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Nighthawks GM Hopes New Collegiate Baseball Team Is a Hit

  • Owner of the Upper Valley Nighthawks, Noah Crane shows off the team's mascot to his wife, Alyssa at their home in Lebanon, N.H., on May 25, 2016.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Noah Crane owner of the Upper Valley Nighthawks looks over the work being done at Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., on May 25, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Owner of the Upper Valley Nighhawks, Noah Crane, left, had stopped in at the Stateline Sports office to speak with owner Jon Damren in West Lebanon, N.H., on May 25, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Noah Crane sits down for dinner at his home in Lebanon, N.H with his wife Alyssa and family on May 25, 2016. Their children Abigail, 10, Nathaniel, 7, and Charlotte, 5 were preparing to say grace before the meal. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jon Alves of Stateline Sports in West Lebanon, N.H. checks to see how many Upper Valley Nighthawks hats they have left at the store on May 25, 2016. Noah Crane owner of the team was at the store to order socks for the team. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Noah Crane works in his offce at home in Lebanon, N.H., before dinner on May 25, 2016. The family cat Binx follows Crane where ever he goes. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • At Tucker Box in White River Junction, Vt., Noah Crane, owner of the Upper Valley Nighthawks, right, interviews intern candidate Micah Tilles, of South Royalton, Vt., on May 25, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. At Tucker Box in White River Junction, Vt., Noah Crane, owner of the Upper Valley Nighthawks, right, interviews intern candidate Micah Tilles, of South Royalton, Vt., on May 25, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After arriving at the field in Hartford, Vt., Noah Crane owner of the Upper Valley Nighthawks, stays on the phone on May 25, 2016. Crane was speaking to a possible host family for one of his team members. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • At Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., Noah Crane watches the Hartford baseball team practice. Crane was at the field to check the progress of the lights being installed. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs— Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/5/2016 12:09:03 AM
Modified: 6/6/2016 10:50:37 AM

White River Junction — It’s 8:15 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Noah Crane is holding an iPhone in one hand and a small camera in the other while sitting in his Ford Escape just in front of a small pavilion at the Maxfield Sports Complex. He is staring at the complex’s entrance off Route 5 with eager anticipation.

Only two weeks remain before Crane’s new team, the Upper Valley Nighthawks, kicks off its inaugural season in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Time is running short, and Crane knows several key things remain to be done before June 11, when his team takes the field for the first of its 22 home games. Among them is installation of the stadium lights, which are supposed to arrive any minute now via a tractor-trailer. He’s on hand not just because he’s the Nighthawks’ sole employee, but also because he needs some tangible reassurance that progress is being made.

The season may be just two weeks away, but it still feels a little unreal to him.

Maybe that’s because there’s still so much to do.

Getting the facility ready for the season is just one of the uncertainties Crane is facing. There’s also the question of whether he’ll successfully cultivate the relationship between the Upper Valley and the Nighthawks baseball team, which he sees as key to the success of his venture.

“If we’re successful, it means the community we serve has embraced us and what we do,” Crane says. “It’s not about the force of personality.”

The challenge of creating the Upper Valley’s first summer baseball team is nothing compared with the obstacles he faced in Laconia, where Crane began his career as a baseball executive six years ago as the Laconia Muskrats’ first general manager. He recalls when, just a few days before opening day in Laconia, he still needed to recruit 16 families to host the college baseball players who would be arriving from all over the country. Compounding his problem was his lack of familiarity with the community. He was commuting an hour and a half from his Lebanon home.

For his Upper Valley operation, the process of getting the playing field ready has taken longer and been more stressful than he had anticipated. Stadium lights, a press box and grandstands were supposed to have been taken care of months ago. The imminent arrival of the lights is a milestone Crane doesn’t want to miss.

“The lights are huge,” he said. “Like ... they’re not some abstract idea anymore. This is real.”

At 8:45 a.m., 15 minutes early, a tractor-trailer turns into the Maxfield complex. Crane gets out of his small SUV and takes a picture of the parked truck with his phone before uploading the image to the Nighthawks social media pages.

“Once the lights go in, this place will look so different,” Crane said. “Right now, it looks like a really, really nice high school field.”

As workers arrive to install the lights, Crane stops for a moment to take it all in. In 14 days everything will be different. As he begins talking about the path that got him here, one word lingers in the air: Finally.

A ‘Labor of Love’

Crane’s day had started at 7:30 a.m. when he pulled out of his driveway to take his three children, Abigail, 10, Nathaniel, 7, and Charlotte, 5, to Mid Vermont Christian School. He and his wife, Alyssa, are veterans when it comes to adjusting family life to accommodate the running of summer baseball teams. Working long hours during the season has become standard.

Soon after the arrival of the lights, Crane is at the Tuckerbox Cafe in White River Junction, where he is scheduled to meet with a potential intern about volunteering with the Nighthawks this summer. Recruiting interns to help during the short season is crucial to a team’s success.

The Nighthawks are a nonprofit operation, like all of the New England Collegiate Baseball League’s 13 teams. Any revenue that exceeds expenses is redistributed to select purposes — equipment for local recreation programs, for example, or improvements to the home playing field. Each team’s board of directors decides how to distribute the money. Crane said the startup costs to get the Nighthawks operational were between $300,000 and $400,000, including the league’s $75,000 expansion fee. That money came largely from both the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation and a gift from Mascoma Savings Bank, along with some personal funds to cover some expenses.

Crane, the team’s lone employee, has not accepted a paycheck in nine months while working for the Nighthawks.

“It’s definitely been a challenge. It’s certainly stressful,” he said. “I look at it as I’m running a small business. We don’t have the cash flow to accommodate a salary. The hope is that will eventually come. … It’s a labor of love. I hope it pays off.”

Crane’s salary will be determined by the board of directors after the season. Some general managers work part time on a stipend of $10,000 to $15,000, said Crane. Those working full time will get $30,000 or $40,000.

“Startup costs for the Nighthawks were pretty high,” he said. “We didn’t raise enough capital in donations in the beginning, and also there were expenses that we didn’t anticipate. Legal fees, other expenses. It just wasn’t enough.”

The team, as an organization, does not pocket any revenue. Board members, interns and staff are all unpaid. That’s why community support for the Nighthawks is so crucial.

Part of Crane’s sales pitch to local businesses and baseball fans is that he, too, is from the Upper Valley, although that’s only partially true. Crane was born in Hanover, but his family moved six times while he was growing up because his father, Jon, was a business executive for MCI Communications. Woodstock, however, was where the family summered, and where it finally settled when Crane was a high school sophomore.

His father’s example was instructive.

“I knew I didn’t want to be in a business that forced me to spend time away from my family,” he said. “I do wish he was around more. … But I think I picked up leadership skills from him. He was confident. He could jump into situations and lead people.”

Crane played three seasons with the Woodstock Union High School varsity baseball squad and his pitching drew the attention of several college scouts by the time he graduated in 1997.

“He was always one of my favorites coaching,” said Jason Tarleton, who coached Crane at the Babe Ruth level during the summer months and is now the Wasps varsity coach. “He was just such a competitor. Sometimes it got him in trouble, but he had that edge and I think that always worked in his favor.”

Crane spent a semester at Furman University before transferring to UMass-Amherst to play baseball for the Minutemen, where his love for college baseball only intensified. He decided that what he really wanted to do was coach, and he left UMass early to take an assistant coaching job at Dartmouth College before heading to South Carolina to accept a job as pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Spartanburg Methodist College’s baseball team. He was there for three years and worked for a season with the Greenville (S.C.) Drive, a Single-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.

But Crane wanted to move his family closer to home, or what he had come to consider home. In 2006, he became the varsity baseball coach at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, a job he eventually left because of the challenge of dealing with parents over such issues as playing time. In 2009, during a time when the New England Collegiate Baseball League was rejecting expansion teams, Crane and his father acquired the right to join the league by buying the spot occupied by the Manchester (Conn.) Silkworms for $85,000. Crane then set up the Muskrats organization at Laconia’s Robbie Mills Field, though the plan was always to move a team to the Upper Valley.

“I had known about the NECBL for a long time,” Crane said. “I knew this area could support it. There was just no field.”

At the Tuckerbox Cafe, Crane’s interview with potential intern Micah Tillies, a Thetford Academy graduate who now lives in South Royalton, went well. Tillies, who is a freshman at Ocean County College, eventually agreed to be one of the 12 interns who will handle game-day activities.

Building Baseball Teams

It’s 12:15 p.m. at The Skinny Pancake in Hanover. Crane finds a table near some windows and, over lunch, discusses baseball, the New England Collegiate Baseball League, and the investment in the sport that his team represents.

“For a long time, the Cape Cod League had a monopoly on talent in this small geographical area,” he said. “We’re doing the same things, doing what we do well. I love this league. We need ideas, vision. Sean (McGrath, the league’s commissioner) is a great administrator. I’m more of a big-picture guy.”

Crane is the kind of personality that McGrath embraces, particularly at executive meetings with the league’s 12 other general managers. With the addition of the Nighthawks this summer, the league has expanded to its largest number of teams since 1995.

“We’re one of the top collegiate baseball leagues in the country, regularly attended by scouts,” McGrath said. “We have nearly 95 alumni that have been drafted. This league has only gotten to that level because there is an expectation from the GMs to compete. … We are always looking to make sure we can sustain and strengthen the quality of baseball. Obviously, Noah had proven that.”

McGrath noted the importance of community support. “We’re not a minor league operation with multimillion-dollar budgets. We look for a community that is tied into a baseball person that, we believe, can provide enough support.”

Which made Crane an odd choice for Laconia. But for McGrath, who was the GM of the North Adams SteepleCats at the time, other factors came into play.

“The league was interested in the location of Laconia and the Lakes Region,” he said. “It fit in with the geography of our league. … Noah not being a local resident was definitely a different experience. He had to get people to buy into his vision, to rally the community. … In Hartford and the Upper Valley, he and his family are so connected. That fits more the traditional model.”

Kristian Svindland, who was named the Muskrats GM in the offseason, knows he has relatively big shoes to fill. But being a Laconia resident has helped him from the start in ways Crane could only have wished for. In that sense, Crane left the Muskrats in a much better place than he found them.

“His teams were always competitive,” said Svindland, who helped facilitate the team’s rebranding from the Laconia Muskrats to this season’s Winnipesaukee Muskrats. “He did a lot for this city. With the wonderful facility that he helped build, it is up to us to take that forward to the next step.”

For Crane, building baseball teams is almost second nature.

At 37, he has worked exclusively in baseball at a variety of levels and has developed a network of coaches and colleagues that gives him a leg up in a job that depends on building relationships with the country’s top collegiate baseball programs.

“I think from Noah you can expect a first-class organization,” said University of North Carolina Wilmington pitching coach Matt Williams, who was a sophomore at Spartanburg Methodist during Crane’s tenure and has remained close ever since. “At Laconia, he did a tremendous job. We sent our players there for a reason. I know Noah can tell us how he’s doing, what he’s doing and give us an honest opinion. The kids came back here and had a great year for us.”

UNC Wilmington is sending two of its best offensive players, Brian Mims and Zack Canada, to the Upper Valley this season. The remainder of the Nighthawks team is drawn from 16 other universities that have entrusted Crane with their top talent.

Amid the steady hustle of the lunch crowd Crane sees Lindsey Whaley, a classics professor at Dartmouth who is also an elder of Crane’s church, Christ Redeemer in Hanover, sitting down for lunch. On his way out, Crane stops by and says hello.

A Family Man

The headquarters for the Upper Valley Nighthawks is a makeshift office on the third floor of Crane’s home. It’s 5 p.m. and Crane is sitting on a yellow and white sofa chair with his MacBook Pro on his lap, checking emails.

He is, admittedly, not exactly up on the latest technology. Until two weeks earlier, the Nighthawks GM was conducting all his business on a Blackberry phone from the early 2000s before caving to family pressure and buying an iPhone. The MacBook was another recent expense. On an average day, Crane receives and sends hundreds of emails, making the conversion to updated technology more than necessary.

Most days during the spring, Crane spends time checking college box scores — keeping up with Nighthawks players who have already signed on and ones who could serve as plug-and-play athletes down the road. The roster is constantly changing, he said. Injuries, family emergencies, a disgruntled athlete disappointed with his playing time — all could change the shape of a team in days.

Crane has done this before, and he knows what to expect. As does his family.

“Our life is very different from the norm,” his wife, Alyssa, said. “Like, we have lots of time together at certain points of the year, and then there are certain points of the year where he’s crazy busy. The kids are used to it, and he’s very good about, when he is home, making sure that he has time for them.”

Above it all, Crane is a family man, though evidence of his professional life has invaded the living room and much of the garage. Boxes are spread out behind furniture and piled high in storage. During the day, the public address system arrives in a shipping box and is added to the pile.

When he isn’t out spreading the word, he’s upstairs in his office taking notes, making phones calls and responding to an endless succession of emails.

Away from his desk, Crane does much more. He checks in on players and host families. He organizes game-day activities, events at the field, special guests, in-game entertainment. He organizes post-game meals — dropping in at Chili’s in West Lebanon, for example, to recruit catering for both home and visiting teams. He gets equipment together, makes sure every player has a jersey, a number and a T-shirt with his name on it. Hats, gloves, belts, bats and balls are all his responsibility. In the weeks leading up to the opening game Crane has stayed up late into the night tying up loose ends.

As Crane works on his laptop, Charlotte, his youngest, makes her way up the stairs to let him know dinner is ready. It’s 6:03 p.m.

A Community Asset

The Nighthawks GM takes a seat in the living room. His children are in bed, and his wife has left for a girls’ night out.

“The difficulty with Laconia was we were a nonprofit but we look like a business,” he said, easing back in the couch.

“We aren’t a food bank. We don’t solve homelessness. We play baseball,” he said. “That’s the trickiest part. As a general manager, that’s so hard. We don’t look like a nonprofit.”

The message Crane tries to deliver is that his nonprofit baseball team can be a community asset — not just by providing a talented and entertaining team to follow but also by raising money that can support local baseball, local recreation departments and improvements at local facilities.

That’s the message Crane sold in Laconia, and it’s the message he’s now putting out in the Upper Valley. This time, though, it feels different.

This is home.

He recognizes faces and people and businesses. This team, by association, matters more because it’s personal.

By necessity, he’s the guy who’s called upon to be the face of the team in the community.

“We’ll be successful if everyone gets involved,” he said. “We want people to be involved, to feel like they have a stake in the team. … This belongs to the Upper Valley. We want it to be like, ‘This is our team and we support it.’ That’s the vibe we want to bring. We want to build something we can all be proud of.”

“This is not Noah’s team. It’s theirs.”

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




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