The Lehigh Valley had a long struggle to land a minor league baseball team that was affiliated with the major leagues. For 48 years, the area was without affiliated minor league baseball until 2008 when the Lehigh Valley IronPigs took to the field for their first official game as an affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. Now, the sport is again in jeopardy as Major League Baseball moves toward an April 2023 deadline for teams to bring their ballparks up to newly implemented standards set by MLB and the IronPigs are one of the teams who are on the clock to make upgrades.
MLB has set a point scale for teams to meet where they get a point for every area where their ballpark does not meet the new standards. Basically, if they are over the point threshold, they could be dropped as a minor league affiliate. For the IronPigs, much of what the fans see is in line with what MLB is looking for in their facilities and the nearly completed center field entrance will pretty much be all that fans may see as far as changes mandated by MLB.
It’s behind the scenes where Lehigh Valley comes up short. Kurt Landes, the President and General Manager of the IronPigs has a laundry list of items to be upgraded under the new standards. “Our clubhouses need to be expanded in terms of square footage and we don’t have enough lockers. Also, there is not enough space for coaches and there are no female locker rooms and with females working as umpires, coaches, video coordinators and athletic trainers, that’s important. The visiting clubhouse is very small by today’s standards and the same for their coaches,” said Landes. “Plus, there are upgrades to the medical offices, athletic training, weight room and kitchen area.”
All of this has to be completed – not funded or started, but completed – by next April, which means that the deadline is actually much sooner than that to get started.
“We really need to have a shovel in the ground in the next 30 to 40 days in order to have the improvements done by the date that Major League Baseball has demanded,” said Landes, who noted that the team has put things in action with architecture and engineering.
So, what’s the cost? Initially, the bill was around $6-million but with inflation and spiraling costs of labor, the price tag is now in the area of $9.5-million. So far, there are commitments of $2.5-million from the state, $1.5-million from Lehigh County, the actual owners of the ballpark, and $200-thousand from Northampton County plus, the IronPigs have also committed $1.5-million to the project. One big piece of the puzzle would be a pledge from the City of Allentown, who have been asked to put $1.5-million into the funding plan. Even with a contribution from Allentown, the funding is approximately $2-million short of what is needed.
It is worth noting that over the years, upgrades have been made to Coca-Cola Park, with the IronPigs funding many of them. These new upgrades are mandated changes just to keep the franchise license from being revoked and not a list of requests from the team.
“None of this is going to be for anything that helps the IronPigs generate revenue. It’s all going just to allow us to maintain our franchise license,” pointed out Landes.
Fans may wonder about money from the Phillies, who have enjoyed having their Triple-A franchise close to Philadelphia. The fact is that the agreement between the Phillies and IronPigs puts ballpark issues squarely on the shoulders of the IronPigs. In other words, there are no requirements from the Phillies to contribute to upgrades.
All of this comes against the backdrop of a canceled 2020 minor league season and a 2021 season that saw limits on the number of fans allowed into the park and even when limits were eased and eventually dropped, the Delta variant of COVID kept many fans away from public gatherings. In other words, 2022 is the first season that will see revenues anywhere close to what teams had come to expect prior to the pandemic and attendance is still generally down slightly.
Prior to the 2021 season, Major League Baseball was going into their first season running their own minor leagues and contracted over 40 minor league teams all across the country. Many of the cuts were made based on the facilities where the teams played their games. Some of those areas have quietly been doing upgrades to their facilities, hoping to attract a minor league team at some point down the road.
“This is beautiful,” said Landes pointing out to a packed crowd for a game against the Norfolk Tides. “It’s a great park and we work hard to make it that way. Major League Baseball cares about behind the scenes and the stuff that fans don’t see. What fans don’t see are the clubhouses and the need for what is happening there with all of the changes that baseball development has undergone over the last 15 years and quite honestly, it’s frustrating for us.”
When Coca-Cola Park was built, women did not play a very large role in baseball. Since then, teams have begun hiring female coaches, athletic trainers and other staff members who all work out of the clubhouse. Coaching staffs and team rosters have also grown in numbers and the IronPigs had to bring in temporary lockers to put in the middle of the clubhouse for the additional players. Those additional players also need access to training facilities, medical treatment areas and other amenities necessary for players.
The IronPigs have had to do their best to accommodate the extra players and female staff with what they have to work with. The visiting clubhouse has always been small for teams so the added personnel has made the conditions even worse. It is not unusual to see visiting players stretching and exercising in the hallway outside of the clubhouse in an area where fans going to the field level suites are walking through.
In Reading, the Fightin’ Phils were also told that they needed to do major renovations and they were able to secure over $16-million to not only do the mandated upgrades but other projects at their 70-year old stadium, which has been home to Phillies minor league teams since 1967. In that case, the state chipped in $7.5-million while Berks County, Reading – the owner of the stadium – and the Fightin’ Phils franchise, all chipped in $3-million for the project. Many of the changes in Reading will be of the behind the scenes variety, although new dugouts and bullpens are also on the agenda.