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Kate Avard says the Blue Sox have maintained strong relationships

Kate Avard says the Blue Sox have maintained strong relationships with programs that have delivered key players in its past few successful seasons.

Kate Avard first discovered the Valley Blue Sox as a summer intern with the club in 2016, while working toward degrees in sport management and kinesiology at UMass Amherst, and she was excited to return to the franchise as its general manager in 2020.

It wasn’t the experience she had hoped for, to say the least. But she’s happy to see the team finally taking the field in 2021.

“We didn’t get to play last year, and I think everyone across the league — players, staff, and interns — are all very excited to be able to play this season,” Avard told BusinessWest.

Last year’s lull particularly smarted for the Blue Sox, who were coming off three outstanding seasons — New England Collegiate Baseball League championships in 2017 and 2018 and a nailbiter loss in the division finals in 2019.

“We’ve gotten tons of interest from players wanting to get back out there for us,” she said. “The same thing with interns — we pull interns from across the U.S. Everyone wants to get back out on the field, and that goes for all the organizations in our league.”

Chris Thompson had a different pandemic experience last year. The co-founder of the Westfield Starfires was grateful that the Futures Collegiate Baseball League actually went through with a season, albeit one with strict pandemic protocols and limited fans. He, too, is looking forward to a more normal campaign in 2021.

“It’s an opportunity for kids to come together and kind of celebrate the social gathering once again.”

“We’re proud to be part of such an innovative and forward-thinking league,” he said. “In the last year, we were able to manage the intricacies of multiple states and municipalities to pull off a season — some of the only baseball played in North America. We’re pretty proud of that — of showcasing our team and being able to provide a safe, positive experience for fans at Bullens Field.”

In fact, the Futures league not only played last year, but managed to grow its footprint during the pandemic, welcoming two new teams, the Burlington (Vt.) Lake Monsters and the Norwich (Conn.) Sea Unicorns, into the fold, which speaks well of continued interest in baseball, Thompson noted. “We’ve been able to attract new ownership groups, which is really exciting for us.”

Despite the lost season of play last year, Avard said the Blue Sox’ director of Baseball Operations, John Raiola, was able to maintain relationships that have long fed Holyoke’s summer franchise. “He knows all the recruiting very well, so he was able to stay in contact with a lot of programs and schools that we’ve previously drawn from. We definitely didn’t go silent last year.”

Meanwhile, the Starfires have been in contact with college coaches around the country as well, Thompson said, though national recruiting is a little more difficult because Westfield is among many teams that have put host-family programs on hold during the pandemic. “Teams are taking a more local and regional roster approach for 2021.”

The Blue Sox, on the other hand, have continued to solicit host families to house the college players this summer.

“We rely on our host families to welcome them and show our players why Western Mass. is so great,” Avard said, while those players, in turn, help the team provide low-cost, family-friendly entertainment for local fans.

She added that the team is following all state health mandates for capacity and social distancing at MacKenzie Stadium — restrictions that were significantly loosened days before press time. Still, the park will be equipped with hand-washing and hand-sanitizer stations in a nod to the fact that the pandemic hasn’t gone away.

“It’s America’s pastime,” Thompson added. “We’re going to have a great atmosphere at Bullens Field. It’s an opportunity for kids to come together and kind of celebrate the social gathering once again, while following all the CDC protocols.”

The Starfires, which were named after a fighter jet once stationed at Barnes Air National Guard Base, will open the season with a new mascot, a black squirrel named Stanley Starfire, who shares a namesake with Stanley Park. “We continue to pay homage to the city of Westfield.”

Thompson is also excited about a partnership with Amherst Brewing Co., which created a new Starfires IPA for sale at the park and at the local Hangar Pub & Brewery. But he’s mostly excited about baseball. “The players are fired up and looking forward to getting back on the field.”

The two local collegiate teams — which both start play in the coming days and continue into August — aren’t the only options for fans, of course. The Hartford Yard Goats, the double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, still draw impressive crowds just down I-91 in Dunkin’ Donuts Park, while the Red Sox moved their triple-A affiliate to Worcester, where they recently kicked off play in Polar Park.

“I personally think baseball is integral to this area,” Avard said. “We have so many different teams in so many different levels, and I’ve seen so much support from the fans. People were reaching out to us in January, asking about the season, asking if we’d be back at MacKenzie.

“Baseball is one of the biggest sports around here,” she went on. “Everyone is so excited to be back on the field. As an outdoor activity, it’s a great way to start bringing things back to normal this summer.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Banking and Financial Services

Play Ball

Paul Scully Charles Steinberg

Paul Scully (right) tours the under-construction Polar Park in Worcester with team President Charles Steinberg.

Baseball season is — hopefully — just four months away, and Paul Scully says that’s reason for excitement in Massachusetts.

“Just think about this year and the fact that so many of us have been inside, just looking for something to do,” said Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank, while talking about the bank’s ‘founding partner’ status with the Worcester Red Sox during a recent episode of BusinessTalk, the BusinessWest podcast.

“Just the prospect of having baseball back, right here within a quick drive for most of us … we’re very excited about it for the fans, for our customers, and for businesses throughout the area. It’s a great time.”

As one of 21 founding partners of the WooSox, who plan to begin play in Worcester’s brand-new Polar Park this spring, Country Bank’s multi-tiered sponsorship includes a large sign in right field atop the stands known as the Worcester Wall, along with the Country Bank Guest Services area located on the first-base concourse.

“We toured the park two weeks ago … and it really has some wonderful attributes that represent the Central Mass. area. It’s different from Fenway, but there are some similarities,” Scully said, noting that the high Worcester Wall is in right field, and will be colored blue, as opposed to the left-field Green Monster in Fenway.

Meanwhile, the Country Bank Guest Services area is a place where fans can come for help with any number of issues, from missing keys to missing kids, he noted — a way for the bank to extend its customer-service philosophy to this new partnership.

Speaking of partnerships, the bank and the WooSox Foundation will work together on a number of charitable efforts, from a Teacher of the Month recognition program to a combined charitable-giving campaign throughout the baseball season.

“We have been impressed and inspired by Country Bank’s sense of community involvement,” WooSox President Charles Steinberg said. “We see how helpful they are to various institutions and thousands of people in our region, and we welcome them to Polar Park with open arms as we work together to enhance the quality of life in our community even more.”

To kick off their partnership last month, a team from Country Bank and the WooSox mascot, Smiley Ball, delivered 500 Thanksgiving meals prepared by Old Sturbridge Village along with apple pies from Worcester-based Table Talk to the St. John’s Food Pantry for the Poor.

“Just the prospect of having baseball back, right here within a quick drive for most of us … we’re very excited about it for the fans, for our customers, and for businesses throughout the area. It’s a great time.”

“The alignment of our organizational values with the WooSox solidifies our commitment to service and teamwork as we continually strive for excellence in all we do,” Scully said.

He noted that, at a time when spectator sports continue to be redefined by new norms of social distancing, sports sponsorships are taking on new forms, extending beyond the stadium walls to make a real impact in the community. But he knows fans want to have a good time, too.

“We couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the WooSox and the Worcester community,” he said. “The addition of year-round entertainment, including ballgames, concerts, and various family activities at Polar Park, is exciting for the people and businesses in the region. We all look forward to the day when we can come together again at the ballpark, enjoying activities with our families and friends. We also look forward to seeing our businesses thrive once again after being heavily impacted by the pandemic.”

Scully knows, of course, that the pandemic is far from over, and the baseball season may or may not start on time in April. But he also senses a regional fan base that will enthusiastically support another professional sports franchise in this region, especially one with the cachet of the Boston Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate.

“They’re part of the Central Mass. community now, and we’re excited for them, and we’re excited for us,” he told BusinessWest. “But, more importantly, we’re just excited for the fans.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Features

Stepping Up to the Plate

Team owners Donnie Moorhouse (left) and Chris Thompson

Team owners Donnie Moorhouse (left) and Chris Thompson

When the Futures Collegiate Baseball League’s newest team steps onto the field in Westfield this spring, it will mark not just the beginning of a 56-game slate extending well into the summer, but also a continuation of a century-plus of robust baseball history in the Whip City — as well as perhaps the most high-profile startup yet from two team owners who are no strangers to either sports management or entrepreneurship.

Chris Thompson said he and his business partner, Donnie Moorhouse, had been kicking around the idea of buying a baseball team for years. So, when an opportunity finally arose, they didn’t hesitate to make their pitch.

It started with a cold call, Thompson said, to Christopher Hall, the commissioner of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League of New England, back in July. The FCBL was looking to expand, and the 90-minute conversation touched on the business backgrounds of Thompson and Moorhouse, and why Western Mass. — and Westfield in particular — might be fertile ground to grow a league that already boasted four teams in the Bay State.

That long talk led to a four-hour meeting in Worcester the following week, and interest on both sides intensified from there.

“Donnie and I started touring the different ballparks around the Futures League and meeting with ownership groups from Pittsfield to Worcester to Nashua, learning why they got involved,” Thompson recalled. “What we really found out is these franchises are run like minor-league operations, and that’s our background.”

Now, they’re bringing their experience — both in sports management and with entrepreneurship in general — to the new Futures League franchise, which will begin play at the end of May, hosting 28 home games in Westfield.

The pair will unveil the team’s name and logo — which reflect a key aspect of the city’s history — this Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 6 p.m. at Shortstop Bar & Grill. Players will be available to sign autographs meet the public, while attendees will enjoy free appetizers and access to the batting cages.

The team will play in Billy Bullens Field, a Westfield city-owned facility that’s similar in size to other Futures League parks, like Campanelli Field in Brockton or Waconah Park in Pittsfield, Moorhouse said. Still, “Bullens Field, in comparison, would be considered quaint. It’s kind of the Fenway Park of the league. But we’re doing some renovations, and we think it has a nostalgic, Americana kind of feel that appeals to people these days.”

He added that the league is conservative in the way it expands, looking to match strong ownership groups to locations where baseball has strong roots. “These are people who know what they’re doing.”

“The history of baseball in Westfield goes back to the very beginnings of the history of baseball in this country. When the first organized games were happening around the country, they were happening here, too, on the town green.”

He believes he and Thompson do, too. And that’s why they decided to step up to the plate.

Slice of History

While baseball has thrived in Western Mass. — most notably, the Holyoke Blue Sox are defending champions of the New England Collegiate Baseball League two years running, and one of the top 10 attendance draws in the country among summer collegiate leagues — Moorhouse says Westfield is a particularly attractive home for a team.

“The history of baseball in Westfield goes back to the very beginnings of the history of baseball in this country. When the first organized games were happening around the country, they were happening here, too, on the town green,” Moorhouse explained.

He noted that Westfield State University has a well-established Division III team, and the city hosted the Babe Ruth World Series in 2016, and will again this summer. Meanwhile, Westfield High School has a strong track record in the sport — 19 of its alumni are playing college ball this spring.

“Some of those kids are going to be on our roster, which is part of our motivation to showcase some local kids who have the ability to perform at a higher level,” he went on. “So I think, even moreso than other places around Western Mass., Westfield has a reputation as being a baseball town.”

The pair have built a business reputation together as well. Six years ago, Moorhouse launched Mosquito Shield, a commercial and residential mosquito- and tick-control operation. After Thompson came on board, the pair bought a holiday- and event-lighting franchise together. Last summer, they opened Eleventh Avenue Productions, a public-relations consultancy.

More to the point of sports ownership, Thompson spent 18 years in the sports-marketing arena, working for an agency in Boston, at the American Hockey League headquarters, and for two AHL hockey franchises in Springfield, first the Falcons and then the Thunderbirds.

The two of them have discussed investing in a sports franchise for years, Moorhouse said. “It’s one of those things that you talk about over a beer, and when the opportunity arose, we jumped at it. When Chris came up to this office last summer, we said, ‘let’s do it, let’s pull the trigger.’”

“They look at this as an economic driver, where families are coming out, and after the game they might go out for an ice cream, or they might go out to dinner … We’ll be getting people from Western Mass. to come to Westfield.”

He said he felt confident they could succeed with a baseball team. “I worked with Chris with the Falcons for two years in corporate sponsorships, and learned an awful lot about game-night operations and the inner workings of a minor-league sports franchise, so it was a great apprenticeship for sure. Chris has been doing it for close to 20 years. To work with him, recognizing the skill set we both have, it didn’t take very long for us, once we were working together, to say it would be great to have some skin in the game — to have an ownership stake in a sports franchise and operate it the way we see fit. And this is our opportunity to do that.”

With the pair firmly in “startup mode,” as he called it, there has been some scrambling.

“We’ve put the cart before the horse on several occasions. We were reaching out to potential players before we actually had the franchise, negotiating the lease before we had the franchise … so if you want to talk about keeping a lot of balls in the air, we were juggling.”

Moorhouse hired his son, Evan, who is director of Hockey Operations at the University of Vermont, as the new franchise’s director of baseball operations, essentially a GM position.

“He played college baseball for four years at Westfield State and has a lot of contacts, not only through baseball but through the hockey world,” he said. “He’s reached out to colleges and put together a pretty competitive roster on paper. We’ve got kids from Kansas State, Eastern Kentucky, UConn, Quinnipiac, Stonehill, Holy Cross, and five kids from Westfield.”

Futures Returns

Founded in 2011, the Futures League has been in growth mode ever since, drawing a league-record 1,514 fans per game in 2018 — the third-highest among all summer collegiate leagues. The league’s other squads hail from Pittsfield, Worcester, Brockton, and Lynn, as well as Bristol, Conn. and Nashua, N.H.

“We’re very fortunate to add such an experienced ownership group with great local ties to the Westfield community,” said Hall, the FCBL commissioner, in a recent press release. “Chris and Donnie have the passion and love for the game of baseball, but also the drive to make the Westfield team a winner not only on the field but in the community.”

Moorhouse said the feedback from the community has been positive. “The city has been very encouraging, the guidance has been fantastic, and, in general, we’ve been having conversations with people who are very excited about the business opportunities and the economic-development opportunities. We have a long history of baseball in Westfield, so I would say there’s a lot of excitement about it.”

Thompson noted that the opportunity might not have been possible without Mayor Brian Sullivan supporting — and the City Council approving — $1.8 million to renovate Bullens Field prior to the 2016 Babe Ruth World Series.

“They made facility improvements that allowed them to lure Babe Ruth to Westfield, and because of those improvements, the Futures League has approved that field as somewhere they’re comfortable with college athletes playing.”

He added that City Advancement Officer Joe Mitchell has been instrumental in helping the pair navigate the approval process at City Hall.

“They look at this as an economic driver, where families are coming out, and after the game they might go out for an ice cream, or they might go out to dinner, so that’s going to help local restaurants. We’ll be getting people from Western Mass. to come to Westfield.”

Meanwhile, the league is a draw for talent for several reasons. “Coaches like the Futures League for the amount of games they play, and they also are impressed with the facilities that the teams play in. We’ve started to build relationships with college coaches around the country in order to build our roster.”

The games are also heavily scouted, Thompson added, noting that 30 of its players were drafted last June by Major League Baseball organizations.

The league also appeals to players at colleges throughout the Northeast who don’t get as many at-bats as athletes do in, say, Florida or California, where the climate allows the season to start sooner, Moorhouse noted.

“Getting that repetition, getting those at-bats, playing live baseball in the summer at a very competitive level, benefits their skill development. In the Northeast, the college season is very short, and the first weekend in May is the playoffs. This is an opportunity to continue playing baseball at a very high level throughout the summer.”

Extending a Legacy

Thompson said the support in the initial stages has been overwhelming, in a good way. “People want to see us do well, from local organizations to business owners that want to get involved. People are really excited about what we’re bringing to Westfield and to Western Mass. as a whole.”

In other words, people are opening their doors to this opportunity — literally as well as figuratively. Evan Moorhouse is in charge of locating host families to take in players, one of many important details the Westfield franchise needs to nail down in order to make the inaugural season a success. But his father has been following baseball in the city for many years, and knows the interest is there.

“Some July nights, 300 people are out watching a Babe Ruth game,” Donnie said. “The American Legion comes down — they know all the players, know their stats. It’s a great vibe. It’s like Friday Night Lights, only it’s any given night of the week. It’s just a really cool slice of Americana happening on Smith Avenue. We’re excited to add to that legacy, hopefully, enhance it a bit, and also showcase what is arguably one of the best baseball leagues in the country in our hometown.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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