The Buffalo News : City & Region

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cal Kern put Niagara Falls back in the ballgame

Lifelong baseball fan is president, owner of Collegiate League team

Updated: 07/08/07 7:32 AM

 NIAGARA FALLS — Cal Kern isn’t from Niagara Falls, but, like the rest of the city’s diehard baseball fans, he had his heart broken when the Pirates, White Sox, Rapids and Mallards failed to survive in this economically depressed city.

Kern, a lifelong baseball fan who played at Kenmore East and has lived on Grand Island since 1979, regularly attended ball games at Sal Maglie Stadium when it housed most of those teams. He even visited the park when the Buffalo Bisons played there due to racial tensions that affected attendance at their War Memorial Stadium home from 1967 to 1969.

So when the prospect of bringing a New York Collegiate Baseball League team to Niagara Falls presented itself, the former Buffalo State All-American and professional soccer goalie pounced on the opportunity.

“I felt there was something majorly missing when the Rapids left,” said Kern, the 57-year-old president and owner of the NYCBL expansion team iNiagara Power.

The team is in playoff contention with three weeks left in the season.

“I feel like when baseball left Niagara Falls there was a chunk of the city taken away . . .,” Kern recently told The Buffalo News. “We’re replacing that piece with collegiate baseball.”

What inspired Kern to pursue collegiate ball instead of a minor-league professional outfit was what he saw while attending an Elmira Pioneers game. Seeing a stadium filled with roughly 1,000 fans made him think, something like that could happen in Niagara Falls.

“I went to the commissioner, David Chamberlain, in Rochester, knocked on his door and asked him if we could play in his league,” Kern said. “He said, ‘We’d love to have Niagara Falls. We know of the stadium. We know it’s a great first-class facility. Let’s make this thing work.’ ”

Baseball returned to the city because Kern and the organization received lots of support from the city. The team had an ally in Councilman Chris Robins, and the rest of the City Council agreed to cover the Power’s $5,000 entry fee into the league. City school leaders Carmen Granto and Dan Bazzani have been willing partners in letting Niagara use Sal Maglie Stadium for a percentage (less than half) of the team’s season-long concessions revenue.

Kern basically received the support that was non-existent from 2000 to 2002, when Samuel P. Granieri, former county legislator and Hyde Park Golf Course superintendent, tried to bring the NYCBL to the city.

Granieri had an ownership group in place that included local baseball icon Doug Smith and former Niagara University baseball coach and assistant athletic director Jim Mauro. Granieri’s group and then-City Administrator Albert T. Joseph agreed to terms of a lease to use Sal Maglie Stadium, but politics and concern about field conditions at the renovated stadium apparently doomed their efforts. Then-Mayor Irene Elia opted not to sign the lease to allow the team use of the stadium.

“I think it was a pretty generally known belief that politics had reared its ugly head,” said Granieri, whose attempt may have been torpedoed because he switched party affiliations during the process — going from being a Republican to a Democrat. “We were going to do the grounds keeping, pay for maintainence and security. It would’ve been a very favorable deal for the city.”

“The city became rather antagonistic to our plan, so we just turned and walked away and said enough of this,” Smith said. “It’s really too bad, because baseball was still hot in Niagara Falls at the time. Now that we’ve been a long time without it [since 1995], it’s real difficult to draw back the audience.”

Elia told The News she “couldn’t recall that specific instance,” adding that her administration always promoted baseball in Niagara Falls.

Smith, who serves as the Power’s public address announcer, recalled Elia’s reasoning for not signing off on the use of the stadium.

“She said she just had to protect the city’s assets,” Smith said. “I said, ‘Your honor, in all due respect, what you call an asset [Sal Maglie Stadium] is what I call a hole in the ground with a ticket booth.’ ”

Like so many outsiders who have done business with the city, Kern learned that not having any official ties to the city is a good thing.

While Granieri had trouble turning the NYCBL into a reality for the Falls, he ultimately began the process that Kern closed out.

“I’m a neutral guy coming out of nowhere,” Kern said. “I played pro soccer, but I’ve always loved baseball more than anything else, and I’ve always had a heart to get involved in minor league baseball, and I saw [the NYCBL] as the perfect avenue. . . . Everything just kind of came together.

“I think timing is everything,” said Kern, who works in public relations for the Family Life Network, a Christian radio network with 50 affiliates throughout the country. “What Sam encountered I didn’t encounter. He actually inspired me when he tried to do what he did in the beginning. . . . I didn’t see him as a failure. I saw him as a success to help us to really pursue this.”

“Cal’s very kind with his words, but the truth is he picked it up and got it done,” Granieri said. “We cleared the path a little, but he’s the one who took it over the finish line, and that’s what’s important.”

Granieri hasn’t been able to attend a Power game, since they play their home games at night, the same time he’s usually umpiring youth baseball games in the area. But he’s excited there’s a team playing in Sal Maglie 22 nights during the summer.

Now if the Power could only draw more than an average of 200 fans per game.

One way the Power has been trying to do that is by reaching out to the city’s Babe Ruth and Little League teams.

The Power has done clinics with Midtown, Hyde Park and Cayuga as well as with the Power Zone Ministry of Niagara Community Church of Niagara Falls and Lewiston Recreation. When members of Hyde Park Babe Ruth attended a recent game, the Little Leaguers not only met Niagara team members in the dugout prior to the game, but also accompanied the Power’s starters, who played the same position as they do on the field during pregame introductions.

“It was kind of cool. They were very open with our kids,” said Hyde Park coach Steve Quinn. “People need to know this team is here because there’s not a lot going on in Niagara Falls, and this seems like a safe environment for the kids to watch a baseball game. . . . If this team stays here, the following will pick up, because we’re getting the youth out to see them.”

The Power also will run camps Monday at Academy Park in Lewiston and at the Buffalo Christian Center at Pearl and West Tupper streets in an attempt to create more buzz for the team.

While even Elmira, as successful as it has been in the league, is averaging closer to 600 fans rather than the 1,000 Kern saw during that visit to Dunn Field, he said he’s committed to making collegiate baseball work in Niagara Falls.

Since the Power is a not-for-profit organization operating under the umbrella of the Kansas City-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes, it’s about making enough money to cover half of the $125,000 operating costs for the season. The players paid for half of the costs through fundraising efforts as each raised $3,500 to play — money used to cover travel and food expenses. The players live with host families during the two-month season. Kern is responsible for covering the difference in the event the team doesn’t break even.

But unless Kern hits the Lotto jackpot, this could be as close as he ever comes to his dream of owning a minor league team.

“I don’t have millions, but this is a dream come true,” Kern said. “We’re here. I think I’m going to die with my boots on doing this, or my spikes. I really feel committed to Niagara Falls and to baseball for the city. I think they deserve it.

“It’s been tough. It’s a challenge. A lot of us are learning day-by-day, game-by-game, but so far it’s been a good ride. We’re doing well. I think the fans are buying into this team.”