(Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on the new management group of the Olean Oilers and their return to the New York Collegiate Baseball League in 2022.)
The news immediately upset Olean baseball fans.
It happened several months ago when team founder Brian O’Connell Jr. announced that he and his wife, Rene, were stepping back from running the Oilers and that the New York Collegiate Baseball League team would be idle for a second straight season due to coronavirus concerns.
But O’Connell made it clear he wanted the franchise to continue on and that he hoped to find a group willing to make it happen.
He didn’t have to look far.
Matt Fidurko, who had served several years as the Oilers’ director of operations, put together a 14-member Board of Directors which will run the team when it returns to the field in 2022.
Fidurko is president with Salamanca’s John Dry serving as general manager and director of operations and Allegany’s Eric Hemphill as the field manager.
AND WHILE the Oilers are over 13 months away from returning to the NYCBL, O’Connell felt obligated to correct some misconceptions and rumors about the switch.
“It’s the same organization but with a new management team in place,” he said. “The Olean Oilers Baseball Organization is a non-profit and that means no individual owns it. My wife and I, who started the organization, don’t sell (it) … this is not a situation where we’re selling the team. “There’s some talk around town that Brian O’Connell is selling the Olean Oilers … and that’s not the case. The people who start the non-profit, under the law, are characterized as founders of the organization. It’s a title that will continue with myself and my wife … the founders, usually when they start an organization, are the officers. I was the president, my wife was the vice president then you bring in your management team.”
The Olean attorney added, “We announced my wife and I would be stepping back from the day-to-day operations of the organization and that we needed to, hopefully, find a good group that would like to see it go forward. We found those individuals and (recently) made an announcement to the NYCBL that the new president of the Olean Oilers would be Matt Fidurko.
“Matt is intimately familiar with the organization, how it’s run and what it takes to run it. He has stepped up and agreed to move forward and put in his own day-to-day management team with a new slate of officers to help him run the organization and a plan to start to play again in 2022.
FIDURKO explained, “We had spoken throughout the years about a possible transition, so this isn’t a new idea. Brian has always been honest about his status and looking forward. He made it obvious to me, early on, that his goal was for it to keep going. Neither of us wanted to see it go away. There was always a thought in my mind that we could keep this thing going if we found the right people … and we did.
He recalled, “Immediately after the article in the Times Herald (about the O’Connells stepping back) a couple of people approached me saying, ‘We don’t want this thing to be over with.’ And that was never our intention. They said, ‘Let’s buy the team,’ though you can’t sell a non-profit, but they just wanted to be involved. That’s how this group became involved over the last 3-4 months.
“These people are involved to be advisors to the organization … there was a financial commitment involved in being part of the board of directors but it was simply a donation to the team.”
O’CONNELL will remain as the league’s legal counsel and he and his wife will be board members.
“Absolutely no regrets,” he said of stepping back. “At the time the decision was made in January, the country was in the midst of a major upswing in the pandemic. We have a lot of people that come to the Oilers games, unlike some other teams in the (NYCBL). We traditionally lead the league (in attendance).
“There were a lot of considerations at the time. The pandemic was proliferating and there were the different policies and mandates the federal government and state had in terms of what could and could not be done. We had to make a decision early to benefit the players in terms of letting them know whether or not they’d be able to play in Olean.”
O’Connell continued, “We also had no idea whether St. Bonaventure was going to open up their facilities to house the players (this summer). Two weeks ago I received notification from (SBU) that we could house players again, but that decision was just made, so there were a lot of things (Matt and I) needed to figure out in this process and we came to the conclusion there was no way to know at that point whether it would be safe to play in 2021.
“(That) wouldn’t be fair to our players to take their fees, tell them that they were going to play and for them not to have any housing. Right now there’s still prohibition on fans at games. We know what this organization costs and how important it is for us to have fans show up, serve food and that’s all part of the budgetary process.”
He added: “There were a lot of questions about the (nine NYCBL) teams that are going to play this year, ‘How are we going to make this work?’ There are liability issues and medical issues (due to Covid).
“I knew, when the league meeting was over (when Olean’s return was announced), that I was glad the Oilers were sitting out this year. Everything will become clear as more people -- students and athletes -- get vaccinated ... more things will be opening up and 2022 will be a good time to come back.”
AND THAT reality has Fidurko enthused.
“Our fans have always turned out since Day 1 of the team and we’re excited about that,” he said. “One unique thing about Olean is you get to play in front of fans. That’s not a knock on any other franchise, but we have tremendous community support.
“With two years of not playing it will help us take off in 2022. When Brian announced he was stepping back, so many wanted to see (the team) go on. It shows how much it means to the people in the community.”
(TOMORROW: The new Oilers management group)
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)