While the status of using Bridgeport’s new Frontier League Baseball stadium as the home field for West Virginia University’s baseball program in some capacity when it’s built by 2014 is uncertain, one thing is almost a certainty for 2013 as it relates to the home portion of WVU’s home Big 12 schedule – it won’t be played at Hawley Field.
WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck said using the Bridgeport stadium for home games in 2014 remains an “option” for at least the time being. What apparently isn’t an option is utilizing the existing venue to host teams from the powerful Big 12 Conference. Instead, look for other parts of the state, particularly those in southern West Virginia, to see some quality baseball.
“We don’t want to host Big 12 games our first year in our current facility. We’ll play our conference series more than likely outside the city of Morgantown,” said Luck. “I’d say we’ll do at least a couple of series at Charleston’s ($23 million Appalachian Power Park) Minor League field, perhaps Beckley for a series and we may look at the Princeton-Bluefield area.
“Hawley Field just isn’t adequate to use as a Big 12 facility,” Luck continued. “The Big 12 has tremendous venues for baseball and we still have a long way to go to get there to that level.”
As part of the forward thinking of Luck, he and Jamie Corton began having conversations. Corton, the managing partner of Genesis Partners, the developers of Charles Pointe, will have a useable venue a short jog down Interstate 79 in 2014. With many questions surrounding the likelihood of a stadium in Morgantown, Luck turned a short nod South to Bridgeport.
Initially, there was talk that the stadium could be the home field for all WVU games. Then there was talk that just Big 12 games would be played there. Now, Luck isn’t sure exactly what – or if – the Bridgeport location will be utilized for in the future. However, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of utilizing the site.
Corton said they’ll work with the ownership group of the West Virginia Frontier League Stadium (which is the same group that manages the Washington, Pa., Wild Things) to provide the opportunity for WVU. He believes that group will be supportive.
“We really want to help out West Virginia University any way we can and that’s what we’re offering. If they build a stadium (in Morgantown), and they don’t use this facility, that’s OK. That’s not the reason it’s being built,” said Corton. “Ultimately, it’s not my decision, but the ownership group. They’re very supportive of having a stadium serving multiple uses, even beyond sports. I’ve not been discouraged at all from entertaining the possibility of West Virginia University using our facility.”
Luck is well aware of that. Because of that, he doesn’t have to burn the phone lines to make sure it will be available.
“I haven’t talked to Jamie for several weeks, but it’s an option and he’s been nothing but supportive of whatever they can do to help,” said Luck. “I’ve said this to Jamie, and he understands that it’s a practical matter that first and foremost my focus is to giving what’s best to the University’s baseball program.”
What Luck means by that is that utilizing the Bridgeport field as a permanent location is unlikely. While going back and forth for games isn’t a huge issue, doing practice and all other baseball related events dozens of miles away from Morgantown is troublesome.
“I would be concerned putting student-athletes on the road 40 to 50 times a year to go to practice,” said Luck.
Still, there’s a catch 22. Hawley Field does not allow the baseball team to work on its game for long periods of time other than the warm weather months. Bridgeport’s facility will have a synthetic surface which Luck said “is the type of surface that would allow the program to utilize a facility well into the fall.” It would also allow the University to take Hawley Field and convert that space into what Luck called a “better and higher use.” That use could serve a number of areas, such as the much-needed addition of parking for the WVU Coliseum.
The best-case scenario would be for a stadium to be built in Morgantown. And by best-case, it would be a stadium utilized by WVU but likely built for another tenant. Luck said he’s been in contact with developers in Monongalia County, most notably Mon View LLC, in an effort to get a New York Penn League team to Morgantown. Again, that move comes with some strings, according to Luck.
“(The Penn League) President has been in town a couple of times and they like the marketplace, including the corridor from Clarksburg and Bridgeport to Morgantown,” said Luck, “and they have an interest in having a presence here, but …”
The “but” involves the fact that unlike the Frontier League coming to Bridgeport, the New York Penn League simply can’t add ball clubs. There are, said Luck, a limited number of franchises available and you don’t go over the limit.
“We’re pushing down this road. We’ll have to see how it plays out,” said Luck. “What we’re doing now is looking at the infrastructure piece of the project.”
And the developers will have to see how things turn out as far as getting the money to make the stadium a reality in Monongalia County. Stadiums with the necessary capacity such as the Bridgeport stadium are easily in the $20 million range. To help with that, Luck said developers have been meeting with government officials to try and work out Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district status for the area where a potential new stadium would be constructed.
As the previous paragraph indicates, funding will be an issue. Unlike football and basketball, where capital campaigns usually can raise tens of millions of dollars, baseball doesn’t have the fan, booster and alumni support that the leading sports do.
“Baseball is behind football and basketball in the pecking order, and that is in terms of popularity and fundraising,” said Luck. “We’re aware of that. We’re looking at everything possible, including a substantial upgrade of Hawley Field. We’ve got plenty of secondary plans that we’re considering.”
One of those plans is Bridgeport. While becoming a bussed destination for all or some of WVU’s home games is not the preferred option, it is an option. And Luck admits there are plenty of positives to going there.
“If we’re unsuccessful with some of the things we would prefer to do, we would certainly have the interest to go there, and that’s what my conversation with Jamie has focused on. Certainly, with teams flying into (Bridgeport) and then going about a mile to the stadium it would be a wonderful option for our guests to be that close to the ball field,” said Luck. “There are a lot of things we don’t know, but we do know, clearly, what we have right now at Hawley Field won’t work.”
Luck said anyone that doesn’t understand the need for a better facility will soon understand once they’re exposed to Big 12 baseball. Along with having venues that seat 8,000 or more people as a standard, they also regularly send teams to the College Baseball World Series.
“Obviously there are folks that may not realize that the level of quality in terms of baseball is impressive. It’s a different world for anyone who has been exposed to it,” said Luck, who was exposed greatly while a student at the University of Texas Law School. “Once people understand just how good of a league the Big 12 is in baseball, they’ll understand the need we have to upgrade our facilities or find a new location.”
Editor's Note: Cover photo is of Luck speaking during the opening of the Bridgeport Recreation Complex. Inside portrait shot taken by M.G. Ellis and provide by West Virginia University's Sports Communication Department.