Politics & Government

New Orleans pro baseball team planning move to Wichita, mayor says

The New Orleans Baby Cakes, a Triple-A baseball team, have filed a relocation application seeking to move to Wichita, Mayor Jeff Longwell announced Thursday.

Triple-A baseball is considered the highest division of minor league ball with player prospects just below Major League Baseball level.

The last time Wichita had a Triple-A team was the Aeros, who played at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium from 1970 to 1984.

Longwell said the commissioner of the Pacific Coast League told him the league was willing to grant Wichita a team not because of what it is now.

He said the commissioner told him, “We’re giving you a team because we believe in Wichita and where it’s going to be tomorrow.” The mayor also unveiled Thursday plans for a new baseball stadium.

Shortly after making the announcement, Longwell donned a cap bearing the logo of the Miami Marlins, the Baby Cakes’ parent team.

Longwell said many in the community had doubted that Wichita could land a team of that level, based on a “misperception that we’re a quiet little Midwestern town.”

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“They believed maybe a lower division league was good enough for Wichita,” Longwell said. “That is simply not the case.”

The city hopes that the new stadium will be built and the team move in by 2020, Longwell said.

The team move must still be approved by a vote of the owners of Pacific Coast League teams, along with the overarching Major League and Minor League baseball organizations, Longwell said.

Appearing with Longwell was Gov. Jeff Colyer, who had diverted time from last-minute campaigning on election day to be in the meetings with team officials that helped seal the deal.

“Having a Triple-A baseball team right here in Wichita adds a lot to the lifestyle and what is going on in this great community,” Colyer said. “As we’re looking out here, we’re seeing a whole renaissance of this area.”

The city has said it plans to tear down the 84-year-old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium downtown and build a new stadium that would accommodate baseball and other activities, possibly soccer.

On Thursday, the city released a conceptual design for a new stadium to accommodate the team. The sketch showed a two-deck stadium with the top deck being luxury suites, and two large glass buildings with patios overlooking left field. The drawing did not show configuration for any other sport.

The new stadium is expected to cost in the $60 million to $73 million range.

Longwell said the team and rebuilt stadium will be “the catalyst we believe will attract so much more along this river corridor.”

The Wichita Wingnuts, an independent baseball franchise, played their final game at Lawrence-Dumont on Monday.

That game drew attendance of 5,500, about 2,000 above the team’s average published attendance of 3,500.

The Baby Cakes claimed average attendance of 5,500 in 2017, but it dipped to about 3,800 — the worst in the league — this year. The team posted a record of 69 wins and 70 losses this year, finishing 10th in the 16-team league.

The team was long known as the Zephyrs, and the 2016 name change was widely mocked by Louisiana baseball fans. It is almost certain to change with a move to Wichita.

The name spins off a Mardi Gras favorite known as “king cake.” By Louisiana tradition, a king cake is baked with a toy baby inside to represent the baby Jesus. The person who receives the baby in a piece of cake is declared “king” for the day.

On Thursday, the Louisiana Sports and Expositions District, a state agency that owns the stadium where the Baby Cakes play, issued a statement lamenting the loss of the team.

“Unfortunately, the relocation of sports teams is not an uncommon occurrence, especially as cities compete for a limited number of professional sports franchises,” the statement said.

The statement went on to quote LSED Chairman Kyle France: “We are sad to know that the Baby Cakes will be relocating another city; however, we remain committed to Minor League Baseball in the New Orleans market and it is our intention to find another team to play here.

“In the meantime, we will continue our strong working relationship with the team ownership and will fulfill all contractual obligations through the end of the lease terms.”

According to the LSED, the Baby Cakes lease at the stadium lasts through the end of the 2021 season.

Wichita’s last affiliated team was the Wranglers, a Double-A farm team of the Kansas City Royals. The Wranglers left Wichita in 2007 and moved to Springdale, Ark., which had just built a new ballpark.

The Baby Cakes now play at a stadium called the Shrine on Airline. It opened in 1997 and has a seating capacity of 11,000. It is considered to be one of the more bare-bones ballparks, compared with newer stadiums.

Financing for the Wichita project is expected to come from setting aside future sales and property taxes on commercial development expected to occur around the new stadium.

Wichita is planning to combine the stadium with significant retail, restaurant and drinking opportunities to create a more comprehensive entertainment experience that officials hope will attract patrons beyond the core baseball fans.

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