(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on the Olean Oilers and the decision to take a leave of absence for the 2021 New York Collegiate Baseball League season.)
After the 2020 campaign was canceled due to the coronavirus, the Olean Oilers are also taking a leave of absence from the New York Collegiate Baseball League for the ’21 season.
And it’s possible the rest, or most, of the NYCBL will follow suit this summer due to a combination of continuing Covid-19 concerns, financial issues created by the pandemic and the contraction of minor league baseball’s effect on wooden bat summer collegiate baseball leagues.
What’s certain, though, is that Oilers president Brian O’Connell Jr., an Olean attorney, will be only peripherally involved come the 2022 season. After two years without baseball and the successful team he formed in 2012 – two league titles, six straight years of leading the NYCBL in attendance and nine players selected in the Major League Baseball Draft – he sees it as time to pass the torch.
“HAVING THE summer of 2020 off from baseball was the first time since I was a kid,” O’Connell said. “I then played in college and amateur leagues in Buffalo and Olean and then started coaching in Little League, Junior League and Senior League and right into the Oilers as president and coach the last few years.
“I haven’t really had a summer without baseball in a long time and, last year, I was able to spend a lot of time with my family because of the lockdown and it got to the point where it was something (I realized) I missed a lot. (The baseball-idle summer) was a way to say that now might be the time to go in a different direction.”
He added, “I took a leave of absence, which keeps the franchise viable and the hope is to work with some of my staff members who are still interested in going forward to try to find another organization to take the team in the future so that there will still be baseball played in Bradner Stadium. I’d hate to see that not occur.
“But, make no mistake, it would not be safe playing baseball here in 2021. To me, it would not be worth the safety problems that we might have because we don’t have the resources to test the players (for Covid) in an ongoing basis.”
O’CONNELL admitted, “There were other teams within the league that felt the same way I did but haven’t made the decision of what to do. Do I expect other teams in the NYCBL not to play in ’21, I do. Am I going to name them, I won’t. I’m still the legal advisor for the league and told them I would remain while we transition, but I had stepped down as vice president, which I’d been for several years, last summer.
“This challenge is throughout the country … it’s not just to us. It’s for all leagues like the New England Collegiate League, the Perfect Game League. There’s all sorts of ramifications because of this (minor league-contraction), and you couple that with the pandemic and the economics of trying to run this team and some of the personal considerations that I have and there was no way we could have fielded a team safely in ’21. But, under the bylaws, which I wrote, we’re allowed to take a leave of absence and still preserve the franchise and it’s available for ’22 whatever the landscape will be.”
SO WHAT’S in the future for the Oilers?
“The plan is to play in ’22 but my role in that would be greatly diminished,” O’Connell said. “If I could find another group that would want to take it over, I’d be more than happy to consult with them. I have to see how viable a league like the NYCBL (might be) … there are so many questions because of contraction with all these (former) minor league teams scrambling to figure out what to do.
“It may be that a number of summer baseball collegiate leagues disappear because of this and (teams) have to either look for a different league or hang it up all together.”
IS HE disappointed that a labor of love was taken away due to circumstances totally out of his control?
“That (type of thing) has happened to quite a lot of people in the United States right now … businesses that they’ve built through their own blood, sweat and tears and the conditions of the pandemic have taken that away,” O’Connell said.
“It’s disappointing that (the Oilers and possibly the NYCBL) have to essentially come to a conclusion like this. But the way we’re ending this, at least my chapter of it, for the most part, is that if someone else has the fire and the desire, they can pick it up and run with it. I’ve got it to the point where we can do that and I’m more than happy to help that next group to take the reins and move forward.”
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)