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Winter baseball league postponed until 2000

Organizational problems end the Hernando County group's bid to start this year.

A bid by a Hernando County group to field an off-season baseball league in the state this year officially ended Wednesday when the Florida Winter Baseball League announced it's inaugural season has been rescheduled for 2000.

The Spring Hill-based organization, led by CEO J.D. Noland, a Springstead High alum who played minor-league baseball, and locals John Rizzuto and Richie Nestor, had hoped to form Florida's first winter development league last year, but had to regroup for a 1999 commencement. Similar organizational problems apparently began to reduce the chances for a 1999 season as early as June, when the league fired its general manager and underwent numerous other changes in its structure.

In a news release Wednesday, Noland said, "This gives us a full year to work in the communities and do the proper marketing. We are confident this decision ensures our ability to give the fans the best of what our league has to offer."

Members of the league board did not return phone calls.

Orlando, Fort Myers, Sarasota and Homestead were tabbed as the FWBL's founding franchises, but Sarasota was replaced by Tampa in late June, and Orlando was dropped three weeks ago. Fort Myers' participation was viewed as tenuous by Lee County parks and recreation officials after its general manager resigned, citing philosophical differences, and the team's phone was disconnected.

Teams were to play at the University of South Florida's Red McEwen Field, at Terry Park in Fort Myers, and at the Homestead Sports Complex. The Orlando franchise would have played at Tinker Field, which with the Citrus Bowl is managed by Centroplex.

Greg Thompson, stadium manager for the Citrus Bowl, had to phone FWBL officials to learn they were eliminating Orlando as a venue. He said officials indicated then that the league's season would not commence on Oct. 31 as planned.

"I had to call them to find out what was going on," Thompson said. "They had indicated they would place a person in an office here to start working on season tickets and marketing, and that person never materialized."

A major reason the league balked, Thompson said, was his group's request for $60,000 in advance rent.

Charlene Beverly, marketing and booking coordinator for SunDome, Inc., which manages USF facilities, was never informed of the league's decision. She declined comment until able to speak with league officials.

When she does, a topic of conversation will be the same FWBL officials will share with Lee County representatives: signed lease agreements.

Barbara Manzo, deputy director of the Lee County Parks and Recreation Department, said several options were available to rectify the situation, including demanding payment from the league.

"That is going to be up to the county attorney's office, I guess," she said. "It has been discussed, but I don't know whether they'll decide just to dissolve the contract or whatever."

The FWBL was to pay for the use of the Homestead Sports Complex on a per-game basis.

If the league is able to field teams next fall, its four proposed cities apparently will be waiting. Beverly, Thompson, Manzo and Homestead parks and recreation rep Alan Ricke expressed interest in future involvement.

"We'd still be happy to have them here," Ricke said. "We understand this is only postponing, not canceling. If they can do this in 2000, it still works for us."

Thompson welcomes the league, but remains skeptical, saying he considers the odds of a 2000 season "probably 50-50."

"It seems a lot of groups express interest and for one or another reason they're not able to pull it together," he said. "I think their intentions were good, but you see this a lot."