Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Visitors in for a Texas treat

Travelling teams will enjoy games in Lone Star State

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LAREDO, Texas -- There's a big ol' Texas welcome waiting for American Association baseball teams in 2012.

The Winnipeg Goldeyes have opened the season with a Texas tour and are making their second of three stops in this city of 250,000 on the Rio Grande. The Goldeyes will go on to El Paso for a three-game set Thursday through Saturday.

Winnipeg opened the season in Amarillo, where the Sox are in their second AA season and play out of a character-filled stadium built in 1957. The Laredo Lemurs are new to the AA this season and just opened the multi-million, multi-use Uni-Trade Stadium. The Stadium is open for business, but is still under construction in many areas.

The Goldeyes, who swept their three-game set in Amarillo, opened a three-game series here on Monday night.

AA commissioner Miles Wolff took a Texas trip of his own to open the season. He was in Laredo for the stadium's opening and watched last Saturday's Winnipeg-Amarillo game.

"Having the Texas teams join, and last year to have the traditional Northern League teams (join)... it's great to have those teams because they're the ones that really helped start the whole thing (independent baseball)" said Wolff, speaking with the Free Press in Amarillo. Northern League teams Winnipeg, Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, Gary SouthShore RailCats and Kansas City T-Bones linked up with the AA in 2011.

"In terms of Laredo, anytime you can get a $20-million ball park in your league, you want to do it. The geography (a club in South Texas) wasn't great, but we needed strong teams in the South (division) and Laredo is going to be a strong member."

Amarillo GM and director Mark Lee said he's noticed the talent level of players in the AA is better than other leagues Amarillo has played in.

"It's a more prestigious league and is run a lot better," said Lee, who has been the team's GM for nine years and has been through four leagues (Texas-Louisiana, Central and United) and four sets of owners. The Sox joined the AA last season along with the four former NL teams.

On the negative side, the travel is a nightmare cost-wise. "We've got to go to Winnipeg and Gary, Indiana, and those are monster trips," Lee said.

There's been professional baseball in Amarillo for 55 years and Lee believes the game will endure.

"In winter of 2008 when there was bankruptcy filed (by the former owners), I actually worked for five months through the winter when we didn't have a team, a league, and we still sold about $120,000 in advertising and season tickets.

"People kept telling me, 'we've got faith in you.' These fans just believe. I've been with them for so long, they know we're going to get it done."

That faith is well-founded says Wolff.

"We give our member teams stability and structure where some of the leagues have failed over the last 20 years. But the strength of this league is that there are really good owners and good facilities."

-- Goldeyes GM Andrew Collier has joined the Goldeyes in Laredo for this three-game set.

Collier said the Goldeyes travel budget, with the single road trip to Texas, is the same as it was in 2009 with six teams in the Northern League because of the frequent trips to the Chicago area.

"It's not the length of the trips, it's the number of trips that increases your costs," he said

"In previous years we've had 10 road trips. This year we only have eight."

-- There is talk of building a new stadium, since much of the Amarillo National Bank Sox Stadium's structure is grandfathered under city bylaws, meaning it can't be repaired, it can only be replaced.

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2012 C2

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