The Phillies are expected to annouce a new affiliation with Allentown to house their Triple-A team, thus ending their affiliation with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after nearly 20 years, the Philadelphia Daily News has reported. A recently-approved stadium in Allentown is scheduled to be completed by 2007.
I’ve said for years that a well-run, affiliated baseball team in the Lehigh Valley would be tremendously successful. The new team will draw patrons in Allentown east to Bethlehem, Easton and Phillipsburg, N.J. It will extend south to Quakertown, Downingtown and Landsdale, and north to Lehighton and Jim Thorpe. To the west, it could pluck a few bodies from Kutztown, Topton and Fleetwood. I know one family with high K-Town political clout that will travel the 20 minutes more than once.
The new Allentown team is a shoe-in for success, but the key isn’t the volume of cities and towns in close proximity, but the rich suburban families that glue these areas together. My sense is the most dollars will flow in from patrons of nearby Parkland and Emmaus School Districts, with sports-crazed children, soccer moms, and most importantly, luxury SUVs.
That’s as much business as I want to get into. What I'm hoping for, as a baseball junky, is the cultivation of a better baseball experience than what's offered at Reading or anywhere else in close proximity. Reading is a model business and a community blessing, but not necessarily an ideal place to take in the baseball game. Because of the limitations of FirstEngery Stadium, an old municipal park, it's hard to follow the action if you aren’t seated in a section behind home plate. The bleachers down the first and third-base lines tend to drift off into oblivion. In a three-hour ballgame, some of the best action is when the staff interns whip t-shirts into the crowd with a giant slingshot. It’s easy to get distracted, but the lure of Double-A will always draw me in. This is my favorite level of the minor leagues.
Allentown is owned by Grace Baseball Company, operated by Reading Phillies owner Craig Stein and Trenton Thunder (AA, Yankees) president and managing partner Joe Finley, who entered into a 29-year lease agreement with Lehigh County back in October. Grace also owns Lakewood, the Phillies Low-A affiliate.
In November, Trenton was named the best minor league organization in the nation, earning the John H. Johnson President’s Trophy which is given annually to the most outstanding franchise in Minor League Baseball that best exemplifies the complete Minor League Baseball organization.
Trenton’s stadium is best described as "retro-new," with a wide-open concourse and seats that hug the action. I suspect the new stadium will be similarly engineered. It will be a tremendous upgrade over Lackawanna County Stadium, its unnatural forest-green astroturf and steep, tumble-to-your-death seating.
With Allentown, Reading and Philadelphia, all in a tight, natural circle, Phillies fans definitely have options for their summer nights. On the field, it's a positive change for a minor league system in need of fresh air.