Redcoats owner optimistic about baseball

BELPRE – Some people have questioned how professional baseball could work in Parkersburg after the region’s first go-round – the Ohio Valley Redcoats – struck out after six seasons.

But the man who owned the Redcoats for five of those six years believes it’s possible.

“I want to see baseball in the area,” said Jim Nelson, 58, of Belpre.

It’s the Redcoats’ struggles, as much if not more than their successes, during the time they played home games at Bennett Stump Field in City Park that form the basis of the strategies Nelson thinks will allow a new venture to succeed. He’s attended a couple meetings and believes the Wood County Development Authority’s Parkersburg Baseball Committee and other supporters are on the right track in many of their plans.

For one thing, Nelson agrees baseball alone won’t carry the venture.

“All we had was 40 (home) baseball games to make our budget,” he said.

Teams in the independent Frontier League – of which the Redcoats were a charter member and the proposed new team would likely join – now play 100 games a season, 50 at home and 50 on the road. But the package being examined now in the second phase of a feasibility study is centered around a ballpark that would be a venue for much more than baseball.

CONSOL Energy Park, the home of the Frontier League’s Washington Wild Things at Washington. Pa., is being used as an example by local backers. In addition to the Wild Things, the field hosts major concerts, political rallies, rodeo events, a professional women’s softball team and more. It’s also been a driver of economic development, with numerous businesses springing up around it.

“If it will succeed, it has to be because of the other businesses that get involved,” Nelson said.

Nelson went to work for the Redcoats in their first season, 1993. He admits his primary motivation was to get baseball experience to make him more attractive as a candidate for a sales job with Louisville Slugger. Prior to the second season, he and seven other individuals purchased the team from original owner Greg Hammond.

“I thought we (ran) a pretty good product,” Nelson said. “But we lost money then the second year.”

The team had an annual budget of about $300,000 and was $13,000 in the red the year the group took over. The figure rose to about $60,000 before the team moved to Indiana and became the DuBois County Dragons.

“We lost money every year,” Nelson said.

He offered to take on his partners’ debt in exchange for their shares of the team, and became sole owner for the team’s third season.

Travel expenses rose as the league expanded.

“When the league first started … from here to Huntington would have been the longest bus ride, and then later on, Kalamazoo, Mich.,” Nelson said.

Today the Frontier League stretches from the Wild Things in Washington west to the River City Rascals of O’Fallon, Mo.

For a new Parkersburg-area team to be viable in the long term, the support of residents and businesses on both sides of the Ohio River is needed, Nelson said.

“It has to be in Parkersburg. That’s your biggest fan base,” he said. “I’d love to see a stadium downtown.”

Nelson said he hopes local businesses will now see the economic benefit a team and stadium can provide. His one regret, he said, is not reaching out to more of the roughly 8,000 businesses listed in the area’s phone book.

“If I’d have gotten $100 from half of them, that would have been $400,000 and the Redcoats still would’ve been there,” Nelson said.

Another money-making option not available to the Redcoats was beer sales. Alcohol was not permitted in City Park and Nelson said he once talked to a fan that said the only reason he and his father didn’t attend games was that they couldn’t have a beer in the stands.

Nelson noted a Frontier League franchise in Canton sold a beer advertising package for $36,000 in the ’90s, an amount that would have put the Redcoats’ in the black a couple of times.

Despite the inability to sell alcohol, Nelson said he felt City Park gave the field a nice ambiance. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to overcome other disadvantages.

“The field that we played in was a drawback – no shower facilities for our team or the visiting team,” Nelson said.

That meant the road team had to go back to their hotel to clean up, except for the last day of the series, when they would board their bus in their uniforms and head for the next destination.

Sam Winans, co-chairman of the baseball committee, said he admires Nelson’s enthusiasm and commitment to the Redcoats.

“He put his heart and soul into it,” Winans said. “As hard as Jim worked, there was no way minor league baseball was going to work at City Park.”

The proposal now being considered is a different animal than in the early days of the Frontier League. As Nelson suggested, Winans said the baseball itself is only a part of the revenue and overall economic impact of the project.

“It is night and day,” he said. “It’s just a brand-new world.”

One difference is the money involved.

The franchise fee for a team to join the Frontier League is upwards of $800,000, significantly higher than when the Redcoats made their debut. Nelson said numbers like that preclude him from becoming a local investor in the team, but he’s willing to share whatever he can from his experiences if asked. He’d also open his home to a player on the team, as team members will likely be housed by local residents.

And Nelson definitely plans to be in the stands, for the same reason he throws batting practice for the Belpre High School baseball team and has a scale painting of Yankee Stadium in his basement.

“I love baseball,” he said.