I grew up in Richmond in the '70s and '80s. And I still have fond memories of watching the Richmond Braves (AAA) at the old Parker Field. I remember the excitement of The Diamond opening up in the middle '80s, and seeing the players graduate to the parent club. When I went to college, I took my fandom of the Atlanta Braves to Penn State. Those '90s Atlanta teams were great, providing me ammunition when sparring with my new friends, who were usually fans of the Phillies or Pirates.
But after 40 years of affiliation with Richmond, the parent club moved the R-Braves to suburban Atlanta. Now, to be fair, the City of Richmond could not coordinate efforts to build the R-Braves a new park, and Atlanta got tired of waiting. As much as I hated it, I begrudgingly understood Atlanta's relocation from Richmond to Gwinnett, GA.
A little more than a year ago, Atlanta entered an agreement with the Lynchburg Hillcats, our local Carolina League (A) team. I was fortunate enough to take my son with his Cub Scout Pack into the Hillcats' clubhouse last season, and it was obvious Atlanta had put down their stamp, with Braves' logos and paraphernalia very prominent in the facility.
A billboard proclaiming, "This is Braves Country" has been erected along the highly traveled Lynchburg Expressway. The tomahawk chop sounds are played at Lynchburg Hillcats' games. I have to wonder if there was pressure on the Lynchburg club to change its name to the Lynchburg Braves.
So it came as a shock to see that one year after the affiliation agreement with Lynchburg, the Atlanta Braves are brazenly working on plans to move the Hillcats to Wilmington, NC. It is an open secret, but it is very likely that the Lynchburg Hillcats will be gone at the end of the 2013 season. At last check, part of the agreement to move the club to Wilmington requires Atlanta to find a replacement club for Lynchburg.
Swell. We may get an Appalachian League team, which is an advanced Rookie League. That would mean no baseball until June each season.
Worse, that billboard still sits on the Lynchburg Expressway, reminiscent of a carpetbagger, "This is Braves Country."
Don't market to my Southern Pride to convince me to follow a team about to yank two minor league franchises out of my home state in five years.
Look, I get it. The Atlanta Braves don't need Virginia. They have the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. That's fine. Plenty of market share.
I'd tell them what they can do with that Tomahawk. But my kids might read this.
As fate would have it, the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, DC in 2005, becoming the Washington Nationals. Washington is a shorter drive than Atlanta, and they have opened a tremendous facility. They have an energetic general manager in Mike Rizzo and a University of Virginia alumnus at third base named Ryan Zimmerman. They have been working hard the past 5 years to build a club from the draft. Knowing there are already galvanized fan bases to the north in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, they have reached south.
And to their credit, they got my attention. In 2009, I chose to take my fandom to the Nationals. The likely relocation of the Hillcats has solidified that decision. So while I acknowledge it is early in the season, it is gratifying to see the Nationals in first place in the National League East.
Maybe you think I'm a fair weather fan. But 21st Century Major League Baseball is a business. I am but one small baseball fan, and my money does not count for much. But it is my money, and I will choose what tickets to buy, what sponsors to support, and what merchandise to wear.
I have my kids hooked on the Nationals. My 8-year old has a Pillow Pet of their mascot, Screech The Eagle. My teenage daughter has a ladies jersey. The fan base will grow. This will be the third consecutive year we get to Nationals Park.
My divorce from the Braves is complete.