Padecky: New game in play
Published: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 8:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 11:04 p.m.
WINE COUNTRY BASEBALL
Opening day: June 12
at Cardinal Newman High
Season ends: Oct. 2
Teams: Sebastopol Apples, Cloverdale Bandits; Sonoma County Crushers; Rohnert Park Dragons; Santa Rosa Giants; Napa Knights; Oakville Aces; Healdsburg Owls; Petaluma Piratas; St. Helena Angels; Windsor Wonders; Yountville Robins
Game sites: Cardinal Newman High, Healdsburg High, St. Vincent High, Napa Valley College, Golis Park (Rohnert Park), Doyle Park, Arnold Field (Sonoma), Field of Dreams (Sonoma) and SSU.
Tickets: $5 adults; $2 children;
$70 one-team season pass.
Ticket sellers: University of Sports (Rohnert Park); Beyond the Glory (Petaluma); Omelette Express (SR and Windsor)
Information and online ticket sales: www.winecountrybaseball.com
The dream, for those who have owned it since they discovered baseball as a child, does not fade easily. Its owner refuses to submit, if for no other reason that this could be the year his body finally matures and his fastball or his batting stroke is so much better, it has reached professional caliber. The pros will call. And the dream will gain glorious traction.
All that's missing for the undrafted or lightly regarded baseball player is a testing facility, a place to improve, prove and be seen. A game.
Say hello, will you, to the Wine Country Baseball League, which will begin a 12-team season a week from Saturday, the particulars of which form a backstory that almost reduces the number of players — at last count 149 of them — to a footnote.
Five nationally known celebrities have pledged their involvement, including NFL linebacker Jason Taylor, ex-NFL quarterback Dan Marino, actress Michelle Rodriguez and singer Rob Thomas. Three other notables are in the final stages of pledging a commitment: actors Charlie Sheen and Kevin Costner and former San Francisco Giant Kevin Mitchell.
Fifty-percent of game proceeds will go to charities, most of which will be local. A weekly two-minute film clip — highlighting the previous week's games — will be shown before movies at Sonoma and Napa county cinemas. Nine fields have become available, including SSU's. Parking will be free. Adults pay five bucks, children two.
Concessions will be on site, with home-brought food welcome. The Wine Country Baseball League, in other words, will be as accessible as taking a breath.
It is also extremely ambitious, as the only salaried people involved in the enterprise will be the umpires.
How can this work? The same way the highly respected Cape Cod League in Massachusetts works. It's a baseball developmental league that is on MLB's short leash and also on New Englanders' short list of events to attend in the summer.
“Scouts can't be everywhere,” said Howard Leonhardt, president, CEO and founder.
Leonhardt lives in Healdsburg, among other places, having established a residence and a vineyard here 10 years ago.
The WCBL is the result of Leonhardt trying unsuccessfully for two years to buy and move the ClassA San Jose Giants to Santa Rosa. The California League wanted Leonhardt to build a $15 million stadium. That, along with a $6 million purchase price for the team, proved to be economically unfeasible, if not utterly ridiculous.
“Walt Disney was one of my heroes growing up,” said Leonhardt, 48. “He had the imagination to make magical things happen for children. He built memories that will live forever in the minds and hearts of children. That's what I want to do here.”
Yes, Leonhardt has heard about the long-gone Sonoma County Crushers, that Western Baseball League team in Rohnert Park that still provokes a soft and fuzzy memory for those who witnessed it. And yes again, Leonhardt is a sucker for the soft and fuzzy memory because he still has one of those himself.
“As an 8-year old in Minnesota,” Leonhardt said, “I dreamt of running my own baseball league.”
He was the fantasy owner all right, and the fantasy manager, and the fantasy player, and when discussing those days Tuesday, Leonhardt grabbed an imaginary bat and put together an imaginary swing that surely resulted in an imaginary home run. But don't be fooled that the WCBL is a simple plaything by the idle rich, that Leonhardt has reached the top of the mountain and tends to his tomato plants between global trips on a cruise ship. Sure, Leonhardt is rich, but he is hardly idle.
In truth, Leonhardt is an inveterate mountain climber, starting 24 years ago with his first mountain, established an export trading company with two employees that led to a merger with another company 13 years later, a 2,000-person staff and a sale price of $4.3 billion.
He now owns a company that applies muscle stem cells to treat advanced heart failure. He has taught entrepreneurship at UCLA, Princeton and the University of Minnesota. He is an outspoken advocate of asking teachers and parents to encourage students to discover their passions.
Leonhardt owns a restaurant, a dolphin sight-seeing business, a publishing company and a vineyard that produced a gold-medal wine at the 2009 Sonoma County Fair. Many of his ventures have a charitable component. He also has been part-owner of two Arena Football League franchises. His resume, frankly, reads of someone who should own an NFL team, rather than a baseball developmental league.
His intent, all along, has been to include, rather than exclude. He wants to spread the wealth.
“I want to do well by doing good for the community,” he said.
In exchange for Leonhardt using the celebrities' likenesses on the WCBL website and promotions, 10 percent of game proceeds will be donated to their preferred charities. Leonhardt expects between $7,500 and $10,000 per weekend to be routed in such a fashion.
Leonhardt also doesn't see why the Cape Cod League model wouldn't work here. At the very least, college players keep in shape between seasons. College baseball coaches of elite-level programs — like Cal State Fullerton and Sonoma State — want their kids involved and close to monitor.
This is the WCBL's start-up year, with most of the players local in origin. But Leonhardt envisions within a few years players coming from all across the Western United States.
“Why travel across the U.S. to Cape Cod when you can come here?” he said.
And since each team plays one game a week, a player who wants to keep his dream alive would think it's of little strain to drive here from Sacramento or, for that matter, Modesto or even points farther south.
Said Leonhardt: “What also would work here, as it does at Cape Cod, is a major-league team sponsoring a player. They will come to us, say they are interested in a player, don't want to sign him yet, but want to keep tabs on him closely. So they will sponsor that player, meaning they would provide money for room-and-board for that athlete either at a local home or motel.”
What would also work here would be called a day for Guys Who Made It. Leonhardt will assemble a list of players who grew up in Sonoma County and made it to the big leagues, ex-Yankee closer John Wetteland being the most notable, he of Cardinal Newman and those 330 big-league saves. They will be honored on a weekend. Who knows? If Wetteland, now 43, can still throw some high cheese, maybe Leonhardt will ask him to toss an inning. Or until his arm falls off. Whichever comes first.
Why not? This is another start-up project for Howard Leonhardt and there's nothing that intrigues this guy more than starting with a blank canvas. Oh, how he loves to fill in the blanks.
For more on North Bay sports, go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or email@example.com.
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