When the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues and Major League Baseball got together earlier this summer to hammer out long-range plans for the future, a radical plan for Triple-A realignment next season garnered much of the attention.
What slipped through the cracks in relative obscurity was the signing of a new 10-year Professional Baseball Agreement in June - a pact that truly will hit home for the Augusta GreenJackets and the rest of minor league baseball.
The new PBA between Major League Baseball and the National Association, the governing body of the minor leagues, takes the bulk of the financial burden off the parent clubs, placing it on their affiliates. The agreement takes effect in October, and runs through the 2007 season.
In return for a guarantee of stability regarding affiliation for the 156 existing minor league franchises plus two new Triple-A expansion clubs which begin play in 1998, farm clubs will foot the bill for the NA's Umpire Development Program, as well as equipment costs. Previously, major league clubs were solely responsible for umpire development and most baseball-related expenditures.
During negotiations, umpire development was the major league's greatest concern. With the victory, MLB estimates an annual savings of $5 million under the new contract.
"The industry as a whole faces an uncertain future, especially from a financial standpoint," NA president Mike Moore said. "We must work together to find solutions which will benefit the fans."
This after attendance at minor league ballparks nationwide reached the 17-million mark in July, the biggest fan boom in 45 years.
"When we got around the table and everyone's ideas were presented, the majors quickly realized that the stability and the present setup were to their advantage," Moore told Baseball America.
GreenJackets general manager Chris Scheuer estimates the new PBA will cost the club an additional $60,000 in 1998.
In the South Atlantic League, as well as the six other Class A leagues, clubs can expect to pay around $20,000 for umpire development. Scheuer said he expects to spend an additional $40,000 on equipment - baseballs, uniforms and bats.
In addition, the Jackets will cover 50 percent of the salary to pay an equipment manager. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Augusta's parent club, will pick up the other half of the tab for the new position.
Currently, there are no plans by the GreenJackets to cushion the blow with a hike in ticket prices, though several SAL general managers say they likely will have no choice but to let the PBA's fallout trickle down to fans.
"We're going to have to come up with new ways to generate revenue to make up for the added expenses," Scheuer said. "Next year, we're going to look at ourselves as an entertainment-type business rather than just a baseball club."
Among the plans for Augusta next season is hosting additional non-baseball events, such as concerts and company picnics.
The Jackets this season brought to Lake Olmstead Stadium two concerts - the Beach Blast during the week of the Masters Tournament, and Hot Country Nights in July. They expect to add two more shows next season.
The club hosts picnics for area businesses, offering softball and volleyball games among other activities. Companies can cater the event themselves or pay an additional cost to have the GreenJackets handle everything.
Bringing high school football to The Lake is another idea the Jackets have thrown around, but Scheuer doesn't anticipate that happening in the immediate future.
Greensboro GM John Frye agreed that entertainment is where the business is headed. He also said the Bats will "almost definitely" raise ticket prices next season.
"Everyone is going to have to consider this as a major challenge," Frye said. "Most teams have always tried to do as much as they can with the baseball aspect, and now we've got to get into outside promotions. This isn't just about baseball anymore."
"I personally don't like (the PBA); it's going to cost us a lot of money," Frye added. "Losing stability and affiliation never worried me very much."
For the second straight year, attendance is down again slightly at The Lake, but the Jackets will make money in 1997, Scheuer said, after two years of operating in the red. The club was hit hard by start-up costs to open the new ballpark in 1995.
Augusta set a franchise attendance record in '95, drawing more than 170,000 fans in The Lake's debut season. They drew 157,000 last season - fourth best in the SAL - and are currently sixth out of 14 SAL clubs this season, having drawn 145,000 fans with two regular-season games remaining, including Saturday's night's game.
"The (PBA) is definitely going to make it harder for us financially, but we've been anticipating this for a couple of years now," Scheuer said. "We've been trying to run the ballpark more efficiently, cutting out a bit of the waste here and there. I think we were well prepared for this, and we're going to continue to thrive."
Vs.: Macon Braves
Where: Lake Olmstead Stadium
Game time: 7:05 p.m.
Probable starters: Macon - RHP Jason Marquis (14-9, 4.35); Augusta - TBA
Promotion: Post-game fireworks show.
Upcoming: The GreenJackets open the SAL Southern Division playoffs on Monday vs. the Braves. The best-of-three series begins with Game 1 Monday in Macon. Games 2 and 3, if necessary, will be played at The Lake, Tuesday and Wednesday.
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