Monday August 27, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- After a decade of failure, Pittsfield may have finally found a franchise that will make a long-term contribution to the city's rich baseball tradition at historic Wahconah Park.

Buoyed by better than expected attendance during their inaugural season this summer, the Pittsfield Suns are currently laying the groundwork that team management says could keep the Futures League franchise in Pittsfield beyond its current license agreement with the city, which expires in 2014.

General manager/coach Jamie Keefe said that it is "150 percent" certain that the summer collegiate baseball league franchise will return to Pittsfield in 2013 to fulfill the second year of its three-year license agreement with the city. The New Jersey-based Goldklang Group, which owns the Suns and three other baseball franchises across the country, believes the team could remain in Pittsfield beyond the next two years.

"As baseball operators our history has been to establish roots and remain in markets long term," said Jeff Goldklang, the managing director of the Goldklang Group, in an email message. "Our first year in Pittsfield gives us tremendous hope that we can do just that."

Pittsfield's New York Penn League franchise left in 2001, but none of the four succeeding teams has stayed at Wahconah Park for more than three years. Pittsfield's long history with minor league, independent league, and summer collegiate baseball league franchises dates back to 1905.


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Goldklang said his group has had "casual discussions" with city officials about the Suns' long-term prospects in Pittsfield, and "that it appears the feelings are mutual."

"As an aside, the city has been a phenomenal partner," he added. "They have been very understanding of our short- and long-term needs, and have worked with us to provide needed enhancements to Wahconah Park."

Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi could not be reached for comment on Saturday.

Before the season began, Goldklang said the Suns probably wouldn't make a "real dollar" profit this year, because of the money the ownership group had to spend in start-up costs, which he estimated then could run as high as six figures.

The Suns' figures for the 2012 season haven't been finalized yet, because the team is still paying bills related to the season, according to both Keefe and assistant general manager Kevin McGuire.

"As I told the Park Commission in November, we never measure our success in year one in dollars and cents," Goldklang said. "We measure it in the impact we have on a new market and in key areas, and most importantly the feedback we receive from the our fans.

"We can unequivocally say that we've exceeded our expectations across the board," he said.

According to Keefe, the Suns began the season with the goal of averaging 800 fans per game in 3,500-seat Wahconah Park, but ended up averaging 1,344 in 24 home dates, the second-best total among the Futures League's nine teams. The Suns overall home attendance of 32,261 was also the league's second best.

Unlike the rest of the Suns' management, Keefe had previous ties to Pittsfield, having spent 2011 managing the Pittsfield Colonials of the independent Canadian American League, which struggled at the gate during the two years they played at Wahconah Park, averaging 717 and 844 fans in 2010 and 2011.

Keefe attributes "ownership and the workforce" as the differences between the Colonials' failure and the Suns' success this summer. Keefe and Jackie Wendling, the Suns' director of client services, are the only two former Colonials employees who stayed with the Suns.

"I can't even begin to tell you the difference," Keefe said.

Another key to the Suns' success this year, according to Keefe, was the team's ingame promotions, which were coordinated by McGuire, who had been in charge of those services last year for the New York Penn League's Hudson Valley Renegades, who are also ow ned by the Goldklang Group. Those services featured contests that allowed fans to participate in on-field activities between innings.

"Our between-inning promotions blow anybody in this league, or anybody in the Can-Am League, or anybody that's been here, away," Keefe said.

Due to the recent failure of other franchises who played at Wahconah Park, Keefe and McGuire said the Suns' relationship with the local business community started slowly.

"This year was kind of tough," McGuire said. "People wanted to see how we would do. It was show me, and I'll get on board."

But McGuire said, the Suns finished the season with 25 sponsored signs in the outfield, and some 60 contributors when advertisements featured in the team's scorecard are added in.

The Suns intend to do more legwork in that area during the offseason.

"We've already started," McGuire said.

The Suns initially established their offices in a trailer at Wahconah Park. Other teams that have played in Pittsfield set up offices outside of the park, but Keefe and McGuire said the Suns intend to remain where they are.

"Having multiple locations makes it tough to find you," McGuire said. "This is where we feel we belong."

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