Saints and Pelicans thrive, but baseball strikes out!by J.W. Miller on 06/24/19
You remember Ron Maestri, “the man, the myth, the legend.” Sorry, Maes, but I have the same T-shirt you were wearing on Facebook, which must be a requirement for granddads these days. But Maestri, the former AD and baseball coach at the University of New Orleans, president of the New Orleans Zephyrs and a Jefferson Parish councilman, wasn’t trying to be funny when he issued a recent lament on the state of professional baseball in New Orleans.
The Pelicans are on a Zion high and the Saints are less than a month from beginning another Super Bowl run, but the local Triple-A baseball team, the horrendously named Baby Cakes, is rounding third and heading for home. Make that heading for Wichita, where the franchise is moving next season. And that’s a shame, which prompted Maestri to comment June 16 on Facebook: “So many comments today about friends who are out of town, watching their kids or grandkids play baseball,” Maestri wrote. “Why are we letting the Baby Cakes leave town without any attempt to keep them here? Why hasn’t the State LSED board fixed up Zephyr stadium to AAA standards? Why have we not gotten a response from Jefferson Parish leadership? What is the plan for the stadium when the Cakes leave. Does anyone have plans to get another team here? Can’t everyone for one time, pull together and keep baseball in our community.”
Maestri punctuated his statement with emogis of two hearts and four baseballs, signifying his lifelong love of the game. The main reason the Baby Cakes are leaving town is the condition of the state-owned Shrine on Airline, its home ballpark on Airline Highway. The seats are the original seats installed in 1997. The suites are barely bigger and less decorated than industrial broom closets. The locker rooms have standing water and insufficient outlets for the modern players' electronic doo-dads and gee-gaws. No significant improvements have been made to the facility since a new playing surface was installed in 2008.
Maestri suggested in a subsequent post that the Commissioner of Minor League Baseball wrote a letter to the State, indicating that no one will play baseball at the Shrine until the facilities meet AAA standards. The facilities, along with the team's announced departure, have helped deflate game attendance to 2,800 despite a 42-34 record that is tied for fourth-best in the 16-team Pacific Coast League. Meanwhile, Wichita is building a new stadium in the $70 million range to accommodate its new franchise.
Maestri’s post prompted a rash of suggestions that Saints’ owner Gayle Benson should add baseball to a sports empire that includes the Pelicans and horse racing. That would make sense because Tom Benson initiated discussions back in 1992 to bring the Double-A Charlotte Knights to New Orleans. I accompanied Jim Finks to a meeting with Maestri to secure UNO’s Privateer Park as the team’s home field while a new stadium was being built. Benson’s efforts were thrown out at the plate when local attorney and businessman Rob Couhig worked to secure the Denver Triple-A Zephyrs for the New Orleans market.
In the meantime, Benson had secured rights to the name “Pelicans,” the name of the old Southern League franchise that operated in New Orleans from 1887 to 1959. That prescient move came in handy when he bought the local NBA franchise 20 years later.
After the announcement of the Baby Cakes’ impending move, hopeful parties suggested a return to the Southern League as a logical landing place for a Double-A franchise. The Southern League is in the middle of its own relocation as the Mobile Bay Bears are moving to Huntsville next season to become the Trash Pandas (that’s local slang for a raccoon), but league president Lori Webb said in February that her league was not looking at New Orleans.
So where does that leave New Orleans as a professional baseball town? Nowhere at the moment, and to repeat: that’s a shame. But I see a crack of hope out there. Gayle Benson, in another move to advance her late husband’s legacy, should approach Minor League Baseball (MILB) and the State with this two-pronged plan: Propose to the State to take over the Shrine on Airline, contingent on securing a team, and turn it into an entertainment venue. The precedent here is Benson Towers which the state rolled into a long-term lease for the Superdome and Benson controls the building. Rename the venue “Champions Shrine on Airline” and bring concerts and outdoor events like the state high school tournament and college games to Metairie.
After an agreement with the state is secured, approach MILB to put Benson first in line to purchase an existing franchise, either Triple-A or Double-A, with the intention of moving it to New Orleans. She might even put Pelicans’ boss, David Griffin, on the case with his proven propensity to bring multiple parties together for his team’s ultimate benefit. Make a huge announcement with all parties present and give the baseball team some promotional drip from the Saints and Pelicans.
Sure, this is one man rambling, and maybe Gayle Benson has enough on her plate. But it’s a subject worth investing some out of the box ideas. Other than that, New Orleans will be the only Southern state without professional baseball, and that’s a shame!