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Nighthawks GM: Year One a Qualified Success

  • Nighthawks catcher James Morisano takes a swing from within the batting cage during the Nighthawks’ second-ever practice at Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., on June 7, 2016. The Nighthawks play their franchise debut game tomorrow June 8 in Montpelier, Vt., against the Vermont Mountaineers. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cordes Baker steps onto the field to pitch for the Upper Valley Nighthawks against the Sanford Mainers at the Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt. Thursday, July 21, 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2016

White River Junction — Noah Crane still gets a thrill when Upper Valley locals recognize him around town and ask, “Is there a game tonight?” It means they’re invested in what the team is doing, about the organization and what it stands for. It means they care.

The Upper Valley Nighthawks’ general manager still feels like there’s plenty to be proud of as his team wraps up its inaugural season at Maxfield Sports Complex this week. Despite a midseason slump, his team is in a tightly contested playoff race with the Keene Swamp Bats, Vermont Mountaineers and Winnipesaukee Muskrats heading into the regular season’s final stretch. The excitement of the chase, Crane hopes, will leave Upper Valley fans with a positive memory of the Nighthawks once the season ends.

Crane’s biggest concern this year, however, has been his team’s roster turnover, by far the worst in his seven years at the head of an NECBL franchise. In all, Upper Valley has lost nine players to injury or defections during the season, while others, including Seton Hall ace Cullen Dana and former NECBL All-Star Matt Byrne, failed to report due to injuries.

“I was looking my roster (and) I think it’s 25 guys that we’ve turned over,” Crane said. “A lot of those were guys who didn’t show up before we got here. But there’s been a lot of turnover in-season. It’s frustrating. I think that’s why our record is what it is. It’s not a lack of talent. It’s a stretch where we were really thin, there were some key losses and guys had to play every single day because we couldn’t give you a day off.”

Brian Mims, a former Laconia Muskrat under Crane who was slated to be the Nighthawks’ starting second baseman this season, left after only five games with Upper Valley. Mims’ defection, along with the departures of infielders Grayson Byrd, Matt Maul, Blake Rowlett and Sean Breen, left the Nighthawks with a skeleton crew playing in its infield. For Crane, the lack of depth was a big reason for his team’s midseason struggles.

“We’ve always had outfielders this season, which has been good,” Crane said. “When Grayson (Byrd) went down, when Brian left and Breen left … shoot, we don’t have any infielders. And this isn’t high school. This is high-level baseball. You can’t just take Zack Canada and put him at short. You can’t take a pitcher and put him at second base. We were in a tough spot. Guys were struggling at that point offensively; we couldn’t get an out. Guys were getting tired and no one was there behind them.

“It wasn’t that we were a bad club,” he added. “We had talent. We were just shorthanded and tired.”

Since then, the Nighthawks have stablized, going 4-1 last week (following Friday’s 4-3 defeat of the Valley Blue Sox) to bring themselves even with the teams they are chasing in the NECBL’s Northern Division. Late-season additions Austin Embler and Al Molina have certainly helped his cause, but Crane said players of NECBL caliber have become harder to find mid-summer.

“It was some injuries, but I think in general there’s less of a commitment from players and coaches these days,” Crane said. “This is universal. Anytime I talk to coaches or GMs, they say, ‘Who went home today?’ It’s frustrating because we spend so much time for the two months in the season, we give them an incredible opportunity, a chance to just play baseball. For us, other than working in camp, which we pay them to do, we don’t have them doing a whole lot of other stuff. … Just show up and play baseball. When it gets to late June or early July, they want to go home.

“When guys like Blake Rowlett says, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to be here anymore,’ it puts us in a bind. Now we have to play people out of position, we can’t give guys nights off, it hurts our roster, it hurts out lineup. Then, shoot, we have to find a third baseman, and there’s nobody out there. It’s been a stressful year for both Nick (Cenatiempo) and myself because of the roster fluctuation.”

Off the field, however, Crane said he’s happy with the way the Nighthawks have established themselves in the community.

Upper Valley is ranked ninth in the 13-team league in attendance, averaging 395 fans per game. It’s less than the 600 people per game that Crane was anticipating before the season started, but merchandise sales and other forms of revenue have put the Nighthawks on target financially.

“I’ve been pleased with our attendance, I really have,” Crane said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, I look around the league, and I know some of those numbers are phony. I’m not someone who is going to boost my numbers. I don’t believe in that. … I count stubs. So yeah, we’re in the middle of the pack-ish in NECBL standings, but if everyone counted stubs, we’d be pretty high. I’m not concerned.

“I talked to Kevin Watterson at Keene; his first year he was 600 or 700 a night,” he added. “It’d be really challenging to have 1,000, 1,200 or 1,500 a night in our first year. It wasn’t going to happen.”

The Nighthawks GM reiterated that startup costs were well above what he anticipated, which cut into finances.

“We had to spend more on legal fees and construction stuff and plans and time,” Crane said. “That hurt our budget.”

Crane expects a two-story press box and merchandise tent as well as upgraded seating capacity at Maxfield as two guarenteed improvements for next season. Ideally, the Nighthawks would like the replace Maxfield’s chain-link fence with netting, Crane said, though that might have to wait.

“Seating capacity and the press box-concession, those are the two things that are 100 percent going to happen next year,” Crane said. “If we stumble into some grant money or donations, we can do some bigger or better things, I think we’d like to replace this fencing with netting just to enhance the fan experience. In a dream world, if we were able to get a video board, I think that would be incredible.

“We can put bigger units behind home plate; we can put bigger (seating) units in a lot of places,” he added. “We have space here, so we’re fortunate in that sense.”

One constant for the Nighthawks has been the fan support, something that Crane knows can grow in the years to come.

“The fans have been great, coming out and supporting us,” Crane said. “Even through a stretch of playing lousy baseball, they were here. We’ve got a ton of signs in the outfield, we’re selling tickets and we’re selling merchandise. We haven’t had any complaints. People generally appreciate and like what we’re doing.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.