Stepping Up to the Plate
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.”
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]