Tuesday, Feb. 02
PITTSFIELD -- Following a seven-year hiatus, professional baseball officially returned to Pittsfield on Monday when the owners of an independent league team that struggled financially last year in New Hampshire announced their franchise will play at Wahconah Park this summer.

Although the ownership group is still trying to bring additional investors on board, it announced that the former American Defenders of New Hampshire will play in the Berkshires. The group will operate the team under terms of a three-year license agreement that Pittsfield's former New England Collegiate Baseball League franchise signed with the city last year. The license agreement expires on Sept. 10, 2011. The Canadian-American League approved the move in December, pending the city's approval.

Boston Baseball All-Stars LLC also owned Pittsfield's NECBL franchise, but sold the team two months ago to a group from Bristol, Conn., to pay off existing debts.


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"Our goal is to have a very competitive team here," said Leslie "Buddy" Lewis, the chairman of Boston Baseball All-Stars LLC at a news conference to announce the team's arrival. "Otherwise, people won't come."

The team will be Pittsfield's first professional baseball team since the Berkshire Black Bears of the independent Northern League moved to New Haven, Conn., following the 2003 season.

Lewis said the team known last season as the Defenders will be renamed soon.

Boston Baseball All-Stars LLC ran into financial trouble in both Pittsfield and Nashua, N.H., last year and owed both cities a combined $60,000 when the season ended. The group paid the $24,700 that it owed the city of Pittsfield during the last week in December, and has reached an agreement to settle its debt in Nashua for $35,000, Lewis said.

Despite the ownership group's previous financial issues, Mayor James M. Ruberto said he is confident that the team will succeed in Pittsfield.

"Everything's a risk," Ruberto said. "When we went to restore the Colonial Theater, that was a risk. When we opened the Beacon Cinema, that was a risk. So nothing is ever guaranteed."

"There's no money owed the city, and there's no money that has been indiscriminately sold or lost by the City of Pittsfield," he added. "I'm confident in [Lewis]. I'm confident in the integrity of this man, and I'm confident that the people of Pittsfield want good baseball."

Boston Baseball All-Stars has reached an "agreement in principle" with a group of new investors, whom Lewis declined to name, who are expected to bring new capital to the ownership group. He expects the team's financial situation to be finalized in 30 to 45 days. Once the finances are finalized, the group plans to change its name from Boston Baseball All-Stars LLC, he said.

The executive director of the Texas-based Nokona Athletic Goods Co., which has two factories in Massachusetts, Lewis said last week that he would provide the additional financing himself if the investors fell through.

"We're coming here regardless," Lewis said.

Can-Am League Commissioner Miles Wolff said the team's move to Pittsfield is "great for the league." Wolff said he was concerned about the team's ability to play in Pittsfield when Lewis canceled what was supposed to be the team's introductory press conference in early January, but spoke to one of the group's potential investors on Monday.

"He's committed," Wolff said.

The ownership group has signed a six figure "letter of credit" with the Can-Am League that will provide the league with enough capital to operate the team this year if the owners run into financial problems.

The City of Nashua, N.H., locked the Can-Am League team out of its stadium in late August after Boston Baseball All-Stars LLC failed to pay $45,000 in rent and other related costs. The team played its final six games on the road.

"We were undercapitalized last year," Lewis said, referring to the situation in Nashua. "The group that's coming in understands what it takes to run one of these Can-Am League teams. They've seen our numbers from last year.

"It's not easy for these things to succeed," Lewis continued, "unless you get the support of the community, number one. It really is getting people into the ballpark. The numbers that we've projected to break even are very reasonable."

Unlike minor league teams that are affiliated with major league clubs, independent league franchises are responsible for all of their expenses. Even though teams in the Can-Am League have a salary cap, Lewis said it costs between $1 million and $1.2 million to successfully manage a team. With revenue from tickets, sponsorships, concessions and merchandise, Lewis said he believes the team can make between $1.1 million and $1.2 million in Pittsfield this year.

"The stadium holds about 3,500," Lewis said, referring to Wahconah Park. "Break-even for us is a 1,000 to 1,200 average, which I don't think is unreasonable.

"Last year, we averaged 300" fans in Nashua, where the Defenders finished last in the six-team Can-Am League in attendance. "So do the math."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski: tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6224.