Play ball? Future of Cats, LaGrave remains in limbo

LaGrave Field

As summer drags on without Fort Worth Cats action, civic leaders and baseball fans are scrambling to bring back minor league baseball to LaGrave Field — or risk losing it for good.

Despite widespread support for the Cats, the outlook to re-open the shuttered ballpark and resurrect the baseball team remains uncertain at best.

Resolving the future of the Cats and LaGrave could take on new urgency with the Aug. 6 announcement of plans for a multi-million dollar public-private development in Cleburne that will include a stadium for minor league baseball and live concerts.

Donnie Nelson, general manager of the Dallas Mavericks and a partner in the development firm of Matthews Southwest, is involved with the planned mixed-use Cleburne Station project at U.S. Highway 67 and Chisholm Trail Parkway.

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“It’s honor to work with Mayor [Scott] Cain and the city of Cleburne to develop a state-of-the art retail development and baseball facility and bring the Railroaders back home after a century-long hiatus,” said a statement from Nelson, who was rumored at one point to be interested in buying the Fort Worth Cats.

The Cleburne announcement came nearly a year after LaGrave Field’s owner, Andrew Schatte of Houston, closed the stadium, leaving the Cats and other renters, including the Fort Worth Vaqueros soccer team, shut out for 2015. The Vaqueros found a home at Texas Wesleyan University’s Martin Field.

The Cats, however, were not so fortunate. As part of the independent United League Baseball, the team was disbanded due to the loss of the lease and the league went defunct in January.

But lifelong Cats supporters such as attorney and former Fort Worth Councilman Jim Lane refuse to give up hope, even as the passage of time dims the chances of the return of Cats baseball in 2016. Without a resolution by the end of the 2015 season, time will run out for resurrecting the franchise and joining a league to be part of next year’s schedule, according to supporters.

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“I’m going to get this done,” said Lane, a member of the Tarrant Regional Water District board of directors. “We haven’t figured this out yet, but I know lots of people and I’m pushing myself to make this happen.”

The Herculean task in the process is finding a new owner for LaGrave Field, which lies in the Trinity River Vision Authority’s $909 million Panther Island re-development corridor.

“We’ve got to find some way to save LaGrave Field or we could lose it and the Cats forever,” Lane said.

Schatte, an investor and developer, doesn’t want to operate a baseball stadium. He is hoping to sell the stadium or swap it for nearby land in the valuable re-development area.

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“We would love to see baseball played here and LaGrave remain as a ballpark but Andrew is a developer and does not want to own and operate a ballpark,” said Mark Presswood of Panther Real Estate Solutions, Schatte’s agent in Fort Worth.

For Lane and other baseball fans, the ideal solution is for the city or the water district to buy LaGrave or participate in a land swap, a move that would put the stadium in public hands and ensure its future.

Most sports stadiums are publically owned or are part of a public-private partnership – just at the Cleburne stadium would be.

But so far, neither the city nor water district officials have shown interest in stepping up the plate to save LaGrave.

“The city has no interest in buying or operating a baseball field,” said Councilman Dennis Shingleton, who is also chairman of the Fort Worth Sports Authority, which provided a financing mechanism for Texas Motor Speedway.

Some have suggested a similar approach for LaGrave. Shingleton said that is not an option because of state legislation that rescinded the leave-back financing method that was used to finance the speedway.

“That is not going to fly,” Shingleton said.

Water district and Trinity River Vision Authority officials have been equally uninterested. The TRVA, which is overseeing the re-development of the uptown Trinity River corridor, has been criticized for wasting taxpayer dollars to benefit private developers.

“The Trinity River Vision Authority still has no interest in purchasing LaGrave Field,” said TRVA Executive Director J.D. Granger.

The water district owns a significant amount of property in the Panther Island area that could be traded for LaGrave. In 2010, the district paid $17.5 million to buy 42 acres surrounding LaGrave that were part of the holdings of Dallas developer Carl Bell, who was losing the property to bankruptcy.

Bell bought 60 acres in 2001 to rebuild the stadium and bring back the Cats, 36 years after the team played its last game in Fort Worth. In 1967, the stadium that had been built in 1926 was demolished.

The Cats history in Fort Worth goes back further than that. The team was founded in 1888 as the Fort Worth Panthers, nicknamed the Cats to fit into newspaper headlines. The team was so good that Major League Baseball teams played exhibition games at LaGrave, bringing legends such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig to Fort Worth. Texas League player Paul LaGrave became the team’s business manager during its 1920s heyday, and when he died in 1929 the team’s owner named the stadium in his honor.

After World War II, the team became a minor league farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who sent former Dodger Bobby Bragan to manage the Cats and bring home more championship wins.

The Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles in 1957 resulted in shakeups for the Cats, which was traded to the Chicago Cubs. The Cats, which had been part of the Texas League, joined the American Association but landed back in the Texas League for the final season.

Bell built the new LaGrave Field on the site of the original stadium and the revived Cats played their first game in the new stadium on May 23, 2002.

Besides the stadium, Bell had an ambitious plan to build a 1.5 million-square-foot, mixed-use development with condos and townhouses surrounding the ballpark.

“The recession had a lot to with it,” said former U.S. Rep. John Bryant of Dallas, who with several partners bought the Cats in 2012. “He got upside down on the financing.”

Bryant said he urged Schatte and the Fort Worth Stadium Group LLC to buy Bell’s 13.3-acre stadium holdings, including the 10 acres of parking, that same year. The new owners made it clear from the beginning that the purchase was an investment and they never intended to operate a ballpark, Bryant said.

“Two years have passed and they have been patient,” Bryant said. “But he couldn’t go on like this forever.”

Baseball fans fear that if a deal isn’t reached soon, owners will tear down the stadium.

Shingleton said some private investors have expressed interest in the stadium to the sports authority. So far it has been “all hat and no cattle,” he said.

Supporters said that a private investment would be welcome but that a purchase by a public agency would be preferable to maintain long-term stability.

Bryant said no team owner can turn a profit without a long-term lease that would justify investment in a state-of-the art scoreboard, better concessions and other amenities for fans.

The stadium has uses beyond hosting baseball and soccer games. Concerts, festivals, swap meets and other special events could provide a steady stream of rental income year-round, supporters say.

While no sales price has been disclosed, $6 million was mentioned as an asking price a year ago, which would include a $1.5 million profit over the amount paid in 2012.

Because of the long, intertwined history of the Cats and LaGrave, it is unlikely that the team would venture to another site in Fort Worth. The team cannot relocate beyond Fort Worth because the sports authority owns the names of both the Cats and LaGrave.

“Fort Worth has always prided itself on its history and traditions,” Lane said. “Fort Worth is about cows, railroads, airplanes and baseball. We can’t let this go again because this time we will never get it back.”