and reluctantly went along with his misbegotten plan to relocate the team in Shockoe Bottom. And its largely suburban fan base should have been more vocal on behalf of a new stadium, particularly since the current one appears doomed.
Lulled into relative complacency by high attendance at The Diamond and the mayor’s promises, the team now finds itself in an existential crisis beyond its control. Whatever your feelings about subsidizing professional sports — and the Squirrels have put their own skin in the game — the franchise deserves better than the fate that appears to lie ahead.
The guy in this romance has made it clear that the girl is not a priority. DiBella and company would be wise to move beyond considering their options to actively pursuing a new nest.