The Times West Virginian

March 27, 2013

Field of dreams

Morgantown eager for complex, minor league team

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — As its bid to get approval for funding of a new baseball stadium moved into the bottom of the ninth inning, West Virginia University went to its bullpen for its closer on Tuesday, bringing in the head of minor league baseball and the president of the New York-Penn League to deliver a familiar message — if you build it, we will come.

True, in the movie “Field of Dreams” the correct quote was, “If you build it, he will come,” the “he” being “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, but the message here in Morgantown remains the same as it was in that Iowa cornfield.

In this case Pat O’Conner, president of minor league baseball, and Ben Hayes, president of the New York-Penn League, a short-season minor league, were saying if the university can push through the construction of a baseball field alongside Walmart at the University Towne Center location, that league will relocate the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Jamestown franchise here.

The cost of the stadium was estimated at between $16 million and $18 million by WVU associate athletic director Mike Parsons, although there are no plans yet drawn up or contractor hired. And while it has been repeated over and over since this project was first proposed that it would be built with tax increment financing (TIF), it came out during a Tuesday morning press conference at the Jerry West Lounge that it could cost a couple of million or more dollars than that.

It has not yet been worked out whether the university, the minor league or the taxpayers would wind up fielding such an overrun.

“Generally speaking there are things everyone needs to bring to the table,” Hayes, a former pitcher and now an attorney, said. “I don’t believe TIF will build that stadium completely. There will be some expectation the minor league club participate and West Virginia participate. But those details, we need more information on the design, how big it’s going to be and that kind of thing.”

The financing plan recently passed the West Virginia Senate unanimously but has yet to pass the House. It is reasonable to assume O’Conner did not leave the warmth of St. Petersburg, Fla., to do this campaigning for the issue of moving a team here were it not a sure thing that once it passes all the legislative and internal hurdles such the governor’s approval and the board of governors.

As things stand now, plans are to complete construction and have this field of Oliver Luck’s dreams operational in the spring of 2015.

That means the WVU baseball team would play one more season of vagabond baseball after this season.

The message that O’Conner and Hayes carried was that they are ready to relocate the Jamestown franchise — affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates — in a new stadium in Morgantown and that it would enhance the economy and the quality of life in the area, as well as being a large asset to the university itself.

“In short, we’re just thrilled about the potential opportunity to relocate here,” Hayes said, noting that they have teams working in relationship with other universities and says because there is little overlap it works extremely well.

The point that was being driven home over and over throughout the discussion was that this stadium offers tremendous opportunities beyond just WVU baseball.

“It provides more than just an opportunity for West Virginia University to play baseball,” Parsons said. “It’s more for the community. It helps us socially, it helps us recreationally, it helps us economically.”

Parsons noted that there have already been discussions with Fairmont State University about using the facility, along with American Legion play in Morgantown and possibly the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission for tournament play.

“There are opportunities for other events there as well,” Hayes pointed out. “You can utilize the facility throughout the whole year, whether it be concerts, corporate outings or those types of things. There’s always a desire to use the facility to its fullest.”

“You will see a tremendous spillover into the academic side,” O’Conner added. “You are creating a laboratory for students to learn game operations, business, marketing. We do that well across the board in minor league baseball with internships and programs that allow students to learn the game hands on in a working environment.”

The New York-Penn League has been in operation since 1939 and has seen a number of future Hall of Fame players such as left-handed pitcher Warren Spahn, second baseman Nellie Fox and third baseman Wade Boggs play there, along with other stars such as Don Mattingly.

The league normally is the starting place for players out of the June draft, last year having seven of its 14 franchises place their No. 1 draft picks on New York-Penn League rosters.

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