Before recent successes, WVU baseball program was in danger of being eliminated

Courtesy WVU Athletics Communications | DALE SPARKS
When then-WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck convened a panel of consultants to discuss the future of Mountaineer baseball in 2011, their first recommendation was to build a new facility for the team, which led to Monongalia County Ballpark.

MORGANTOWN — They had been called to town by the sitting athletic director at West Virginia University, and though they had different backgrounds and varying perspectives, collectively they would provide Oliver Luck the insight he sought.

Two Major League Baseball administrators. Two former WVU players who would make their way to the big league. An executive from a sports marketing consultancy. An NBA general manager. A professor on the university’s athletic council. An athletic department donor with a wealth of business experience. A former All-Star who lived in Parkersburg and whose son was playing for the New York Yankees.

Five-and-a-half years ago, those nine men met with Luck, three of Luck’s associates and eventually the baseball coach, Greg Van Zant, in Luck’s office on the top level of the Coliseum. Four meetings and a luncheon spread across six or so hours set the WVU baseball program on the path that led it to this weekend.

The Mountaineers, who cracked the top 25 last month for the first time since 1982, are playing host to Texas Tech, the Big 12’s regular-season champion and a College World Series participant last season that’s in the top six of the major polls this season.

After Friday’s first game was rained out, WVU and the Red Raiders were scheduled for a doubleheader Saturday, and the series finale begins at 1 p.m. Sunday at Monongalia County Ballpark.

WVU entered the weekend at No. 11 in the RPI. Texas Tech was No. 5. The stage was a ballpark funded by a tax increment financing plan. One game was designated for television.

But on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011, Luck convened a significant summit to ask and answer a simple question: Should the Mountaineers continue playing baseball?

“I wouldn’t say we were close to making a decision,” said Luck, who today is the executive vice president of regulatory affairs for the NCAA, “but it’s something that if we were being intellectually honest we had to ask.”

Luck never intended to make a decision that day. The plan was to field opinions from the guests like grounders from a fungo bat and then use it all to make an informed — and perhaps controversial — call about the future.

Today, baseball is thriving at WVU.

“They approached it the right way,” said one of the guests, Graham Rossini, who was once the director of baseball operations at Arizona State and today is a vice president with the Arizona Diamondbacks and works on special projects and fan experience. “They brought in people with different viewpoints and back stories, and that way everyone could weigh in with his own experiences, whether as a player, an executive or somebody connected with the university, to generate valuable feedback.

“In anything I do, I like a bunch of different perspectives and a bunch of different ideas, even if somebody takes a contrarian point of view. It’s sometimes nice to challenge the group. But if you have one chance to do it, make sure you do it right and use the resources and the voices you have available to you to make it an experience you can learn from.”

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Luck asked Ken Kendrick, a WVU graduate who is the general managing partner of the Diamondbacks, and Bob Nutting, a Wheeling native who is the principal owner and chairman of the Pittsburgh Pirates, to send a delegate. Kendrick tapped Rossini, and Nutting chose Kyle Stark, an assistant general manager who worked with player development.

Luck also invited Buckhannon’s Chris Wallace, who is the general manager of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, and Parkersburg’s Steve Swisher, who played nine seasons in the majors and made the 1976 all-star team before his son, Nick, started his 12-year career.

Former WVU catcher David Carpenter was there, and he had just finished his rookie year with the Houston Astros. He was joined by another West Virginian, Jedd Gyorko, who was drafted in 2010 following his junior season with the Mountaineers. Rockbridge Sports executive David Johnston, Steve Kite, a geology professor on the athletic council, as well as Mountaineer Athletic Club member Stu Robbins, who was inducted into WVU’s College of Business and Economics hall of fame in 2011, completed the group.

“I was doing research on the Big 12 and realized we had a decision to make: Do we want to play baseball anymore?” Luck said. “Really, the question was what does WVU have to do to develop a strong baseball program to be competitive in the Big 12, maybe not every year, but often enough to make the [NCAA] tournament now and then and get people excited about it.

“And if we couldn’t because of money or whatever, fine. We’ll probably drop the sport.”

Luck was hopeful the summit would encourage moving forward with baseball, which has been at WVU for 125 seasons now, but he was open to the alternative. He said he had “a number of long conversations” with an athletic director whose school dropped baseball before he was hired at that school. Through an athletic department spokesperson, that athletic director said he “doesn’t recollect discussions on baseball with Oliver.”

Nevertheless, Luck now had an idea about the resources — finances, facilities, fan support, etc. — the Mountaineers needed in order to continue. Identifying those and deciding whether WVU had the capability to produce and sustain them was the goal.

“Dropping the sport wasn’t a preference of anybody, but I think you had to ask the question,” he said. “So, considering the prior, I don’t know, 15 to 20 years and where the baseball program was, thinking of the venue that we had and the crowds we were attracting, the lack of enthusiasm across the board, the relatively few Division I recruits that come out of the state, it was a fair question, because what we didn’t want was to end up with a program that was a bottom-feeder.”

Out went the invitations, and in came a group that understood business, performance, personnel, recruiting, marketing and more.

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The think tank produced two suggestions WVU could not ignore. The first was obvious.

“The biggest thing was our facility,” said Deputy Athletic Director Keli Cunningham. “That was a challenge, because I think everyone collectively knew what we had at Hawley Field was not going to get it done. How to upgrade that and to what extent, at that time we didn’t know exactly where we were going to be.”

Hawley Field opened in 1971 and gradually enjoyed both minor and major enhancements through the years, but there was no clubhouse and there were no locker rooms. Accommodations for fans were limited. Bleacher seating could hold about 1,500 people.

It was a major concern as the Mountaineers prepared to enter the Big 12 in 2013.

“They really wanted to hear what Jedd and I had to say as far as what it would take to get recruits there and transition from being a really good Big East team to being in the Big 12, and the one thing we said was they had to upgrade the facility,” said Carpenter, who pitches for the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish in the Atlantic League. “I’ve talked and played with guys who played at Texas and Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, and they all said those were [Class] AA ballparks. That was somewhere where we had to get caught up.”

On Oct. 17, 2013, ground was broken and construction began for a new stadium. In 2015, the Mountaineers started playing at the $21 million Monongalia County Ballpark, not a Class AA venue, but a Class A stadium that WVU shares with a Pirates affiliate, the West Virginia Black Bears of the short-season Class A New York-Penn League.

“That was crucial for the stadium deal, because the [financing plan] wouldn’t have been approved by the county and the state without the minor-league team,” Luck said.

It boasts artificial turf, a high-definition scoreboard and video board, ample concession stands and restrooms, 2,500 seats and room for up to 1,000 more patrons, plus a clubhouse with locker rooms, offices for coaches, a lounge for players, a teaching theater, indoor and outdoor batting cages and loaded equipment and training rooms.

No one at the summit knew what they’d end up with, but Rossini was there to give the Mountaineers an idea what to envision, if not in existence than in experience. The Diamondbacks had just opened a new spring training facility, and Salt River Fields, in Scottsdale, Arizona, has led baseball in total and per-game attendance since it opened in 2011.

“We pride ourselves on not letting the decision to come to the ballpark be predicated on wins and losses,” Rossini said. “We want it to be based on the fact it’s a great experience, affordable, clean, family-friendly.

“As we were talking about concepts, my suggestion was, ‘Don’t get caught up in the player dynamic, what you need, where the weight room is, where the batting cages are, but focus on the broader aspects that allow people to enjoy the ballpark, not because the team’s having a good year, but because they think it’s an enjoyable experience.’”

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Having a winning team was important, though, and Luck wanted a program that at least competed regularly for a spot in the NCAA postseason. He’d discover the way to get there.

“The No. 1 thing we learned was we absolutely needed a new venue, but the No. 2 thing we needed to do was hire a coach who understands baseball in that part of the country,” Luck said. “I think the eventual decision was in order to get a really good coach, we had to get a stadium plan in place. We didn’t anticipate anybody worth his salt would come to Morgantown without a pretty certain plan for a new ballpark. That came first, but certainly hiring the right coach was next.”

Luck would fire Van Zant in May 2012 after 18 seasons, and Cunningham led the search committee to hire the replacement. After listening to Carpenter, Gyorko and Stark, who was born in Bradford, Pennsylvania, and worked as St. Bonaventure’s pitching coach, WVU limited the search to coaches with experience in the region. They would understand the climate, the challenge involved with scheduling and, above all else, high school players.

“It’s a very real thing,” said Carpenter, who is from Fairmont. “If there’s one thing that makes a baseball player good, it’s an opportunity to continue to play as much baseball as possible. When you’re able to get out on the field more often, it helps your development.

“As far as development goes, you can only be in a cage so much and you can only throw bullpens indoors so much. Being in that mid-Atlantic region makes it tough just because of the weather and the opportunities to be outside. I don’t care if you’re Virginia Tech, Virginia, West Virginia, any Pennsylvania or Ohio schools, it’s tough to recruit and to see guys just because the seasons are so short.”

WVU hired Randy Mazey in June 2012, and though he’d played college baseball at Clemson and worked as an assistant or head coach in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, he’s from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He finished 33-26 and 13-11 in the Big 12 in 2013 and followed that with records of 28-26 and 9-14, 27-27 and 9-13, 36-22 and 12-11 last season. The Mountaineers began the Texas Tech series at 26-17 overall and 10-8 in the conference.

Last season’s resurgence attracted 40,390 fans in 30 home games, the greatest total attendance in school history. The first fifteen home games this season drew 28,997 fans, and WVU could still set the record for highest average attendance. Most significantly, the Mountaineers are projected to make their first NCAA regional appearance since 1996.

“The other thing that was important was there was a void in the springtime for Mountaineers fans after basketball season,” Luck said. “If I heard it once, I heard it a million times in Morgantown. ‘Well, I guess I have to wait until the spring [football] game. There’s nothing else to do.’

“That was sad to know you take three or four months off and go into the summer, and nobody really gets excited until August or September for football season. There was an opportunity to get a ballpark built and get people to cheer for something to keep them connected to the athletic department and keep them connected to the university.”

That now exists, alongside a blossoming baseball program that was both preserved and prepared on a random Wednesday in 2011.

“It reinforced what we had hoped to hear, which was that people do care about West Virginia baseball and that we can be successful in it, that we need to be more strategic and it’s not just about the luck of the draw,” Cunningham said. “We realized we had to put certain things in place to support it and fund it completely for it to be what we wanted it to be.”

Contact Mike Casazza at 304-319-1142 or mikec@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @mikecasazza and read his blog at http://blogs.wvgazettemail.com/wvu/.

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