JOPLIN, Mo. —
Owners of the El Paso Diablos, an independent league baseball team, are proposing to make Joplin their home plate if city officials will agree to a deal on the renovation and lease of Joe Becker Stadium.
The team’s general manager, WLD Suarez Baseball LLC, made a presentation Monday night to the Joplin City Council.
No firm financial costs to the city were discussed, though Matt LaBranche, executive vice president of Suarez, told the Globe after the council meeting that he estimates it would cost the city $5.9 million to bring Joe Becker Stadium up to professional standards.
The Suarez group is offering to build a plaza in the block south of Joe Becker to border on Fourth Street between High and Comingo avenues as an entry point to the stadium.
Chris Cotten, Joplin’s parks and recreation director, told the council that with Missouri Southern State University building its own baseball stadium instead of continuing to use Joe Becker, a new tenant must be found. Joplin, he said, has been a baseball town since the 1880s.
There has been a resurgence of minor league baseball as families look to get out of the house and have an affordable outing, Cotten said, and it is rescuing dormant downtowns of cities the size of Joplin.
“Today, many cities look to minor league baseball in new downtown stadiums to help them revitalize downtown districts,” he said. He said cities can spend up to $30 million attracting and building a team and a stadium, but Joplin has the chance to do it much less expensively.
The Diablos, until 2004, were a Double-A team that was sold to the St. Louis Cardinals and became the Springfield Cardinals. The team then became independent. Now, the San Diego Padres have put their Triple-A affiliate in El Paso, taking crowds from the Diablos.
Cotten told the council that a number of cities the size of Joplin and smaller support independent professional baseball.
“The markets are strong markets, very similar in size to Joplin,” LaBranche told the council, and Joe Becker Stadium has “tremendous history” with baseball. That’s one reason the Suarez team believes independent baseball would work here.
The players are ex-major leaguers or Triple-A or Double-A players who have been displaced, or collegiate players waiting on a draft selection. “So the talent level, bar none, is amazing,” LaBranche said.
Suarez representative Michael Wray said the field needs to be modernized, with new lights that would accommodate night play, new restrooms and other updates. He said the stadium needs to have about 4,200 seats.
“We’re not trying to build a monument to baseball with Joe Becker,” he said. “We feel Joe Becker has a tremendous heritage and history. We’re only trying to modernize and enhance and bring it up to modern-day standards.”
One of the proposals for the stadium is to build a berm where families can sit and picnic around the outfield, with a play area for children. Wray said two tickets for the parents with hot dogs and drinks for all the family would cost less than a family attending a movie, making games affordable to area residents.
Councilman Mike Woolston asked if the team owners want to lease Joe Becker. Wray said they do. He said the plaza addition they would build would be intended for use for 20 years, and Suarez would ask for a 10-year lease of the stadium with an option for another 10 years.
“The investment we’re making is not a small one,” Wray said. “We’re here to ask for just enough to play baseball. We’re not asking for the Taj Mahal.”
Councilman Benjamin Rosenberg asked if Suarez would want exclusive use of the stadium.
Wray said the team would use the stadium for baseball from May until September but would agree to its use by already established events such as the annual Premier Baseball tournament in July. The owners also would schedule other types of events for family entertainment, he said.
City Manager Mark Rohr asked for the council’s direction on whether the city staff should continue discussions with Suarez. He said city administrators would have to come up with a plan on how to pay for the renovations to the stadium should the council wish to clinch a deal later.
The council by a unanimous vote approved further negotiations.
THE EL PASO DIABLOS are an independent team, part of the American Association of Independent Baseball. They play teams such as the Kansas City T-Bones, the Wichita Wingnuts, the Lincoln Saltdogs and the Amarillo Sox.