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Government Play Ball? LaGrave deal may put Cats on the field

Play Ball? LaGrave deal may put Cats on the field

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Robert Francis
Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

Make a deal and they will come?

The Tarrant Regional Water District board May 14 approved a deal that could bring baseball – to say nothing of hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jacks – back to LaGrave Field.

A nonprofit foundation agreed to pay the Tarrant Regional Water District an upfront, 10-year market-rate lease for the facility that also includes a commitment by the group to spend $3 million on renovations to the minor league baseball field that has sat fallow since 2014.

The Save LaGrave Foundation has agreed to spend at least $1.5 million on capital improvements over the next 18 months – and another $1.5 million in the next year and a half after that – to restore the 4,100-seat stadium.

Save LaGrave also will provide the District with a $1.75 million upfront, 10-year rent payment. Starting in the 11th year, the group will pay $14,500 a month in rent.

Save LaGrave also is required to secure a minor league baseball team that will play at least 45 regular season games in a league similar to the one in which the Fort Worth Cats played in recent years.

“This is great news for baseball fans in Fort Worth as well as the entire Fort Worth community as we bring back baseball, soccer, concerts and numerous community events to historic LaGrave Field,” said Scott Berry, president of Save LaGrave Foundation and Panther Park Enterprises.

“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve run across the last few months that kept asking for the latest news on the Cats and the ballpark. I’ve talked to community leaders, local businesses as well as former season ticket holders who are really pumped up about the future of LaGrave Field and the Cats,” Berry said.

Mark Caffey of Caffey Group said the approval will allow the group to move forward with plans for renovation and to finalize the financial structure “necessary to accomplish our goals.”

“We’ll have a lot more updates in the coming weeks regarding refurbishing the ballpark, the details of our future operations and hiring a staff,” he said.

The TRWD also approved a deal with Panther Acquisition Partners Ltd. to swap 14.2 acres it currently owns under the Trinity River levees for 8.1 acres that included LaGrave Field. Panther Acquisitions will also pay the TRWD $1.3 million as part of the deal.

That area around the stadium could become valuable as the Panther Island project moves forward.

The $1.16 billion project involves digging a 1.5-mile bypass channel on the Trinity River north of the Tarrant County Courthouse. That channel would add flood control protection as well as carve out an 800-acre center island, which would create waterfront economic development opportunities.

A previous owner of the Cats, businessman Carl Bell, had once proposed a development plan in and around the ballpark, but that plan fell through when a downturn hit and Bell and the LaGrave Reconstruction Co. declared bankruptcy in 2012.

The TRWD ended up with the land, but the entity didn’t want to be fielding a baseball team.

“We’re not in the baseball business, all we’re doing is a land swap that protects the stadium and generates revenue for TRWD,” said Tarrant Regional Water District Board member Jim Lane. “It is a win for the community and for those who love the history and the heritage of the Fort Worth Cats.”

Under the 40-year lease, Save LaGrave will pay for all costs associated with the stadium, including maintaining it in first-class condition, insurance, utilities and taxes, according to the TRWD.

“I am very supportive of the efforts being made to bring Fort Worth Cats baseball back to LaGrave Field,” said Carlos Flores, Fort Worth City Councilman District 2 in whose district the field resides. “It presents economic development opportunities that will benefit District 2 and the City of Fort Worth.”

Save LaGrave has also agreed to host at least 75 qualifying events each year at the stadium for other purposes, such as professional or amateur sporting events, civic and promotional activities to maximize the facility’s usage.

In years past, LaGrave has played host to concerts – such as Def Leppard – as well as other civic activities.

This restructured version of the original July 2018 agreement increases the initial capital investment requirement in the stadium.

“I know this group has been working diligently on this project for several years,” said Dennis Shingleton, Fort Worth City Councilman District 7. “It’s very exciting to see a definitive deal come to fruition. The proposed transaction would be good for the Northside and the entire Fort Worth community. It would mark the return of an iconic asset and provide fun, affordable family entertainment for community.”

LaGrave Field was a place to see and be seen as the early Cats teams, an affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, featured the likes of Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, Eddie Chandler, Danny Ozark, Irv Noren, Cal Abrams, Joe Landrum, Bob Milken, Karl Spooner, Don Hoak, Willard Ramsdell and Ed Roebuck.

Even the legendary Jackie Robinson came through Fort Worth to play an exhibition game, as did other stars such as Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Roy Campanella.

One of the biggest draws each season came in the form of exhibition games when the Cats would play major league teams at LaGrave Field.

Hall of Famers from the 1920s through the 1950s like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and more played at LaGrave.

When the Cats returned as an independent minor league team, future major leaguers Max Scherzer, Luke Hochevar, Aaron Crow and Jermaine Van Buren all wore the Cats’ uniform and took the mound while hundreds of thousands of people – a new generation of baseball fans – enjoyed beautiful summer events in the shadow of downtown Fort Worth.

“That view of downtown Fort Worth is one of the best views in baseball – period,” Berry said in an earlier interview. “I’m talking any team, majors or minors, there is not a prettier view.”

The Cats were legendary for their unique promotions like the Bob Schieffer bobblehead doll, and having fans sit on the warning track during Fourth of July games in the 2000s.

During this period the Cats retired the jerseys of some of their legendary players from the ’40s and ’50s including Bobby Bragan, Duke Snider, Sparky Anderson, Maury Wills and Dick Williams.

And they won, too, maintaining their winning legacy with three consecutive league championships from 2005-2007. – Additional reporting by Rick Mauch, FWBP archives

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