FWB likes possible baseball league’s pitch

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The possible 2019 teams are the Fort Walton Beach Stingrays, 30A Redfish, South Walton Sand Sharks, Panama City Pompano, Lynn Haven Dolphins and Panama City Beach Marlin.

FORT WALTON BEACH — Next summer, Miramar Beach businessman Paul McDowell envisions local baseball fans being able to go to an area baseball field to see a pitcher from Florida State pitching to a hitter from Florida, a shortstop from LSU trying to throw out a base runner from Alabama, and a centerfielder from Ole Miss trying to cut down a runner from Georgia.

McDowell, a former Fort Walton Beach High School teacher and baseball coach, is the director of the proposed Gulf Beaches Baseball League. After hearing his pitch last Tuesday, the Fort Walton Beach City Council agreed to have a special meeting to further consider its possible support of having a FWB team in the league.

The public meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. June 26 in the council chambers at City Hall.

“We are in the process of bringing major college summer baseball to our area, and we think the city of Fort Walton Beach is a prime area for one of the league’s first teams,” McDowell told the council last Tuesday.

He said officials from various other local governments have expressed interest in fielding teams in their communities.

With final approval, the league’s inaugural 44-game regular season, plus an All-Star game and playoffs, would run from early June through early August 2019.

The wooden-bat league would feature six teams, primarily consisting of players from the Southeastern Conference. Each team would have a mascot that represents a species of fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to McDowell, the possible 2019 teams are the Fort Walton Beach Stingrays, 30A Redfish, South Walton Sand Sharks, Panama City Pompano, Lynn Haven Dolphins and Panama City Beach Marlin.

In 2020, the league also might feature the Niceville Sail Cats and either the Grayton Beach Bluefish or Hammock Bay (Freeport) Black Jacks, according to McDowell.

The FWB Stingrays would play at the ball fields at Choctawhatchee and Fort Walton Beach high schools. McDowell said officials from those schools and the school board have given support to those possible game sites.

The league is asking each potential host municipality or county to enter into a three-year agreement and provide $130,000 to the league by next February.

The funding includes an initial outlay of $50,000, which would pay for two sets of uniforms, equipment, players’ travel expenses, coaching stipends, umpire contracts, league website and broadcast costs, insurance and other league operational costs.

Each municipality or county also would agree to pay a $40,000 renewal fee for each of the following two years, and a uniform replacement fee of $5,000 every third year.

“The fortunate thing about the (league) model is that they do most of the work,” FWB City Manager Michael Beedie told the council. “We (would) own the franchise.”

Beedie said having baseball games in FWB would attract tourists and give locals something to do during the summer besides going to the beach.

McDowell noted that the city could receive a portion of the team’s gross revenue from ticket and concession sales or have all revenue be given to the local partnering schools.

The schools would help coordinate a host family program in which the ballplayers would live with local families during the season.

McDowell said the proposed team in Fort Walton Beach could provide an annual, estimated $1.1 million impact to the local economy.

And the overall baseball league would provide communities with wholesome, family-centered entertainment and help return them to a more innocent, pre-cable television era, he said.

The popularity of the nation’s roughly 30 existing college summer baseball leagues, such as the Cape Cod Baseball League, has never been higher, he said. The 100-year-old Cape Cod league consists of 10 teams that draw about 300,000 tourists each summer season, according to McDowell.

In Florida, similar leagues exist in Central Florida and the Miami area.

“I would like to see what we can do as far as funding goes” for a FWB team, Councilman David Schmidt said.

In response to question from Councilman Scott Smith, McDowell said he is not aware of any financially unsuccessful collegiate summer baseball teams.

On May 21, McDowell failed to gain support from the Destin City Council to have a “Destin Cobia” team be a part of the proposed league and possibly play at the Morgan Sports Complex.

Councilman Tuffy Dixon said he doesn’t think the city can help every sports organization that seeks city funding.

But, “It seems anathema to put a collegiate summer league on the Emerald Coast without the city of Destin participating,” McDowell said.

On Friday, Walton County spokesman Louis Svehla said McDowell has not yet spoken to the Walton County Commission as a whole about the potential league.

Svehla said he told McDowell several months ago that the county’s ball fields are too small to host games of the possible league.

“I told him that the city of Freeport has some fields,” Svehla said. “That was the extent of our conversation. There have been no approvals from our governing body.”

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