“If Scranton had an interest in us, we had an interest. It was our first choice.” — Yankees general manager Brian Cashman
The date: Sept. 21, 2006
The place: Lackawanna County Commissioners meeting room (Scranton)
The situation: For a year, the day was coming. It was, to many at the time, a sad day. It remains so.
The Philadelphia Phillies, the team that had called Lackawanna County Stadium its Triple-A home since 1989, was heading out of town, beckoned by new opportunities, fewer perceived headaches and the lure of a sparkling new stadium being planned in Allentown just 65 miles north of Citizens Bank Park.
So in the summer of 2006, as the lame-duck Phillies farmhands pushed for an International League North Division championship, most of the talk around the ballpark surrounded not one last playoff run for the Red Barons, but who would replace the Phillies in the home clubhouse?
The Baltimore Orioles?
The New York Mets?
The Washington Nationals?
Few knew until the season ended that they’d be in prime position to lure in the biggest prize baseball could offer.
The lead-in: There was never a more uncertain season in franchise history as 2006 began. It had become clear that the Phillies were going to make good on years worth of threats to leave the area. As early as 2003, the Phillies had their eyes on a southward move, flirting at the time with the Harrisburg Senators. The Double-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, Harrisburg had designs on luring the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx franchise to the state capitol, but a plan to refurbish FNB Field to Triple-A performance and capacity standards didn’t make it to the finish line.
But, around the same time, businessmen Joseph Finley and Craig Stein began a push to bring professional baseball to Allentown, and when the Harrisburg hopes fell apart, their hope was to fill that void.
That project, unlike the one in Harrisburg, took off. By the time plans were announced to break ground on a new $50.25 stadium in Allentown, the Phillies’ plans had become abundantly clear, if still unofficial. They would sign a two-year Player Development Contract to play in Ottawa after the 2006 season, then move to Lehigh Valley when the franchise got sold and the stadium completed heading into the 2008 season.
That left the Red Barons looking for a new home, and there weren’t exactly a dearth of suitors. That season, most teams around Triple-A essentially were on the market, with two-year PDCs expiring around the game. Only the Pittsburgh Pirates, who reupped with Indianapolis, was technically off the market that summer among major league affiliates within a reasonable driving range of Moosic. But there was surprisingly little talk about the New York Yankees being in that mix.
For 28 years, the Yankees had called Columbus their Triple-A home, a nod to then-Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s Ohio roots. The Red Barons didn’t exactly believe they wouldn’t be heading for a 29th season.
“Obviously everyone would like to see the Yankees come here because this is a Yankee-rich community in this corner of Northeast Pennsylvania,” then-Red Barons general manager Jeremy Ruby said. “It’s just loaded with Yankee fans, so of course, you’d like to see that happen. Will it happen? Probably not. I’ve said it a million times, the chances of them leaving Columbus are slim and none.”
It seemed unlikely.
Until, it didn’t.
On Sept. 8, officials from Franklin County, Ohio — which owns the Columbus Clippers — confirmed the Yankees informed them they would be “exploring other options.” Which put the prize of the market surprisingly in play, and set off a furious, and sometimes controversial, two-week dance between Northeast Pennsylvania and the most famous baseball team on the planet.
Serving as the point man in negotiations for Lackawanna County, majority commissioner Robert C. Cordaro clearly focused on convincing the Yankees to head to Lackawanna County Stadium. The same day word of the Yankees’ departure from Columbus started to spread, news that Cordaro had sought an appraisal of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise’s value hit print. He insisted it wasn’t a precursor to privatizing the team, which had been owned by Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties since its inception in 1989.
The Lackawanna County Stadium Authority voted 3-1 to give full negotiating power to Cordaro.
“From what the community has told me, the Yankees are a clear first choice,” he said. “When I have an opportunity to speak with their officials, we’re going to try to make Scranton/Wilkes-Barre their first choice. At this stage it’s a lot of speculation and guess work, however.”
On Sept. 18, the New York Mets made a push to get into the discussions, with senior vice president Jeff Wilpon and then-general manager Omar Minaiya among officials who got a full tour of the stadium and its facilities from Cordaro. But the Yankees were in the building the same day, setting up a dinner meeting with Cordaro for the following evening.
By Sept. 20, reports linked the Mets to the lone vacancy remaining in Triple-A baseball, New Orleans. What had once seemed impossible was now evident. The Yankees were coming to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
The only thing left to hear was the announcement.
The moment: That came on the morning of Sept. 21, in a crowded board room in downtown Scranton.
Cordaro and Munchak beamed as they announced a deal had been struck with the Yankees to move their Triple-A operation to Lackawanna County Stadium, touting it both as a win for professional baseball in the area, and a boon for the slumping region’s national reputation.
“This is a great day for Lackawanna County and Northeastern Pennsylvania,” Cordaro said. “We want people to have that New York association when they think of Scranton, Pennsylvania. We want access to that media market on a continuous basis to tell the whole story of what Lackawanna County and Northeastern Pennsylvania have to offer.”
The Yankees signed a two-year PDC to be at Lackawanna County Stadium, but they made it clear their intention was to stay for the long-term.
“I know it’s a big Yankee fan base down there,” New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “I think the facilities are great. Proximity to our Double-A team in Trenton and our big league team in New York is perfect. A lot of things made sense to be there. I’m excited about it. … I think there’s a lot of potential for both parties and I’m glad it worked out. We’re looking forward to doing business there for years to come.”
The deal Cordaro and Munchak announced gave them a strong area foothold.
It included a promise to install a natural grass playing surface, replacing the Astroturf that had become a staple of Lackawanna County Stadium since its inception.They also struck a pact with high-powered California management firm Mandalay Baseball to manage the day-to-day operations of both the franchise and the stadium. Lackawanna County Stadium officially was no more, as the team came to an agreement with PNC Bank on a naming rights deal for the ballpark. The stadium has since been known as PNC Field.
Those were expected additions to any deal, though. What wasn’t was what critics bemoaned as the first move toward the franchise punting on public ownership: A clause in the agreement which provided Mandalay the right to purchase the team for somewhere between $13 million and $16.4 million, depending on when the option would be exercised.
Initial response from a fan perspective, though, was overwhelming.
The team announced shortly after the deal became official that the cost of season tickets were increasing more than 50 percent, from $425 to $648 for a full-season plan. It didn’t matter, though: More than 3,000 calls per hour were heading into Lackawanna County Stadium that morning, jamming phone lines and burying workers in the ticket office in requests.
“We’ve sold thousands upon thousands of tickets,” Ruby said that night. “Season tickets, we don’t have an accurate count yet, but it’s been astronomical. Lets say this, I’m speaking to you at 8 o’clock (at night), and the phones are still ringing.”
Business owners around the area expressed similar excitement about the announcement.
Some around the stadium — everything from hotels to restaurants to sporting-goods stores — estimated the presence of the Yankees could lead to double, perhaps triple, their normal business during the Red Barons years.
“It’s like Notre Dame relocating to Scranton,” said Tim Wagner, owner of Tim Wagner’s Sports Corner in North Scranton. “If you could pick any team in the world from a financial standpoint, you’d pick the Yankees.”
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
In December, Yankees officials made a trip to Scranton to talk about their move to the area, kicking off a new era in local baseball while ending another.
Cordaro, Munchak, Cashman and then-general partner Steve Swindal unveiled a new team name and logo, announcing the franchise would now be known as the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, officially ending the Red Barons years in a move long-speculated, but one that still has been unforgiven by a segment of Phillies fans.
For his part, though, Cashman promised local fans a new-look team, and a new approach to building a franchise through the farm system that had not been a trademark of a Yankees franchise spent hundreds of millions at the major league level, at the expense of player development.
“I think our farm system’s grown and we’re proud of it,” Cashman said. “Maybe two years ago people were saying we were maybe the 25th best in baseball, I think now with our recent trade we’ve moved into the top 10 organizations by prospects so there’s a lot of talent to come.
“Sometimes, the free-agent market gets cost-prohibitive. I don’t want to overpay for mediocre talent. I want the highest-level players and the biggest bang for your buck, just like everybody else. I want to get a championship-caliber team. The only way to do that is to have quality talent.”
The Yankees years have been good ones for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, on the field. Eight of the franchise’s 12 80-win seasons have come since the Yankees moved here, and both of the team’s Governors’ Cup championship teams have been won since 2007.
Cashman’s drive to rebuild the farm system, too, has manifested itself during the years in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Stars like Brett Gardner, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ivan Nova, Dellin Betances, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge were among the young players who came up through the system, spent significant time at PNC Field, and went on to contribute in the big leagues.
Donnie Collins has been a member of The Times-Tribune sports staff for nearly 20 years and has been the Penn State football beat writer for Times-Shamrock Newspapers since 2004. The Penn State Football Blog covers Nittany Lions, Big Ten and big-time college football news from Beaver Stadium to the practice field, the bowl game to National Letter of Intent Signing Day. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5368; @DonnieCollinsTT