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March 27, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN- Ballpark can only be a plus

MORGANTOWN — In baseball, the greatest gift a player can possess is the gift of vision.

You can be 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, quick as a cat, strong as a bull, but you aren’t going to hit a 95-mile-an-hour fastball or spot the spin on the curveball unless you have nearly perfect vision.

There is another kind of vision, though, that is crucial in the game, the vision that is necessary for those running the show to see into the future, to find opportunities for growth and success, be it on the field or at the box office.

It is the vision it took Branch Rickey to open the sport to African-American players when he brought Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn, the vision that his successor Walter O’Malley had when he moved those same Dodgers from Brooklyn from Los Angeles.

It is vision at the top of the game and at the bottom, in the minor league, even at the lowest level of the minor leagues, such as the New York-Penn short-season league, where vision is just as necessary for success … vision not only in running the league but in finding places that have the necessary kind of vision to make a franchise work.

That was what they saw in Morgantown as they decided that they would join forces with West Virginia University, the city and the state of West Virginia to relocate the Jamestown, N.Y., franchise here, which is just what they plan to do once approval is granted to build a new baseball stadium at the University Town Centre.

“Vision is a pretty cool thing and there is a tremendous vision here in Morgantown and across the river and what has a chance to happen here,” said Pat O’Conner, president and CEO of all minor league baseball, in town to announce the pending franchise relocation.

The vision that has been displayed here in Morgantown over the past decade and a half has been staggering. An itinerant sports writer made his way here that long ago, plus a couple of years, and got to thinking about it on Tuesday as O’Conner talked about vision and plans for building that new stadium on the grounds of the University Town Centre.

The Morgantown he moved into then was a different place … there were no suites at the football stadium, no indoor facility, no basketball practice facility, no gymnastics building or wrestling building. There was no soccer stadium or practice field.

The athletic program had just moved into the Big East, and there was no beer sold at the football stadium.

There was no University Town Centre, no one even thinking of such a thing, and Sunnyside was still a neighborhood and University High was in its old building and there was no rail trail and getting a new U.S. Post Office was as far off as building a baseball stadium.

But, with vision, times change and things change, and so it has been with Morgantown.

O’Conner understands the concept.

“Things like this just don’t happen,” O’Conner said. “I was on campus two years ago and spoke to a sports management group for Dallas Branch, a college classmate of mine at Ohio University, and had an opportunity to visit with (WVU athletic director) Oliver Luck.

“I met him for the first time and it was very clear to me that this is a man that one, loves this university and loves his job, and he also had vision. It was at that point that the seed was planted.”

Indeed, back then things were happening, things that would lead to a move to the Big 12, to beer in the stadium, to selling Tier 3 rights and to building a new stadium that would provide the impetus to bring minor league baseball to Morgantown.

Vision, that’s what it was about, and that’s how it was when O’Conner went on a tour of the proposed stadium site.

Some who look at it see just a stadium, a place to play a baseball game, but he saw more, just as he hoped the West Virginia Legislature will see when it votes on financing the project.

“It was fascinating today to sit up on that bluff and see what was going on,” O’Conner said. “It’s the concept of creating a multifaceted destination. You are creating a destination not only for an athletic event but entertainment, shopping, dining … when you do that it sustains TIF, it sustains area and promotes further growth because capitalists in this country are going to go where you have people.”

And people are coming to Morgantown and coming to the University Town Centre and its shops, theaters and restaurants, just as they are doing at the other new shopping destinations in town. As they compete for business, as the university grows, as its athletic teams improve and look forward rather than backward, the city, the county, the area and the state benefit.

O’Conner believes that Luck and Ben Hayes, the president of the New York-Penn League, and others are on to something that can only grow bigger and better.

“Ben and Oliver and the people who are working here on a day-to-day basis have nurtured that seed into what is going to be a phenomenal asset, to not only Morgantown, but to the community and the whole state of West Virginia, and certainly the university,” O’Conner said.

“I think that the win-win includes the university to the highest level. It is going to be a facility to be proud of and it is also going to be a facility to help recruit players, host regional tournaments and be at a situation to elevate your game, so to speak; literally and figuratively. It is an exciting time for the university as well.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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