By Cam Huffman
Minor League baseball is coming to Morgantown — probably.
The New York-Penn League announced Tuesday at a press conference inside the Jerry West Lounge of the West Virginia University Coliseum its intention to relocate one of its existing 14 franchises — all affiliated with Major League Baseball teams — to Morgantown in time for the 2015 season.
“The New York-Penn League is already established as one of the premier leagues in all of Minor League Baseball,” said New York-Penn League president Ben Hayes. “By adding the vibrant northern West Virginia regional community and a top-notch facility that it would share with West Virginia University, we know the New York-Penn League will continue to reach new levels of success.”
In its 74-year history, the league — which plays a 76-game season from mid-June through early-September, often bringing in players to get their careers started immediately following the MLB Draft — has seen such players as Warren Spahn, Nellie Fox, Phil Niekro, Wade Boggs, Pete Rose, Don Mattingly, Randy Johnson and Andrew McCutchen come through its ranks in the past.
As Haynes indicated, the new Morgantown team will share a stadium with WVU. The yet-to-be-built ballpark will be located in the University Town Centre Development and will overlook the city of Morgantown and WVU.
“This is probably the single biggest baseball event to happen in Morgantown baseball history,” said WVU first-year head coach Randy Mazey, who has led his team to a 3-3 record in its first two Big 12 baseball series this season. “From talking to people, I don’t know if anything of this magnitude has ever affected the Morgantown baseball community like this stadium will.”
The New York-Penn League has successfully used relationships with colleges in the past, including the State College Spikes, who share facilities with Penn State University.
Ground will likely be broken on the new ballpark in 2014, with the new team potentially playing its first game at the facility in 2015.
There are, however, a few hurdles that must still be cleared.
Monongalia County wants to levy a special tax to raise $16 million for the ballpark. An additional $12 million would improve infrastructure around the site and a nearby shopping center in Morgantown. The county first must receive permission from the state Legislature. A bill was passed by the state Senate this month and is now before the House Judiciary Committee.
“Just as Yogi Berra used to say, ‘It isn’t over until it’s over,’” said Pat O’Conner, president of Minor League Baseball. “There are a lot of places that I could be outside of Morgantown, but this is a sign of the excitement that we share for this project.”
“The legislation authorizing the ballpark and the new interchange along I-79, which was authored by Senator Bob Beach, is moving through the West Virginia Legislature,” said WVU athletic director Oliver Luck. “Both college and minor league baseball fans are hoping that we will soon be able to celebrate its approval and hear the three best words in the English language — ‘Let’s play ball.’”
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News also coming out of Tuesday’s press conference that could have an impact locally was that of a contract agreement between WVU and Linda K. Epling Stadium through the 2014 season.
WVU will play four games in Beckley this season — all three games of a Big 12 series with Kansas April 26-28 and the final game of a three-game series with Marshall on May 14 — but the expectation, from many, was that the Mountaineers would be back on campus for 2014.
Although WVU officials said that’s still a possibility, they indicated Tuesday that a 2015 move-in date for the new stadium is more realistic. Parsons said WVU has signed a two-year contract with both Linda K. Epling Stadium and Appalachian Power Park in Charleston — where the Mountaineers are playing 11 home dates this season — but that WVU can get out of the contract if it chooses.
In all likelihood, though, WVU baseball will return to Beckley in 2014.
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The new team in Morgantown isn’t expected to have any negative impact on any of the other minor league teams in the state — the West Virginia Power (Class A South Atlantic League in Charleston), the Princeton Rays (Rookie Appalachian League in Princeton) or the Bluefield Blue Jays (Rookie Appalachian League in Bluefield). In fact, O’Conner said the new team could positively impact those clubs, especially the Power.
“Under our rules, teams are granted territories,” he explained. “Charleston has its own territory, which is not a conflict with this.
“I really think it’s a win-win. It will create more interest in baseball and create an opportunity for the fans in Morgantown to maybe see a player at the short-season, Class A level play in Charleston later on as a visiting team or home team player. There are also some interlocking marketing opportunities on a regional basis.”
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The new stadium won’t be used only for baseball. Hayes explained the stadium can be used for concerts, public events and corporate outings.
O’Connor added that it will benefit WVU from an academic prospective by providing a laboratory for students to learn game operations, business and marketing.
“The business, media, sport management and hospitality programs will benefit greatly,” he said.
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Details on exactly what the stadium will include are still being worked out, but all participants in Tuesday’s press conference agreed that it will be a complete facility for WVU baseball, including clubhouses, offices, etc. The New York-Penn League has a list of amenities that must be included.
As far as the field itself, Parsons indicated that they haven’t decided on a surface — real or artificial — at this point. Those details will be decided by the developers, along with the WVU coaching staff.
— E-mail: chuffman@
register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.