Atlantic City's Surf Stadium wasn't ready for three days of professional baseball on Labor Day weekend.
An entire season might be played there as soon as next year, though.
Mario Perrucci, a longtime executive with the now-defunct Atlantic City Surf, is working with Frank Boulton - president of the Atlantic League of Professional Base-ball, in which the Surf played - to bring another independent minor-league team to town.
"Bottom line, we are very interested," Perrucci, 70, said in a phone interview this month from his Brigantine home. "We believe with the right venue, the right support, that it can work."
Perrucci and Boulton had tried to schedule a series between the Camden Riversharks and Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League at Surf Stadium over Labor Day weekend. The Skeeters are the team for whom former major-leaguer Roger Clemens has pitched two games this season. But the lights at the stadium need to be replaced and were not going to be ready in time.
So Perrucci and Boulton turned their focus to next season - and broadened their goals.
Boulton said this month that Atlantic City rejoining the Atlantic League is not an option at this point, but that he was in the "discovery stage" of starting a new league.
"We're looking at creating a sort of Atlantic League Professional Baseball 2," said Boulton, who also owned the Surf from its inception in 1998 until 2006. "That would be some smaller venues that Atlantic City might fit into. It's a new project that I'm taking a look at, that I'm visiting cities and talking to people about."
Of course, having Atlantic City be a part of that league would depend on whether Boulton and Perrucci could work something out with the city itself, which owns Surf Stadium - formerly known as the Sandcastle and Bernie Robbins Stadium.
"The city is always interested in anything that makes sense. Period," Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford said in a phone interview last week. "Anything that makes sense we will consider. Nothing is off the table. Everything is on the table."
Langford declined, however, to specify what type of deal might make sense or what is the likelihood of coming to an agreement.
"(Perrucci) knows what the city has asked for and what we expect," the mayor said.
Perrucci, who has been retired since leaving the Surf in 2007, said the city has asked for a rental fee per event and revenue sharing on such things as advertising and concessions. He said the sides are not far apart on those issues.
The Surf formed in 1998 in the Atlantic League, an independent professional league. Boulton sold the team in 2006 to Mark Schuster, who moved the team to the lower-level Can-Am League later that season. The team struggled to draw fans in the later years, though, and in March 2009 it ceased operations.
Surf Stadium, which opened in 1998 on Route 40, fell into disrepair after the team shut down. But Perrucci said he was impressed when he took a tour with Boulton this July and then attended the Babe Ruth youth baseball regional tournament there in August. He said that aside from the lights, the building is mostly ready for professional baseball now.
"The city has done just a tremendous job," Perrucci said. "The difference between the stadium when I saw it in April of this year and then what it was like in mid-July … it was unbelievable the progress they had made. I dare say, if the lights had not been an issue, we might have been able to pull off having the Labor Day weekend with Sugar Land."
Perrucci said in addition to the lights he would like to see the outfield fences and scoreboard either upgraded or replaced, and the clubhouses renovated. If that can be done, he said the stadium would be "perfect."
"The PA system that they have in there is tremendous," he said. "I was really impressed. The press box, the way it was when it fell in disrepair to what it is now, it's almost state-of-the-art now. They are making leaps and bounds to get that stadium ready."
Atlantic City Public Works Director Paul Jerkins said no progress has been made since the Babe Ruth tournament - at which point he said 75 percent of the refurbishments were complete. The lights still have not been replaced.
"There are always plans, but there's not always money," Jerkins said in a phone interview last Wednesday.
Any agreement between Perrucci, Boulton and the city would require the lights to be replaced.
Boulton's new league would have six to eight teams and would play about a 100-game season, Perrucci said. That's shorter than the Atlantic League's 120-game slate, which Perrucci said was too many games for Atlantic City.
The league likely would have an age limit and a salary cap, Perrucci said, with the level of play slightly above that of the Can-Am League, in which the Surf played their last two seasons.
"If I could compare it to affiliated baseball, I would say probably low A (level)," Perrucci said. "Like what Lakewood is in the South Atlantic League. That's what I can envision this being."
Perrucci said he would like to call the team the Surf, since that name is on the stadium and it already has name recognition. He even has a candidate for the team's first manager: former Surf player David Housel, who he said is one of many ex-players who still ask him when baseball is coming back to Atlantic City.
But everything is contingent on Boulton actually starting a new league. The Atlantic League president said he will make a decision sometime in the next few months.
"Do I believe there's a good market in Atlantic City for baseball? Yes, I do," Boulton said.
If the new league does not come to fruition this year, there are other options.
Langford did not rule out the possibility of hosting a college tournament. The Northeast Conference held its tournament there in 2000 and '01.
Even if there is a pro team occupying the stadium, a youth tournament such as the Babe Ruth regional could come for one weekend when the team is away.
Perrucci said he again would try to bring a Camden Riversharks series to town if the new league is not formed. He also said he would be open to working with another league.
"I really believe that it can work here in Atlantic City if it gets the support from everyone," Perrucci said. "You would really need community involvement to support this team. It can work. There's a whole new generation of kids, think about it, that were either little babies when the Surf was here and really in its (heyday), and it would be great (for them) to be able to go to a Surf game. ... And there's a lot of families out there, youngsters that came here, that are now adults that would love to come back to the stadium."
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