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Running through Squirrels' uncertainty could be path to partner with Nationals

Running through Squirrels' uncertainty could be path to partner with Nationals

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The Diamond, which opened in 1985, lacks space for improvements that Major League Baseball wants for its affiliates.

Prepare for anything, Richmond Flying Squirrels fans, with a best-case scenario of becoming the Washington Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate next season.

The Richmond franchise faces an unknown future in terms of affiliation and competition level. Uncertainty mounted with a weekend development in the Double-A Eastern League, to which the Flying Squirrels have belonged since launching in 2010.

The New York Yankees announced Saturday they’re shifting their Double-A franchise to Somerset, N.J., from Trenton, a Yanks affiliate for 18 years. The Somerset Patriots were members of the independent Atlantic League, whose teams are unaffiliated with Major League Baseball organizations. Trenton has been offered Somerset’s slot in the Atlantic League.

According to the Yankees, the move was made to provide players with improved stadium conditions, a high priority since MLB assumed much greater control of the minors following the late-September expiration of the working agreement that defined the relationship between Minor League Baseball and MLB.

In that department, Richmond is vulnerable. But with the potential of a new ballpark on the horizon, Richmond seems positioned well to link with the Nationals, according to several sources. The Nats’ Triple-A team was in Fresno, Calif., the past two seasons.

The director of communications for the Nationals, Kyle Brostowitz, responded to a Monday inquiry from The Times-Dispatch thusly: “We will not be commenting on this topic.”

Lou DiBella, the Flying Squirrels president and managing general partner, declined comment when contacted Sunday.

As a Nats affiliate, Richmond could return to Triple-A status in a league with Norfolk, Durham and Charlotte. However, the San Francisco Giants, the Squirrels’ parent club since 2010, would like to keep their Double-A team in Richmond, according to Kyle Haines, the Giants’ director of player development.

MLB will ultimately be the matchmaker and league assigner.

The Diamond opened in 1985. Its condition caused the Atlanta Braves to relocate their Triple-A affiliate from Richmond to a new stadium in Gwinnett County, Ga., after the 2008 season. The Flying Squirrels regularly make improvements at The Diamond, but it lacks space for comfortable dressing areas, coaches’ rooms, a lounge, a kitchen, modern strength-and-conditioning areas and indoor batting cages, a video/computer room, and accommodations for female staffers. MLB wants all of that for minor league teams.

The Yankees’ Saturday release states, in part, “We thank the great city of Trenton and the Thunder owners for 18 years of collaboration and we wish them well, but this decision was made strictly on the basis of what we believe to be the best facility to develop our young players.”

Trenton’s Arm & Hammer Park opened in 1994.

VCU took the lead in planning a new ballpark that would be shared with the Flying Squirrels on Hermitage Road near The Diamond. Much of the area envisioned as home of the VCU Athletics Village, including a ballpark, is occupied by the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Authority warehouse and offices. That complex is relocating to Hanover County in July or August of 2021. VCU Athletics Village construction would begin thereafter, presumably.

No timeline, or financing plan, has been provided by VCU or the Flying Squirrels.

Trenton’s co-owner, Joe Plumeri, said in a Saturday statement, “Despite repeated assurances that the Thunder would remain [New York’s] Double-A affiliate over the last 16 months, the Yankees betrayed their partnership at the 11th hour.” He added, “The Yankees’ actions are nothing short of despicable.”

Plumeri is a William & Mary graduate (Class of 1966) whose philanthropy allowed the school to build its baseball facility, Plumeri Park, in 1999.

joconnor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6233

@RTDjohnoconnor

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