The ownership group of a yet-to-be-named summer collegiate baseball team in Lodi said this week that everything is on track for its opener next year.
The team, which will be part of the inaugural season of the Great West League, has hired a general manager in Doug Leary, a 35-year veteran of sports entertainment and management. Leary is already putting a plan in place to make the team a long-term fixture in Lodi.
“We have to get out and be a part of the community. That’s why we joined the Chamber (of Commerce),” Leary said. “We have to network. Be at functions. Get to the service clubs, the schools, whatever we have to do to make ourselves known to people. That’s why I’m here is to make that happen.”
The ownership of the team is well-versed in both independent and affiliated minor-league baseball, and is hoping to bring that kind of atmosphere to Zupo Field. Co-owners Jack Donovan and George Gross both reached triple-A as players — Donovan in the Angels organization in 1973 and the Dodgers organization in 1975, and Gross with the Astros farm system in 1981 and ’82.
The two were co-owners of the Salt Lake Trappers from 1985 to ’93, a team that holds the professional baseball record win streak of 29 games.
From there, Donovan went on to a career in baseball ownership and management, ending with the Tucson Sidewinders, and Gross entered a career in advertising.
For this Lodi venture, they brought in friend Patrick Roche, another Bay Area advertising man, along with Carol Kennedy and Gross’s son, Connor.
Great West League President Ken Wilson is excited about the Lodi ownership group.
“They’re baseball people that could have gone to a number of places, but they decided to invest in Lodi because they like Lodi,” Wilson said. “We’re very enthused about Lodi.”
The Great West League will begin play next summer with six teams. Three of them have been announced so far — the unnamed Lodi team, the Chico Heat (with Hall of Fame former Philadelphia Phillies GM Patrick Gillick on the ownership team), and the Portland Pickles.
Both the Lodi owners and Wilson said the league’s footprint isn’t intended to stretch any farther north or any farther south.
“Every league has a different business plan, and our owners are real satisfied with the six,” Wilson said. “I think they’d be comfortable with eight. There’s no urgency to get to eight, and certainly no urgency to go past eight.”
What makes a market strong? According to Wilson, the league looks for a city of at least 40,000, with a baseball history and a passion for the game. A workable facility is a plus as well, and the Lodi ownership has been working out the details for Zupo Field, which they’re excited about.
“It has a tight grandstand behind home plate, nice seating,” Donovan said. “We want people to feel like they’re at a happening place.”
That means promotions and events the likes of which you might see at any minor-league baseball stadium, just on a smaller level for the 1,337-seat facility. Donovan said the grassy area down the right-field fence is intriguing for group events.
“It’s about right for this level of collegiate program,” Gross said about Zupo. “We’re starting to hear from different business people we talk to that they’re excited about having baseball back, having some quality baseball during the summer.”
Zupo was first built in 1924, and was known first as Lawrence Park. It was home to a Single-A franchise in the California League from 1966 to ’84, a span that brought a young Fernando Valenzuela to town for a season, as well as a young Ron Roenicke.
Lodi has seen summer collegiate wood-bat teams before, most recently with the California Glory, an unaffiliated team that played at Zupo the last few years before moving to Billy Hebert Stadium in Stockton this year.
“I think what you had was good-hearted guys who wanted to run a baseball team. How many of them brought a GM in and stayed full-time? I don’t think any of them,” Donovan said. “We brought in a professional general manager who’s going to move here, live here and become part of the community.”