Warszawski: Fresno Grizzlies’ future shaky amid affiliation, financial issues

The Fresno BeeJuly 12, 2014 

It was all smiles among then-San Francisco Giants managing general partner Bill Neukom, right, and the Fresno Grizzlies' Chris Cummings when the teams announced an extension of their player development deal in August 2010. Another extension is due between now and the start of next year, with multiple reports having the Giants interested in signing on with Sacramento to be their new Triple-A affiliate.

JOHN WALKER — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

Don't know what you've got till it's gone.

Over the decades, those words have been intoned by everyone from Joni Mitchell to Janet Jackson to Cinderella.

Soon enough, Fresno-area baseball fans could be singing the same lament.

I can't say for certain the Giants will end their 16-year affiliation with the Fresno Grizzlies after this season when the player development contract that binds the two franchises expires.

But right now, from my vantage point, it sure looks that way.

Word of the Giants ditching Fresno for Sacramento began circulating in May following a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Since then, several baseball sources have told me the same thing.

Friday, our sister publication, The Modesto Bee, advanced the story by reporting on a potential three-way shuffle: The Giants will move their affiliate to Sacramento, sending the Oakland A's to a new ballpark in Nashville, Tenn., and bringing the Milwaukee Brewers (currently in Nashville) to Fresno.

Yes, you read that right: Chukchansi Park, the new Triple-A home of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Before you wail and gnash any teeth, keep in mind none of this is official -- yet. But it's extremely plausible.

As I wrote two months ago, Major League Baseball has strict rules governing how big league and minor league clubs do business. Expiring PDCs can be renewed at any time, but teams wishing to change affiliations must go through a formal process beginning in mid-September.

The Giants and Grizzlies have renewed multiple times over the years, and only once (in 2008) did that take place before August or September.

"We're just going to stick to our normal timetable and not address every rumor that comes along," Grizzlies Executive Vice President Derek Franks said when reached by phone Saturday morning.

Yet something about this situation feels different.

It isn't widely remembered, but Fresno and the Giants nearly parted ways in 2004. The Giants were turned off by the Grizzlies' constantly changing management (the team had three presidents in three years at one point), and the Grizzlies wanted better communication and marketing opportunities.

The relationship improved in 2005 when the Grizzlies were purchased by a group headed by current President/CEO Chris Cummings.

Since then, however, much has changed.

With self-reported annual losses of more than $1 million in gross revenues($1.3 million in 2013, $1.56 million in 2012 and $1.02 million in 2011) and constantly behind on rent payments to City Hall, the Grizzlies are on shaky financial footing.

Cummings has been seeking new investors since 2012, without success. And a former managing partner, Brian Glover, left the organization last December.

Management shakeups are nothing new to the Grizzlies. In 2010, Cummings fired his entire management team and replaced them with two men who had zero experience in minor league baseball. New CEO Richard Fleming vanished within three months -- without any official word from the team -- and Vice President of Marketing William Rice (a Fresno State professor) soon followed him out the door.

Following that debacle, Cummings named himself president and for a couple of years took on a more visible role.

This season, however, he has been out of the country for extended periods, leaving Franks to oversee day-to-day operations.

Cummings' absence has been felt. In recent months, more than one Grizzlies employee has grumbled aloud about the team's "absentee owner."

I have to wonder how much longer a minor league team with a detached owner can continue to lose $1 million per year and stay afloat.

You can bet the Giants -- and any other MLB teams thinking about relocating their Triple-A affiliate to Fresno -- are wondering the same.

While the Grizzlies' average attendance (6,520) remains in the upper one-third of the Pacific Coast League, it's not enough to overcome other expenses (stadium rent, airfare costs) that are significantly higher here than in other cities. The formula simply hasn't worked.

Even at 13 years old, Chukchansi Park remains one of the top minor league ballparks. So if the Giants leave, as expected, there will be interest from other teams whose Triple-A clubs are in worse stadiums.

But will local baseball fans reciprocate that interest if Fresno becomes home to, say, a Brewers affiliate?

As much as I'd like to think so, there are grave doubts.

Enjoy the Grizzlies now, baseball fans. Because unless something changes, they won't be around for long.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service