Longtime Friends of Unfair Park will recall: In early 2009, United League Baseball co-founders John Bryant (yes, that John Bryant) and Byron Pierce said that come time for first pitch 2010, they would have a minor-league ballclub on the banks of the Trinity River. Why, they even rendered us a nice conceptual look-see at their proposed ballpark. Which was all we had come December '09. And as close as we'd ever get to seeing minor-league ball come back to Dallas.
But yesterday, the Fort Worth Cats sent word: Bryant and Pierce and others associated with ULB -- which consists of six independent Texas teams, from Amarillo to Laredo -- had come to the struggling team's rescue and were buying the club from Carl Bell. Twelve years ago Pierce told me he and Bryant wanted to resurrect the Cats by the summer of 2001 on the spot of old LaGrave Field. His wish has finally come true.
Now, of course, the question remains: What will become of LaGrave Field, which is scheduled to be sold off at a foreclosure auction January 3. Bell tells Unfair Park via email he's confident the Cats will continue to play there next season and beyond.
"There will be a very good deal made to acquire the ballpark and surrounding land," he wrote when asked about its future. "Ongoing negotiations to that end are very positive, and I believe another announcement about the ballpark and land will be made soon. Obviously, I can't comment on any specifics."
Neither can one of Pierce and Bryant's partners in the Cats: none other than former Texas Rangers President Mike Stone, who will serve as "non-working chairman" of the new partnership, as he puts it. Stone, who ran the Rangers under Eddie Chiles and then the Rusty Rose-George W. Bush ownership group till his resignation at the end of 1990, is currently a professor in SMU's Department of Applied Physiology and Wellness, and says he's been working with Byrant and PIerce on this deal for the last couple of years.
But he says Bell only got serious about selling the Cats two months ago -- around the time the club found itself without a league and the ballpark fell into foreclosure. Says Stone, he wanted in because "the Cats have meant so much to Fort Worth. They're 125 years old, and have contributed much to the culture and the city. It's an organization with a history interwoven with the fabric of Fort Worth, and when John approached me about it, I didn't realize there were very few suitors. But he was serious about it."
Well, I told him, it's easier than building a stadium in Dallas from scratch. "It sure is."
Stone, who not long ago served as commissioner for the historic Northern League, says SMU's allowing him to consult on the Cats; he'll leave the day-to-day operations to Bryant and Pierce. But there's much to reckon with before the start of the 2012 season -- like, say, getting that LaGrave Field deal worked out.
That said, "I really don't care who our landlord is," Stone says. "We have a 20-year lease. We bought the Cats, the property, the right to do business as the Cats, and that's what crucial to us." When it comes to the land, he explains, "It's a complicated process, a complicated transaction. The Tarrant Regional Water District is involved. Carl is involved. Amegy Bank is involved. We're involved. The bottom line is we end up owning the Cats and the right to play ball as the Cats."
Stone had an intriguing run with the Rangers: He upped attendance to record levels, in no small part by hiring manager Bobby Valentine, signing a free agent named Nolan Ryan and overseeing a club that featured such young comers as Ruben Sierra, Bobby Witt, Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez. Ryan even thanked Stone in his Hall of Fame speech:
"When I went to the Texas Rangers as a free agent, I went with the intent to stay one year and finish my career there. And I stayed five. The reason I stayed five is because of the Texas Rangers. I've never enjoyed an organization more than the staff and the ownership there. I appreciate all that they have done for me. I appreciate Eddie Chiles giving Mike Stone, Tom Grieve and Bobby Valentine the ability to sign me in Atlanta that day. And I remember walking off the airplane in Houston coming home from Atlanta and it probably being the lowest day in my career. And I am a believer that you take a negative and turn it into a positive, and as it turned out, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. And so I do appreciate the Rangers staff and the Rangers organization for giving me that opportunity."
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I asked Stone what he learned about running a ballclub back then he could bring to the Cats today.
"With any baseball club your relationship to the fans is absolutely crucial to your success," he says. 'Having solid field management and player talent and producing a wining ball club is also very important. What I learned form my time with the Rangers is if you establish a statement of purpose and a direction you believe in and you're committed to it and get some enthusiasm for it -- and certainly Bobby Valentine was an enthusiastic spokesperson for the Rangers -- that has a lot to do with building fan interest. And if they understand what you're trying to do, they identify with the ballclub regardless of the level of play. We'll do a lot of promotions. We'll have a full-time camp director who conducts camps for youth leagues around the Fort Worth. We'll become a real part of the community. And we'll market it regionally and hope to draw people from Dallas, from Weatherford, Cleburne, Denton."
Well, he and his partners could always try to resurrect the Dallas Eagles ...
"I'd really like to see something like that," he says. "This will be one of five teams in the South division of that league, and I'd like to see more."