Triple-A baseball in New Orleans may be headed for a permanent road trip.
Lured by the prospect of a new, $80 million stadium complex, the Baby Cakes owners are close to agreeing to decamp for Wichita, Kansas, multiple sources familiar with the team's thinking said Wednesday.
The team is expected to make an announcement about its plans Thursday.
The move will likely not take place until after the 2019 or 2020 season.
City officials in Wichita have been working for years to lure a Major League Baseball-affiliated franchise, and they plan to spend perhaps as much as $80 million to build a new stadium, which will likely include an entertainment district with retail and dining, as well as other features, one of the sources said.
That stadium would replace 84-year-old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, which is slated for demolition and until this year was the home of the Wichita Wingnuts of the Independent League.
In many ways, the temptation of a new stadium in a city that has lacked an MLB affiliate for more than a decade was likely too good for the Baby Cakes to pass up. The team plays in the Pacific Coast League — one notch below the majors — which means frequent travel to games out west. That travel makes the team more expensive to operate.
At home, the Baby Cakes finished 21st out of 30 teams in Triple-A in terms of 2017 attendance, according to Ballpark Digest.
The team's longtime home on Airline Drive, often referred to as the Shrine on Airline, was built in 1997. Louisiana paid $21 million to build the ballpark as part of a capital-projects bill that also included the New Orleans Saints' state-of-the-art practice facility, located next door, as well as the New Orleans Arena, now the Smoothie King Center.
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The baseball team's ownership at the time also paid an extra $5 million for amenities, including VIP luxury suites, a swimming pool and two hot tubs in right field.
Owned by the Louisiana Stadium & Exposition District, which primarily oversees the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the state, the 10,000-seat stadium is among the oldest in minor league baseball. It would likely require several million dollars of renovations before it would be chosen to house a possible successor franchise, potentially a team in the Double-A Southern League.
Multiple sources said a group of investors interested in purchasing a Double-A team for New Orleans would likely involve Baby Cakes' owner and president Lou Schwechheimer, a longtime Triple-A baseball owner and executive.
Any deal involving the group would probably hinge on the state making renovations to the current facility, with the possibility that the ownership group would chip in as well, one of the sources said. Early talks have already started to find a way to make it happen, perhaps before the Baby Cakes' lease expires in 2021.
The sources requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Although team executives were noncommittal Wednesday about the franchise's fate in New Orleans after the 2019 season, it's possible that the Baby Cakes could stay for another year beyond that while the new stadium is built in Wichita.
Jefferson Parish officials said they were notified of the team's plans Tuesday.
"We are upset when anybody wants to leave Jefferson Parish," Parish President Mike Yenni said. Nevertheless, he said, he plans to work hard to make sure the stadium continues to be used for events and doesn't go dark.
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"I believe we will be able to find other uses such as high school baseball, college football, concerts," Yenni said. The venue has hosted those types of events in the past.
It is unclear at this point whether the Baby Cakes would take the current logo and colors with them to Kansas or leave them behind for another team, though one source said the hope is for the brand to remain in New Orleans.
New Orleans’ Triple-A franchise arrived from Denver in 1993. Then known as the Zephyrs, they played their home games at Privateer Park on the UNO campus until moving to the stadium on Airline Drive in Metairie in 1997, serving at various times over the years as an affiliate and talent farm of MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, New York Mets and Miami Marlins.
The club’s greatest success on the diamond came in 1998, when it won the Pacific Coast League championship and then the Triple-A World Series title over Buffalo behind future Astros star Lance Berkman's big bat.
Three years later, the Zephyrs captured another PCL title, but the World Series was canceled because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, so they ended up being named co-champions with Tacoma.
While providing prospects to their parent teams is important for Triple-A clubs, the Baby Cakes have had poor performance on the field, registering losing seasons for 10 of the past 11 years, no matter which big-league team they were affiliated with.
Low attendance has also been a consistent problem, with the team regularly playing in front of mostly empty seats.
The rebranding in 2017 from the Zephyrs to the Baby Cakes — a reference to the king cakes that are ubiquitous in the area during Carnival — was ridiculed in some quarters of the internet, but it resulted in a significant bump in merchandise sales.
Schwechheimer told The Advocate last year that the Zephyrs had been in the bottom three in Triple-A merchandise sales for a decade before the name change. The Baby Cakes then finished in the top 20 in sales of nearly 200 minor league teams in the country during their debut season.
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During a brief interview Wednesday, Baby Cakes General Manager Augusto "Cookie" Rojas said the organization was encouraged by both the support it received from the local community as well as the results it posted on the diamond for the 2018 campaign that concluded Monday.
The Baby Cakes finished the season with a record of 69-70, the closest the club had come to finishing with a .500 record in six years. Rojas said the club had also sent several players to the Major Leagues.
“All we’re doing (is) looking forward to 2019,” Rojas said.
Advocate writer Darrell Williams contributed to this report.