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Futures Collegiate League of New England, Silver Knights set for season openers next week

NASHUA – They will return to Holman Stadium on Thursday night, handing out championship rings with the team they beat for the title watching.

The Nashua Silver Knights are back, and the league they compete in, the Futures Collegiate League of New England, will this time have a full contingent of eight teams, with four franchises that weren’t with the league as recently as three years ago.

And there will be a lot more baseball – some 68 games per team, which compared to a reduced schedule played a year ago with the pandemic-related late start – will seem like a Major League season.

Yes, there’s a difference, and the FCBL, which opens its 11th season on Wednesday night (Nashua is at Vermont), is clearly going through a metamorphosis that one wonders where the journey will take them.

Of the teams that began the league back in 2011 – just four – only the Silver Knights remain. Last year, when the FCBL was basically the only game in town throughout New England, six franchises competed due to the pandemic – Nashua, Worcester, Brockton, North Shore, Westfield (Mass.) and newcomer New Britain (Conn.). Pittsfield (Mass.) sat out due to issues with the pandemic.

Enter 2021. League officials consistently said they would watch those who were going to be left out of the MLB ordered minor league game of musical chair contraction. When the music stopped, the FCBL swooped in and secured two of the communities left without MLB affiliation, former New York Penn League (the circuit no longer exists) members Burlington, Vermont, and Norwich, Connecticut.

In one case, a current league owner – old friend Chris English (original Nashua Pride owner and current Brockton owner) led a group to purchase the Vermont Lake Monsters. Norwich Sea Unicorns ownership reportedly remained the same.

That’s the positive.

The negative? The Futures League lost its third straight franchise to the rival New England Collegiate Baseball League, and it hit close to home. Natural Silver Knight rival North Shore (Lynn, Mass.) had new owners heading into their second year, and they wanted to follow former FCBL franchises Martha’s Vineyard and Bristol (Conn.) into the not-for-profit, MLB subsidized NECBL.

Lawsuits this past off-season were filed, and a settlement was ultimately reached that allowed North Shore to leave.

The Navigators were a convenient location for Nashua, Brockton and even Worcester. Fraser Field in Lynn was a facility that was the type the FCBL is known for – stadiums rather than open, bring-your-lawn chair type spots.

“Personally, I was disappointed,” FCBL Commissioner Joe Paolucci said. “I take some of the blame for it not working out. They had a new ownership group, only there for a year, they wanted a change, and it was unfortunate.

“Geographically, it was such a great location for us, such a great stadium, great history there. I was upset it didn’t work out. … I just things were different, and we were able to keep that franchise in the league.”

Paolucci couldn’t answer too many queries about North Shore,due to the court agreement.

Paolucci won’t look at the optics of a loss of a third straight franchise to the NECBL with rose colored glasses.

“The optics aren’t great, obviously,” he said. “But the answer really, it’s just a different business model. The NECBL and the Futures League, we just do things differently from a business perspective. And that’s all it was, really.”

In other words, the FCBL teams are run as for-profit businesses – like minor league franchises. “It’s (the NECBL) is a great league and it’s been around for a while.”

Paolucci says he doesn’t fear a repeat.

“All the partners we (currently) have, we’re all on the same page,” he said. “We had a great off-season with the owners existing in the league, and bringing in the new ownership groups were exciting.”

Paolucci said the FCBL “was pretty strategic” in bringing in the new franchises, and that there was a lot of work involved, especially with Norwich, which was literally a last minute addition – which delayed the schedule announcement for nearly six weeks.

“I can imagine it was a pretty big blow for both those organizations to not be part of affiliated ball anymore,” Paolucci said. “But we did go after them hard.”

And to convince the moves to be made, the FCBL increased from its previous full season schedule model of a 56-game season to a whopping 68. Why? More revenue. Remember, only Nashua and New Britain were able to have fans in their facilities, and Pittsfield, Vermont and Norwich did not have seasons a year ago. And thus no dollars, which basically come via three different ways: attendance, concessions, and advertising/corporate sponsorship.

“That was really to try to entice some of these teams,” Paolucci said. “Talk about the business model, it’s really about the home openers. Going from the 56 to the 68 brings in more revenue. We did a lot of things behind the scenes but going to the 68 was a big start.”

Paolucci said that conversations between English and the former Vermont owners began casually and then picked up steam “pretty abruptly.”

“We all kind of had our fingers crossed and were hoping Chris was going to pull that through,” Paolucci said.

And Norwich? Sea Unicorns owner Miles Prentice needed to work out a few things with the city, and all the variables came together literally at the last minute, Paolucci said.

“Right when the press release went out was when we found out it was final,” he said.

Paolucci says both are long-term options, even though as Paolucci admitted the community in Norwich reportedly was disappointed in losing affiliated ball.

“I think they’ll be really happy,” Paolucci said. “I don’t think they’ll see a huge dropoff in terms of the entertainment value we provide.

“Watching college kids is really exciting. It’s one thing to watch minor leaguers and think that this player is going to be something big some day. But you can think the same way about the college kids, right? They just have a longer road to go, basically … I have a friend who was watching a game in Brockton and said, ‘I can’t believe these guys are professionals.’ But they’re not, they’re college kids. There hasn’t been a professional league (in Brockton) in seven years or so. I don’t think people really know. They just want to see good baseball and be entertained.”

THE ROAD IS LONG,

SO IS THE SEASON

And now begins the push forward, but now with more travel. Worcester general manager Dave Peterson has always put the league schedule together, and with Vermont there will be some back to back games in Burlington where teams can stay over if they so desire. Nashua general manager Cam Cook has said it’s necessary for the Knights, who are a lot closer to Burlington than New Britain, Norwich, Westfield, Pittsfield, etc.

Coach buses are back for teams – not generally used last year due to COVID – and Paolucci said there will be “first class travel for them, they’ll be fed before and after games.”

And, as he said, they will have six hour bus rides in the minors, so this will be an indoctrination. “We’re trying to give these kids a crash course in what it’s like to play in the minor leagues,” Paolucci said.

With the 68 games, extending the regular season to August 13, there’s the likelihood some players will need to return to their schools early.

“It’s extended five days longer than we typically do,” Paolucci said. “And we literally lose players every year. But the thing is our general managers know. They’re prepared for that. They have a short list of guys who are available on August 10. It’s the nature of the best. But it’s our business plan and it’s worked great.”

And Paolucci says in his previous two years as commissioner, the championship series he’s presided over “have been outstanding.”

To speed things up, while all one division, there will be just four teams to make the playoffs. The first place team will play the No. 4 seed, and Nos. 2 and 3 will meet, both in best two of three series, and same for the finals.

Also, Home Run Derby will be back to decide games that go beyond 10 innings, but with a tweak. Instead of timed rounds, the first round hitters will be done after they make 10 outs, and in the second round it will last until five outs. An out is any swing that doesn’t result in a home run.

PROFESSIONAL

COMPETITON

The good news for Worcester and Nashua owner John Creedon, Jr. is that the Bravehearts can return to the College of Holy Cross’s Hanover Insurance Park at Fitton Field. Last year, due to the pandemic, with the HC campus off-limits, the Bravehearts were able to use Leominster’s Doyle Field.

The potential bad news? The Bravehearts are no longer the talk of Worcester, thanks to the arrival and opening of the Red Sox Triple A team, the WooSox, after the franchise moved from Pawtucket and a new stadium, Polar Park, was built in downtown Worcester.

Thus, what does Paolucci think of the Bravehearts’ long term viability?

“I’ve been saying this ever since we found out they were going there,” he said. “I think they’ll probably take a hit in Year One, but the Creedons do such a great job with their brand there, it’s still different. I don’t know what it costs a family of four to go to a WooSox game, but I do know it’s comparatively cheaper to go to a Bravehearts game.

“And again, the entertainment value is always going to be there. And knowing John, he’s not going to back down. They’re going to put on a great show there. Every time I go there I get introduced to another die hard season ticket holder. I have no doubt Braveheart baseball is going to thrive there.”

Paolucci feels the Bravehearts have done the work to try to keep their sponsors in the fold as well.

“Every time I talk to Dave, he’s just coming back from a lunch or a breakfast with one of their sponsors,” Paolucci said. “The Bravehearts, they really service their sponsors. It’s not ‘Hey, give us your money, thanks for everything.’ I have no doubt they’ll continue to build their partnerships there and continue to thrive.”

And Paolucci noted that Peterson, when he devised the Bravehearts schedule, tried to avoid conflicting nights with the WooSox whenever possible.

The next variable was Pittsfield. It’s always tough for a franchise to sit out a year, and one had to wonder about the Suns prospects for returning to the FCBL. Paolucci said there was never an issue with the Goldklang Group and owner Jeff Goldklang.

“We’d been communicating with Jeff all along, and there was never any indication they weren’t coming back,” Paolucci said. “They were hit hard by the pandemic as were several other communities.”

The Suns had a general manager change, as Sander Stotland takes over for former GM/President Kristen Huss, who took a major marketing job in New York.

“He’s pulling things through quickly and with Norwich pulling things through quickly, it’s a scramble right now,” Paolucci said. “We’ve got experienced people working for those clubs. Everything is going to go smooth.”

COVID PROTOCOLS

This will be a different season in some ways, with all the franchises allowed to have fans in the stands, depending on local and state protocols. For example, in here in Nashua, the Knights expect Holman can have, as of this writing, 50 percent capacity for Silver Knight games, which is about 1,500 people.

“It’s all based on teams’ local board of health and local mayor’s office,” Paolucci said. “We’re just going to adhere to that, and what the state rule is on fans at outdoor stadiums. It’s different per state, but what the percentages are right now from state to state are really good for us already.

“I think we can be profitable at what those capacities are now, and I’m hoping that on June 1 they’re going to go up even higher, and on July 1. More and more people getting vaccinated every day, and the fact we’re outside, I really don’t see (the pandemic) affecting us in any way.”

Well, Paolucci, after those comments got his wish as Massachusetts capacity reportedly went from 25% to near full capacity by May 29 – when last year fans were not allowed at all. Connecticut as of this week went to no limits whatsoever, and Vermont had been at 50 percent at last look.

“Twenty-five percent is still very good, it’s still around 1,000 fans,” Paolucci said. Now they’ll be even better than that for most of the league’s franchises.

BENEFITS OF LAST SEASON

The Futures League was the only summer collegiate league in New England to play, and one of the only in the northeast (a league in New York played as well). But of course, without fans, revenue, etc. for four of the six who played – Nashua and New Britain the exceptions – a financial hit was taken.

“They suffered a lot,” Paolucci said of the league’s franchises. “It was pretty significant. That’s why they’re taking all the credit for last year. We could’ve pulled the plug, but we felt it was collectively important to kind of push through this thing, and take the hit financially.

“It was pretty important for each one of these owners to bring baseball to their community. So to answer the question of how do we get (that lost revenue) back, I don’t think if you can measure that.

“But if the communities come out and support the teams this year, which I believe they will because of what they did last year, that will kind of answer that for us.”

And of course the league had a high level of player compete, simply because there was nowhere else for them to. That likely won’t be the same this year. But, as Paolucci said, to see the top players from last year thriving in major college baseball this year, “looks good on us, right? We gave those guys an opportunity, a lot of scouts were at our games. In the long term, when these guys make it to the major leagues, hopefully they’ll look back and realize that we did a good thing by providing them with an opportunity to play in 2020.”

And this year’s level of play?

“Obviously we’re not going to have as many future top five first round picks like we did last year,” Paolucci said. “But talking to a lot of the managers and general managers, our reach has gotten a lot farther because of last year. With the caliber of schools that reached out to us because we played last year, I think the level of play is going to be as good as it’s been in years past.

“Instead of getting the guy who’s going to be drafted in the first round this year, we may be getting the guy who is going to be drafted in the first round in two years.

“But that’s kind of who we are – we’re the Futures League, right?”

STATE OF NASHUA

Paolucci feels Nashua’s overall health as a franchise “is incredible. Not to keep tooting the horn of the Creedons, but you know was good as anybody how great of a job that they do. Cam Cook is the reigning Executive of the Year up there. His relationship with manager Kyle Jackson is excellent. And in terms of how they recruit players, you hear nothing but good things from the players how much they love playing for Kyle.

“And the ballpark – my first year as commissioner Holman was the only ballpark I did not get to. But I was there last year, and it’s amazing how beautiful that ballpark is, and such a great community around it.

“Also, I think the Creedons are just getting started there. They bought the team at the last minute in 2019, and then last year was the pandemic year. I think you’re going to see great things.”

FUTURE OF THE FUTURES LEAGUE

How big will this league get? It had 10 teams at one point some six years ago, but it appeared the league moved too fast and brought in franchises/owners who simply couldn’t handle the load.

Does Paoluccci see things growing from eight again?

“I do,” he said. “Our goal is to always expand. When asked the question of how many teams do you want, the answer is how many teams that make sense for our league. We want the right facilities, we want to make sure we have the right ownership group, and make sure that ownership is comfortable with us.”

And probably the right location, location, location. Travel, the commissiner said, is one of a team’s biggest expenses. And while the ordeal of going to Martha’s Vineyard is no longer, teams in Connecticut now have to go to Vermont and vice-versa. Paolucci says the league has had conversations about bringing in teams from outside of New England, “and we would not completely shut the door on that, but we’d have to do our research and think things through. But anything in New England is fair game for us.”

And if travel got “crazy”, the league he said would get creative in scheduling, perhaps with divisions, three-game sets.

“There’s ways to get creative,” he said.

Paolucci says the league constantly hears from prospective owners looking to join the league, and “a lot of times it kind of fizzles out one way or another.

“We just have to keep walking through that process. I would love for us next year to be at 10 teams, and that’s a real possibility.”

Thus the future for the Futures League, despite some hiccups and a global pandemic, appears bright.

It’s time to play ball.

KNIGHTS’ WEEK

Nashua will be at Vermont Wednesday (7:05 p.m.), home vs. Worcester on Thursday (6 p.m., pre-game ring ceremony expected), at Westfield, Mass. on Friday, May 28 (6:30 p.m.), at Brockton on Saturday (6 p.m.) and home vs. Brockton on Monday, May 30 at 3 p.m.

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