Fort Worth

Play ball? There’s a new plan to bring baseball back to LaGrave Field

Stella Ballard loves the Fort Worth Cats and LaGrave Field.

So it saddens the 42-year-old former team photographer to drive by the stadium and see how this field of dreams, which attracted scores of families to watch minor league baseball, has become a nightmare. Graffiti scars the scoreboard. Tall weeds grow in the infield and trees in the seats. Vandals rip up what isn’t nailed down.

“It is heartbreaking to go back to it,” said Ballard, who even has a “Save LaGrave” Facebook page. “I always drive by and wonder, ‘Is it still there?’ I’ve had this dread that one day there will be this wrecking ball and nobody would know.”

That won’t happen if some local investors have their way. A new group is privately pitching a plan to give LaGrave Field and the Cats yet another life and renew a baseball tradition for fans like Ballard. It involves buying 12 to 14 acres near the ballpark from the Tarrant Regional Water District and then swapping it with the ballpark’s owners for the 5,200-seat facility and some land, 8 acres in all.

Under the proposal, a nonprofit foundation with public involvement would actually own LaGrave Field, providing the facility not only with crucial tax breaks but bolstering the idea of maintaining the stadium as a civic asset. A separate company would own the baseball team and run the ballpark, not only during the season, but as a year-round venue.

Details have not been disclosed, but one person aware of the discussions said the offer being made for the water district land is “in the millions.” LaGrave Field and a parking lot included in the deal are valued at about $3.4 million, according Tarrant Appraisal District records.

Depending on how long it takes to get the field back in shape — some say that could take millions of dollars — the baseball group hopes to put a team back on the field by 2018 or 2019, according to a source familiar with their plans. Creating the team, and finding a league, won’t be a problem since Fort Worth is seen as a coveted franchise.

While other efforts to save LaGrave Field have failed since it went dark in 2014, individuals briefed on the latest proposal are encouraged and say that as the stadium deteriorates there’s a growing urgency to do something.

“It’s more solid than any plan I’ve heard in the last three or four years,” said City Councilman Dennis Shingleton, president of the city’s sports authority, which owns the LaGrave Field and Fort Worth Cats names.

While he calls any talk about making a deal “premature,” the proposal is a solid offer worth looking at, said J.D. Granger, executive director of Trinity River Vision Authority, an arm of the water district charged with developing the Panther Island project where the ballpark sits.

“There have been a lot of ideas and energy spent on how to keep baseball here,” Granger said. “This is the first offer that has money behind it and makes sense and that requires us to do more work.”

LaGrave Field should be a centerpiece in Panther Island, a $900 million flood control and economic development project that will one day include a town lake and canals, said Jim Lane, a water board member, former city council member and avid supporter of LaGrave Field and the Cats. The time to act is now, he said.

“This may be our last hurrah. ... We’re about to run out of time,” said Lane, raising concerns that the stadium may be torn down if nothing is done to save it. “I think the owners of that field have been patient beyond patient.”

Scott Berry, a principal in the new baseball group, declined to comment or name his fellow investors. Berry is the former vice president of business development for the Cats.

Andrew Schatte and Mike Balloun, the owners of LaGrave Field, did not return phone calls. Mark Presswood of Panther Island Real Estate Solutions, who represents them, repeatedly declined to discuss the latest proposal.

The thrill of the grass

LaGrave Field is steeped in baseball history.

Originally called the Fort Worth Panthers but nicknamed the Cats by headline writers, the team began playing in Fort Worth in 1888, first playing at Panther Park just west of where LaGrave Field would eventually be built.

From the mid 1920s until the 1960s, some of baseball’s greats felt the thrill of the grass at LaGrave Field. Hank Aaron, Sparky Anderson, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Rogers Hornsby and Stan Musial, to name a few, played in the stadium that survived fires and floods. The Cats’ first African-American players were Maury Wills and Eddie Moore.

In 1960, the Cats merged with the Dallas Rangers and were renamed the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers, which eventually went on to play at Turnpike Stadium in Arlington, where the Texas Rangers would settle. After sitting idle for three years following the 1964 season, the original LaGrave Field was torn down in 1967.

Then the Cats came back. After playing one season at the Fort Worth school district’s Lon Goldstein Field, the team’s new owner, retired Dallas insurance executive Carl Bell, opened a new LaGrave Field at the site of the original park in 2002. The stadium had 4,100 seats at first, but was expanded to 5,200, pushing his investment to $13.9 million.

The independent league team became popular with local residents, drawing more than 3,700 fans per game. The price of admission was low compared to the big league Rangers. In 2013, single-game tickets cost $7 to $15, with promotions scheduled throughout the season, including $5 tickets on Sundays. This was baseball, up close and personal.

“It was fun baseball,” Lane said. “You could hear the batter talking to the umpire and players talking to each other and it was great fun to listen to and watch. ... It was a safe, clean, happy place for family entertainment ... You could sit around with friends and drink beers and the view of downtown Fort Worth was breathtaking.”

In the years after Bell bought the Cats, he accumulated 58 acres of land in the area, hoping to cash in on the Panther Island project with residential, retail and office space. But the Great Recession hit the real estate market hard and there was no joy in Mudville. By 2012, Bell filed for bankruptcy and the stadium was sold in a foreclosure auction.

The Fort Worth Stadium Group LLC, which is led by Schatte, bought LaGrave for $4.5 million. Former Congressman John Bryant and longtime minor league baseball executive Byron Pierce lead a group that bought the team. But the Cats, while financially successful, were evicted by the developers, who were interested in using the land for something else.

Since buying LaGrave Field, Schatte’s group has added 10 acres to the 13 or so they purchased when they bought the stadium, Granger said.

“I was there when we brought the Cats back with Carl Bell and I was there and cried when it closed,” Lane said.

A numbers game

Nostalgia aside, baseball is a business and the numbers for the LaGrave deal have to add up.

By having a nonprofit own the facility, it will enjoy tax breaks, avoiding hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes, a big-ticket item that made life difficult for LaGrave Field. The bottom line will also be improved by allowing the stadium to be used by entities like local universities and school districts for tournaments and playoffs.

Selling the land also must make economic sense for the water district. The acreage the nonprofit wants to buy and flip to the stadium owners is on what Granger calls the “wet side of the levee,” or property that can only be used after the rest of the flood control project is completed in seven or eight years.

Since this is the first, and only, offer it has received for that type of land, the water district has requested an appraisal to determine its value. Then the question will become whether the agency should sell the land now or wait until later, when its value is expected to rise along with the other real estate in Panther Island.

“Interest in the island has dramatically increased in the past year. We can’t keep up with the offers that walk in the door,” Granger said. “This is the first hard offer we’ve had for the property within the flood plain next to the river. For that reason, we have more work to do to determine if this is a fair market offer before we respond.”

In the meantime, LaGrave Field continues to slide.

“It is just a mess. It has been stripped. It has been plundered by vandals,” Shingleton said. “All the plumbing is gone. ... It has been sitting there vacant for a third summer. It will take some monumental effort to get it ready for next spring.”

Lane thinks other public entities need to get involved to help save this piece of Fort Worth history.

“If we lose LaGrave Field and we are not able to bring the Cats back and make it a foundation of that Panther Island project, then the city council, the commissioners court, the school district, the water district, every governmental entity should be ashamed of themselves,” Lane said.

Ballard is worried, too. She has so many fond memories of her time at LaGrave Field. So does her daughter, Hayden Clark, who would dress up as the team’s black cat mascot, Dodger, and entertain the crowds.

So it’s not surprising Ballard raced to LaGrave Field one night last month after she heard there was a fire. Luckily, there was only minor damage to a concession stand. But what has happened to LaGrave brings her daughter to tears.

“It is going to take one more fire and one more vandalism and one more step and it won’t be worth saving,” Ballard said. “You hope it stays intact. You hope it stays somewhat OK.”

This story contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB