Potomac Nationals Nearing Ballpark Deal (Again); New York Mets Plan Renovations in Syracuse

Art Silber has had plenty of chances — and reasons — to give up on his dream of a new ballpark for the Potomac Nationals. For more than two decades, Silber has rolled out replacement plans for Pfitzner Stadium, the P-Nats’ ballpark in Northern Virginia that has been considered out-of-date for just as long, only to see each project collapse.

Silber said he will soon announce a new proposal for a ballpark, a little over a year after his latest — and most promising — bid fell through. Silber said he has been in talks with several Northern Virginia communities interested in hosting his Carolina League franchise. He plans to announce his new project in the next 60 to 90 days.

Silber wouldn’t reveal the locations he’s considering, however last summer he called Fredericksburg, Va., a “very viable” market, according to the Free Lance-Star. Fredericksburg has previously flirted with other minor league teams, including as a landing spot for the Hagerstown Suns in 2014.

Potomac Nationals ballpark rendering
Potomac Nationals owner Art Silber had high hopes for a proposed new ballpark along I-95 until political pressure doomed it last July.

Silber, a Brooklyn native and lifelong Jackie Robinson fan who used to wear No. 42 while coaching first base for the P-Nats, remains optimistic about building a new ballpark — even if history has given him reasons to not be. “I’m 77 now. I believe that we will celebrate my 80th birthday in a new ballpark.”

That optimism is a reversal from his public comments last summer, when his plans for a new ballpark along Interstate-95 were on thin ice. Silber said then that he might be forced to sell the team, which would relocate elsewhere, if Prince William County did not agree to help with the project.

I have no interest in owning a ballclub in North Carolina or something,” Silber told The Washington Post last year.

That frustration came at the end of a contentious negotiation and after more than two decades of failures to build a new ballpark. Silber could have waived the white flag in 1996 when he first tried to strike a deal only to have Prince William County officials reject his plan for a stadium, convention center and housing. In 2002, his proposal to fund and build a ballpark, office tower and condominium complex on top of a local metro station met a similar fate when it was shot down by Fairfax County officials. His most recent and promising lead to build a ballpark just off I-95 was narrowly voted down by Prince William County officials last July.

Potomac Nationals Owner Art Silber
Art Silber

Silber was particularly high on that last project, which he lauded as a state-of-the-art ballpark in prime real estate beside a new Wegmans supermarket. He sought upfront help from the county to fund the $35 million ballpark but agreed to reimburse the county the entire cost over the course of a 30-year lease. The project attracted the attention and ire of a conservative advocacy group funded by David and Charles Koch, which labeled the ballpark “corporate welfare for a private baseball team.”

“We didn’t want the county to be involved with anything,” Silber said. “Every single time we never asked for help in funding the project.”

Mets Plan Upgrades in Syracuse

The Mets joined the growing list of major league teams buying minor league franchises last winter when they purchased Triple-A Syracuse, guaranteeing their top affiliate will be leaving Las Vegas (Pacific Coast) after six seasons and returning to their old International League stomping grounds in 2019. In the meantime, New York is left in the unusual (but not unheard of) situation of hosting another team’s affiliate — in this case, its NL East-rival Nationals — until their player-development contract expires after the season.

While the Mets’ role as hosts to the Nats made headlines upstate, the bigger news is their plan for the future: a much-needed upgrade to NBT Bank Stadium. The Mets will invest in renovating the 22-year-old ballpark, International League President Randy Mobley said. Details of the project have yet to be ironed out, but Mobley said the Mets “will be undertaking significant stadium renovations, additions and improvements in time . . . It is still in the design stages, but a wish list has been formed.”

Few fans attend a Syracuse Chiefs game at NBT Bank Stadium.
The Mets are working on plans to update NBT Bank Stadium, where the Syracuse Chiefs have struggled to draw fans in recent years.

Syracuse general manager Jason Smorol referred all questions regarding ballpark improvements and the relationship with the Nationals to Harold Kaufman, New York’s executive director of communications. Kaufman declined to comment when contacted by email.

Syracuse has struggled to regain its footing in the community during several turbulent seasons off the field. It began with the removal of longtime general manager John Simone following the 2013 season amid accusations from the team’s board of trustees that the ballpark experience had grown stale as the team’s debt continued to rise under his leadership. His father, Tex Simone, who had been credited with saving baseball in Syracuse, resigned as president earlier in the season after 50 years with the franchise.

Jason Smorol, a Syracuse native who had been out of baseball for 10 years and had never operated a team above the Class A level, took over as GM in 2014. While he did spice up the promotional calendar and fan experience, growing attendance has been a slow process. Syracuse has finished last or second-to-last in IL attendance each of the past four seasons.

“They have seen those numbers increase a bit from that first year [under Smorol],” Mobley said. “Financially they made some strides, but I think all of that are areas that this change [in ownership] is intended to improve. How quickly some of those areas can be elevated will remain to be seen.”

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