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January 21, 2010

Oneonta Tigers: Going, going, gone?


By P.J. Harmer

Staff Writer

ONEONTA _ Nearly a half-century of New York-Penn League baseball in Oneonta could end as early as Friday.

Speculation as to whether the Oneonta Tigers will stay for the 2010 season should end Friday as the NY-Penn will reveal which of its 14 teams will settle at Dodd Stadium in Norwich, Conn., during a 1 p.m. media conference at Norwich City Hall.

"I know there's been no official announcement by the NY-Penn League," said Norwich City Manager Alan Bergren, who added that the city approved a contract Tuesday to lease the 6,000-seat stadium to a NY-Penn team. "We've been in negotiations through our city baseball authority and the council to bring a NY-Penn League team to Norwich.

"We've heard teams mentioned, but it's not official," he continued. "It'll be officially made public Friday."

NY-Penn President Ben Hayes did not return messages left Wednesday at his office in St. Petersburg, Fla. His wife, Laurie Hayes, said her husband was unavailable for comment because he was traveling but added that he will attend Friday's media conference in Norwich.

O-Tigers General Manager Andrew Weber refused to comment on the situation, continuing to cite a league-wide gag order on the move that Ben Hayes imposed earlier this month.

"I am abiding by what I've been told by the league," Weber said Wednesday at the O-Tigers' offices at Damaschke Field. "I can't speak for anything about that. ... I've been told by Ben, I've been told by the league that we have to abide by the gag order and I can't comment on anything involving the relocation to Norwich or Norwich itself."

When asked if the O-Tigers would play the 2010 season at Damaschke Field, Weber again used the gag order as a shield.

"There's speculation now about every team," he said. "Answering that question one way or another says that either we are one of those teams or not, and what I've been told is that I have to abide by a gag order until I'm told otherwise."

Last week, Weber said the O-Tigers were still selling season tickets for 2010. On Wednesday, a Daily Star employee called the O-Tigers office to ask about buying season tickets and was told to call back later in the week. Around 6 p.m., the Star again called Weber, who said the O-Tigers were still accepting orders for season tickets.

Oneonta Mayor Dick Miller said Wednesday he has purchased 2010 O-Tigers season tickets _ which range from $135 for one general-admission seat to $1,500 for a six-seat box _ and added the franchise cashed his check. Miller added he planned to attend the June 26 home opener, when Oneonta is scheduled to host the Vermont Lake Monsters.

Miller also said the Tigers have nothing major standing in their way, should they decide to leave.

"There's no financial impediment to their leaving," he said. "There's my judgement, given the length of the relationship we've had with the New York-Penn League and the statements given by the new owners _ I'd be really surprised to be left at the altar, so to speak. At the same time, I understand the economics."

Miller is a shareholder in Rochester Community Baseball, which owns the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. His group also has an operating agreement with the Batavia Muckdogs of the NY-Penn.

Miller said according to numbers he received, the Muckdogs lost $250,000 in 2008 and $140,000 in 2009.

The Muckdogs finished second-to-last in NY-Penn attendance last season at 35,620. The Tigers finished last with 23,521 fans, 16,088 fewer than in 2008.

The decline in attendance at Damaschke Field followed the Dec. 2008 sale of the Oneonta Athletic Corporation, which failed to obtain a beer license in 2009 because it never applied for one.

The Oneonta franchise has been a member of the NY-Penn since 1966, starting as an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Oneonta became part of the Yankees' system in 1967, a relationship that lasted 32 years before Detroit stepped in after New York moved its NY-Penn team to Staten Island in 1999.

Longtime OAC owners Sam Nader and Sid Levine sold the franchise to a group headed by New York City attorney E. Miles Prentice III following the 2008 season. In 2009, Prentice's group eliminated free nights, which were sponsored by local businesses and traditionally drew the largest crowds. The new owners also increased the prices for season tickets but lowered the cost of single-game, general-admission tickets.

Terms of the 2008 sale included keeping the team in Oneonta through the 2010 season, Nader reiterated Wednesday.

"Part of the contract was they would honor the current contract with the city," he said. "They would be here through 2010."

Though Nader spoke highly of Prentice and his group, he said he would be disappointed if the O-Tigers left this season.

"It would be a lack of honesty," he said. "But who knows? I still say they are good people. My experience was always very good."

Messages left for Prentice on his office, cell and home phones were not returned to The Daily Star on Wednesday.

"If you buy a house, you live in it for awhile," Prentice said during an interview with The Daily Star on July 8, 2008. "They've had good people there for a long time. We're thankful we have this year (2009) to break ourselves in and find out what works and what doesn't work."

Miller noted that he called Hayes on Jan. 13 to discuss the move, but Hayes had yet to call him back.

"I'm a realist," Miller said. "I understand the future of minor league baseball in Oneonta is a limited one. I also understand that the community didn't really support the team as well as they might have hoped. The Tigers changed their approach by eliminating free nights. It's a rough time in the economy."

The new owners inherited a contract signed by former Mayor Kim Muller and Nader to lease Damaschke Field when Prentice purchased the team from Nader and Levine. That deal, which is still in effect, called for the team to pay $5,500 in 2006; $6,000 in 2007; $6,500 in 2008; $7,000 in 2009; and $7,500 in 2010.

Miller said last week that the O-Tigers did not notify the city in time if they intended to break the lease. Miller said, according to the agreement, the O-Tigers had until Dec. 31 to serve proper notice.

Oneonta City attorney David Merzig said Wednesday that the O-Tigers would have to "conform to the terms of the contract" whether they play at Damaschke Field or not this summer. Those terms require the Tigers to pay half of the lease amount June 1 and the remainder Aug. 31. The contract includes the use of the field, buildings and concession and advertising rights. The city, however, is responsible for all maintenance of the field and buildings.

Bergren said the NY-Penn's lease with Dodd Stadium is similar to what Norwich has had with other teams in the past. The Connecticut Defenders, a Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants in the Eastern League, left Norwich for Richmond, Va., following the 2009 season.

The NY-Penn lease will run from 2010-2019 and has three five-year options, Bergren said. He added the lease starts at $100,000 per year.

The New London Day, a newspaper in New London, Conn., reported Wednesday that there also is a clause that would allow the team to leave after the 2014 season.

"Our understanding is a team will be coming to the city this year," Bergren said. "The lease begins this year."

Gary Schnip, a member of the Norwich Baseball Stadium Authority who took part in the negotiations, said he also will find out Friday which NY-Penn team is heading to Norwich. He said the city negotiated with the league as opposed to an individual team.

"We can't say anything," he said. "We're told not to say boo. I don't know where they are coming from."

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said he knew four teams were being considered.

"We did our part," he said. "I have no contact (with teams). ... No one from our city has had contact with the teams."

Nystrom said he was unaware of a report in the Norwich Bulletin, a newspaper in Norwich, Conn., that stated a member of the Tigers relocation committee toured Dodd Stadium last Friday.

Weber said he didn't know what a relocation committee was.

"I can't speak for those writers and whoever was saying that there was a member of the Tigers relocation committee there because I don't even know what it is," he said. "I don't know where the information came from and I can't say anything about it because I don't know of it one, and two, I can't talk about things about any team or anything involved with the relocation to Norwich because of the New York-Penn League gag order."

Oneonta's player development deal with Detroit also runs through this season.

Dan Lunetta, Detroit's director of minor league operations, said a team doesn't need to get approval from the parent club for a move because the major league team doesn't have a stake in the ownership.

"All I can tell you is I'm aware the NY-Penn League has been engaged in some type of discussion in terms of the Norwich territory," Lunetta said. "I have nothing else to provide until I'm given more information."

Oneonta signed a four-year extension on its contract with Detroit in 2005, which began following the 2006 season.

"Relative to what the New York-Penn League has done in regard for the Norwich territory, it would not be appropriate for the Detroit Tigers to offer comment," Lunetta said. "Whatever may or may not be developing or transpiring has to come from the Oneonta ownership, not the Detroit Tigers."

{"DS | Tag/ed note"/}Daily Star reporter Jake Palmateer contributed to this story.

P.J. Harmer can be reached at pharmer@thedailystar.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 229.