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Eggers: Group goes to bat for baseball

The sport of baseball is not exactly on a roll.

Fan interest remains high, with half of the major leagues’ 30 teams averaging more than 30,000 per game. But big-league TV ratings have trended downward in recent years, and national youth participation rates have dipped 6.3 percent in the last six years.

Football is now America’s game, soccer is gaining traction and baseball is getting shorter shrift than it did in your father’s days on the diamond.

Friends of Baseball are trying to do something about that.

Founders Keenan and Ben Longcor started the program in 2005 as a family foundation intended as a vehicle to pay it forward with the sport they love.

Now it’s a nonprofit organization, and Keenan has handed the executive director baton to Nova Newcomer, a board member since 2010 with big ideas and a mad love for the game.

“Baseball and softball meant so much to me growing up,” says Newcomer, 37, a Parkrose High and Portland State grad. “I want to help make sure every kid has those same opportunities.”

The Longcors feel the same way.

“I realize what baseball had meant to the relationship of my son and I through his formative years,” says Keenan Longcor, 62, retired after a 30-year sales and marketing career. “Baseball was the glue. Friends of Baseball was a way for Ben and me to give back to a sport that had meant so much to us.”

For nearly a decade, Longcor volunteered his time to an organization that worked together with community partners to provide more than $2.4 million in programming. FOB has conducted clinics, provided scholarships, dispersed equipment to areas of need, funded field improvements, helped the Hillsboro Hops arrange Family Day at Ron Tonkin Field and served as a safety net for distressed leagues and teams in Oregon and Southwest Washington.

Now, the organization intends to crank it up a notch.

For the first time, its executive director is a paid position, and Newcomer — who worked for five years in internal communications with Adidas and also has experience working with nonprofits — intends for the organization to get its money’s worth.

“Nova has this passion for baseball, a skill set and familiarity in the nonprofit world, but most of all, she has a background in baseball,” says Longcor, who will remain as a board member and ambassador. “She’ll be spectacular in the position.”

Longcor’s personal goal is to have a budget of $250,000 per year to serve as a regional advocate for baseball. That’s going to take some

major fundraising.

Since taking over last month, Newcomer has hit the ground running with a first-ever membership drive called Diamond Dreams. Already, there is $10,000 in seed money to match funds provided by contributors such as Hops owners Mike and Laura McMurray, Atkinson Insurance and Adrenal USA.

“It’s a good start,” Newcomer says. “What we’ve raised in the first month was our goal for 2014. Now let’s see what we can do between now and the end of the year.

“I’m encouraged by not just the amount we’ve raised, but with the tone of every meeting we have with people in the community. It’s resonating. People get it and want to support us.”

The organization provided 32 scholarships last year to help children pay participation fees and, occasionally, a glove or other equipment.

“I’d like to triple that,” Newcomer says. “I’d like to get to 100 this year. Last year, we set aside $3,000 to test the market. We heard back every type of story you can imagine — dozens of kids with a variety of circumstances. You want to make sure all of them can play baseball.”

An annual membership costs as little as $25 for a junior membership and $60 (“$5 a month,” Newcomer says) for an adult. Memberships escalate to $1,200 a year, which provides sponsorship for participation fees for 10 players. Perks and discounts will be provided by FOB corporate partners, including the Hops, Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, and Eugene Emeralds. Members will be entered in a drawing for a seven-day vacation for two to Mazatlan.

“Our current focus is the scholarship program, which will be funded by our membership,” Longcor says.

Newcomer’s imprint is all over baseball. She played softball in Powell Little League and at Parkrose, where she also served as public-address announcer for Broncos football and basketball. As a teenager and young adult, she sold souvenirs for Beavers and Portland Rockies games. She interned in media relations and did PA for baseball games at Portland State.

“I love sports,” she says. “My dad took me to Portland State games. We watched football every Saturday and Sunday during the fall. We went to Blazers and Portland Beavers games together.”

After working with Adidas for five years — including a 2 1/2-year stint in Germany — Newcomer started a communications consulting business, setting aside 20 hours a week to help nonprofits. After becoming an FOB board member in 2010, Newcomer began to consider what career path to take.

“I like either helping kids or helping people get access to opportunities,” she says. “That was my criteria for what I was going to do for a living.”

Last year, the board received a letter from a couple with custody of a 6-year-old whose parents are incarcerated, requesting assistance to pay for a participation fee for T-ball.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Newcomer says. “This was a kid who needed sports, which were a constant in my life growing up. Most of us take it for granted. With the negative aspect in pro sports, there’s a tendency sometimes to pooh-pooh the value of sports in a community. In my life, I’ve had far more positive things happen to me because of sports than anything else.”

When the FOB board approved her as executive director, that sealed it.

Newcomer looks back at some of the good things the organization has done over the years, two stemming from major gifts from Adidas. In 2011, FOB distributed $1 million worth of the company’s baseball cleats throughout the United States and Puerto Rico (but with Oregon getting a lion’s share) to needy baseball groups. In 2012, it was 4,000 pairs of baseball socks.

Last winter, hooligans took ATVs for a joy ride at North Portland Little League, ruining their fields. FOB pledged $1,000 if the community would match it.

“Within a week, we had $2,000 to repair the fields,” Newcomer says.

(FOB works with any youth organization, incidentally, including Little League, Cal Ripken and Junior Baseball.)

In its seventh year, FOB’s annual clinic drew 300 coaches this summer, with major-league umpire Jim Joyce delivering a talk and legendary prep coach Dave Gasser directing the instruction.

FOB was the recipient of a $15,000 Nike Employees grant this year, “and we’ll reapply next year,” Newcomer says. “Our goal is to make sure we’re finding the most resource-rich ways to reach kids.

“That’s why we decided to go on this membership drive. We so strongly believe that kids and families should have access to baseball. Financial barriers are unacceptable when we know sports provides such a pathway to success in life.”

Newcomer has plenty of resolve in her new position.

“Why do I care so much?” she says. “Baseball has things to teach that other sports don’t hit at the same level. When I hear parents talk about all the things they want their kids to gravitate to, you’ll get a lot of that in baseball.

“I’m on a mission here. There’s an opportunity. People love to say baseball is dying, but when I go out and see the energy out there, that’s not what I see. I see hundreds and thousands of volunteer hours by coaches. I see kids wanting to play the game. Our goal is to make the resources available so every kid can do that.

“We’re scratching the surface, and we want to keep growing.”

(For information on Friends of Baseball, go to friendsofbase ball.org or call 971-998-5300.)

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Twitter: @kerryeggers