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I-TEAM: Safety concerns at SRP Park stadium could cost millions

Updated: May. 10, 2021 at 8:47 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The pandemic put Augusta’s favorite pastime on pause for 20 long months but baseball is finally back! From the looks of opening day, it looks like the entire CSRA missed the Augusta GreenJackets too. The team played two seasons in its brand-new, state of the art stadium in North Augusta before COVID shut down the country.

The Augusta GreenJackets lost millions of dollars in revenue. Now they face another financial challenge.

It’s a double doozy coming out of COVID. First, major league baseball changes stadium requirements for minor league teams. Second, the city attorney for North Augusta says the current stadium may pose a safety risk to fans.

An opening day like never before. It’s a sign we are back. Fans flocking back into SRP Park almost like its 2019. It’s a sign. It’s a sign we are back not just us back but our city is back, our county is back, that our country is back.

But Jeff Eisman, President of the GreenJackets, came back to the diamond with a brand new post-pandemic problem. Major League Baseball changed stadium standards for minor league teams.

“It could range a couple million dollars of improvements that need to be made in order to facilitate our relationship with the Atlanta Braves and major league baseball,” said Eisman.

In order to keep the Braves franchise, SRP Park must add a female locker room, additional storage space, and new batting cages.

“They want it enclosed and climate control,” he said.

“Air condition?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he said.

And a new lighting system.

“Those who have been out to our park have seen what the lighting can do we paid premium to do those things because it’s pretty cool now we found out that our lighting specs have to go up and we know just that is a quarter a million dollars in improvements just to improve our lighting specs which were pretty solid, to begin with,” he said.

The I-Team found under the new guidelines the barely used lights are now too low and need to be moved up.

“Improvements on a brand-new stadium?” I asked.

“Improvements on a brand-new stadium. Correct. That were not anticipated in design,” Eisman said.

SRP Park still has that new stadium smell. The GreenJackets moved across the river to their new home in North Augusta in April of 2018.

“How much revenue did y’all lose in the pandemic?” I asked.

“Millions. Millions of dollars,” he said.

And now you have to spend millions of dollars in order to keep the franchise. Revenue losses, new stadium requirements, and then this.

“We’ve literally been crippled by this pandemic,” he said.

The I-Team obtained this letter from the city attorney of North Augusta sent to Jeff Eisman two weeks before opening day.

After attending the North Augusta Midland Valley Highschool game at SRP Park city attorney Kelly Zier wrote:

“The areas down the foul line in left field and right field pose substantial danger, particularly to persons not paying attention to the ball game being played….As an attorney, I am obviously very concerned about the liability issues related to safety issues that can be addressed but are not…”

“Here we are we are open we’ve played like three baseball games all amateur baseball games and your like here add a couple hundred thousand netting issue to your equations,” said Eisman.

The new major league baseball stadium requirements do not include upgrades to the netting, which is also brand new at SRP Park.

“We put in the highest grade netting we could into this ballpark we have netting that is significantly larger than what we had at Lake Olmstead. We haven’t had any injuries outside of the norm from a baseball game what is it that you are proposing we do? He said well what’s your time frame for expanding this out?” he said.

The city attorney goes on to write “I request the GreenJackets address this concern….I am writing this letter to you as the city attorney for the city of North Augusta. However, I am not writing based on any direction or instruction from the mayor or council…”

I got the impression this is not a letter the city had done or authorized. It’s more a concerned citizen that is writing it on the city’s stationery,” he said.

We reached out to the city attorney. Kelly Zier responded in this letter to the I-Team:

“Obviously, the letter as forwarded was not intended for public dissemination. I deem this letter to not only be within my legal authority but my responsibility as city attorney pursuit to the code of laws…which states as follows the city attorney shall enforce all laws and act to protect the interest of the city.”

The attorney’s concern might be valid.

This past Saturday we witnessed not just one but two balls land outside of the stadium during a game. There are signs warning fans “Please be aware of flying objects leaving the playing field” inside the stadium but not outside of SRP Park.

We also found this written under ticket terms and conditions on the GreenJackets website: ”Ticket holders assumes all risks associated with being a spectator before, after and during the baseball game.”

The baseball rule protects teams from foul ball lawsuits as long as the team offers some protected seating.

The rule is currently being challenged in an Illinois appeals court.

“We would never shirk a safety issue in the ballpark that is clearly not the case,” said Eisman.

Netting issues have been the case in the major leagues. An NBC news investigation found at least 808 reports of injuries to fans from baseballs from 2012 to 2019. A year before the pandemic shut down baseball around the country - a two year old girl was struck by a foul ball at an Astros game which caused permanent brain injury.

The I-Team found some major league teams have extended their netting voluntarily but it is not a requirement at this time.

Here at home we did not find any reports of local fans injured by foul balls. We did find signs posted around SRP Park warn “Please be aware of flying objects leaving the playing field.”

Another complicating factor SRP Park is a public private partnership. The city of North Augusta owns the stadium. Eisman is responsible for everything inside the stadium. Leaving him on the hook for all of these financial changes at an already strapped cash time.

For now, Eisman says he does not plan on expanding the current netting system unless Major League Baseball makes it a new stadium requirement. For now his focus is on getting back to normal.

“I need it my soul needs it...”

And normal in Augusta is baseball.

“...And I imagine most of the people in the community needs it...,” he said.

We asked the city attorney whether the city planned to help with the cost of the netting. We did not get a response. Kelly Zier also declined our request for an interview.

As far as all the changes to the brand new stadium as required to keep the Braves franchise, the GreenJackets have a few years to finish the punch list.

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