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With less than a month to go before the new Niagara Falls Rapids baseball team plays its first game at Hyde Park, crews are working at a fever pitch to ready Sal Maglie Stadium.

"You're right on target here. Everything looks great. You're going to be the pride of the New York-Penn League," Michael J. Billoni told City Parks Director Neil M. Gruppo late last week.

Billoni, vice president of Rich Baseball Operations, which also owns the Buffalo Bisons and the Wichita Wranglers, has been through stadium renovations before in both of those cities.

He says Niagara Falls should be given a lot of credit for the major renovations it is making in a short period of time.

The city is spending $600,000 to install new lights, light poles and fencing, renovate the playing field, dressing rooms, concession stands and press box, and for such finishing touches as landscaping.

Eight new 120-foot-tall light poles started going up late last week. Last year, Mayor Michael C. O'Laughlin caused an uproar when he ordered eight 50-year-old poles taken down, saying they were outmoded, deteriorating and dangerous. O'Laughlin said the poles would be replaced only if they were needed.

Still left to be completed are sodding, the warning track, home run fence, signs, the new scoreboard, electrical work and relocation of the foul poles and foul lines.

Rapids General Manager Thomas M. Prohaska said work has been done "in every corner of the stadium." Usually such a large-scale project should have begun in November, he said.

But Robert E. Rich Jr., who heads the Buffalo food and baseball operations that carry his name, didn't even announce that he would be bringing professional baseball back to Niagara Falls until January. That's because the team was headed for Olean before lack of interest there and high interest here caused the switch, Prohaska said.

Prohaska says O'Laughlin, a former high school athletic coach, was instrumental in bringing the team here.

"What's good about O'Laughlin is that he's a coach. He knows what a coach needs. But his other foot is in the political arena. He sees the community's needs."

By the time the contracts were signed and sealed and other details worked out, "we didn't start until March 6," Prohaska said. Still, despite delays arising from rainy weather and lighting and sodding problems caused when home plate was moved four feet, he expects the work to be completed on time.

"We'll be ready. We'll be rough around the edges, but we'll be ready," he said. Prohaska believes it will take some time for the community to get behind the team. Gruppo says that baseball fever is already taking hold. He believes the community is responding to the Rich organization.

"This is the first time we're really working with people who have credibility," Gruppo says of the Rich family. "They're going to be great for Niagara Falls."

Gruppo cites about $250,000 in renovations that the Rich group is putting into the stadium in addition to the city's $600,000. Rich's improvements include $85,000 for equipment for the concession stands, $10,000 for portable concession stands, $80,000 for a new scoreboard, $25,000 to $30,000 for new baseball equipment, and $5,000 to $7,000 for a new sound system.

Prohaska said start-up costs are high, but he predicted the same level of budgeting would go into operation and maintenance every year. Prohaska also said that the Rich operation plans to "share the equipment, make it available to a lot of people," such as Niagara University, high school and Little League teams.

Gruppo points to a new rubberized floor the baseball organization will install in the dressing and shower rooms -- a costly item that he says indicates the organization's intent to stay for awhile. Prohaska concurs. He points to the length of the contract with the city -- five years with another five-year option. And, he says, that's why the team got its own name rather than being named the Niagara Falls Tigers after the Detroit Tigers, the team's major league affiliate -- so it would retain its identity if for some reason the affiliation changed in the future.

Many minor league teams are named after their major league affiliates. For example, former teams in Niagara Falls were called the White Sox and the Pirates, after the Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Although the opening game is scheduled for June 16, Prohaska wants all construction done by June 9, the day the team arrives. It will hold its first practice June 10. Prohaska said he plans to christen the stadium with a party for the renovation crew.

Prohaska said team members will be housed at Niagara University's campus for the first week, and then they'll move to Walker Hall at NU's DeVeaux campus for the rest of the season. Rich has bought a bus to transport the team around town and to away games.

Prohaska said he's still looking for apartments for the team's manager and coach.

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