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“Play ball” will be cry from the park next summer when semi-pro River Pigs take the field

Dan McClelland


by Dan McClelland

Tupper Lake baseball fans could be enjoying semi-pro baseball action at the village park ball field as early as next summer, if a league owner from Florida and the village leaders can pull it off. -And the chances right now look very good for it!

This past week village leaders met with Eddie Gonzalez, president of New York's Empire League, several times to work out a plan to bring a semi-pro team here.

The new team will be called the Tupper Lake River Pigs, a name Mr. Gonzalez discovered when he was researching Tupper Lake and its early logging history. A river pig was what they often called the river drivers who moved logs from forests to the mills here.

Some figured the name Timberjax, the local team in an earlier semi-pro league in the North Country, could have been resurrected, but that name is apparently trade-marked.

Tupper Lake was also home to a semi-pro team in the 1930s.

The prospect of a semi-pro team coming here came at the urging of Trustee David “Haji” Maroun, a former softball pitcher here, who has been attending the games of the Surge of Saranac Lake with his son, Carson, this season. Haji and his son kept urging Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Radibeau, who was responsible for bringing the Surge to Saranac Lake, to get a team for Tupper.

The Saranac Lake mayor put Tupper Lake leaders and Mr. Gonzalez together for meetings last week.

On Wednesday Mayor Paul Maroun and Trustees Ron LaScala and David Maroun and former softball league chief Rick Skiff met with Mr. Gonzalez and Mayor Rabideau in Saranac Lake at the Hotel Saranac. The next night some of them met the league owner at the ball field to show him their enthusiasm for the deal.

A week ago last Thursday Trustee Maroun showed Mr. Gonzalez the Tupper athletic field and he was very impressed with the condition of the place, and particularly the modern lights which were updated by the village several years ago and which will permit night games next summer.

The lights may have to be adjusted to account for the larger playing surface.

On the second visit to the field last Thursday, Mr. Gonzalez was accompanied by his wife and small children, who included his son who came suited up and ready to hit a few with his dad in the new park.

That evening he was greeted by about a half dozen of the biggest baseball fans in Tupper Lake, who included Jay and Rick Skiff, Jed Dukett, Trustee Maroun, Royce Cole, Carson Maroun and Trustee Ron LaScala. Most of those men will form the board to oversee the redevelopment of the park ball field and improvements eyed, under the chairmanship of Trustee Haji Maroun.

“We'll be working for Ed but we won't get paid,” the trustee said of the volunteer commitment.

The owner of Tupper Lake's new River Pigs is likely to be Matt Joyce, center fielder of the Atlanta Braves, who is reportedly an investor in Mr. Gonzalez's league.

Trustee Maroun is very excited by the prospects of semi-pro ball coming to our park. Haji is a lifelong baseball fan.

The semi pro players, who are often mostly college players, receive a small salary to play in the league against The Surge, the Plattsburgh Thunderbirds, the New York Bucks from north of Plattsburgh and three other teams, including two teams from Puerto Rico and one from New Hampshire.

But mostly it gives them exposure to scouts searching for talent for the majors.

There are apparently another six teams in another division Mr. Gonzalez has in the southern states.

Mr. Maroun said his board will be soliciting support from businesses and others in the community to help cover team expenses.

He said there will be a $5 admission charge for all 26 games next July and August, but youngsters 16 years and below will be admitted free.

He said these teams in Mr. Gonzalez's league are very kid-oriented, staging special events and activities at games to promote the sport and children's passion for it.

“Eddie guaranteed me the league's all-star game will be played in Tupper Lake next year.”

The league play will replace the softball leagues which re-emerged in recent years but again disappeared this year.

There will be a provision that some of the softball league's annual weekend tournaments can still be played there, as in the past.

Very few changes will need to be made to the field, as it currently stands. The four foot high softball fence will be removed. The 90-foot long baselines will remain.

Mr. Maroun said they have plans to “sod” the infield area, which is currently covered in clay.

The distances to right-center and left-center fields,with fencing modifications, will be 395 feet, according to the trustee.

Young Carson Maroun said at a recent game he and his dad attended in Saranac Lake a batter hit it out of the park on the Petrova Ave. field and over the bleachers and red building, which is over 400 feet.

“Many of these guys are major league talent. There have been some who have been called up,” his dad added.

One player from Plattsburgh was recently drafted by the New York Yankees.

Haji said Ed Gonzalez formed the league a number of years ago. “They have their annual try-outs every May in Delaware.

“You're one step away from major league play, he told the Free Press. “It's very competitive!

He said the team will stay during the season in Tupper Lake, so housing will have to be found for them. “The mayor is already working on that!”

“They interact well with the kids and routinely sponsor clinics and other activities for them. Between innings the kids are invited to come out on the field and play fun games. It's all done very quickly.”

He said every game they raffle off a bat signed by the players of both teams, as a small fundraiser.

Earlier this year the village board voted to remove the two wooden bleacher sections that flank the main grandstand. The one side will be replaced by a metal set. On the other side a platform will replace the section to accommodate handicapped fans and for lawn chair seating.

The two dug outs which were filled with sand and covered with decking will be refurbished with new roofs added.

Trustee Maroun figures the semi-pro games will attract fans from across the area. “If you want to see the kinds of crowds these teams draw take a ride to Saranac Lake to see their 1p.m. games.” He and Carson had attended a game that afternoon and the stands were full.

“For over a month I bugged Mayor Rabideau to get us a team and finally he did!”

“Eddie told us money is not the issue. The issue is trying to get these kids to the majors!”

To accommodate the new league, the Woodsmen's Association will no longer be able to use the area in front of the grandstand or anywhere inside the ball diamond for its big July event. Village officials believe there is plenty of room in the outer section of the park to accommodate their event, and have promised to do whatever is needed to help the Woodsmen's Association move it there.

Marshall Godin, an avid sports fans here who is active in youth sports, said the arrival of the semi-pro team will be “awesome for kids.” He said the sport of baseball is growing here with the start of a Babe Ruth team here this summer and a Legion team within three years. “The kids can play right here along with them,” he said of the excellent field.

Teen leagues play on infields with the same dimensions as pro teams.

The local promoters hope that food and drink concessions may return to the park eventually and there could be renovations under the grandstand to accommodate locker rooms.

Rick Skiff, who like his buddies is very excited of semi-pro ball coming here, figures the new board may also have to have a net or screen erected on the top of the grandstand roof to capture errant foul balls headed out of the stadium.

Trustee Ron LaScala figures the economic gain from this league will be dramatic. “You are talking about major events in the park all through July and August.”

The consumption of beer and other alcoholic drinks may also be permitted, village board members have indicated in the past week.

For decades here the municipal park was one of three sites in town where the open container ordinance didn't apply. That was changed during the administration of former Police Chief Ron Cole.

“How cool would it be to invite a bar or brewery here to come down and sell their wares and perhaps sponsor that evening's game,” Mr. LaScala thought.

He said Haji has been dreaming about this since they joined the village board. “We all want to dream with him!”

Eddie Gonzalez was welcomed by the Tupper delegation with warmth and excitement Thursday.

“This is beautiful, ready to place some baseball in this place? the league president told them.

Mr. Gonzalez pointed to the view out across Raquette Pond with the setting sun as proof of the wonderful site.

He said this division could eventually be expanded to eight teams.

The league organizer said bringing in a new team like the River Pigs will cause some restructuring of the division and its schedule, but said he would like to retain the two separate divisions. “But we can do this!”

Of the local baseball supporters he met at the baseball field that night, he said he felt like they were his “brothers.”

“Thank you guys for joining in and becoming part of our baseball family!”

Eddie said from the time he was a young child he knew he'd find a career in baseball. “I'm going to stay on a ball field until I die... there's no other way out of it for me!”

“Baseball was an outlet for my father when we were kids, keeping us away from bad places and dark paths.”

He said as a young man he played minor league professional baseball as a catcher and almost made The Bigs. “My partner and friend, Matt Joyce, made it and my brother played for the Angels. Together we all have a love for baseball and don't know much else.”

“My dream was major league baseball. I eventually realized that may not happen, but I knew I had to stay in this game.”

At that point he was looking at all the things he could do in the sport, and particularly coaching.

“One day I was riding in the car and I had this vision. I figured if no one was going to hire me, then I'm going to have to do this myself.”

He said he thought about forming a team, but then wondered how he was going to that. “A voice told me a short time later, it was going to be an entire league.

“All of sudden we were doing national and international showcases and camps to seek talent and to try to help them get to the pros. We started getting 200 and 300 players attending our camps and we started helping so many guys get to pro ball.”

He said he found many “hungry kids” trying to get to the pros and he found a way to help them through the league.

He said the Empire League gives its players more time to develop and grow, to help increase their chance to eventually make the pros. “This way they don't get cut, sent home and told they're no good. Instead they get a lot of positive feedback.”

He said that's how the Empire League was born. “It was all about hearing yes.”

The overall mission of the league and his personal goals are to help young players find success in the sport.

Eddie said one of his success stories was finding a way for an autistic player to make the pros.

He said that was one of his crowning moments to give a kid like that a big yes, when all he was getting from big corporations and organized baseball were no's. The player was signed right out of Plattsburgh.

Asked if he thought he was about to become a part of changing the face of summers in Tupper Lake, he said he didn't know. “All I want is to be a part of the smile of that face!”