Stakes high as Rockland Boulders open 2nd season

From left, senior groundskeeper Peter Lawless of New

From left, senior groundskeeper Peter Lawless of New City and assistant groundskeeper Mike Lomelino of Suffern prepare for opening day at Provident Bank Park, home of the Rockland Boulders, in Pomona. (May 15, 2012) (Credit: Angela Gaul)

Hoping to raise their profile, independent baseball's newest franchise -- the Rockland Boulders -- is upgrading their players and amenities.

The stakes are high for the Boulders in their second season as they attempt to build a regional franchise and help Ramapo pay off the $39 million Provident Bank Park.

After opening the season on the road, the team is home Tuesday to take on the Newark Bears and begin a six-game home stand.

The Boulders are scheduled to play 50 games at home this season.

Ken Lehner, the Boulders' president, said the Canadian-American League team has pumped more money into the franchise this year in promotions as part of an effort to develop a solid fan base.

"We've taken it to a whole other level," he said. However, he denied to give specific dollar amounts.

Lehner said nearly 125,000 people attended the team's 44 home games last year, most of them from Rockland County, but he wants to build a regional draw with more spectators from Orange County and Bergen County, N.J.

"There's a million people within 30 minutes of the ballpark," he said. "New York City is the sweet spot of baseball. It has the most fans, and we're right in the middle of that. So we're really excited about our prospects here."

Can-Am League players earn an average of $1,200 a month and come from across the country to play in the league, which also has teams in Quebec; Newark; Little Falls, N.J.; and Worcester, Mass. Some are younger players looking for a shot at the major leagues; others are older players who didn't make the majors but love playing the game.

For this season's roster, the Boulders have retained a strong core of players and added a few new faces under the guidance of team manager and former World Series champion Dave LaPoint. Among them, Keith Brachold, who led the Can-Am League in RBIs last year with the Brockton Rox, and catcher Scott Knazek, a former New Jersey Jackals right-handed hitter who had a .985 fielding percentage while throwing out 25 percent of opposing baserunners trying to steal a base last season.

LaPoint, who was born in Glens Falls, won the World Series as a relief pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1982.

The Boulders have added a new lineup of culinary offers at the stadium located in the Village of Pomona, including Kinchley's Tavern Pizza, which has been a fan favorite not only around its Ramsey, N.J., home but also nationwide, and American Burrito.

Kim McGuire, of Ramapo, says she had never heard of the team until a friend took her to a game last season.

"They're great, and I'm not really even a baseball fan," the 43-year-old said. "It's a good way to spend a day."

Ron Walker, a New City construction worker and Yankees fan, said he went to several Boulder games last year and plans to come back this season. He says the players seem to really play hard for the team, which makes a difference.

"These guys are playing for the love of the game, not the money, and you can tell," the 28-year-old said.

So far, the Boulders are off to a rough start after losing three out of four road games in their season-opening series last week against the Quebec Capitales, last season's champion.

"We have to take our game up a notch," Lehner said. "But there's still 97 games left to be played."

There's more at stake this season than just the team's fan base.

The Town of Ramapo's economic development agency, which financed the stadium, is on the hook for a bond payment of nearly half a million dollars this fall. The development agency made a first payment of $1,937,500 in March toward the loan, thanks in part to ticket sales and revenue from the sale of 25 units at Ramapo Commons, a 132-unit affordable housing complex near Spring Valley and Monsey. A second loan payment of $437,500 is due in mid-September.

Besides debt obligations, the town also is under scrutiny from state auditors and others who argue the real price tag for the stadium was closer to $60 million, including land transfers and other costs. Auditors say the stadium won't be able to generate enough revenue to pay off the debt and that taxpayers ultimately will have to pick up the tab.

Figures provided by the town indicate the ballpark generated $734,100 in its first season, including $421,600 in ticket sales and $175,000 in rent from Bottom 9 Baseball LLC, the company that owns the Boulders. The team keeps a portion of the revenue from tickets, parking and concession stands.

The $734,100 fell short of a 2010 consultant's report suggesting the ballpark would generate more than $1 million a year, but town officials are quick to point out that the season started a month late, in June, and that no special events took place at the stadium throughout the year. To boost revenue, the town is hosting concerts, renting the park to high school and college-level baseball teams and making the park available for other events such as car shows and flea markets.

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