The Economic Challenge to Play Ball

Posted on 22 May 2009

It’s a struggle to operate any business in this economic climate. But starting an entire baseball league presents its own set of challenges.

Last year, Rusty Leaver, proprietor of Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk and father of a promising ball player in his own right, along with a handful of other local businessmen and women watched a dream materialize, creating a collegiate-level baseball team to compete in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League. The team, based in Sag Harbor and called the Whalers in homage to the community’s history, performed beyond anyone’s expectation, undoing a season-starting, five-game losing streak and winning their division. They stumbled in the league championship, but that was hardly going to get in the way of fulfilling another dream — starting a league of their own on the East End.

Fueled by last year’s success, Leaver and others are this year launching Hamptons Collegiate Baseball, a league with five local franchises — the Sag Harbor Whalers  Southampton Breakers, Riverhead Tomcats, Westhampton Aviators and North Fork Ospreys. The Long Island Mustangs, who pay further up the Island, will round out the league. It is modeled on a similar summer league on Cape Cod, which regularly attracts scouts from professional ball clubs, and has been the training grounds for hundreds of young men who have made their way to the majors.

But the effort of putting one team together is a lot different than putting together five.

Last year, the budget to field the Whalers was about $60,000, said Leaver in an interview this week. This year, cash out of hand will probably be closer to $250,000 — with a budget of about $45,0000 – $50,000 per team. Each town or community is fundamentally its own franchise, and responsible for organizing a volunteer administration.

“This year we set a target for each community to raise about $22,000, for the ball parks, for operating overhead,” said Leaver. The balance is raised by the league, he said, and acknowledged the sum can be a challenge for some towns.

“My mission, my job, is to try to raise money in a global way for the whole league,” he said, “to try to keep the costs down for the local community.”

Tom Gleeson, one of the local organizers for The Whalers has been pounding the pavement laying the groundwork for the team here this summer. Gleeson’s main charge is finding housing for the team’s 25 players, most of who are coming from far outside the area.

Like volunteers throughout the league, Gleeson does it because he wants to help the community — and loves baseball.

“As a former college basketball coach and father of a son who played baseball, I’m happy to see the team here; it’s good, free entertainment,” said Gleeson. “And it’s great to see the free clinics the local kids get.”

Gleeson is still looking for a few rooms for the players, by the way, and can be reached at 516-361-0998.

But people like Gleeson, who said local organizers are putting together a benefit party for the Whalers aboard one of the Shelter Island ferries — donated by ferry owner Cliff Clark — are what enable the league to exist financially. It seems to be the formula for getting the local teams together: find money where you can and rely on people who want some good old fashioned hardball to help with the rest.

The league also relies on receiving in-kind contributions, from businesses who can help with landscaping and construction, for example. In Southampton the league is refurbishing a neglected diamond on the campus of Stony Brook Southampton which will be the Breakers home field.

“We’re trying to be bullish on our expectations,” said Lever adding they want their facilities to be professional quality.

With the help of four different contractors who are working at cost  — and the donation of building material by Riverhead Building Supply — they are rehabbing the college field and building new dugouts.

“The work would easily have cost $150,000 to complete,” estimated Leaver. Actual cash out of hand, however, will be more like $60,000.

“We’re basically able to cut the cost in half,” he said.

Then there, of course, a couple of “names” from the private sector who have gotten involved, including comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and publisher Mort Zuckerman, who have added cash and cachet to the league. And the public sector has also been generous. On the North Fork State Assemblyman Marc Allesi has arranged for a grant for the league, and Suffolk County was helpful last year getting the Whalers started.

The league being local has also helped shave some of the expenses off last year’s budget.

“Travel alone last year was about $15,000,” said Leaver. “With the Jitney picking up most of the local travel costs, we can take that off the budget for this year.”

It still amounts to a lot of shoe leather for those who are doing the organizing to bring good baseball to the communities.

“Is it a big challenge,” asked Leaver. “Yes. We’ve been working at this 14 to 16 hours a day.”


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