Bud Kennedy

Deal to reopen Fort Worth Cats’ LaGrave Field full of dreams, but is there money?

Will the Fort Worth Cats come back?

Fort Worth Cats baseball may return to LaGrave Field after Tarrant Regional Water District swaps land for the vandalized facility and leases it to non-profit Save LaGrave Foundation.
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Fort Worth Cats baseball may return to LaGrave Field after Tarrant Regional Water District swaps land for the vandalized facility and leases it to non-profit Save LaGrave Foundation.

The worse the Texas Rangers play, the more we want the Fort Worth Cats back.

And with the Rangers about to open a $250 million party palace next to their $1.1 billion new ballpark, it might sound easy to raise only $9 million now to restore the old-time Cats’ abandoned LaGrave Field.

But this is not a done deal at all yet. Far from it.

Right now, we’ve only heard lofty promises. If they come through, the new Panther Island development across the Trinity River from downtown will be anchored by a boutique ballpark and events facility built around the legendary 92-year-old ballfield.

Here’s how iffy this deal is: It requires $4 million at signing from a charity foundation that does not even have a board of directors yet but is already collecting money.

So far, it’s run by a past executive of one of the here-today-gone-tomorrow independent-league Cats teams, lawyer Scott Berry of Decatur.

It was Berry who convinced Tarrant Regional Water District directors to go for a swap, trading other land to the Houston-based stadium investor so Berry’s Decatur-based Save LaGrave Foundation can lease LaGrave and run it.

The $4 million is only the beginning.

The foundation will need more gifts to pay for stadium repairs — at least $2 million, probably more — plus insurance and upkeep.

Berry, 62, said he has donors ready to help.

LaGrave Field land swap

The Tarrant Regional Water District swapped 15.3 acres along the West Fork of the Trinity River for 8.1 acres that includes LaGrave Field. TRWD also receives $1.3 million in the deal and the water district tentatively approved a 40-year lease for LaGrave.

“I think LaGrave is special, and I think Fort Worth is a really special spot right now,” Berry said.

“Fort Worth wants to create its own identity. I think Panther Island is a big part of that.”

The rebuilt LaGrave — first built in 2002 around the original 1926 basepaths, but closed since 2014 — would host not only independent-league baseball, but also professional soccer along with college and high school events.

City officials are leading cheers.

“This is not just going to bring LaGrave back — we need to make it a better facility for everybody,” said City Councilman Carlos Flores, who represents the north side.

“I think the money can be raised in short order. There’s enough desire to get LaGrave back.”

The Fort Worth-based water district, teaming with the federal government to split the Trinity and create the new island, also got $1.3 million in the trade plus 8.1 acres including the stadium.

In exchange, Houston-based Panther Acquisition Partners will get 15.3 acres along what is now a levee, giving the group a total of 26 acres on what will become Panther Island when the river is split.

“It looks like the water district made a pretty good deal,” Mayor Betsy Price said.

Over the past 20 years, the City Council has repeatedly declined to take on a LaGrave project, with leaders saying it should be privately operated and kept on the tax rolls. (The city only owns the “Fort Worth Cats” name.)

“If we can get LaGrave back in play hosting more community events, it’ll be a good deal for the city too,” Price said.

If you’re new here, I’ll explain this on-again, off-again history:

The stadium is named for early baseball team owner Paul La Grave, whose 1920s Panthers and “Cats” teams remain ranked among the greatest in the history of minor league pro baseball.

Owned by the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers, LaGrave hosted minor league teams starring Hall of Fame players such as Duke Snider and manager Rogers Hornsby, and major league exhibitions featuring more than 50 Hall of Fame players from Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio to Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson.

But the Dodgers sold LaGrave and the Fort Worth market to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for the rights to play in Los Angeles, and the Cats gave way in 1964 to a regional team in Arlington.

In 2001, just as plans for Panther Island were taking shape, investor Carl Bell relaunched the Cats name and built a new LaGrave on top of the old stadium’s long-abandoned remnants. He knew Panther Island was coming, but he couldn’t keep the Cats afloat long enough to profit off the land.

In nearly a century, LaGrave has rebounded time and again, from a devastating fire, a major flood and bankruptcy.

It’ll take more than promises to bring it back again.

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