The Diamond is in the rough.
It's leaking, cracking, creaking, and if you're in the wrong seat, downright uncomfortable.
The clubhouses and amenities that were considered top-drawer 16 years ago are undersized and needing renovation. Yet minor league baseball here remains a popular public activity, second only to NASCAR. On average, a half million people annually attend games at The Diamond.
Fact is that short of an estimated $20 million renovation The Diamond could fall below the standards of the Atlanta Braves who have rented the field for 35 years. The current contract expires on Dec. 31, 2004.
"And, quite frankly, will $20 million be enough?" rhetorically asks Bruce Baldwin, general manager of the Richmond Braves. "Will that last for five years? Is it just a Band-Aid?"
The Wind Up
In late June, City Councilman G. Manoli Loupassi asked that the city study the region's long-term stadium concerns. Loupassi represents the city on the stadium's operating committee.
"Most people react this way: What's a matter with The Diamond?'" Loupassi says. "The Diamond has served the community well and it's a strong site. Most people don't see the need for something new. So, we need some kind of decision relative to this issue one way, or the other; the idea of a downtown stadium, either acted upon or put to sleep."
Loupassi's request for a study was approved in late June by City Council with a 6-2 vote. Loupassi's position paper highlighted this fact: The Richmond Metropolitan Authority, known to most Richmonders for its toll booths, expressway and parking decks, is also granted the power by the state to construct baseball stadiums.
In 1984, exercising a newly drafted statute, the RMA oversaw The Diamond's construction. The authority leases The Diamond to the Atlanta Braves. Atlanta's AAA International League team, the Richmond Braves, plays at The Diamond and has played in Richmond since 1966.
The Diamond today is the second-oldest stadium in the International League. The Atlanta offices have expressed a desire to expand home and visitors' clubhouses, and add a batting cage and weight room at The Diamond. To this end, The Diamond recently hired HKS Inc., an architectural firm with Richmond offices, to determine the costs of a renovation. Other potential sites have been mentioned for the construction of a new baseball stadium, including an area on the south side of the Manchester Bridge.
While Loupassi's idea to explore stadium options passed, some residents loudly proclaimed their opposition to a downtown stadium. Pressing concerns, such as deteriorating schools, the condition of the city jail and the need for improvements to the police headquarters, all are in competition for City Council's attention and taxpayer dollars.
Beyond these needs, other development issues, such as a central city arts district and continuing improvements along the riverfront, all require large sums of money.
One resident, commenting on the proposed stadium study, snapped, "If you build it, nobody will come!" Another resident exploded with, "Richmond doesn't like sports! We don't support what we got!"
One thing is certain; The Diamond wasn't originally built by the city alone. Half of its $8 million cost was carried by the city, Henrico and Chesterfield counties, while the other half came from corporations and individuals. A similar initiative today, whether modifying The Diamond or building anew, would require a tremendous commitment.
"The bottom line is the bottom line," Loupassi says. "What will it cost? Is it necessary at this time? Will it be good for the city and the region? All these questions must be answered. You can't make a decision without the facts and you get those facts by comparing options."
Richmond's residents, and no less its power brokers, are watching for signs, like those made by a coach in the dugout to the pitcher, of what to do next.
When you call Bruce Baldwin at his office at The Diamond, and get put on hold, it isn't smooth hits of the '80s or even ballpark organ music you hear, but taped commentary of recent Braves games. A bat cracks, the crowd cheers and Baldwin answers.
He has talked about improvements and repairs to The Diamond for several years.
"Say what you will about me, but I do not dream small," Baldwin says.
In 1998, he floated a concept about converting The Diamond into a 40,000-seat arena with a domed, retractable roof. The dramatically remade Diamond of Baldwin's blue-sky idea would host preseason NFL games, a NCAA Final Four, wrestling shows, major concerts, high-school championship games, Special Olympics, even dog shows.
He laughs, "Who knows how much that would cost! But then, like now, I'm asking: What is the next level? Where do we want to go with baseball here?"
These days, Baldwin's wish list is less lofty than a Diamond dome. Among items he'd like to see are more comfortable seats in the first 11 rows of the upper deck, a drainage system for the field, replacement of the sound system, resurfacing floors, expanded team rooms and training equipment.
"What will $20 million get us, if we got it?" he asks. "Are we talking cosmetic or structural?"
The 2004 deadline isn't so distant. Somebody must do something and relatively soon, if Richmond wants to keep its AAA ballclub.
Baldwin states that at no time has the team said it was going to leave. "You know, we've been here since 1966," he says. "We like it here."
But how much does Richmond like baseball?
Swing for the Fences
Some sports supporters suggest that a new stadium along the river could cost $50 million or considerably more.
"Then you say, ‘Well, OK, but which side of the river?" observes Robert Ukrop, president and COO of Ukrop's Super Markets Inc. Ukrop and a group of civic-minded sports enthusiasts saved baseball for Richmond in 1984. Their efforts created The Diamond, in less than a year, for $8 million.
Ukrop today sits on the stadium's operating committee and says, "Back then, we had no options. If we'd not moved to improve the situation, we would've lost baseball. Today, we have a plethora of options: Stay there, make it bigger, or go downtown, or go to South Richmond, and so on. We have options."
But not a great deal of time.
"It always looks like an 11th-hour solution," Baldwin says. "But it's not always. Things take time to plan."
Greenville, S.C., where Atlanta's AA team resides, is poised to build a downtown stadium. The R-Braves could've gone there in 1984.
Richmond has been in this position more than once.
Baseball and the region have been linked since the 1890s, certainly through enjoyment, but also through civic-minded enthusiasts stepping to the plate to save teams and build or repair ballparks.
To understand Richmond's relationship with America's pastime during the past century, you have to start on an island in the middle of the river.
Tate Field stood on Mayo Island from 1921 to 1941, bracketed by the 14th Street Bridge and the Seaboard Air Line Railway trestle, which livened up the game's quieter innings. The Virginia Boat Club landing and pool sat alongside. Through the park's history, fans would view the games from boats in the river with hopes of catching a wild fly. Sometimes, a wayward ball might even splash into the Boat Club's pool.
On April 16, 1926, the park was officially named for a regionally famous professional baseball player, Edward Christopher "Dimples" Tate, active in the game from 1883 to 1890.
The field was used at first by the city's minor league team, The Richmond Colts and numerous professional teams who played exhibition games there. These included the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Braves. Among the famous players who stood on the bags there were Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel. But the Virginia Baseball League collapsed in 1928.
Between 1921 and 1928 the field rumbled with the scrimmages of intrastate and interstate football teams. Football games were played there by teams from the College of William and Mary, the University of Richmond, Virginia Military Institute, Hampden-Sydney and Randolph-Macon. Jim Thorpe ran in an exhibition game there.
The determined and charismatic Edwin H. "Nuts" Mooers, founder of Mooers Motor Car Company and a former Richmond Colts' shortstop, returned baseball to Tate Field. He purchased the debts of the team and rejuvenated the league. Mooers inaugurated night games in 1934.
Tate Field, with its views of downtown and the river, and lodged in the hearts of Richmond sports fans, had its problems. The ancient enemies of Richmond, flood and fire, began to eat it.
"The Richmond Dolphins"
During an October 1927 VMI football game, a grandstand, with a weakened horizontal beam, collapsed. More than 100 people were injured, some seriously. The grandstand, constructed in 1923, was near the river, and during floods, its lower beams were submerged.
Flooding in 1934, 1936, 1937 and 1940 caused Mooers to quip that he should rename his team the Dolphins. If building a flood barrier on that side of the island was ever discussed, the question wasn't ever raised in public record.
Such a proactive and tremendously expensive effort might've saved the field, though in those days spending city revenue on such endeavors wasn't considered proper.
The arch-conservative Richmond government of the time, embodied by the 1924-1940 tenure of Mayor J. Fulmer Bright, was no patron of expensive public projects.
Bright's conservatism ran to caricature: A court order forced him to hire a director of public safety. He even opposed U.S. government assistance programs during the Depression's bleakest hours.
On May 25, 1941, a two-alarm fire severely damaged the Tate Field stands. Mooers kept the games going, but the park's usefulness was waning. Mooers opened in 1942 a new field with his name at Norfolk and Roseneath roads. Nearby were a mud track for automobile races and the city-owned fairgrounds. This site later became Parker Field.
Parker Field, along the Boulevard between Hermitage and Broad, opened in 1950. It was named for obstetrician Dr. William H. Parker, a life-long municipal sports enthusiast and Little League supporter.
The conversion from fairgrounds to ballpark was carried out by the Greater Richmond Civic Recreation Corporation (GRCR), a private group that had leased the old fairgrounds from the city for 20 years.
GRCR sold $360,000 in bonds, as described by newspaper columnist Shelley Rolfe. "The goal was reached amid bursts of civic spirit that people involved with the GRCR said was unprecendented in Richmond."
Richmonders, often apathetic about certain overarching issues, weren't so blasé when it came to their baseball.
Stengel at the Broom
Parker Field was never a thing of beauty, but a makeshift ballpark that became an institution because no alternative existed.
Parker Field had one set of grandstands in 1954, along first base, then rented football bleachers were added. The playing field was rocky, the grass patchy. In 1955, a grandstand from an abandoned Scranton, Pa., park was moved to Richmond for third-base stands. The press box, with its tin roof, became a sauna on some summer evenings. Veteran baseball commentator Frank Soden recalls, "I would go to the clubroom to get three towels to mop myself during the evening and they'd be soaked by the end of the game." The occasional foul ball came streaking through the box's windows, whether open or closed.
The first game was a rainy day exhibition game between the New York Yankees and the Richmond Virginians. Yankees manager Casey Stengel, according to Parker Field lore, swept water off the field so play could start.
So it remained for some 30 years until finally, the stadium's dilapidated condition couldn't be ignored. The Atlanta Braves were so concerned about Parker Field's condition that the team was seriously considering leaving.
In the spring of 1983, Parker Field's lighting was replaced at a cost of $110,000, just to get it up to standards of the day. But a report given to then city manager Manuel Deese in November 1982 stipulated a series of items that needed correcting, or else the park would become full of safety hazards. At the time, nobody knew where money or interest would come from to rescue Parker Field.
Mouth Full of Fillings
In 1983, Chris Snidow, a structural engineer for Torrence, Dreelin, Farthing and Buford, the firm that conducted annual inspections of Parker Field, stated, "In its present condition, [Parker Field] is not unsafe. It is not going to collapse. If we had not thought it safe, we would not have suggested it be repaired so it could stay open another year.
However, Snidow continued, "...I know the city would love to make it better. There just isn't the money. Right now we've got a mouth full of fillings. Soon we will have to have new teeth. You'll get to a point where you just can't patch the patches... Why keep throwing money into a hole. Why not save it for something new?"
Rick Andersen, general manager of the Richmond Braves, was pictured, wearily smiling and splashing water in a dugout flooded by recent rains. He said, "We are very sympathetic to the problems the municipality faces, but at the same time, we're aware Parker Field needs immediate attention."
Then Richard Hollander, a retired CSX railroad lawyer and former U.S. Olympic official; Robert S. Ukrop; Carlton Moffat of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce; and officials of the city, Chesterfield and Henrico counties, among many others, formed a fund-raising league of their own.
In late February 1984, Hollander announced at Parker Field, under a banner proclaiming, "We're Getting Together," that a new stadium would be constructed.
"Right after the last ball has been caught here this season, in 1984," he said, "the wrecking crews will come into Parker Field, will take down these stands and will clear this site.
Immediately after that, we will get to work on a new stadium here, a 12,500-seat stadium which will be expandable and cost $8 million."
The stadium would be composed largely of poured and prefabricated concrete. Half its seats would be under a roof.
"Each [locality] praised the plan and the attitude of cooperation among the often fractious localities," the Times-Dispatch reported of the event.
"This has been a banner week for the city," Mayor Roy West said. "First Byrd Airport and now Parker Field. It is time to forget the past and look to the future."
For the Love of the Game
Parker Field's last game was played Aug. 30, 1984. The R-Braves vanquished the Tidewater Tides 4-2, concluding a season "of no particular distinction," as sportswriter Bill Millsaps described it, for a crowd of 5,962. "Parker Field, which has been dead for several years but didn't know it," Millsaps wrote, "...finally received its athletic last rites."
There were bands, the homecoming of old players and a sense of festivity. At game's end, everybody sang "Auld Lang Syne." Then, eager to take home a piece of history, under the watchful eyes of the police, fans began to tear Parker Field to pieces. They dug up parts of the field and placed the dirt in containers, yanked loose battered wooden seats, ripped down billboards and somebody hauled off the plaque honoring Dr. Parker (which was later found).
Ukrop related how chance a thing The Diamond's construction really was. On that last day of the season, with members of the fund-raising group dressed in tuxedos, the lease between RMA and Atlanta had not been signed.
"It was rough at the start," Ukrop said. "We had no money. We had no credibility. And we were selling something that we hadn't started building."
Ukrop sold the first $250,000 worth of skyboxes to David P. Reynolds, chairman of the board of Reynolds Metals. All Ukrop had was a dream and a few sheets of paper. "I was petrified," he admitted. The fund-raising drive, Ukrop said, was like walking in a minefield.
The Community Gem
But the money came. First, through a then-new law, the Richmond Metropolitan Authority issued $4 million in bonds. The private residents raised $4 million, in part, by selling skyboxes to corporations. The Diamond triumphantly opened April 17, 1985, to a capacity crowd of more than 12,000 people.
It was one of the first and most successful examples of regional cooperation, since the city of Richmond and Chesterfield and Henrico counties all contributed funds to the construction. Garrett Epps, writing in Style Weekly in May 1985, expressed astonishment. He had expected and feared a "simply bland new municipal barn, a shoddy prefab monument to almost-good-enough."
Instead, he was quite surprised.
"I've followed local politics for more than a decade," Epps wrote," and if I had been asked I would have confidently promised that it couldn't be done at all, much less done on time.
"It's a good thing nobody asked me. A group of business and civic leaders ... did the impossible, did it on time and did it beautifully."
The Diamond was then, and remains, an example of what the region can accomplish if it is harnessed in a worthwhile cause.
Of course, Richmond being Richmond, no major project is realized without controversy. An African-American Richmond contractor sued the RMA, claiming he was discriminated against in the awarding of the demolition contract. The federal court ruled against him.
Concessions weren't operating until the third home game. The field, the same one created in 1954, flooded in the first Richmond gully-washer, since the plans didn't budget in an irrigation system. The skybox fees for the A.H. Robins Co. ran short in 1986. Robins was then engaged in litigation pertaining to the Dalkon Shield contraceptive.
The RMA's payment on what it owed for The Diamond was consequently delayed. And some players insisted the field's dimensions were larger than what the fence numbers indicated and complained that The Diamond's upper deck created a windy, swirling effect that kept long balls in the park.
"This is definitely the windiest park I've ever been in," said Richmond Braves right fielder Dave Justice in May 1988. If this was the case, it didn't hurt his game much. Justice is now a veteran player with the New York Yankees.
Facets of the Diamond
By 1990 The Diamond was showing the effects of weather damage, primarily due to water leaking into spaces beneath the stadium into team offices, locker rooms and throughout the structure.
The support pylons for the upper grandstand were showing deterioration in the grouting that connects them to concrete pedestals. This wasn't a structural problem, but repairs were needed and made.
The RMA ultimately sued McDevitt & Street, the North Carolina firm that designed and built The Diamond and the company that monitored the construction, for fraud and breach of contract.
The 1997 suit alleged that grouting wasn't added in all of the 32 supports for the cantilevered roof and upper concourse seating. The grout was to complement strength in the structure, the suit alleged.
Richmond Circuit Court Judge T.J. Markow dismissed the suit, stating that a plaintiff cannot collect for fraud unless the fraud is somehow different from the breach of contract. The authority couldn't collect for breach of contract, either, because state law bars awarding of damages five years after a structure's completion.
The Diamond got a new scoreboard and closed-circuit monitors that year, but, by then, it was clear: The Diamond needed some serious polishing.
In 1999, Bruce Baldwin told the Times-Dispatch about The Diamond's condition.
Baldwin said, "Is this place functional? You bet it is. Is it going to fall down tomorrow? Absolutely not. Will it be functional five years from now? Sure. But serious consideration needs to be given to upgrading. We need to move into the future."
River or Boulevard — or Neither
And so ladies and gentlemen, here we are, bottom of the ninth and bases loaded.
One proposed riverfront site is bound by Tredegar, Byrd, Fifth and Seventh streets. The nine acres are owned by Ethyl Corporation, which uses the property for parking. In the spring, conceptual drawings of what a baseball stadium there might look like were released to the press.
Newspaper columnists and informal polls indicated favorable public opinion. Dreams of seats facing the river, lunchtime exhibition games and spectacular Fourth of July fireworks displays are certainly alluring.
Problem is, nobody knows how much such a project would cost, or what economic benefits might accrue over time.
The pragmatic camp is on record, including Mayor Timothy M. Kaine, saying that the city needs first to spend money on police headquarters and the city jail. John W. Bates III, Richmond Renaissance's chairman and counsel for Richmond Riverfront Corporation, stated in a Times-Dispatch interview that while a downtown baseball field could be a good component, other more commercial uses might be better for the Ethyl site.
Situated beside the Federal Reserve and near Browns Island, and with one of the few parking areas available for activities along the river, perhaps it isn't the best place, but somewhere else, potentially even on the Manchester side might be. And The Diamond wouldn't get razed. Colleges and high schools, or AA teams, could utilize the field.
Robert Ukrop mulls various plans. "I'm going all over the ballpark," he says. A downtown stadium would require nearly constant use to justify itself, day and night, perhaps with an attached fitness club, retail and office space. Parking is a major issue, (there'd likely be none on site) as would be the increase of traffic.
Ukrop explains, "When we start discussing these kinds of major undertakings it's never about this one thing: Move the stadium, or redo the stadium. It's about how it all interconnects. Will a downtown stadium be the best long-term solution, in terms of the impact it'll make on business and visitation? It's like a big jigsaw puzzle."
The Diamond, but Not Solitaire
Perhaps, Ukrop suggests, the often-troubled Coliseum should be torn down. "That way, potentially, the Biotechnology Park could expand," he says. This scenario would replace the Coliseum with a better large event space near The Diamond and the Sportsbackers Stadium and renovate the Arthur Ashe Center. The Greyhound bus station is ultimately leaving North Boulevard for downtown, thus, opening up property for uses that could be related to nearby sports activities.
Mike Berry, general manager of the RMA, says that the home advantage for The Diamond is, first, that it exists, and second, its accessibility.
"People know they can get in and get out," he says. "Its [site] by the interstates was a wise choice when it was placed there. You can get there fairly quickly from almost anywhere around Richmond. People feel safe and secure there. We've consciously tried to cultivate a family atmosphere there, and it I think people are accustomed to coming there."
Berry is also aware of the looming 2004 deadline. He thinks that the Braves are too important part of Richmond's quality of life to lose. "Nobody is talking about not undertaking some kind of renovation, or replacement, but part of it is timing, part of it is funding."
HKS Inc. is studying alternatives. HKS designed Miller Stadium in Milwaukee and is working on renovations for Comiskey Park in Chicago. Along with ideas for a renovated Diamond, HKS is also examining downtown locations and another site, just south of the Manchester Bridge.
"Right now I can't tell you what the economics of the renovation would be," Berry says. "It probably wouldn't be all that bad, with renewal of rental agreements for skyboxes, that would generate a fair amount of money that could offset some of the debt."
In 1994, The Diamond was self-supporting, and remained so a few years, but needed improvements whittled away that advantage. Skybox rentals, parking and other activities held at the stadium help make The Diamond less of a financial drain on the surrounding localities.
Whatever occurs, Berry emphasizes, as does anyone associated with the process, that the region and private supporters built The Diamond in the first place. It will take the region to remodel it.
And no, tolls do not go toward supporting The Diamond. "Absolutely not," Berry says, with a laugh. "You can underline ‘absolutely.'"
Actually, some people might not mind paying tolls if they knew it was going to The Diamond.
Berry chuckles. "Well, you'd be surprised, a lot of people would mind."
Councilman Loupassi adds, "If we build new, there's site acquisition costs, and quite frankly, that Ethyl property won't be cheap. But, we need to look at the feasibility of these ideas."
If a sports and entertainment focus was brought to North Boulevard and Scotts Addition, the spinoff development, Ukrop speculates and Loupassi agrees, could be impressive.
The question that underscores everything is: What does Richmond really want? Competitive relevancy, while remaining true to itself, or, meeting the city's apparent standard for itself with comfortable dormancy?
Loupassi writes that "the Richmond Braves enjoy widespread regional support and the construction of a larger and enhanced stadium ... would be an excellent vehicle to create and galvanize excitement, energy and pride within the greater Richmond metropolitan area ..."
"There's a bunch of master plans," Ukrop says, "and I'm not in favor of one or the other." He wants what will be best, affordable and durable.
Frank Soden, the beloved sports broadcaster who called hundreds of Braves games, and whose name was given to The Diamond's press box, is well aware of trends in stadium location.
"So many of the other cities have been building downtown, on the water if they can, minor and major league parks, too. Norfolk built right on the Elizabeth River, and its beautiful."
Soden, however, lists the familiar Diamond assets; its location, accessibility, recently improved parking lots and familiarity. Perhaps a downtown location near the canal wouldn't be the best use for Richmond's riverfront or for Braves fans.
"Look, the July 4th celebration changed from one night to two. That's just great. I think until we can prove otherwise, put a certain amount of money into The Diamond and keep what we got for now. Let's not rush into something that we can't get out of. Of course, that's just one man's opinion."
Robert Ukrop says that making decisions with long-lasting impact is difficult for any community, no matter what is at stake.
"Who knows, if in 25 years, 50 years from now, whether you've made the right decision today?
Where do you place your bets? I mean, no matter what, it's a tough call."