By Jake Palmateer
ONEONTA _ Oneonta Community Baseball may be only a week away.
Mayor Dick Miller unveiled a plan Thursday to bring baseball back to city-owned Damaschke Field this summer. The focal point of the plan is the purchase or lease of a yet-to-be-named New York Collegiate Baseball League franchise.
Miller said a deal needs to be finalized by Friday because the league is preparing for its two-month season, which kicks off June 4.
The NYCBL has 14 teams in two divisions and is a wood-bat developmental league for professional baseball, according to its website.
The owners of the Single-A Oneonta Tigers of the NY-Penn League are expected to move the team to Norwich, Conn., this summer, ending more than four decades of professional baseball in Oneonta.
The mayor hosted an informational meeting at Stella Luna Ristorante in downtown Oneonta to pitch shares of the franchise, which would operate as a corporation, and determine interest in season tickets and the hosting of players by Oneonta residents. The working title for the corporation is Oneonta Community Baseball, and Miller said his vision is to have the group go beyond being the owners of the NYCBL team.
He said that because of his role as mayor and to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, his involvement would be limited to getting the idea off the ground.
Miller said he is looking for leadership to come from within the community, but he noted former Hartwick College Board of Trustees Chairman Bob Hanft, local lawyer James Konstanty and the Nader family are supporters.
Miller gave an estimate of $5,000 per share but said that could be lowered depending on how many people are interested.
He would not name the team
in question but said the owners include a Major League Baseball scout and a Holiday Inn chain owner, both of whom no longer have time to manage the day-to-day operations of the team.
Those owners may be interested in investing in the new corporation, he said.
"The fact is we have an eager seller. We are an eager buyer," Miller said.
The annual cost of operating the team would be about $100,000, and revenue would be generated by ticket sales and concessions sales, he said.
The team has coaches and a roster of players pulled from major universities and colleges nationwide.
"These are players who are a year away from being drafted," Miller said.
The league has teams in communities such as Saratoga, Watertown, Amsterdam, Hornell and Albany. The Cooperstown Hawkeyes are expected to start their inaugural season at Doubleday Field this summer, and Miller said this could have the makings of a classic Oneonta-Cooperstown rivalry.
The idea of community baseball harkens back to the early days of the sport, when many small towns' teams competed against each other, Miller said.
Although the NYCBL plays fewer games than the Oneonta Tigers, Miller said the empty dates on the calendar could be filled with American Legion baseball and games from other youth leagues and area baseball camps.
"The idea is (to) end up with more baseball at Damaschke rather than less," Miller said. "To me, this is more than just being a franchise."
Longtime Oneonta resident Geoff Smith said he was happy to see Miller's involvement, as well as the apparent support for Oneonta Community Baseball.
"It's heartwarming to see somebody pick it up," Smith said. "(Miller)'s not doing this for his own gain. He loves baseball. I'm so glad he's doing this."
Miller said Bob Zeh may have a role with the new team. Zeh, coach of the Oneonta High School girls' varsity basketball team, has worked with the Oneonta franchise of the NY-Penn League since 1973 and last served as the operations manager in 2008, the last year the Oneonta Tigers were owned by Sam Nader and Sid Levine.
"I have been told I am," Zeh said, when speaking of the possibility of his participation with the new team.
Zeh said he was hopeful the venture will find success, adding: "This is good stuff."
One challenge may be finding host families for the players, which the Tigers once tried but failed. The players are not paid a salary.
But Zeh said a difference is that this effort may be more community-driven.
Miller said the NYCBL team under consideration was sent preliminary paperwork on the takeover this week.
"We might be able to buy the team. We might just lease it," Miller said.
A third and least-preferred option would be to wait a year and start a franchise that would play in the 2011 NYCBL season.
But Miller said he wants to act while public interest is high after the Oneonta Tigers' move to Norwich was revealed last week. The venture is not designed to be profit-making for shareholders and instead should be viewed as an investment in the community, he said.
"If we are going to do this and do this successfully, the community has to feel like its their team," Miller said. "I don't see any insurmountable barrier."
Miller has asked students of the Oneonta City School District to pick the name of the team.