Officials for the Southwest League of Professional Baseball insist that professional baseball is still coming to the Waco area, but they’ve essentially stepped out of the batter’s box to call a timeout.
The first baseball season has been pushed back a year, to 2019, said league president Mark Schuster.
“All along, we’ve wanted to do this right,” Schuster said. “The main reason we’ve decided to postpone the baseball aspect of this is that we don’t want to rush things and not have stadiums finished by April of 2018.”
As of this week, only two franchises in the SWL have been announced – the Waco BlueCats, which plan to play in an area off Loop 340 in Bellmead, and the Royse City Griffins. Schuster said that the league intends to open with at least six teams and possibly as many as eight, but he added that the process of forming partnerships with other Texas cities hasn’t progressed as quickly as he’d hoped.
“By pushing to 2019, we can assure ourselves a six-team league,” Schuster said. “We know who those cities are — we’ve known for three months. But they’re all in wide, varying stages of development, and we didn’t want to force things and end up disappointed.”
Despite lingering skepticism that the project may not take off, many in Bellmead still remain excited, City Manager Bo Thomas said.
“It’s like a lot of other things, same difference with the city of Hewitt when they were working with Walmart Supercenter. Once that announcement was made everyone was all, ‘Where is it?’ ” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of that. Then there’s a lot of, ‘I bet it doesn’t happen’ or whatever. But really and truly, it’s going through the process it has to go through to get to the end.”
Schuster did not reveal the names of the other cities in the proposed all-Texas league, which will be comprised of independent teams not affiliated with Major League Baseball organizations. But he pointed at specific geographic areas, saying, “One is in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, another is in East Texas, another in West Texas, and we have a suburb of Houston.”
Tom Hill, who was hired as the Waco BlueCats president in January after being dismissed from his athletic department position at Baylor University last year, said he is fully on board with the decision to delay the start of baseball in Bellmead.
“To be honest, (Schuster) is the boss, but I would have recommended doing this, too,” Hill said. “It’s the right thing to do. … Starting a league is a huge undertaking, and this has a historic nature to it. We always want to be able to look people straight in the eye and be up front and honest. And this is absolutely the right decision.”
Construction hasn’t begun in either Bellmead or Royse City. Royse City and Royse City Independent School District entered into an agreement with Ventura Sports Group to establish a professional independent baseball team and a 4,000-plus seat, $12 million baseball and multi-purpose stadium, according to the district’s site.
The SWL wants to build a $12 million multipurpose stadium with a seating capacity of 4,000 in Bellmead, that would be partially funded by the city.
City leaders finalized financial plans for the project.
“It’s pretty ambitious when you think about it,” he said. “Doing this alone in Bellmead is one thing but to do this times four, five or six, is pretty ambitious.”
The city’s cost of the professional baseball complex will run about $4 million. The city has about $4 million in its economic development reserves, but instead of draining that fund, leaders have opted to borrow $2 million for that, Thomas said.
Construction on the stadium won’t begin until the legal work is finalized, and, the remaining teams are finalized to form the league, he said.
“We can’t afford to get too far ahead but we can’t afford to get behind either if that makes sense,” he said.
But without the other teams finalized, the idea of breaking ground didn’t make sense, Schuster said.
“It’s important that we have the remaining members in the league complete before we ask our current city partners to invest in a public-private partnership,” Schuster said.
Schuster said that anyone who has bought season tickets for the BlueCats would maintain their seats for the 2019 season. The BlueCats have reservations for roughly 600 season tickets, Schuster said.
Schuster has been hesitant to set a timetable for construction of the Bellmead ballpark. But he added that despite the delay of baseball season, construction of the stadium could be finished by 2018 and the facility could host other events, like concerts or other athletic events.
“This gives us some breathing room as far as the baseball side of things,” Hill said. “But we’re still moving at Mach speed, because there’s a lot to be accomplished. This is a big job, with a lot to do, and it’s not just in Waco.”