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Don’t Fence Me Out

NECBL Plan Faces Deadline

Lebanon — Good fences make good neighbors. They’re also required for a high-level baseball facility. And the lack of one has brought the possibility of summer college play at Lebanon High School next year into question.

Lebanon resident Noah Crane received approval from the Lebanon School Board in mid-August to site a New England Collegiate Baseball League team on the high school’s baseball field for the 2014 season, contingent upon several other developments. One that Crane didn’t expect was concern that work to make the diamond suitable to NECBL standards might displace one of the high school’s sports programs.

Crane said that the need to install a permanent fence in right field has brought “reluctance” from some at the high school because such construction would affect junior varsity soccer, which plays its games on the diamond in the fall. Because of that, Crane has been reviewing options in Hartford and Norwich for a franchise that has yet to be officially approved by the NECBL.

He’s also looking at a deadline — he set it at Nov. 1 — to finalize field plans. Failure to do so would put the kibosh on the franchise, at least for next summer.

“I’m hoping to meet with the facilities guy (Mike Schwarz) and the soccer coaches to see what the solution is to the fencing,” Crane said on Monday. “I’m hoping to meet with Mike about that and see if he has a better understanding if there’s a product out there or if there’s a way to shift the field to bring in the fence and still have soccer. …

“Ultimately, what we want to be is a good community partner. I don’t want to say, ‘You’re out and this group’s out and you can’t use the field.’ That’s not where we’re at.”

Crane and his father, Jonathan, have owned the NECBL’s Laconia Muskrats for four years. If the Lebanon franchise is approved, the Cranes would be the only two-team owners in the league, whose rosters are filled with undergraduates from NCAA Division I programs around the country for a 2½-month, 44-game season in June, July and early August.

The agreement with the school board would have the Cranes cover the costs of revamping the field, including installing lights for night games, in exchange for generating revenue through concessions, field naming rights and temporary advertising. A Woodstock Union High graduate, former American Legion and college pitcher and past high school and college baseball coach, Crane said he and his father put in about $250,000 of work into Laconia’s Robbie Mills Field four years ago for the Muskrats, reducing some of that expense through in-kind donations with vendors.

Although caught by surprise by word of Crane’s concerns last week, Lebanon School Board Chairman Jeff Peavey reiterated his support for NECBL baseball at the high school on Monday. The two men talked about the fencing issue on Saturday.

“It’s not as bad as it seems; it’s just getting everyone together,” Peavey said. “I personally think things will work out. It’s just mainly about the fence in right field that’s the question. I was at the football game on Saturday and took a peek, and I don’t see it as a problem.”

Lebanon High employs a temporary fence in right field during the high school and American Legion baseball seasons. The chain-link fence in left is a good 30-40 feet high to protect cars parked in a lot tied to an adjacent business center. “I’d like to do something like double Green Monsters in left and right,” Crane noted, “because the field is pretty small for the caliber of players we’d be bringing in.”

Aside from the fence issue, Crane said there weren’t any other significant worries involved with upgrading Lebanon’s ballfield for NECBL play. While the diamond is too close to the high school track to construct seating down the first base line, ample space down to the third base side exists to suit Crane’s desire to have enough seats to host crowds of 1,000 or more.

Crane and Peavey agreed that a temporary fence in right field might be a solution, if such a solution exists.

“There are areas that you can set a fence into a cemented post hole, so you can do it that way,” Peavey said. “From what I understood from the outdoor maintenance person who was (at last week’s committee meeting), he thought he had a solution to that.”

With Lebanon still not finalized as a home, Crane said he’s had discussions with Hartford Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg about the planned Maxfield Sports Complex south of White River Junction and with Hanover High athletic director Mike Jackson about the Dresden Athletic Field diamond in Norwich. Both come with their own concerns, too.

The Dresden ballfield is backed against the southern end of the property, with no room to construct a grandstand. To make Dresden useful to his purposes, the diamond would have to be moved to the north and the outfield may need to be regraded.

“It’s not impossible, but we’d be doing a significant amount of earth work doing excavation to move the fences back,” Crane said. “That’s more cost and time.”

Hartford broke ground in June on Maxfield, a long-awaited sports and recreation park. But the town wants to have all of 2014 for grass to take root on its various fields and isn’t planning on opening those fields for use until spring 2015.

“Hunter has kept me well abreast as to what this gentleman’s potential desire is,” Hartford Parks and Recreation Department director Tad Nunez said last week. “At this second, we’re laying sod and seeding the outfield and building the infrastructure of a baseball field. There are dugouts being built as we speak, the pavilions and so on. …

“We’ll have parking, restrooms, although potentially our bleachers won’t be as big. But the bottom line is I told Hunter, ‘Don’t make any commitments, because no one can play on it — unless something terrible happens — until the spring of 2015.’ ”

Crane’s preference remains Lebanon. He likes the field’s location hard by an interstate exit. He likes the vision of seeing lights that would be built for the diamond shining in the gathering dusk as fans arrive for a night’s entertainment.

Crane said the Nov. 1 deadline is important for allowing the NECBL to begin putting a 2014 schedule together. A league meeting is scheduled for Oct. 20 in Holyoke, Mass.

“People are saying this could be a good thing,” Peavey said. “Where would you go and not put a dime into a facility upgrade to a semi-collegiate field without us as taxpayers and a school district putting that money in?

“The support is there for this, and we want to make it happen also. It’s a great opportunity for the city of Lebanon.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.