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Is the Atlantic League Expanding to The Woodlands? Maybe

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The Atlantic League exists because the New York Mets didn't want the New York Yankees to have a minor league team in Long Island. Bud Selig had yet to become Major League Baseball commissioner for life and Fay Vincent had been forced out by the major league owners. So with nobody around to block the Mets' hissy fit, Long Island was out of luck.

But Frank Boulton, the man who dreamed of having a minor league team in Long Island, had a plan. A plan to start his own minor league. A league unaffiliated with the major leagues. An independent league. Thus was formed the Atlantic League, an independent minor league of eight baseball teams based primarily on the East Coast.

Primarily, that is, but for one team, the Sugar Land Skeeters. And because of the success of the league, and the success of the second-year Skeeters, the Atlantic League is looking to expand to 12 teams, with those expansion teams based in Texas.

Peter Kirk, the president of the league, has been talking to prospective ownership groups in Texas, and he says that six Texas communities have been out to Sugar Land to study the Skeeters. To look into how the ballpark was built, how the operation is run, how the team operates.

"You can't sell something like this," Kirk told Hair Balls. "You have to let them look into the opportunities and make up their own minds."

He's stated in past interviews that the league is looking to put a team in Fort Worth, and he confirmed that The Woodlands, Baytown and an unspecified community on the north side of Houston have been among those checking out Sugar Land in the hopes of getting a team.

"You need a good demographic," he said. "You need 300,000 to 400,000 people within an easy drive of the ballpark. You need a community with lots of families."

And those requirements seem to fit perfectly with The Woodlands and other communities surrounding Houston. The communities also need to be able to follow the Sugar Land footprint when it comes to the stadium, which was built with a combination of public funds and private equity, and was built to serve as a center point of the community, hosting not only baseball games but other sporting events, concerts, conventions, high school and college baseball, various school events and so on.

There has been talk about the Astros buying a AAA-minor league team and moving it to the Houston area -- the talk has been centered on The Woodlands. But Kirk's not worried about the Astros or any Astros minor league team ruining the baseball market, or oversaturating the market. He compared Houston to Chicago, noting that the Chicago metro area supports two major league teams and six minor league teams.

"The more baseball the better," Kirk said. "You look at a market and you can get an idea of how many teams can be supported. Houston can easily support two or three more minor league teams, affiliated [with the majors] or not."

There's another independent league in Texas, the United League, which has teams spaced throughout the state, including Fort Worth. But Kirk's not worried about that league, stating that the quality of baseball in the Atlantic League is better, since it plays at a unique level of baseball with 140 games a season, and that Atlantic League facilities must meet AAA-quality player/league standards.

These stadium standards not only go to the players, but are directed toward the fans, and are part of the league's DNA. They want new stadiums, large stadiums. With bright lights, lots of concessions, and large, clean restrooms. They want the games to be affordable and safe to attend, with the thinking being that it takes more than just a baseball team to keep people coming back to the stadium on a nightly basis.

"Families looking for a wonderful night out," he said.

There's no set timeline for the expansion, yet, though Kirk is confident that the Atlantic League will consist of 12 teams with four in Texas within three or four years. He does think a second team in the state is a must for the Skeeters since it would make travel and scheduling easier, but for now, the team's on its own as the Western outpost of the Atlantic League.

In a couple of years, though, if everything comes to fruition, the Houston area just might become a hotbed of professional baseball. It might be the Astros, it might be a Woodlands affiliate for the Astros. But it sure appears that the Atlantic League's moving in for good.

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