|Bob Rich and his wife Mindy tour the new ballpark site at the University Town Centre earlier today.
Most professional sports team owners who come into a new town are handed a hat of the local team to wear.
Not Robert E. Rich, Jr., chairman of multi-billion-dollar Rich Products Corporation and chairman of Rich Baseball, who says he simply prefers to be called Bob. He has his own tattered blue West Virginia University ball cap with the gold Flying WV that he estimates is probably 10 years old – or the amount of time since Pat White and Steve Slaton were tearing up the Georgia Dome turf during the 2006 Nokia Sugar Bowl.
“That was my team,” Rich said. “I loved that team.”
Rich has also fallen in love with West Virginia. He now has a summer home in White Sulphur Springs.
Now, he is about to transform Morgantown, West Virginia into the home of professional baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ New York-Penn League entrant. An announcement was made earlier today that the Jamestown Jammers’ franchise is coming to North Central West Virginia to play in the brand new ballpark under construction at the University Town Centre development off of Interstate 79.
Rich has been involved in pro sports for a number of years and was instrumental in saving professional baseball in the city of Buffalo back in the early 1980s.
“I started out as one of the (Buffalo) Sabres owners when I came out of business school,” Rich recalled. “We had a baseball team in Buffalo that was failing. (A local ownership group) ran out of money and they were looking for someone to revitalize it. The mayor of Buffalo said, ‘I know you are interested in sports, I know of your love for being involved in pro sports and if you will buy this team we will look into building you a new stadium.’”
Three decades later, Buffalo baseball is thriving.
Here in Morgantown, Rich’s group has a much different task - getting professional baseball off the ground - and their expertise in providing fun, family-oriented entertainment should fit perfectly in this market.
“We’re about giving the fans what they want by giving them a great entertainment form,” said Rich.
Rich said Morgantown matched their profile of an up-and-coming city with all of the things needed to field a successful minor league baseball franchise.
“You need critical mass,” he explained. “You need either a community surrounding the ballpark or one that has a chance to have a regional market that will come and support the team in order to be competitive. That’s very important. There are components of how you do it and it starts with being customer first.
“When our people come to work at one of our baseball operations for Rich Baseball they are trained to turn their back on what’s going on between the white lines. They focus on what’s happening outside the white lines. That’s where their game is being played to make sure the fans get the best of everything because in minor league baseball there’s not a heck of a lot you can do to control the product on the field.”
Having the parent club in the Pittsburgh Pirates just a little more than an hour away was also very appealing to Rich.
“We benefitted with that in Buffalo where we are just 90 miles from Toronto,” Rich explained. “We see a lot of Blue Jays hats, but ironically, as the season goes on we’ve watched them convert to Bisons hats, too. This is where people will watch the Pittsburgh Pirates stars of the future and they will come out. People will make that trek.”
Rich said he has a great deal of familiarity with the Pirates organization, having once worked with them when Pittsburgh’s Triple-A team used to be in Buffalo.
“We had some great years with the Pirates,” Rich noted. “We’ve known (general manager) Neal Huntington since his days in Cleveland and the Pirates are right on the cusp.
“I think there is a compatibility factor with the Nutting family because I’ve followed how Bob Nutting is building a professional organization,” Rich added. “I’ve followed how he is looking to build it with young prospects and I’ve seen what they’re doing in towns like Indianapolis. If we’d have gotten a Major League club in Buffalo this is the way we were going to build our franchise.”
Actually, Rich said he purchased Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A ball clubs with the goal of having a farm system in place for a possible Buffalo franchise, and when the city wasn’t successful in attracting a Major League team, he chose to keep those franchises.
“A lot of people were surprised that we kept the clubs because we found in it good business where you can do a lot of great community outreach and that’s what we’re doing in all of the communities that we’re in,” he said.
And that now includes Morgantown, just one of four West Virginia cities fortunate enough to have an affiliated professional baseball franchise.
“There are only about a couple hundred teams with affiliated baseball around the country so for a town to be able to have a professional baseball team is really special,” said Rich. “When you walk downtown it’s kind of like being a birthright of being an American. Everybody has got a favorite team and when you walk downtown you will see a lot of different professional baseball hats and you will see people who will cheer for some of the rivals, but at the end of the day you only have one hometown team. Now in Morgantown you actually have two hometown teams.
“You have the University team from WVU playing in a state-of-the-art ballpark building your own baseball program, and you are going to have a pro team who can carry on seamlessly after (college baseball season) is over.”
Since the news became public that Rich Baseball was coming to Morgantown, Rich said he has already received several calls from friends living in Lewisburg – one of them being his doctor.
Rich said he knows not to schedule a check up on Fridays during football season because his doctor is always traveling to Morgantown on that day to cheer on the Mountaineers.
Now, it looks like he will have to pay close attention to his appointment book in the summertime, too.