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A hopeful waiting game for pro baseball

Jose Negron of the Saranac Lake Surge tags out an Explorers base runner Abraham Longa while Skylar Mercado backs up the play during the first game the team played at Petrova Avenue on July 4, 2019. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

SARANAC LAKE — The coronavirus pandemic forced the Empire Professional Baseball League to relocate to a single venue in western Pennsylvania a season ago to play a condensed season in front no spectators. Now, EPBL Eddie Gonzelez hopes his organization can bring the game back this year to entertain fans around the North Country.

Two summers ago, Saranac Lake became the new home of one of six teams competing in the independent professional league when the Surge moved from its former location in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. And last year, the village of Tupper Lake was ready to welcome the EPBL’s newest squad — the Riverpigs — but didn’t get that chance as sports were put on hold across New York state due to COVID-19 regulations.

With playing baseball in northern New York no longer an option, a search for somewhere to play took the EPBL to Consol Energy Park in Washington, Pennsylvania, where four teams competed in a shortened season that started in the first week of September. The Surge and Riverpigs were among the squads that competed in Pennsylvania, and Gonzalez, the EPBL commissioner, says he would love to see those teams back on home turf this summer with fans at their games.

The league and the two villages have already cleared one hurdle for baseball’s return with recent approvals of playing fields. The Surge’s diamond on Petrova Avenue belongs to the Saranac Lake Central School District, and the Board of Education gave its go-ahead for the team to play there. On Wednesday, Tupper Lake’s village board unanimously approved the Riverpigs use of the field at its Municipal Park.

“So far we’re hopeful that things get toward some type of normality and we can bring baseball back to the communities and fans in northern New York,” Gonzalez said earlier this week in a phone interview. “Obviously, we’re still waiting on approval. If conditions are favorable, and ball players can come and play, we plan on being back in Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. We’ll have to follow whatever regulations are in place, and at this time, it’s hard to know what that might look like, but we are looking forward to being up there.

“We’re kind of looking at this as a fresh start. Last year, we could only do so much,” Gonzalez continued. “We lost our methods and ways of generating revenue: no fans in the stands, playing in one place in a bubble. We basically had no operating budget, but at the end of the day, we were able to showcase players on four teams, and giving those players the opportunity to be seen is what this league is all about.”

During the Surge’s inaugural campaign in Saranac Lake in 2019, the EBPL consisted of six teams. The Plattsburgh Thunderbirds took the title that summer in a championship series played at Petrova Avenue, but did not have a team a season ago. If all goes as planned, the Thurnderbirds will join the Surge and Riverpigs to give the league three teams in the North Country this season.

Gonzalez said he hopes to see between four and six squads competing in the league this summer. Currently, the EPBL website has six teams listed for the 2021 season. If that setup holds, the Riverpigs, Surge and Thunderbirds will be in the North Country division, and the Georgia Rhinos, New Hampshire Wild and the Puerto Rico Islanders will make up the South Caribe division.

The league already has two tryout/showcase camps scheduled for the spring. The first will be April 16-18 at Peoples Bank Park in York, Pennsylvania, the home field of the York Revolution of the Atlantic League. The second camp is slated to take place May 17-18 in Fort Myers, Florida.

The EPBL plans to have one more session — its main camp in early June — prior to the start of the season, and locations listed on the league’s website are New York and Delaware, depending on pandemic regulations. That final spring camp has traditionally taken place in Delaware.

“Upstate New York would be great,” Gonzalez said. “If things are allowed, we’re hoping we could do something between Plattsburgh and Tupper Lake.”

Dave “Haji” Maroun has played a big role in bringing the Riverpigs to his hometown of Tupper Lake and said the village would be a great fit for the tryout camp. He said last season before the pandemic shut baseball down, the Massawepie Boy Scout camp, an 11-mile trip west of Tupper Lake, was made available as housing for the league with enough room to accommodate six teams, which number about 25 players per squad. Maroun said Massawepie could be a potential site again this year for players to stay, and added if the league does return, Tupper Lake will be ready.

“I think there is a very good possibility that camp could be in Tupper Lake if conditions allow,” Maroun said, adding he is in constant contact with Gonzalez.

In preparation for the Riverpigs playing baseball in Tupper Lake, Maroun and other area residents formed the organization Keepers of the Diamond. Their efforts included upgrading the diamond where the pro team was to debut and maintaining the youth field next to it. Work on the big field included new dugouts, new fences and upgrading the lights to hold night games. Maroun said one ongoing project slated to resume when the weather warms will be replacing stands along the first base line with a 60-by-16 foot deck, with lumber donated by Tupper Lake Supply and construction provided by volunteers. Building mounds where pitchers can warm is also in the plans.

Along with fellow Tupper Laker Rick Skiff, Maroun took a four-day trip to Pennsylvania in September to watch the Riverpigs play and meet members of the team. Maroun said he’s optimistic that the team will be able to finally play in Tupper Lake this summer.

“I think we’ll have the Riverpigs in Tupper Lake this summer,” he said. “Big venues across New York are opening up, and I think that’s a really good sign for us.”

Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau was a strong, active advocate for bringing the Surge to town in 2019, and said he’s hopeful and excited the team will return.

“I’m Jonsing for baseball,” Rabideau said. “I’ve really missed it. First and foremost, I’m very, very pleased and thankful the school board has agreed to let the Surge use the field this year, all contingent on COVID regulations. That’s a huge step in the right direction. Having the Surge playing in Saranac Lake, that would feel like things are more back to normal.”

Ray Brook’s Scott van Laer, an avid baseball fan, has also been involved in promoting and assisting the Surge as Saranac Lake’s home team. Van Laer, a forest ranger, said even though the teams were not able to play in the North Country last summer, it was important the EPBL was able to hold some semblance of a season.

“I think it was crucial that the league survived. It was a good thing they played last year,” said van Laer, who also got the chance to see the Surge play in Pennsylvania last September.

When Major League Baseball announced the restructuring of its Minor League system a week ago, which included the elimination of 42 teams nationwide, van Laer figured that might ultimately benefit the EPBL by widening the pool of potential players.

“It would definitely be a relaunch for the league this year, and I actually think Eddie is in a really good position with everything that happened to Minor League Baseball,” van Laer said.

In addition to wanting to see pro baseball return to the North Country just because they love the game, Maroun, Rabideau and van Laer are hopeful that a brand-new rivalry that was delayed a year ago can become a new chapter in North Country baseball lore this summer.

“I can’t wait for that rivalry between the Surge and the Pigs,” Maroun said.

“I want to see a fun, legit rivalry between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake,” van Laer added.

“We’re all rabid fans,” Rabideau said. “We were going to get it going last year, that rivalry with those Pigs. When the high school teams played, it was for the Mayor’s Cup. This rivarly could be for the Mayor’s Stein; better yet, the Mayor’s Jug.”

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