MORGANTOWN--Minor league baseball is almost certainly coming to Morgantown.
That process took another big step forward with Tuesday's press conference at West Virginia University, which featured WVU officials, New York-Penn League president Ben Hayes, Minor League Baseball President and CEO Pat O'Conner, and Brooklyn Cyclones assistant general manager Kevin Mahoney.
"The New York-Penn League is thrilled to announce its intent to bring a professional baseball franchise to Morgantown, West Virginia for the 2015 season," said Hayes.
However, the new team will not be an expansion one.
"It would be a relocation of an existing franchise from where they are now to Morgantown. There might be some divisional changes, switching divisions, but it would be the same format," said Hayes.
Markets in the current 14-team league are Aberdeen (Md.), Auburn (N.Y.), Batavia (N.Y.), Brooklyn (N.Y.), Burlington (Vt.), Jamestown (N.Y.), Lowell (Mass.), Niles (Ohio), Norwich (Conn.), State College (Pa.), Staten Island (N.Y.), Troy (N.Y.), Wappingers Falls (N.Y.), and Williamsport (Pa.).
All three 'local' teams have affiliates in the league: Aberdeen is partnered with the Baltimore Orioles, Auburn with the Washington Nationals, and Jamestown with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Jamestown sticks out as a likely target for the Morgantown team: with affiliates in Altoona and Charleston (W.Va.) already, the Pirates could add another team that's already in their market.
Jamestown's average attendance of 1,031 was second-worst in the league.
"I believe [the Pirates] signed a two-year player development contract with Jamestown. It would be through 2014. This is a common thing among the clubs; every once and a while you'll get some movement between affiliations, so there was a three-way swap last year. The (St. Louis) Cardinals went to State College, the (Pittsburgh) Pirates went to Jamestown and the (Miami) Marlins went to Batavia,' said Hayes. "We do not take relocations lightly."
Hayes said that the timeline for relocation would be developed around the baseball winter meetings in December.
The Class A – Short Season professional baseball league plays a 76-game season from mid-June through early-September, which allows for a sharing agreement at the Mountaineers' new stadium, which will break ground in 2014 and be located in the University Town Centre area of town.
"If the stadium was ready by 2014, then I think it's possible we could be here," said Hayes.
Four minor league clubs in the NYPL have a similar college/short-season arrangement, including State College.
"West Virginia University is very excited about the interest that the NY Penn League has in the proposed baseball park at University Town Centre," said WVU athletic director Oliver Luck. "The legislation authorizing the ballpark and a new interchange along I-79, which was authored by [State] Senator Bob Beach, is moving through the West Virginia Legislature and both college and minor league baseball fans are hoping that we will soon be able to celebrate its approval and hear the three best words in the English language-'let's play ball.''
Page 2 of 2 - Because the legislative process has not been fully completed, the ballpark--and the team that would come with it-- is still not 100 percent set in stone.
"There are some legislative steps that need to be done. We were actually going through some of those this morning, but everything does look favorable. The Governor is in favor of the deal. The bonding capacity has been approved for the tax increment funding. It needs to get through the House of Representatives, and once the house approves it, the Governor needs to sign it," said Hayes.
Due to the poor condition of Hawley Field in relation to other parks in the Big 12, WVU is playing their conference home games in minor league parks in Charleston and Beckley.
The Mountaineers have a two-year contract, beginning this year, to use those facilities, but the university has the option to get out of that deal at any time.
"Morgantown's population, demographics and corporate community assets make it one of the best small cities in America to call home," said O'Conner. "The addition of a New York-Penn League club will give Morgantown yet another resource to enhance the quality of life of its citizens."
"This is probably the single biggest baseball event to happen in Morgantown baseball history," said first-year WVU baseball head coach Randy Mazey. "From talking to people, I don't know if anything of this magnitude has ever affected the Morgantown baseball community like this stadium will."
WVU officials also said that there have been discussions about the stadium also hosting Fairmont State baseball, American Legion games, and even the WVSSAC state high school baseball tournament.
It has not been determined whether the field would have a natural grass or a synthetic surface.