A December ruling from a Tulare County judge has neither the city of Visalia nor the California League’s Rawhide baseball team any closer to figuring out who has to pick up the $7 million tab to upgrade the historic Valley Strong Ballpark.
And, with an April 1 deadline looming from Major League Baseball to get the ballpark into compliance, the team could move out of Visalia.
The Visalia Rawhide will play the 2024 season as scheduled, according to a Jan. 3 post from the team. But to remain an affiliated team, MLB-mandated changes need to be made to the stadium built in 1946.
The Rawhide have turned down offers to continue mediation, according to Sam Sigal, president and co-owner of the team.
“We have always been open to direct negotiations with city leaders,” Sigal said to GV Wire, “but are no longer interested in mediation, which is conducted through a third party. Mediation is expensive and has failed on every occasion.”
The team says the city has an unlimited obligation to cover the cost of the stadium. The city says its obligation is limited to the yearly contribution outlined in the lease.
But Tulare County Judge David Mathias said the lease, signed in 2020, did not have language clear enough to hold either party responsible for the upgrades required by MLB in 2021.
“We are committed to keeping the Rawhide in Visalia, but can’t do that without a willing civic partner, Sigal said in the post.
“When we were told that the City was fine losing baseball, we didn’t believe that lined up considering the Rawhide’s positive impact to our local economy and decades of community support. But without support from City leadership, the future of professional baseball in Visalia is at stake.”
18 Months of Negotiations Fail; End in Lawsuits
In late 2019, First Pitch Entertainment purchased the Rawhide, signing a new agreement with the city. In April 2021, MLB took over Minor League Baseball, bringing in sweeping changes.
Part of those changes included new standards for stadiums.
First Pitch ownership signed the new Professional Development License Agreement in 2021, agreeing that the stadium would meet standards — a contract the city says it was never a part of.
At the very least, the former Recreation Park would need a new outfield wall, an upgraded clubhouse, and better lighting.
The city in 2016 spent $570,000 on new lighting required by MLB standards at that time, according to city documents.
Original estimates for the new upgrades came in at $10 million. When the city and First Pitch got together in March 2022, they determined the costs would be between $5.7 million and $7.1 million, according to a summary of facts from the city following the judge’s ruling.
Visalia’s general fund is $87 million for the 2023-24 fiscal year. The total budget for Visalia this year is $271 million.
The team and the city met 11 times from March to May 2022.
By July 2022, the city offered to advance $3.6 million of its normal annual contribution, take on a few projects of its own, and then loan the team the remainder of the money.
Visalia Mayor Brian Poochigian, who was part of the negotiations, told GV Wire that the team turned down the deal, saying it was the city’s obligation to pay for all the upgrades.
“This dispute has never been about whether the City supports baseball in Visalia,” Poochigian said in the summary. “The issue here was simply whether Major League Baseball could demand an open checkbook requiring the taxpayers of Visalia to pay whatever amount of money to do whatever MLB wants done to the City’s ballpark.”
Lease Terms Don’t Account for MLB’s Mandated Upgrades: Judge Mathias
After negotiations ended without an agreement, the city sued First Pitch to determine who should pay for the upgrades.
But in his ruling, Mathias said the lease terms were not “clear and explicit” enough, especially considering major changes brought about by the MLB.
“The negotiating parties, to include the City, First Pitch and (Top of the Third), did not seem to anticipate a change in the governing body of Minor League Baseball or the resulting required stadium improvements,” Mathias said in his ruling.
The first sentence of the lease stipulates that the city “shall provide a facility … that complies with all aspects of Major League Rule 58.” Rule 58 is the rule outlining standards for baseball stadiums.
But following that, another clause says that any “additional renovations” are limited to the city’s annual contribution of $200,000.
City Has Dedicated $15 Million in Upgrades Since 2003
Valley Strong Ballpark is one of the oldest ballparks in minor league baseball. It was constructed ahead of the 1946 season for the city’s new minor-league team and the rebirth of the California league after the end of World War II.
To operate at the park, the city only charges the Rawhide $1 a year to use the ballpark. Additionally, the city pays $300,000 annually for maintenance, improvements, and operational costs, providing $3 million over the life of the 10-year contract.
Going back to 2003, the city has paid $15 million to upgrade the stadium. In 2008, the city paid $1.55 million to remodel the clubhouse. In 2010, the city spent $11.4 million on right field and to improve the grandstands.
“In the city of Visalia, we like our baseball heritage,” Poochigian said. “They’ve been here for 75-plus years. We put a lot of money into the stadium and we want to do everything we can to make sure the team stays in Visalia.”