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As Major League Baseball looks toward the future, commissioner Rob Manfred has been open about his desire to eventually expand to 32 teams. While MLB needs to sort out the stadium situations with the A’s and Rays before they can fully focus on adding additional franchises, a handful of markets have emerged as potential options for new teams. This week, we’ll take a look at four of the biggest ones, starting with Nashville.

SAN DIEGO — Dave Stewart pulled up a chair on the outskirts of a lobby-level bar at the Manchester Grand Hyatt one afternoon last month. The crowd at the Winter Meetings flowed past him. He was trying to explain how he had spent the past year of his professional life, but he kept getting interrupted.

“There are people out there who have tried to purchase baseball teams before, and they fell short, for whatever that reason is,” Stewart said. “So if you know who those people are, then you approach those people and you talk to them. And in more cases than not, they have a dream of being part of what we’re doing.”

Midway through Stewart’s spiel, a mustachioed figure from his past appeared in his sightline.

“Oh my God,” said Rick Dempsey, the former Orioles catcher whose big-league career spanned from 1969 to 1992. “You got me out enough times. You ought to at least say ‘Hi’ to me!”

“How you doing, Demps?” Stewart beamed. “What are you doing, Demps?”

“God, you look good,” Dempsey said. “You look good.”

Stewart, still lean and broad-shouldered at 65, rose up. The two men embraced. Dempsey asked Stewart why he had come to San Diego. It was a worthwhile question. Stewart has worn many hats. Across parts of 16 seasons in the majors, he pitched for three World Series champions, collected a World Series MVP trophy and strung together four consecutive 20-win seasons. In retirement, he had been a big-league pitching coach, the agent for stars like Eric Chavez and Matt Kemp, and the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He had done almost everything in baseball — except own a team of his own.

“What I’m trying to do now,” Stewart told Dempsey, “is I’m going to bring expansion baseball to Nashville.”

Four months earlier, Stewart stared down a restaurant menu as he considered his crash course in Volunteer State geography. He was about to order meatloaf at a spot a block away from the headquarters of Music City Baseball in Nashville. The next day, he had scheduled a 9 a.m. meeting in Knoxville, about three hours away.

Which meant . . .

“Five o’clock wakeup, man,” Stewart said. “Five o’clock leave time, I’m sorry.”

Stewart at his jersey retirement ceremony in Oakland in September 2022. (Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports)

Stewart had been undertaking meetings like this since the group appointed him last April to lead its diverse equity ownership initiative. He would sit with a collection of potential investors — Stewart declined to reveal their identities — and educate them on the vision of the Nashville Stars, the dream Stewart and Music City Baseball would like to make a reality later this decade. The purpose of these visits, Stewart explained, was “gathering what I would call soft commitments, at this time. To show the commissioner’s office that we are serious about what we’re doing. And if they want to start their vetting process early, then that would allow them to do that as well.”

As last winter’s owner-initiated lockout moves further into Major League Baseball’s rearview mirror, the next seismic shift for the industry figures to be expansion. Commissioner Rob Manfred has not hidden his interest in growing the sport to 32 teams. Baseball has not added new franchises since 1998. In the summer of 2018, Manfred listed Nashville, along with Charlotte, Las Vegas, Montreal, Portland and Vancouver as potential options. Despite his zeal for growth, Manfred has attached a caveat to all expansion discussion: The sport will not proceed before finding resolutions to the stadium impasses in Oakland and Tampa Bay. Both situations remained unsettled when Manfred was asked about the prospect of expansion at owners meetings this past November.

“I wish I could tell you I was someplace different than I’ve been,” Manfred said. “I think Tampa and the A’s need to get resolved. And then, depending on how that all lands, we’ll have a more realistic opportunity to assess whether and where to expand.”

The uncertain timetable creates a quandary for groups like Music City Baseball. How do you build a baseball team without the guarantee of ever even having a baseball team? Stewart and his colleagues described the effort as something akin to building a home. The foundation must be ready by the time MLB opts for more construction. “Truth is, what we have time to do is just think,” Stewart said. “And paint a picture, paint a canvas, paint our vision.”

Added managing director John Loar, “We’re trying to control things we can control. And build our organization and build a brand and a team — before it’s a team.”

The Stars derives its name from the Negro Leagues franchise. The group partnered with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and invited the museum’s president, Bob Kendrick, to join its board. The group aims to market the brand across the city while forging relationships in the community. The Stars already sell merchandise. There is a social media arm and a regular newsletter. In November, the group reached an agreement with Tennessee State University to begin assessing a 100-acre site on campus as the potential location for a sports-entertainment complex with a ballpark and concert venues capable of tapping into Nashville’s rich vein of live music. Last week, Music City Baseball introduced Don Mattingly as a member of the group’s advisory board that already includes Stewart and Tony La Russa.

“We’ve been at this for over two years,” said Alberto Gonzales, the former U.S. Attorney General who serves as Music City Baseball’s board chairman. “We may not get a team for five years. And so we have to be realistic about our progress. And we have to pace ourselves. Sometimes, people ask me, ‘When are we going to get a team?’ And I say, ‘Well, it might not be for five years.’ They look at me like, ‘What have you guys been doing?’”

In the fall of 2019, a couple months after being fired by the Boston Red Sox, Dave Dombrowski attended an animal-rescue event run by La Russa. He fell into conversation with Loar, a real-estate developer who had also led prior acquisition efforts for MLB teams. Loar had moved to Nashville earlier that year to prepare a potential bid for expansion or relocation.

A variety of factors drew Loar to Nashville. The population was on the rise. Tourists were flocking to the city. Nashville was already a hub for music fans and corporate conference attendees. There was real estate available for a new stadium, with construction already booming. A 2021 editorial in The Tennessean called the downtown skyline “almost unrecognizable from a decade ago.” Added Eddie George, the former Tennessee Titans star who is now a member of the Music City Baseball board and the head football coach at Tennessee State, “This is a city that, man, it’s just exploded over the last 10 to 15 years.”

“Baseball should be here,” Loar said. “I mean, can you imagine the Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, Dodgers in a mid-week series in this town? This place would be off the charts.”

Dombrowski came away convinced after a visit. He joined as an advisor as Loar built out the infrastructure. An initial fundraising offering of local investors to start the exploratory process netted $4.6 million, Loar said. That money allowed the group to hire staffers and rent office space. In the summer of 2020, Dombrowski sold his home near Boston and moved south.

“When I went to Nashville, I kind of thought that was probably going to be it in many ways,” Dombrowski said. “I made a commitment to them. And they made a commitment to me to try to bring a club there.”

Loar intended to only spend a few years in Tennessee. The initial timeline aimed for a presentation with MLB officials at the 2021 Winter Meetings in Nashville. What the plan did not include, however, was the arrival of COVID-19 and the subsequent pandemic. The countrywide shutdown paused baseball’s revenue streams and put any thought of expansion on hold.

That fall, Dombrowski received a call from Phillies owner John Middleton, who wanted to hire him to run his baseball operations department. Dombrowski parried the overture at first. He cited his work in Nashville. Middleton encouraged Dombrowski to check with the league office: Nashville wouldn’t be getting a team any time soon. No new city would.

“I had found out from Major League Baseball that expansion is down the road,” Dombrowski said, adding that MLB officials told him, “‘Dave, we would encourage you to enter the game. It’s just going to be a while before that takes place. We need to stabilize Oakland. We need to stabilize Tampa.’”

“So really,” Dombrowski said, “I was going to be in Nashville doing nothing at that time. And they were going to be paying me. And it just made no sense for anybody involved.”

Dombrowski left to run the Phillies, while maintaining an advisory role with Music City Baseball. Loar’s group waited out the pandemic. Any hope of presenting to MLB at the 2021 Winter Meetings was wiped out when the lockout cancelled the event. As the industry recovered from the shutdown and returned after the labor strife, it became clear that MLB would still seek expansion. It would just take more time.

“This is a long-term play,” Gonzalez said. “I’m just hoping we’re all going to be around to see it come to fruition.”

At dinner this past summer, as he absorbed the reality of the next day’s 5 a.m. wakeup call, Stewart pondered the rest of his schedule. He was visiting for only a handful of days from his home in Phoenix. When he got back from Knoxville, there was an event scheduled at The Bluebird Cafe, a music venue famed for showcasing up-and-coming artists.

“Who’s been discovered out of there?” Stewart asked Chris Bacon, the group’s head of marketing and communications.

“Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks were the two big names that I saw,” Bacon said.

Stewart chuckled. “OK, that’s big enough. You don’t need to go past that.”

Music City Baseball considers the music industry a vital cog in the franchise’s success. Loar envisioned the ballpark as only a portion of the appeal for the complex, a multi-purpose space complete with shops and restaurants. There would also be concert spaces which could host artist residencies akin to those found in Las Vegas, where successful acts can play for weeks at a time. “You can’t really just build it around baseball,” Loar said. “It has to be something more than that.”

Loar’s son, Connor, who manages strategic partnerships for the group, pointed to The Battery in Atlanta, Busch Stadium’s Ballpark Village and the revamped Wrigleyville as models. “It’s essentially doing that, but making it Nashville,” Connor Loar said. “Making it Music City, making the venue be like the place to go to.”

The ongoing assessment of the site at Tennessee State is expected to last several months, according to Edward Henley, the project executive from Pillars Development who is conducting the survey. The money for the stadium will have to come from private investors, from all the people making “soft commitments” to Stewart. “A hard commitment would be writing a check,” Loar quipped. Which the group cannot yet request — but at some point, they will need them. Loar does not expect to receive public subsidies for construction.

So Stewart has to sell the vision. The group has prioritized assembling a diverse ownership group. Stewart, a Black man from Oakland, has been vocal about the homogeneity of the ownership class in baseball. There are no majority Black ownership groups in the sport. Stewart splits his time between canvassing potential investors and meeting the current MLB owners. (Asked how many of the owners had complained to him about starting pitchers not being able to go deep into games, Stewart said four. “I always tell them a Bob Gibson story: He said your best chance to win a baseball game is let your starting pitcher go as deep as he can.”)

In time, Stewart hopes, he will become part of the ownership class. In a world without hard deadlines, there can only be soft commitments and dreams to sell. Music City Baseball has tried to build a team amid this uncertainty for several years now. Stewart believes it will be worth the wait.

“Everything there is to be done in this game —with the exception of managing a team — I’ve done it,” Stewart said. “This feels like the last piece of the puzzle. It really does.”

Ken Rosenthal contributed reporting.

(Top image: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos: iStock)



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