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Andy Furillo: Wood-bat baseball is coming to Sacramento

Former baseball great Leon Lee in the Sacramento River Cats radio booth at Raley Field. Lee’s unnamed Great West League team will play at refurbished Renfree Field.
Former baseball great Leon Lee in the Sacramento River Cats radio booth at Raley Field. Lee’s unnamed Great West League team will play at refurbished Renfree Field. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Baseball lovers in Sacramento soon will be tested by the widely held opinion among their ilk that there’s no such thing as too much of the summer game.

If everything goes as planned, they’ll have another club to watch in June, along with the Triple-A River Cats already in town and the big-league Giants and A’s in the Bay Area.

The president of the fledgling Great West League told a mid-morning crowd of several dozen baseball enthusiasts Tuesday at the Limelight on Alhambra Boulevard that Sacramento has been awarded a franchise.

It will be run by Sacramento’s Mr. Baseball, Leon Lee, who let it slip that his unnamed team will play at refurbished Renfree Field. Nobody’s thrown a pitch there since 2012, when a mystery fire wrecked the concession stand and press box.

The GWL will be a wood-bat league comprised of upper-shelf collegians – all the players are amateurs. The circuit also will include the Chico Heat, Lodi Crushers, Marysville Gold Sox and Portland Pickles, although it’s unknown if the Oregon team bats sweet or dill. The league announced its sixth club Wednesday, adding the Medford Rogues, one of the top teams in the West Coast League.

Our group would like to be the Cape Cod of the West. It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge we sought to undertake to reach that level.

Ken Wilson, Great West League president

Wood-bat leagues can be found countrywide, and the most famous is the 10-team Cape Cod Baseball League, where summer vacationers on the outer shores of Massachusetts can slurp down platters of Wellfleet oysters with their Samuel Adams while being entertained by the best collegiate players in the country.

“Our group would like to be the Cape Cod of the West,” said league president Ken Wilson, a baseball announcer for more than 24 seasons on radio and TV for the Mariners, White Sox, Reds, Cardinals, Angels and A’s. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge we sought to undertake to reach that level.”

Wilson has experience running a collegiate wood-bat league – he’s a past president of the West Coast League – and his new league gained instant credibility when Hall of Fame baseball executive Pat Gillick committed to help run the team in his native Chico.

Gillick, as general manager, assembled two World Series championship teams for the Toronto Blue Jays, in 1992 and 1993, and another for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. He also had two playoff teams with the Baltimore Orioles and one with the Seattle Mariners, who in 2001 won 116 games, a major-league record.

At age 78, the Phillies president is retiring at season’s end to move home to Seattle, but he will spend plenty of time in Chico to help the Heat rise.

“We just wanted to give back to the communities that are involved,” Gillick said by phone. “We just want to give West Coast kids an opportunity to play in a high-caliber collegiate league. With all the different Pac-12 schools, with all the Division II schools here on the coast, as well as the community colleges, we just thought it would be great to have these kids play in the summer in a professional atmosphere.”

Wood bats are otherwise foreign to players in college, where they wield lighter aluminum instruments; lumber in the summer helps them get ready for professional careers.

After Cape Cod, there are about a half-dozen top-notch wood-bat leagues. Wilson sees his league having the same stature as the Northwoods League of the upper Midwest, Coastal Plain League of the Carolinas and Virginia, Prospect League in Illinois and Indiana and a couple other states, and the West Coast.

Nearly 300 current major leaguers spent at least one of their college summers on the Cape; fewer played in the other leagues.

Andrew Susac of Oregon State and Matt Duffy of Long Beach State, for instance, were teammates on the Corvallis (Ore.) Knights for the West Coast League before they reconnected with the Giants. Eric Sogard of the A’s and Arizona State is another WCL alum. He won a title with the Bend (Ore.) Elks.

“It was probably one of the most fun summers I’ve ever had, playing baseball up there in the beautiful Northwest,” Sogard said. “The parks were fun to play, and you’ve got the fans enjoying the Northwest up there. We had a blast.”

Your parents will be able to buy you a ticket for $5 instead of $25, and you’ll still be around a first-class baseball atmosphere.

Leon Lee, who will run the Great West League

In Sacramento, the Great West League’s franchise has been placed in hands seasoned in horsehide. Lee played in Japan and is a member of a baseball family that includes son Derrek, the former major leaguer. Lee will be joined in the enterprise by real estate developer Vujadin Jovic, former agent for former Kings players and current executives Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic.

Lee said he hopes to sign players from all over the West Coast, including from Sacramento State and UC Davis. He also plans to work his Asian connections to bring in talent from Japan and South Korea.

He sees no problem sharing the town with the River Cats, with his team filling a more affordable niche in the sporting economy.

“Your parents will be able to buy you a ticket for $5 instead of $25, and you’ll still be around a first-class baseball atmosphere,” Lee said.

Get ready for a contest to name the local team.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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