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Date Posted: 16:15:34 09/06/02 Fri
Article from the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat
Sullivan, Johnnies strike out
By MIKE MASTOVICH, THE TRIBUNE-DEMOCRAT September 05, 2002
There was no miracle comeback, no figurative ninth-inning rally for Johnstown Johnnies owner Tom Sullivan.
Sullivan made it official yesterday, ending months, even years, of speculation surrounding the Frontier League independent baseball franchise.
Sullivan sold the Johnnies to an undisclosed group of investors for $520,000.
The sale ended the latest chapter of professional baseball in the city. The odds of a professional team occupying the deteriorating Point Stadium next season have greatly diminished. Sullivan wouldn't confirm that the new ownership group plans to move the franchise to another city, perhaps in Northern Kentucky. He deferred to the league office or the new owners, who, of course,
"I very honestly don't know what they are going to do, and I don't think they know what they're going to do," Sullivan said yesterday during a telephone interview.
Frontier League Commissioner Bill Lee could not be reached yesterday at his Zanesville, Ohio, office. Lee did not return messages, and perhaps was attending the championship playoff game in Washington, Pa., last night.
A day earlier, Lee indicated that the Frontier League would proceed as if a team will continue to operate in Johnstown until he was notified otherwise.
Johnstown politicians seem resigned to losing the professional team for at least one season, maybe longer. Plans to play more AAABA League games at the Point next summer already have been pondered, assuming the Johnnies are out.
What went wrong?
When the baseball team moved from Erie to Johnstown in 1995, the city embraced the franchise then known as the Johnstown Steal. After 34 years without a pro team, Johnstowners set the Frontier League single-
game attendance record with an opening-night crowd of 8,432. A helicopter dropped off the large baseball-headed mascot Johnstown Johnny in the Point for the festive pregame introductions. Then-Mayor Linda Weaver compared the atmosphere to the historic Flood Centennial celebration at the Point in 1989. Averaging 1,976 fans a home game, the Steal won a championship during its inaugural season.
Eventually, the novelty wore off. By the time Sullivan bought into the team prior to the 1997 season, the Johnnies attendance gradually had begun to drop. The team changed managers on an almost annual basis and had mixed success in the standings. In 2000, Somerset native Mike Moore managed the Johnnies to another Frontier League title and was named Manager of the Year. But the past two seasons saw a decline in prosperity on the field and turmoil off it.
On most nights this summer, the crowds numbered fewer than 500 fans, though the announced average attendance was 880.
Adding to the team's struggles was Sullivan's consistently late rent payments to the city.
Each year, Sullivan eventually paid up, but the annual ritual created ill will among at least some city leaders and certainly didn't help the Johnnies' public image. Sullivan admits his tardiness. He once asked a reporter rhetorically, "What's better, a late payment or no
payments if there's no team?" "With all the good that came
out of the team being here, it's unfortunate that some city council members were more concerned about a late payment than they were about helping to keep the team here," said Sullivan, who also felt the media spent too much time covering the issue. "Over the years we've
owned the team, we've paid in excess of $200,000 to the city, 100 percent what has been due to this point."
Sullivan still owed the city more than $16,000 at the time of the sale. The transaction will enable him to clear his debt, Sullivan said. Additionally, he said he previously had purchased $21,000 in concession equipment still in use at the Point, as well as press box computers, batting cages, protective pitching screens and the infield
tarp. "The amount due to the city right now is not meaningful in the overall context of what the loss of the team means to the city economically and financially," he said, sounding as if the franchise will soon move.
"I've done everything I possibly could to make it work here and keep a team here. It didn't work. There's no more that I could do." Last season, Canton (Ohio) lost its FL franchise when the team moved to Washington, Pa. But the London (Ontario) team later relocated to Canton, allowing that city to remain in the league. Realistically, a similar development probably would be a longshot in
Johnstown. "Something like that could happen," said Sullivan, who plans to continue living in Johnstown. "But it would take a commitment by all parties concerned, the city, the business community and some local investors. If it all came together, I would be willing to put what I
get out of the sale of this into a new franchise."
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