The Pirates are bringing their prospects a little closer to home in 2015.
The New York-Penn League and the Pittsburgh Pirates announced Monday that the Jamestown Jammers, Pittsburgh's Class A Short Season affiliate, will be relocating the Morgantown, West Virginia, for the 2015 season in a deal that will have the Bucs club share a new ballpark with the West Virginia Mountaineers baseball team.
"We're thrilled to be here," said Pirates president Frank Coonelly. "This is Pirates county, and we're thrilled to bring the Pirates to Morgantown, West Virginia."
Coonelly spoke at a press conference in Morgantown along with representatives from the Jammers' ownership group, Minor League Baseball and the university. All parties involved raved about the views and sight lines of the new stadium, which is currently under construction and goes by "Mountaineer Ballpark" in renderings released by Designstream LLC in Pittsburgh.
"The NYPL is already established as one of the premier leagues in all of Minor League Baseball, and by adding the community of Morgantown, and the top-notch facility that will be shared with West Virginia athletics, we know that our league will reach all-new levels of success," said league president Ben Hayes through a press release. "We would also like to thank the community of Jamestown for being such an integral part of the New York-Penn League since its inception."
Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner told the assembled press Monday that the new stadium will be one of a few in the Minors that he would visit even if there wasn't a game being played.
"I can't wait to come back," he said. "The addition of baseball is only going to make the quality of life [in West Virginia] better. You're really in for a special treat."
The move has long been rumored -- plans and renderings for the ballpark were published in June 2012, kicking off speculation that a NY-Penn League club may be interested in moving -- but the news finally became official on Monday. Coonelly said the Pirates, who prefer having affiliates nearby, were on a mission to move an affiliate to the town.
"That's what we strive for, it's always worked out well," he said of proximity to Pittsburgh, which previously was affiliated with the nearby State College Spikes. "When the opportunity came up, we knew it had to be a Pirates affiliate -- we could not allow any other Major League team become affiliated with Morgantown, West Virginia."
"We always saw this happening, and it will be the best facility in the New York-Penn League, and the second-best sight line outside of PNC Park," Coonelly said, drawing laughs. "It's the perfect match for the Pittsburgh Pirates and West Virginia University. We couldn't be happier to be here."
The Jammers are owned by Rich Baseball, an ownership group headed by Robert Rich that also oversees operations for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons and Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Rich said he was eager to get the gates open for 2015 in Morgantown by which time the Jammers will likely have a new nickname.
"I wish Opening Day were tomorrow and we could get this turned out and sell you a couple hot dogs," he said. "We'll look forward to that on another day. It's a very exciting day for us. A lot of our folks have been working very hard to see it come to fulfillment."
According to the league, the new ballpark "will be located in the University Town Centre development and will overlook the city of Morgantown and West Virginia University from the bluff above the Monongahela River." Ground was broken on Oct. 17, 2013, and the venue already has framing for seats. It will offer a turf field, 2,500 fixed seats and a total capacity of 3,500.
Rich emphasized his goal of bringing affordable family entertainment and baseball to Morgantown, a city of about 31,000 that sits an hour and a half south of Pittsburgh. The Jammers, in upstate New York, currently rank last in the league in attendance, drawing 751 fans on average to home games.
"You need either a community surrounding the ballpark or one that has a chance to have a regional market that will come and support the team in order to be competitive," said Rich, who was once a part-owner of the Buffalo Sabres and currently serves as the chairman of Rich Products Corporation, a frozen foods manufacturer. "That's very important. There are components of how you do it, and it starts with being customer-first.
"We have a great deal of respect for [the Pirates]," Rich added. "Affordable family entertainment and baseball development is what we're about, and we're looking forward to being part of the [Pirates] family. This is where people will watch the Pittsburgh Pirates stars of the future and they will come out. People will make that trek."
Rich said he toured the ballpark's construction site earlier on Monday with his wife, Mindy, and was blown away by the views.
"This is the community's team -- that's the way we wake up in the morning feeling," he said. "It's a thrilling day for us. We are excited. We visited the site today -- I had no idea of the scope of this project. It makes you tingle. You see the view and you know what's coming behind the ballpark, not only for economic redevelopment but also for fan fun. We're thrilled to be here."
Coonelly emphasised the Pirates' initiative of having their Minor League players connect with local communities, something he envisions next year in Morgantown when the club, which will play a 76-game schedule, takes the field next June.
"We look for a number of factors," Coonelly said. "One, the community, do they support the team? Two, the facility and the Minor League operators. We have perfectly blended of all of those here, and we know the community -- they'll embrace the Pirates players with open arms."
Hayes, the league president, said the plans to move a club to West Virginia have been in place for about four years.
"We believe this is going to be one of the premier sites in the New York-Penn League," he said. "It has everything necessary for a very, very successful franchise, so we're looking forward to it."