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Jim O’Brien: Wild Things still chasing the big-time dream

August 12, 2012

JIm O’Brien: Wild Things still chasing the big-time dream

Pittsburgh sports author and Pittsburgh Business Times columnist Jim O’Brien

The won-lost record and the ballpark attendance are down, but the principal owner of the Washington Wild Things remains up.

Stu Williams is aware that his Wild Things have not been playing as well as they have in the past, or drawing the kinds of crowds they traditionally attracted at CONSOL Energy Park, but he is an indefatigable optimist and is thrilled to have a franchise in the Frontier League.

“We are doing our best,” said the 58-year-old attorney from Upper St. Clair who provides legal guidance for Mylan Corporation among many top-tier clients, and has been involved in the ownership of the Wild Things since their origin in 2002.

“We couldn’t do this without Consol Energy, Washington Financial, or the Coury Family.  It doesn’t happen without them.  Without them there are no Wild Things. I’m optimistic.  I’m confident.  I love this.  I want this to work.”

His group bought the ballpark, originally known as Falconi Field, for $3.9 million last year.  Williams is working on establishing a Frontier League franchise in Bridgeport, W.V. as well as maintaining the one in Washington.

Former Steelers’ center Dermontti Dawson, soon to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is one of the investors, along with Jeff Coury, president of Coury Financial Group in Pittsburgh. Stu’s wife, Francine or Frani Williams, joins him as a managing partner.

Four of their six children were all working at some task in the ballpark on Friday the 13th when the Wild Things celebrated Halloween in July.  Frani was doling out free chocolate chip cookies and mini-milk cartons during the fifth inning, a ritual at all home games.  It’s a family affair.

The oldest of the Williams’ children, Louis, 27, was not there; he’s in med school at Albany (N.Y.) Medical College.  Nicole, 25, a graduate of Hofstra University, is going to play pro basketball in Israel next season.  Elana, 20, was serving food in the suites section; she’s a student at Pitt.  Philip, 18, is a sophomore at Pitt and a Chancellor’s Scholar.  Amanda, 14, and Shane, 8, were there as well.

Marketing Director Christine Blaine came to the ballpark that night in the spirit of “Halloween in July” dressed as Snow White, and Operations/Special Events Director Wayne Herrod came with his face painted green and black as a camouflaged soldier.
Anything for the cause.  Both put in long days and are respected by the media they serve.

“All we need are 3,000 fans per game,” said Herrod.  “If we could get 8 per cent of the population within a 30-mile radius of the park we’d be happy.”

Williams wants to see that happen sooner than later.

“I think we’re doing everything right,” said Williams. “I know that sounds boastful, but we have a lot of things in the right place.  We have a beautiful field, good coaches, a good staff throughout, good music.  Kids can go out on the field after every game.  We’re more open here.  We just haven’t won yet.”

He’s pleased the Pittsburgh Pirates have been playing so well this summer, drawing bigger crowds and increased TV ratings, even if it has made his job more challenging.

Some fans complain that parking was raised from $3 to $5 and concession prices went up a bit.  Even so, a family of four can have an evening of fun for less than $50.  The general admission seats are $5 and the most expensive are $15.  A beer is $6.  For $10 fans can buy a Wild Dog Combo – a hot dog, French fries and a 32-ounce soda.

He pointed out a huge video screen on the right field wall that was showing images of the ballplayers.  “We just put that in,” said Williams.  “It cost a million dollars. We’re making improvements to the field and to every aspect of the operation.”

He pointed to a pink sky over a sylvan setting framing the outfield wall at sunset.  The backdrop reminds older fans of Forbes Field in Oakland, looking out into Schenley Park.  Announcer Bill DiFabio calls it “The House of Thrills” over the public address system throughout the games.

“We have a different set of fans,” said Williams, “and they like coming here.  We’ve got to get back some of the fans who came here because the park was new and the team was new.  We’ll get there.  Our kids are playing their hearts out.  I hope the Pirates do well.  The Pirates’ experience is first class; we’re not at the same price point.”

The Frontier League player payroll per team is $75,000 for a 24-man roster, with a salary range of $600 to $1600 a month, based on experience.  Age limit is 27.  Teams can keep one veteran player beyond that.

Williams knows the players, even some of the best of the opposing players, and he’s focused on the field as well as the stands during the games.  He blanches if a sore subject is introduced in the conversation, but he stays focused.  “Those are tough questions,” Williams said several times.

“We’ll get the players and we’ll be fine,” he said.  “We love what we’re doing here, and we believe we have become a real asset to Washington County.  We provide a real entertainment option here.  We have brought in a big-time circus, wrestling shows, provided a first-class ballfield for youth baseball and softball teams, we have plenty of promotions and fun nights, mascots the kids love, and we’re having fun.”

The team has been flirting with seventh place or last place in its division, and the average attendance of 1,537 (after 52 games) is next to last in the 14-team league.  It’s a league with teams called the Evansville Otters, Lake Erie Crushers and Schaumburg Boomers and visiting teams stay at the Red Roof Inn when they come to Washington.  The London Rippers folded their franchise following Tuesday’s game in Washington, and Williams watched the game more intently than usual because he picked up four players from the Rippers.

That’s all you need to know that this is not the National League or the American League.  It’s an independent league with no major league affiliations, but the teams are stocked with eager young men who love to play the game, many of them still holding on to a dream that someday they will make it to the big dance.

One sees catches, throws and double-plays that are as good as anything offered by the Pirates at PNC Park.  “I’ve been out there, and I was impressed with the quality of play,” said Joe Gordon, the former publicist for the Pittsburgh Steelers who played baseball at Pitt and is a big fan of the sport.  “Like the Pirates, they do a great job in the entertainment business.  It’s a great setting.”

The 3,200-capacity baseball field, a gem of a facility, is located just off Route 70, next to the Crowne Center Mall, 30 miles from the Pirates’ PNC Park, but it’s a world away from the life of  Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker.

Former Pirates’ pitcher and present-day broadcaster Steve Blass stopped by CONSOL Energy Park with his wife Karen.  “We have a break for the All-Star Game,” said Karen, “so what’s he do?  He takes me to a baseball game.”

Blass came because he was invited to see a young man from his neck of the woods in Connecticut pitch for the Traverse City Beach Bums.  Blass would have been a good fit on such a team.  “I wish when I played we had a park like this,” observed Blass, standing behind home plate.  “We didn’t have this.  This is a gem.”

Blass beamed as he took in the scene.  “This is a lot more fun for the ballplayers,” he said.

Paul Fox, the orchestra director at Upper St. Clair High School, and his wife, Donna, who does the same at Peters Township High School, brought her father Donald Stark to the game.  “We broke him out of Country Meadows (senior care facility) for the night,” offered Paul Fox.  “We’re here about three times a year and it’s the friendliest place you want to be.”

Alex and Ria Kartsonas accompanied a dozen kids from an under-8 softball team in Peters Township on a group package.  “We’re having a ball,” reported Ria.

Alex, 45, who played baseball at the University of Pittsburgh, said, “You’re so close to the field here.  There are so many things going on here the kids don’t have a chance to get bored.”

Chris Bando, who has been in professional baseball for 28 years, is in his first year as field manager for the Wild Things.  “I’m passionate about baseball,” he said.  “Player development and community development are keys for me.  I see what the team owners are doing and I want to be a part of bringing a championship to the Wild Things.”

His bench coach is the ebullient Lenny Randle, who has 17 years of professional baseball experience, 11 in the Major Leagues.  He’s quite a character. He once gained national attention when he was with the New York Mets and got down on all fours and tried to blow a baseball off the baseline into foul territory.  He’s a real ambassador for the Wild Things and banters with fans during breaks in the action.

“He’s a lot of fun,” said Williams.  “He’s training these youngsters to be big leaguers.  He’s a big brother, a swag daddy.  We have the youngest team in the league, and he’s teaching them. I think this would make for a good reality TV show.”

Two of the home grown players are  Andrew Heck and Rick Devereaux who were students at Duquesne University when the school dropped baseball as a varsity sport two years ago.  Heck, an outfielder from the North Hills, transferred to Oklahoma State, and  Devereaux, a catcher from West Allegheny High, to Pitt.  Gus Benusa, an outfielder, played at Riverview High School in Oakmont.

“This is an opportunity to play professional baseball,” said Heck.  “I’m 23 and I’m still young enough to do something like this.  I’m still living the dream.  If I didn’t love baseball, I wouldn’t be here.  We both have our college degrees so we’re prepared for the next step.”

“It’s an opportunity to play ball,” said Devereaux.  “I’m not playing here for the money.  I live at home and my family is supportive. I hope to get picked up somewhere. I’m putting everything into it.”

Randle, ever the cheerleader, said, “When I look at Heck and Devereaux, I see future major leaguers.”

Williams pointed out a young woman who was walking deliberately across the aisle, pushing a baby in a stroller.  “Her husband is one of our infielders,” said Williams.  “She pauses and watches him at bat and then resumes strolling.  That’s what this is all about.”

The young woman, Erin Garvey was pacing with her 11-month-old son Levi.  Her husband, Robbie, played baseball at Southern Nevada Junior College when she was on the softball team.  “We were engaged for three years before we got married, so we’re patient about all this,” she said.  “Right now, I’m fine with what he’s doing.  We’re both 23.  He wants to make it in the big leagues.  That’s his dream.  I’m in school now and I want to be a nurse.  I’m trying to follow my dream, too.”

Two of the hardcore fans who are still wild about the Wild Things are Emily Narsavage and Martha McNutt, both in their 70s, who come to all the games from Woodlands Village, a senior community ten minutes from the ballpark.

“I’ve always loved baseball and I played mushball when I was young,” said Ms. Narsavage.  “Martha and I even got dressed up for Halloween. See we’re wearing Wild Things shirts that are orange and black.”

Ms. McNutt said, “We enjoy the atmosphere at this ball park as much as the baseball.  We see friends here.  We talk to people.  The employees are great; it’s just a fun time.  Everybody is nice to you, all the way up to the big guy, Stu Williams.

“He’s really trying to make something of this.   You have no idea of how hard they’re trying.  They just haven’t found the right combination yet.”

John Chambers, a 60-year-old coal miner from Carmichaels, is a season ticket holder with front-row seats along first base.  He’s had season tickets from the start.

“I like the family atmosphere here,” said Chambers.  “I like the hustle.  I see major leaguers dogging it and not running out ground balls.  I like watching these kids who don’t make much money who are trying so hard.”

ATTENDANCE FOR 48 HOME GAME SCHEDULE THROUGH THE YEARS

Provided by Frontier League

Year       Total Attendance      Avg. Attendance

2002      132,901                        2,768

2003      156,276                        3,255

2004      154,276                        3,214

2005      154,963                        3,228

2006      152,805                        3,183

2007      155,894                        3,247

2008      154,444                        3,217

2009      133,881                        2,789

2010      116,722                        2,431

2011      104,635                        2,179

Pittsburgh Business Times columnist Jim O’Brien has written 20 books in his “Pittsburgh Proud” sports series.  His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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