VBL Takes Over Struggling Haymarket

6/27/2007 – Daily News Record

It hopes for a short stint as the team’s operator. Written By Dustin Dopirak Daily News Record HARRISONBURG — The Valley Baseball League is doing for the Haymarket Senators what Major League Baseball once did for the Montreal Expos. It’s taking over. Because of the team’s financial woes, VBL officials said, the league decided Tuesday to take complete command of the team through Sunday, allowing current owner/general manager Mark Keagle time to fix the franchise’s problems or sell it to another ownership group. "The league is actually taking over on a short-term basis," said Dave Biery, the president of the VBL, a summer wooden-bat circuit that features college players from all over the country. "….[The point of the move] is to give [Keagle] some short-term relief and give him an opportunity to negotiate or get new ownership involved." In practical terms, that means Biery, VBL executive vice president Todd Thompson and a few volunteers will control the Senators — who were in 10th place in the 11-team league at 5-12 going into Tuesday night’s game against Covington — for the next six games. All financial decisions will go through the league, and it will handle all game-day operations, meaning everything from selling tickets to providing concessions to keeping score. Biery said he hoped Keagle would be able to find a new owner quickly. The VBL president said two groups have shown significant interest in purchasing the team, but he refused to name them. Keagle refused to comment Tuesday, saying he did not want to release a statement until he had discussed the issue with the rest of Haymarket’s board of directors. "I haven’t stepped aside as the head of Haymarket Senators Inc.," he said. "… The Valley League will be in charge of tonight’s game." Biery, VBL executive vice president Todd Thompson and several league owners, however, said Keagle had stepped aside because of financial problems that had plagued the team for much of the year. "Mark had told us early in the year that he was financially secure and he was able to run it, but maybe that’s not the case," Thompson said. "Plus, maybe he’s just tired of it. It’s a lot of work. It really takes 15 to 30 people every night, most of whom are volunteers, to have an operation like this run. If you don’t have that, it’s difficult. Mark’s been busy. He’s doing 50-50, he’s doing the gate. He was doing a lot. It’s really difficult to do a lot of what he does." The franchise has struggled to find a niche in the Northern Virginia market since it was created as the Loudoun Rangers in 2004. The team moved to Haymarket in 2005, but according to owners of other VBL franchises, the Senators have struggled to draw even 100 fans to games. Attendance at Valley League games range widely from 200 to 900 fans, and are typically between 300 and 600. "My heart goes out to [Keagle] because it’s my understanding that he’s lost over $100,000," said Luray Wranglers owner Bill Turner, who also said he was trying to help Keagle with marketing strategies. "That’s difficult for any businessman who’s trying to run a baseball team. None of us are really making money on this. We’re all in it because we love the game, but when you’re losing that kind of money, it’s difficult on him and his family." Biery said Keagle contacted the VBL several days ago to discuss the team’s problems, and the league initially worried that the Senators would simply fold. Biery said his main concern was the players, many of whom had come from far-flung schools to play for the summer. One option Biery looked into was holding a supplemental draft to disperse the players to other VBL teams while raising the roster ceiling for each squad. Instead, Biery said, he decided to follow the MLB’s example in the Expos’ situation. The franchise had struggled for years in Montreal because of poor attendance before the league finally bought the team in 2002. Biery said he hopes, however, that the VBL doesn’t take control for nearly as long as Major League Baseball did. MLB didn’t sell the Expos until 2006. "We’ll see what happens in the next couple of days, but hopefully this is something will happen very quickly," Biery said. "I don’t know if that will come true, but I hope it does." The president said, however, that if a sale was not finalized by the end of the week and Keagle had not found a way to solve the team’s woes, it was conceivable that the league could maintain control though the end of the year. "There are really several possibilities," Biery said. "One would be that that Mark would get some things worked out and would be able to take it back. Another is that someone else could take over, and a third possibility is that we would continue to run the team. I would say there’s a very slim possibility that that would happen." The decision for the league to take over drew praise from several league owners, who thought folding a team would damage the league’s reputation. "I think Dave Biery is doing exactly what he needs to do," Harrisonburg owner/manager Bob Wease said Tuesday while hosing off the infield at Memorial Stadium. "… It does give the Valley League a black eye if one of the teams fold. It’s going to be hard for us to get top-notch ballplayers here. No college coach wants to send their players to a team if they think they’re going to play a couple of weeks and fold the team up."