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Benched – Semi-pro teams struggle to stay in the game

By   /   Sunday, April 12th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Benched – Semi-pro teams struggle to stay in the game

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We all know there’s no crying in baseball, but maybe — just maybe — some regional teams can have some time to wallow.

The Santa Maria Indians have been active for 65 years, making them the longest-running semi-pro baseball team in the state, one of only two California teams to win the prestigious National Baseball Congress Tournament.

But now the Indians have another distinction: They are one of two regional teams that may ride the pine this season in the wake of economic troubles.

“The Indians have been having some financial woes, but obviously every team is having those kind of problems these days,” said Randolph Riley, general manager of the Conejo Oaks. “It’s pretty dang hard. The Indians had some issues and basically fell out of good graces with the league … and the financing hit them pretty hard.”

Phone and e-mail messages left for Indians management went unanswered.

And it seems the Indians aren’t the only ones striking out.

“Our league has another team that looks like it may drop out this year, which is the Monterey Bay Sox, because financially they’re having trouble,” Riley said. “That will have a bigger impact on the league than the Santa Maria Indians. Monterey is working very hard to get some backing to support the team this year before the April 15 deadline.”

Although the league commissioner is sad to see the Sox struggling, he said that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the team was forced to withdraw from competition.

“We have five really strong teams,” said California Collegiate League Commissioner Pat Burns. “The Monterey Bay Sox did not have the strongest operation, so it’s not too big of a blow to the league [to lose them]. But we are pursuing other teams — strong teams — to try and balance out the league. Ultimately we want to get to eight teams. I really don’t want to go through this rotisserie of teams anymore. I want strong teams.”

William Hite, president of the San Luis Obispo Rattlers, said it’s getting more and more difficult to find quality opponents to replace teams that drop out of the league.

“Our players expect to come here and compete against the best quality teams on the West Coast. It hurts our program when we have to fill in the blanks with high school all-stars or men’s adult league teams,” Hite said. “You only get better when you play the best. When we lose quality opponents we lose all around.”

When the Indians defaulted on their agreement with the league, officials removed them from the league and replaced the Indians with The Santa Maria Valley Packers, a fairly new team run by two former Indians coaches.

“Our membership changes every year. One of these years we’re going to get a stable group and go on for another 10 years with them,” said Burns, who also acts as the assistant manager to the Santa Barbara Foresters. “The league is okay … it’s always in turmoil, that’s the only consistent thing.”

Though it couldn’t save the Indians, longevity seems to be crucial in this business. Riley and Hite both said organizations that have been around for a while tend to receive more public support and therefore more funds.

“Anytime you lose a team with the drawing power of the Indians it hurts everyone — the teams they schedule, the fans they attract and mostly the players they recruit. Thirty-five players will not have a place to play this summer,” Hite said.

“To the Rattlers that is key; giving players a place to play is why we exist. The fans and sponsors are how we exist.”

It’s not just the Rattlers that rely on sponsors; most teams are supported by sponsors and their own fundraising efforts. It takes anywhere from $75,000 to $150,000 to keep a team afloat for a season, and a few teams said sponsorship figures have been declining.

Hite said the Rattlers hope to hit the $100,000 mark this year. “We came up short last season,” he said. “The city has raised our stadium costs … in 2007, we paid $111 for a night game, but today it’s close to $400 per night game. The economy is terrible; the price of everything associated with putting on a summer program is up.”

There’s a lot of overhead involved in this business. Each year, the teams raise enough money to cover the cost of everything from uniforms and equipment to tournament fees and travel expenses such as hotels, buses and meals. But coaches and managers said the biggest chunk of change gets spent on stadium fees.

Many teams end up turning over a good portion of their budget to their respective host cities, but the Conejo Oaks pay California Lutheran University for the use of their field, and the Santa Barbara Foresters pay UCSB a fee to play in the stadium on campus.

Renting UCSB’s stadium “is a significant expense, and we do have to draw people out to the university, to our games,” Burns said. “If we were to balance the revenue from ticket sales to the expense of the facility, we’d break even.”

“We feel bad that some of the teams are having trouble right now,” Riley said. When the other teams in the league start feeling this, it does make it tough because you can’t help but feel their pain. We’re a very close-knit group of teams — everybody knows everybody and we’re all good friends — so when one team starts to suffer, we all feel it.”

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