By DAVID VANTRESS
THE GOSHEN NEWS
ELKHART — If you build it, will they come?
Craig Wallin certainly hopes so.
Wallin’s hope is to bring professional baseball to Elkhart County with a franchise in the reborn Northern League. The team, the Elkhart County Miracle, would begin playing in 2014.
On a recent warm summer morning, an enthusiastic Wallin, president of CTT Communications, walked around the piece of property at the former American Countryside Farmer’s Market location along C.R. 26 and outlined the scope of his project.
The property right now is a vacant lot; recycling bins and a parking lot stand where the future ballpark will be. Home plate will be about 200 feet north of the back door of the farmers market building, just beyond where the paved parking lot ends. A few more tweaks may happen as final ballpark plans are finalized over the coming months, Wallin said.
It’s always been Wallin’s dream to bring a baseball team to the area. Wallin said he hopes to use his experience in the sport — he is a former director of broadcasting for what was then known as the South Bend White Sox — to build a successful franchise here.
“I really got the bug then,” Wallin said. “Riding on the bus with the team, seeing the stadiums.”
The idea of a minor league team for Elkhart County came to Wallin about five years ago, he said. He contacted the Northwoods League, a summer collegiate wood bat league, and briefly pursued the idea of bringing a team into that league. But with no adequate facility in the area and the economy struggling at that time, that plan fell through.
Wallin looked at a list of 10 properties in the county for a stadium location and eventually pared that down to three — one of which was the farmers market property. A zoning request was denied for a property in Bristol, and Wallin eventually decided to purchase the farmers market property.
Wallin intends to purchase 15 acres at the moment, including the farmers market building. Wallin intends to incorporate the existing building into the stadium project, with team offices, the clubhouse and training facilities housed there. About an additional seven acres of land will need to be acquired to complete the stadium project, he said. The entire project will encompass about 25 acres.
The purchase is still in progress, Wallin said, with a mid-October closing anticipated.
The plan is for construction to start later this summer, with play in the new Northern League starting in late May or early June of 2014, Wallin said.
“There are still some steps to be taken,” Wallin said, including the process of getting construction permits.
When the project was originally envisioned several years ago, Wallin had received $5 million in Elkhart County Recovery Zone Facility Bonds for the stadium. But Wallin said those funds are now off the table and the $12 million project — with its 1,600-seat stadium — will be privately funded.
“It’s all private at this point, but we have a passion for nonprofits, and we’re open to grant possibilities,” Wallin said.
But some form of assistance may be requested, he indicated. Preliminary discussions have been held with the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County, he added.
The new league
New Northern League Commissioner Dan Evans has known Wallin since the late 1980s, when he was an assistant general manager for the Chicago White Sox and Wallin working for its Class A affiliate in South Bend.
“I have known Craig Wallin for 25 years and he is a big reason why I wanted to move forward with this franchise,” Evans said. “His character is impeccable, while his overall vision and feel for doing things right are exceptional, making him an ideal partner for the Northern League.”
Evans said he is confident baseball can succeed in Elkhart County. “I have traveled to northern Indiana countless times and I know that professional baseball will not merely be well received, but will thrive in Elkhart. During my last visit there I heard the fans excitement firsthand.”
Elkhart County is well-positioned geographically to support a successful franchise, Evans said.
“I believe that Elkhart County may be one of our league’s best strategic locations given that 21 million people live within 150 miles of the franchise,” Evans said.
The Elkhart County Miracle is the first franchise awarded in the new league. Other franchises are expected to be announced soon.
The Northern League is owned by D.C. Sports and Entertainment, a New York-based sports management firm. Chairman Nick Derosiers said league officials are hoping to have 10 to 12 teams for the inaugural season of the reborn league. A season consisting of somewhere between 90 and 100 games is planned.
Derosiers said the league’s financial standards for prospective owners are confidential, but in general terms, league officials are looking for financially stable owners, with liquid assets and the ability to perhaps sustain a brief period of losses as the new league gets established.
Owners must also come up with a $250,00 franchise fee, Derosiers said.
Wallin said he expects to have to pay that fee before the team begins operations for the inaugural season.
Wallin also said he expects to serve as the general manager of the new baseball franchise himself, and one of his first tasks is going to be hiring a field manager.
Significant startup costs are expected, Wallin said, with about $6.6 million going to construct the stadium itself and pay for the farmers market property. The private fundraising he is working on now will be geared toward funding the team’s first year of operating costs.
An approximate $2 million annual budget is anticipated, Wallin said.
As far as players, Wallin said the new league will look for players with some professional experience. He said he’s already been contacted by several players expressing interest in trying out.
Several area Little League coaches like the idea of a new professional baseball team so close to home — and hope partnerships with local youth baseball are part of the equation.
Kevin D’Arcy, who is coaching a Concord all-star team in the Little League District 14 tournament this season, lives close to where the Miracle will be playing their games.
D’Arcy and his family attend South Bend Silver Hawks games, and he said he and his family would most likely attend Miracle games also.
“Hopefully, they’ll partner with the local Little League teams so we can get some of our kids to the games,” D’Arcy said.
Nate Duell of Goshen, who coaches swimming at the high school in addition to also coaching a 9-10 team in the District 14 tournament, said he’s excited about the possibility of professional baseball coming to Elkhart County, and he knows Wallin.
“We like taking the kids to Silver Hawks games,” Duell said. “It would be nice to have a team closer to home, too.”
It’s that kind of community-minded approach that has helped another local minor league baseball team — the South Bend Silver Hawks — connect with its fan base under new ownership.
Team President Joe Hart said an independent team faces different challenges than an affiliated team. The Silver Hawks are a Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, playing in the Midwest League.
The Diamondbacks, as the parent club of the Silver Hawks, bear the cost of player salaries, Hart said. The average payroll for a minor league organization at the lower levels, Hart said, is about $250,000 per season.
“That’s a lot of money that we don’t have to worry about,” Hart said. The Silver Hawks, Hart said, take the money they don’t have to spend on player salaries and plug it into promotions to reward the fans who go to Stanley Covaleski Regional Stadium — the ballpark in downtown South Bend where the Silver Hawks play, affectionately known as “The Cove.”
The key to success for a minor league baseball franchise, Hart said, lies in making that connection with the fans.
“It’s about creating an overall experience at the ballpark,” Hart said. “That’s what we’ve been doing since we took over here.”
Hart said Silver Hawks management is aware of the new effort in Elkhart County, but will not view the Miracle as competition.
The Silver Hawks draw fans from a 50-mile radius of South Bend, Hart said.
Currently, there are a total of three baseball teams within about an hour’s drive or so of Elkhart County: The Silver Hawks in South Bend; the Fort Wayne Tin Caps, also a member of the Midwest League and a Class A affiliate of the San Diego Padres; and the Gary-SouthShore Railcats of the American Association.
Independent baseball leagues in North America include:
• The American Association (focused in the Midwest and the South);
• The Atlantic League (focused in the Northeast and greater Houston;
• The Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball (more commonly known as the Can-Am League, focused in the Northeastern U.S. and Quebec);
• The Frontier League (focused in the Midwestern U.S. and Western Pennsylvania);
• The Freedom Pro Baseball League (focused on Arizona);
• The Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs (based in California and Hawaii);
• The Pecos League (located in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado);
• The United League (formerly known as the Texas-Louisiana League, based in Texas).
The American Association is perhaps more familiar to Midwest baseball fans because it features an Indiana team: The Gary-SouthShore Railcats.
American Association Commissioner Miles Wolff said there are several critical factors involved in making independent baseball work.
“The key for a successful independent league is having cities with sufficient size (minimum, 100,000 to 150,000 population) and having proper facilities that are equipped to handle a professional operation,” Wolff said.
“Leagues and teams need to have quality front-office personnel with experience in running a quality minor league operation. To get all these pieces to fall together is sometimes difficult but can always happen.”
Derosiers said he and other league officials are working hard to get all those pieces to fall together.
“We have many things that we have been working on as we prepare for the re-launch of the Northern League in 2014. These are some of the first pieces of the puzzle, Derosiers said. “The website and the addition of Elkhart into our footprint … and there is plenty more to come. To say that we are excited is an understatement.”