The first time is the hardest. When the Fresno Grizzlies lost their Triple-A affiliation with the San Francisco Giants after 17 years, there was a lot of hurt.
Then along came the Houston Astros, who brought new energy and winning baseball during their four-year stay in the Chukchansi Park home dugout. It took some time, but the hurt went away.
Now the Astros are gone as well, and this time the prevailing feeling is more one of confusion. The Washington Nationals? How in the world did that happen?
Pull up a chair, and I’ll try to make sense of things in advance of Wednesday’s introductory press conference and “Meet the Nationals” event.
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The first thing to understand is there weren’t many options. Of the 30 MLB teams, only six didn’t already have existing contracts with Triple-A clubs for 2019 and beyond. But since that number included the Astros (who ended up in Round Rock, Texas, as had been long rumored) and the New York Mets (whose ownership purchased the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League in October 2017), only four were in play for Fresno: Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, Texas Rangers and the Nationals.
The cities vying with Fresno for those teams were Las Vegas, Nashville and San Antonio, which is moving from the Double-A Texas League to the Pacific Coast League in 2019 and replacing Colorado Springs.
Those were the only choices. The Los Angeles Dodgers aren’t coming here for as long as their owners have a stake in the Oklahoma City RedHawks. The Giants aren’t coming back. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have been in Salt Lake City since 2001 and re-upped through 2022. The San Diego Padres have a contract with El Paso through 2020.
Of the MLB teams potentially available to Fresno, Oakland was the clear No. 1 choice and I’m told Grizzlies management had conversations with A’s Executive Vice President Billy Beane. However, those talks didn’t get far because it was evident the A’s had their hearts set on Las Vegas, which is constructing a new $150 million stadium for Triple-A baseball in nearby Summerlin to replace aging Cashman Field.
Once the A’s were off the list, I’m not sure it really mattered which team ended up here. Not like any of them have much of a Central California fan base. Still, it was practically assumed throughout the industry that Fresno would get the Brewers.
That assumption died a quick death Sept. 16 when the Brewers and San Antonio agreed to a Player Development Contract. The announcement caught many by surprise, including the Grizzlies, since San Antonio plays in aging Wolff Municipal Stadium considered outdated by Double-A standards.
Why would Milwaukee want to go there? Because of the hope of a new stadium and a working relationship with the Elmore Sports Group, which owns the new San Antonio club and several other minor-league teams.
That left two MLB clubs (Rangers and Nationals) looking for Triple-A landing spots. Both preferred Nashville, mainly for geographic reasons, and the Sounds opted to go with Texas.
Which is why the Grizzlies and Nationals, who were displaced from Syracuse by the Mets, had no choice but to partner up – despite the 2,700-mile and three-time zone distance between them.
That distance will be much more difficult on the Nationals. When Washington’s team brass wants to call up a player from Triple-A, it’ll be no easy feat. There are no direct flights from Fresno to Washington, D.C. The trip will take at least 6½ hours – and require a 6 a.m. departure – to make it to Nationals Park before first pitch of a night game.
Geography and travel are the biggest reasons why the Grizzlies always seem to be the last domino during the even-year affiliation dance.
MLB clubs like Fresno. They like Chukchansi Park, which has all the necessary baseball amenities and technology upgrades like video cameras that capture things like launch angles and spin rates. They like the Grizzlies front office and new ownership. They like how their players are treated.
What they don’t like is the lack of non-stop flights. The PCL is a brutal travel league as it is. In Fresno, even more so. When the Grizzlies have a night game before leaving on a road trip, the players get home around midnight and have a 4 a.m. bus to Fresno Yosemite International. (Fresno buses to Sacramento, Reno and Las Vegas.) Just getting team equipment and personal baggage on those smaller planes poses its own set of logistical challenges.
Other Triple-A cities don’t have those problems. There are more flights on larger planes heading to more places. You don’t have to depart at the crack of dawn to get someplace in the Midwest or South. You sleep in till 9 or 10.
“Travel in the PCL is grueling,” Grizzlies President Derek Franks said. “(MLB) teams are studying sleep patterns and the effects of sleep more than ever before.”
The Grizzlies and Nationals will put on a brave face for this marriage of inconvenience, and Fresno-area baseball fans shouldn’t be able to tell much of a difference. There will still be Taco Tuesdays, Friday night fireworks and all those inventive promotions. Professional baseball in downtown Fresno remains alive and well.
Just don’t get too attached. More than two-thirds of all MLB clubs have Triple-A contracts that expire in 2020.
In two years, the Grizzlies could find themselves looking for a new partner yet again.
Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee