Donald V. Watkins
Killing the MLB Deal: An Exercise in Stupidity
Updated: Apr 20, 2019
By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published on April 18, 2019
I rarely write about local government matters. My articles tend to focus on national and international issues of significant public interest.
Today, I am making an exception to this trend because the City of Birmingham, Alabama lost an incredible opportunity to partner with Major League Baseball (MLB) on the development of a $10 million baseball and softball academy at George Ward Park that focuses on educating and training young athletes.
MLB is a professional baseball organization, the oldest of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada. A total of 30 teams play in the National League (NL) and American League (AL), with 15 teams in each league. MLB revenues exceed $10 billion annually. MLB's influence in professional sports is felt worldwide.
Birmingham is a third-tier sports city. Unlike Memphis, Charlotte, Nashville, New Orleans, St. Louis, Tampa, Orlando, and other comparable metro-areas in the region, Birmingham has no major league professional sports team. It has a minor league baseball team that plays in Regions Field in the downtown area.
MLB’s Youth Foundation was set to fund the project at George Ward Park that would have converted the five softball fields into full-size baseball fields. MLB was also going to build an academy building on the site that would have provided low to no cost baseball and softball instruction and league play for young athletes. The Youth Academy would have also provided the attendees with academic and career training.
Residents in the predominantly white Glen Iris neighborhood objected to the MLB project because it was located close to their neighborhood. They believed MLB’s Youth Academy would attract too many black patrons and supporters to the adjacent park area.
Council President Valerie Abbot, who is white, lives in the Glen Iris neighborhood and represents the council district where George Ward Park is located. She controls the mayor and predominantly black city council with an iron grip.
MLB was shocked and appalled that racism once again raised its ugly head in Birmingham. In light of the City’s foot-dragging on the project, its messy and petty politics, and the negative racial comments that were whispered during the City’s consideration of the project, MLB reconsidered the George Ward Park site and focused on a more welcoming site in Vero Beach, Florida.
I don’t blame MLB for moving on. Except for Abbott's status quo agenda, Birmingham’s city government is leaderless today.
The George Ward Park project incident is the latest in a series of embarrassing blunders that Birmingham has made on the world stage. It follows the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s decision in January 2019 to rescind its presentation of the 2018 Fred Shuttleworth Human Rights Award to world-famous civil rights activist Angela Davis. After announcing the Award to Ms. Davis, the Institute received objections from local patrons. Following a worldwide and very public outcry about its decision to withdraw the Award, the Institute reconsidered this action and reinstated the Award to Ms. Davis. Like MLB, Ms. Davis moved on to work more supportive civil rights causes and activists, without accepting the Institute’s reinstated Award.
While the City has plenty of officeholders with nice sounding titles, they have no courage, substance, or vision. Except for Valerie Abbott and two of her council colleagues, they have a demonstrated track record of abandoning the constituents who elected them at the blink of an eye. Not one of them had the business acumen or ability to consummate the City’s partnership with MLB.
What is worse, City leaders allowed “do-gooders” in the Glen Iris neighborhood to kill the MLB deal. They have no replacement sports academy deal with MLB, MLS, the NFL, or the NBA that is of equal or greater value to the City and its young athletes.
It was an exercise in stupidity for City leaders to lose an opportunity to partner with MLB on something as wholesome, important and influential as the Youth Baseball Academy. The project would have put Birmingham on the national and international map for something extremely positive.
Instead, Birmingham appears to be hopelessly trapped in an endless series commemorative events that recognize the bravery of 1950s and 60s-era civil rights activists. For reasons I do not understand, Birmingham seems incapable of moving beyond petty racial politics, even when an organization like MLB presents the City with a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to do so.
Most cities would clamor for an opportunity to partner with MLB on a project of this quality and magnitude. This kind of partnership usually leads to an endless series of positive experiences and projects with MLB.
Now, Birmingham city officials can congratulate themselves on how they lost out on something tangible and meaningful for tens of thousands of young aspiring athletes, for generations to come. In the end, Council President Valerie Abbott showed MLB and the rest of the world who these city officials really are, and who owns them.
PHOTO: MLB tried to establish a $10 million Urban Youth Academy in Birmingham. Racial politics and neighborhood animosity killed the deal.