New FCBL Commish will take a wait-and-see approach
By TOM KING
Joe Paolucci realized the last few years that as the Cranberry League commissioner, he wasn’t able to beat the Futures Collegiate Baseball League.
So he decided to leave that young adult league, its franchises located primarily south of Boston, and join the FCBL instead as its new commisioner instead.
“I don’t want to say it was a league we were competing with, because that wasn’t the case,” Paolucci said. “But the Futures League was taking some of our – a lot of our better players were Division III guys who were pretty good players but not on NECBL rosters. Then all of a sudden the Futures League came to be and they started poaching thos players from us.
“We kind of looked at it like we were starting to lose a lot of our players.”
Thus the FCBL was on Paolucci’s radar. And then he noticed something else.
“I started noticing the talent the Futures League was getting was getting better and better and better,” he said. “And then, as I began looking at the rosters, I became even more impressed.”
Now, fast forward a few years, as the league had gone up to 10 teams and then dropped to seven. Meanwhile, Paolucci replaced longtime commissioner and one of the FCBL founders, Chris Hall, in January as Hall went into the private sector. He’ll be the guy to lead the FCBL into what should be an interesting few years after it dropped from its 10 team heyday a couple of years ago to the seven teams it has now.
“From the outside looking in, that doesn’t look very good,” Paolucci said. “They’re losing teams. But now that I know about the situations with those other teams. …The baseball business is a tough business.”
But Paolucci has taken the same approach others have – quality over quantity.
“I dont’ think it really necessarily hurts the league,” he said. “It’s all about having strength in the organizations that you do have. As long as those teams are strong – certainly you don’t want to be down to four teams. But seven teams is still a pretty good league.”
But Paolucci says the FCBL won’t stop at seven.
“We definitely want to expand, speaking to the other owners and general managers,” he said. “We want expansion, we want to get some good organizations in here. But you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the right people in place and that it’s the right fit for the entire league.”
What makes the right fit?
“A real strong owner,” Paolucci said. “Someone who understands the business, understands marketing, is willing to build their team, similar to the way the Creedons have done in Worcester. Strong ownership, the right community.”
According to Paolucci, the man who holds the key to expansion is former commisioner Chris Hall, as he’s been courted by and has courted several communities and ownership groups over the years. So it’s natural for him to remain involved.
“He knows the business better than anybody,” Paolucci said. “So when we do have people looking to buy teams, he’s the one that has the expertise.”
Paolucci watched from afar as the league gave up a court battle with Martha’s Vineyard to allow the Sharks to leave and join the New England Collegiate League. Many involved in the FCBL viewed it as addition by subtraction, especially when the new Westfield, Mass.franchise was added.
“I didn’t know a ton about it walking into it,” Paolucci said. “I think it was a tough situation, but I really can’t say too much about the situation with (the Sharks). They were a good organization, too bad it didn’t work out, and we wish them luck in the NECBL.”
What does Paolucci, who played college ball at Northeastern in the mid 1990s, bring to the FCBL? He took over running the Cranberry League after managing a team in it in 2007, and had, in his words, “the opportunity to clean some things up.”
“The league had a reputation back then,” he said. “There were too many ejections, we were losing sponsorships because of it.”
So Paolucci went to work and installed some rules and regulations and worked on building up the reputation of the league. Under his guidance, new teams have been brought in and some problem teams removed.
“I have that experience, I’ve been through it all,” Paolucci said. “With the Futures League, it’s all similar stuff, just at a different level. The stakes are a little bit higher because as opposed to the Cranberry League, this is a business, people are trying to make money off of this. Plus the visibility is a lot greater.”
Indeed, this is a big leap as Paolucci will admit as with the Cranberry League “you may get 25 people in attendance. That’s certainly not the case in the Futures League. … Making the fan experience what it needs to be and having people come back, that’s what’s important.”
As Paolucci, what direction does Paolucci wanat to take this league in?
That’s still in a state of flux, as he wants to observe the FCBL for a year and then begin to put his stamp on it after that, seeing “what direction I want to steer the owners in.”
“Admittedly, I haven’t been to a game before,” he said. “Even though the Brockton Rox are right down the street, I haven’t been to a Futures game.
“I really need to spend the summer, getting to know the organizations, the teams, how the game is played, what’s important to the managers, what’s important to the general managers, and certainly what’s important to the ownership.”
Paolucci said he will also be focus on the fan experience, “and just making people want to come back to the ballpark. It’s so important, so vital to our league.”
One of the things Paolucci will get a taste of is the home run derby used after the 10th inning of FCBL games to prevent a long stretch of extra innings.
“I don’t know how I feel about that yet,” he said. “I’ve talked to some of the other coaches, half of them like it, and half of them don’t.
“I think it’s great in a sense it protects the pitching; they’re playing so many games in such a short amount of time. If you end up with a 15, 16 or 17 inning game, you’re screwed (with pitching) for a couple of weeks.”
Paolucci said he’d also be open to the idea of starting the 10th inning with a runner on first, the 11th with a runner on second. “Ties aren’t the worst thing, either,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes this year.”
Paolucci hasn’t been up to Nashua yet. Unlike what was the case with Hall, the FCBL job isn’t his main gig. He just started a new full time job with a loss prevention consulting company – he did similar consulting work for Dunkin Donuts for 12 years – and he also is the head baseball coach at Weymouth High School.
“Once baseball winds down with the high school, I plan to be much more active,” he said. “You’ll see me up in Nashua plenty this summer.”
But don’t think Paolucci hasn’t begun his FCBL work. He’s in the process of putting a committee together to establish a Futures League Hall of Fame, with inductions this year being the inaugural class.
“We’d like to get the founding fathers of the league inducted, some of the players from those early years and start the tradition of a Hall of Fame,” he said.
Paolucci knows, as far as the FCBL’s level of play, that in the minds of some college coaches it’s a notch below the NECBL which is stocked primarily with Division I players.
“But I agree that D-III kids are a little hungrier,” Paolucci said. “But I also think that if a kid is good at playing baseball, it doesn’t matter what school he goes to. Talent is talent. If the competition level was down from years past, that could be because it was really good two years ago.
“But just looking at some of the rosters and some of the players that are on it, I’m excited. There’s a lot of good schools that you see and a lot of names that I recognize.”
And, as he says, that always can change.
“The level of talent is always going to be on a year-by-year basis, I imagine,” he said. “I do know we have really good field managers and coaches that are really ready to help these kids get to the next level.”
Unlike the Cape Cod League, he says, the FCBL is getting players who have yet to “come into their own. They don’t know who they are yet as baseball players. That’s really the name of our league, right? The Futures League. We’re trying to develop these kids to get them to the next level. I’m excited about the level of play for this coming season.”
At the same time, Paolucci wants the FCBL to be high on college coaches’ lists.
“I want college coaches to think of the Futures League as one of the top leagues in the country,” he said. “Which is what I believe we are.
“But in order to do that, we have to make sure the players have a great experience. Because what happens is, the players go back to the coach. The coach says, ‘How’d you do this summer, I looked at your stats, they looked great.’ And the kid’s going to talk about his experience. He’s going to talk about how great his coach was, how much extra work he got in, maybe what he was able to learn from his coach in the summer, what was his host family like. Did they feed them well? Did they have time to work out?”
All those things, Paolucci said, add up.
“All those things come into what we are as a league and what our reputation is, and what it can be going forward,” he said. “We’re definitely aware of all those things. We talk about them on the general managers (conference) calls. My impression from talking to the GMs is they’re aware of that and they’re tryng to make sure the kids have a great experience.”
Paolucci did say he was surprised at the length of the season when he was helping Worcester/Nashua team president Dave Peterson put the schedule together.
“Some of the owners might kill me for saying this,” he said with a chuckle, “but I think it’s a pretty long season. … I couldn’t believe how long it is, with all the travel and everything. … It’s definitely a challenging schedule for everybody, but it seems to have worked in the past. …
“But again, if a kid can make it through the 56-game schedule, he’s going to be stronger for it.”
And that’s what Paolucci hopes will be the case with the Futures League during his tenure as commissioner.