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The stadium wars have entered the minor leagues

An Orioles legend is suing an Orioles affiliate for stadium repairs.

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Leidos Field in Aberdeen, Maryland
Phil Romans [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Over at FanGraphs, I wrote a lot about the stadium wars plaguing MLB franchises. From the Diamondbacks wanting a new stadium, to the Angels wanting a new stadium, to the Mariners fighting Seattle over stadium repairs, and Portland building a stadium without a team in hopes of wooing a franchise to the Pacific Northwest, every team seems to want a brand new publicly funded stadium these days. Interestingly, however, it seems now a minor league team wants in on the action.

The Aberdeen Ironbirds are the Class-A short-season affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. The team is owned by Tufton Professional Baseball, LLC, and if you’ve never heard of that company before, you will have heard of the two men who own and operate it: Cal Ripken, Jr. and his brother Billy. Late last year, the Ripkens (or, rather, Tufton acting at the direction of the Ripkens) sued the city of Aberdeen for purportedly failing to live up to its obligations regarding maintenance of Leidos Field, where the Ironbirds play. While the Ripkens (through Tufton) own the team, Aberdeen owns the stadium and the land on which it sits.

According to Tufton’s complaint, which you can read here, Tufton and Aberdeen entered into a contract dividing stadium responsibilities.

To that end, on December 7, 2000, the City and Tufton entered into the Concession Agreement (hereinafter the “Concession Agreement” or “Agreement”), which is the subject of this case, pursuant to which Tufton operates the IronBirds, a professional minor league baseball team, at Ripken Stadium. The Stadium is owned by the City and, subject to Tufton’s “baseball events” and other event rights, the City is permitted to utilize the Stadium for defined “City Events” and “Community Activities.” As agreed in the Concession Agreement, the City is responsible for undertaking and paying for capital maintenance and capital improvements for the Stadium, while Tufton bears that responsibility for routine minor maintenance. For many years, Tufton and the City worked collaboratively and generally fulfilled their contractual obligations.

Tufton has gone above and beyond its contractual duties and has taken actions to support the City’s interests, including lobbying for state bond funding for Stadium capital maintenance and a hotel tax so that Aberdeen could benefit from the hotel visitors attracted by Ripken Stadium and other Ripken enterprises. The City has received over $2.2 million from the hotel tax alone.

That said, the $2.2 million Tufton alleges the city received from hotel taxes since 2015 isn’t the windfall they make it out to be; that comes out to about $733,000 annually, which isn’t a lot considering the city’s entire annual budget is about $25 million.

The lawsuit says that an assessment of the stadium concluded that more than fifty improvements needed to be made to the venue at a cost of approximately $3.2 million over ten years. Some of those are clearly municipal responsibilities under the original contract, like ensuring the stadium is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and repairing foundation and structural damage.

On the other hand, Tufton also wants Aberdeen to replace the entire playing field, which seems somewhat less of a capital maintenance project and more related to Tufton’s use of the facility. Tufton says that Aberdeen is now refusing to make baseball-related improvements to the stadium like paying for safety netting, which it says are obviously Aberdeen’s responsibility because the venue is a baseball stadium, even repeatedly italicizing the word “baseball” for emphasis. (No one seemed to impart upon Tufton the irony that it owns a baseball team, while Aberdeen uses the venue for non-baseball purposes about two weeks out of the year.)

But legal ramifications aside, there’s a legitimate question regarding the municipality’s ability to pay these costs even if Tufton won the case.

Aberdeen is a small town (with a population of about 16,000) and apparently hasn’t been able to afford stadium maintenance for years, even placing the stadium on the market back in 2017 in hopes of ridding itself of the financial albatross.

Aberdeen is growing both in population and in resident per capita income, but a high cost of living and poor employment prospects (the city’s poverty rate is near 17%) are crushing the local economy. The city government has been trying to turn that around, thus far with mixed results. Despite these economic woes, Aberdeen has thus far spent over $150,000 on legal fees defending the case, and just authorized spending $75,000 more. And it’s also worth noting that Aberdeen is the Ripkens’ hometown, which has led to no shortage of enmity between the two sides.

For its part, Aberdeen responded by countersuing Tufton, and added some explosive allegations of its own, accusuing Tufton of deliberately letting the stadium fall into disrepair so as to defer the costs from minor maintenance to the city once the problem became major.

Notably, Aberdeen alleged, Tufton hadn’t submitted the maintenance plan required by the stadium contract or made any repairs in almost a decade with the hopes of the stadium deteriorating to the point where the problems would be structural and Aberdeen would be responsible.

We don’t have much public evidence yet to support either side’s claims. That said, it’s worth noting that Leidos was opened on 2002, and thus is younger than every member of the Ironbirds’ 2019 roster. That the stadium deteriorated so significantly in just seventeen years does seem to support Aberdeen’s allegations that Tufton neglected necessary maintenance. That said, an inability to pay isn’t generally a defense to a breach of contract lawsuit, so if the contract really did require Aberdeen to pay for certain capital improvements and it failed to do so, Aberdeen will be liable whether it can afford to pay the bill or not.

The good news is that there are now, for the first time, positive signs that this saga might be coming to an end. The Maryland General Assembly allocated $300,000 of state funds to replace the safety netting and playing field and install new lighting at Leidos, easing the burden on Aberdeen. However, there were strings attached: the money won’t be spent until, and unless, Aberdeen and Tufton settle their lawsuit. And so the two sides asked for and received a ninety-day stay of proceedings (a “standstill agreement”) to try and reach a resolution. Such a settlement would probably have to include an extension of the Ironbirds’ current lease, which expires in 2022; Aberdeen doesn’t want to spend money rehabilitating Leidos only for the team to turn around and leave in three years.

Of course, that Aberdeen authorized another $75,000 in legal fees means that they aren’t convinced the case will settle at this point. And Leidos Field is another cautionary tale for taxpayer-funded stadia, this time directed at minor league venues and small municipalities.

Unlike Maricopa County or Miami, other local governments embroiled in stadium litigation, small towns which play host to minor league teams don’t often have the money or resources to defend litigation arising from stadium capital disputes. If anything, these smaller governments are more at risk of stadium deals turning into albatrosses for taxpayers. That’s a lesson Aberdeen is learning the hard way.