Sunday June 3, 2012

PITTSFIELD

Three different ownership groups. Two independent-league teams. Two incarnations of the same summer collegiate-league franchise. They've all taken their swings at Pittsfield in the past 10 years and missed.

Pittsfield has a rich baseball past, but since the city's New York-Penn League franchise left in 2001, independent and collegiate-level teams have found historic Wahconah Park to be a baseball graveyard.

They've all been plagued by poor attendance, apathy from all but the most rabid fans, and an inability to connect with the community. The independent teams also were saddled with expenses they couldn't recoup in a market the size of Pittsfield's.

This year, a fourth partnership, the Goldklang Group, has decided to take a chance on Wahconah Park with the Pittsfield Suns, a summer collegiate-league team that plays in the 2-year-old Futures League. The Suns open their season at home on Thursday night.

While the problems of trying to successfully operate a team in this small market haven't changed, the Goldklang Group has two advantages over other owners who have come to Pittsfield in the past decade: They've owned pro baseball teams for 23 years, and they have a successful track record operating them.

"Let's put it this way, if anybody can make it work, it's the Goldklang family," said Leslie "Buddy" Lewis, part of the ownership group that managed the Pittsfield Colonials of the Canadian-American League and the American Defenders of Pittsfield, the city's final team in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.


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The NECBL team left town in 2009 to make room for the Colonials, who experienced some on-field success but struggled at the gate. After the team played two years in Pittsfield, the Can-Am League revoked its charter after the 2011 season.

"It's their experience," Lewis said of the Goldklangs. "They've been in minor-league baseball for a number of years. I was kind of a novice. I have a great respect for [Chairman] Marv Goldklang. They came to Pittsfield because they believe it can work. If anybody can succeed, they will."

Marv Goldklang, also a minority owner in the New York Yankees, founded the Goldklang Group in 1989 when the investment partnership that he led acquired controlling interests in three affiliated minor-league franchises.

The group still owns two of those -- the Fort Myers Miracle in the Class A Florida State League, and the Charleston RiverDogs in the Class A South Atlantic League.

The Goldklang Group also owns the Hudson Valley Renegades in the Class A New York-Penn League and the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League. The Suns are the Goldklang Group's first venture into summer collegiate-league ball.

Closer to this area, the Goldklang family has owned second homes in the Berkshires for years, and in the 1980s it owned a piece of the Class AA Pittsfield Cubs, the last of the city's many Eastern League franchises.

"One of the things that I think we have to our advantage that some others in the past lacked is that we have the backing of a major organization," said Jeff Goldklang, the group's managing director. "We own four teams that are already very successful and have a large financial backing.

"We understand the situation of succeeding in Pittsfield," he said. "Some ownership groups came in, and when they didn't succeed in two or three years, you saw changes when they'd pull back on the influx of cash. That's not successful not only for the team, but for the ballpark, which is an aging one."

When he appeared before the Park Commission in November, Goldklang said the Suns might not make a profit during their first year at Wahconah.

"It depends if you're talking an accounting profit or a real dollar profit," he said. "With the amount of money we've already invested this year, we wouldn't make a profit. We're already in five figures. It will be close to six before we finish it off."

The Suns are contractually obligated to play at Wahconah Park through Sept. 1, 2014, according to their three-year license agreement with the city of Pittsfield that was signed in December.

"There's no question that we're here for the long haul," Goldklang said. "We absolutely see us being here after 2014."

The Goldklang Group has proved it knows how to stage in-game promotions, an important part of marketing. The ownership group's president, Mike Veeck, is the son of the ultimate baseball promoter, former major-league owner Bill Veeck, who once sent a midget to the plate, gave the baseball world Disco Demolition Night, and made short pants part of the Chicago White Sox uniform ensemble when he owned the team during the 1970s.

The group also has a so-called "Director of Fun," comedian Bill Murray, who is listed as "team psychologist" on the partnership's masthead.

Murray isn't specifically involved with the Suns, but he holds co-ownership in the group's four pro baseball franchises. Efforts to reach Murray were unsuccessful, but Jeff Goldklang said Murray often visits the group's ballparks without notifying anyone.

"He'll end up showing up at particular ballclubs unannounced," Goldklang said.

The Suns have scheduled a promotion for each of their 27 home games this year at Wahconah Park, which opened in 1892, and Goldklang said they are making improvements there, including the installation of a new sound system. Goldklang said the park's current system is so old that he believes it was used by the Pittsfield Cubs more than 25 years ago.

"As a group we pride ourselves on our promotions," he said. "We're continuing to work with the city to discuss partnerships and upgrades to the ballpark that will be beneficial to greater Pittsfield."

Goldklang said ownership has been "on the ground" in Pittsfield since winter, talking with local businesses about becoming involved with the team.

"One thing we're very good at is penetrating into those markets, receiving local cooperation from groups and local businesses," he said.

Michael Supranowicz, president and CEO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, said the Suns have yet to speak with his organization, which consists mostly of small businesses, but that a member of his staff has reached out to the team.

"They've indicated that they've been thinking about joining," Supranowicz said.

Goldklang said businesses his group has talked with were wary at first about partnerning because of their relationships with Pittsfield's most recent franchises.

"One of the things that I knew we would encounter was a little bit of a scorched-earth mentality in Pittsfield," Goldklang said. "It's, ‘I love baseball, but I've been burned.' We embrace that.

"One of the things about Pittsfield more than other markets is a love of the game," he added. "A lot of other markets, you have to walk in and explain why baseball is important. Here they already love it."

Goldklang declined to identify the businesses the Suns have spoken with, but said they range from "very large" to ones involving two or three employees.

"We have quite a few sponsors," he said. "On Opening Day we'll have some signage out there."

As of Friday, the only signs posted in the outfield at Wahconah Park were for the Pittsfield Cooperative Bank and The Berkshire Eagle. An old Pittsfield Colonials' sign also was still in place.

Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi said he likes what he's seen from the Goldklang Group.

"I was impressed by the fact that they've been successful," Bianchi said. "I know those [other] markets are different, but they have a lot of experience working in this industry, and being successful they seem to understand what they need to do."

Financially, summer collegiate-league teams are much less expensive to operate than professional independent clubs, which is a big plus in a small market such as Pittsfield.

The players don't get paid because they aren't professionals, so unlike the Colonials, the Suns aren't responsible for salaries or workers' compensation costs, which Lewis said make up at least half of a pro team's expenses.

Whereas an independent team needs to make about $1 million annually to be successful, a summer collegiate team can survive on about $200,000, according to Bob Wirz, a Connecticut-based baseball consultant who helped bring the Northern League's Berkshire Black Bears to Pittsfield in 2002.

"My understanding is that collegiate teams with their budgets are right in that vicinity," Wirz said. "I can't speak chapter and verse for Pittsfield, but that's what you need to basically break even with those teams."

Wirz said he believes the Goldklang Group can succeed in Pittsfield.

"They know how to do it," he said. "They're such experienced operators. I don't want to put down the people who were there before, but these guys really know their business."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com
(413) 496-6224
On Twitter: @tonydobrow

Baseball 2012

Who: Pittsfield Suns, a summer collegiate-league team.

League: Futures.

Tickets: $5 to $19.

Opener: Thursday, 7 p.m., vs. Nashua, at Wahconah Park.

More info: (413) 445-SUNS, www.pittsfieldsuns.com, www.facebook.com/
pittsfieldsuns.

Coming Wednesday: Team preview. In Sports.

Pittsfield's past

PRO BASEBALL

1905: Saugerties/Pittsfield Hillies, Class C minor leagues, Hudson River League.

1913-14: Pittsfield Electrics, Class B, Eastern Association.

1919-30: Pittsfield Hillies, Class A, Eastern League.

1941-42: Pittsfield Electrics, Class C, Canadian-American League.

1946-48: Pittsfield Electrics, Class C, Canadian-American League.

1949-50: Pittsfield Indians, Class C, Canadian-American League.

1951: Pittsfield Phillies, Class C, Canadian-American League.

1965-69: Pittsfield Red Sox, Class AA, Eastern League.

1970-71: Pittsfield Senators, Class AA, Eastern League.

1972-75: Pittsfield Rangers, Class AA, Eastern League.

1976: Berkshire Brewers, Class AA, Eastern League.*

1985-88: Pittsfield Cubs, Class AA, Eastern League.

1989-2000: Pittsfield Mets, Class A, New York-Penn League.

2001: Pittsfield Astros, Class A, New York-Penn League.

2002-03: Berkshire Black Bears, Independent, Northern League.**

2010-11: Pittsfield Colonials, Independent, Canadian-American League.

COLLEGIATE

2005-08: Pittsfield Dukes, New England Collegiate Baseball League.

2009: American Defenders of Pittsfield, NECBL.

* -- Finished season in Albany, N.Y., after Wahconah Park was closed for renovations.

** -- Played 2002 season in Eastern Division of the Northern League, which became the Northeast League the following year.

Source: baseball-reference.com; Eagle files.