While most baseball franchises exist to make money, the roles are most definitely reversed in the case for Doug Epling, owner of the West Virginia Miners.
His success in the business world helped finance an epic ballpark in Beckley that has played host to top-flight hardball — from area middle school and high school programs, to area college teams, to even championship-caliber Prospect League contests.
Linda K. Epling Stadium on Ragland Road, named for Epling’s devoted wife, is a vision fulfilled, and one he happily provides his community.
Epling owns three mining operations — Mountain Edge Mining, Legacy Resources and Hanover Resources.
“This is in no way connected to my businesses,” Epling said of the team and specifically, the ballpark. “This is a gift to the community.
“We didn’t build it as a financial investment. We realized we would never make money from it. We’ll never get a payback on this. The community has really appreciated it.”
The first season for the Miners was in 2010, and the team is now entering its sixth season. Very quickly, the team became competitive, reaching the Prospect League playoffs in the first year. In the second year, the Miners won the division but lost in the championship. In 2012 and 2012, the Miners won the Prospect League championship. Last year, the team missed out on the playoffs for the first time, coming down to the last week of the season before falling short.
The Miners roster is made up of college players, playing in a top-tier summer league to sharpen their skills and showcase their talents for professional scouts.
Players have come from as far away as Hawaii, California and Texas, but several have also come from the Marshall University baseball program.
Former Miner Kevin Shackelford, also a former Herd player, was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2010 and currently pitches for the Cincinnati Reds Class AA affiliate, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
“He was popped real early,” Epling said of Shackelford’s MLB draft selection that plucked him from the Miners lineup mid-season.
The Eplings have been involved in baseball since his children were small, with the elder Epling coaching them from Little League through American Legion leagues.
Epling’s oldest son Tim played college baseball at Methodist College, and later became a professional umpire.
Tim Epling now serves as field manager of the Miners.
“The love of baseball never left us,” the elder Epling explained.
Ongoing costs exist, in providing player lodging, meals and travel costs as well as upkeep at the field.
Tickets sales, concessions and ad sales on the outfield walls help defray the costs, but have yet to meet the entire need, Epling said.
“We hope to break even, but we haven’t yet,” he said. “Any revenue we make will go back to the operation of the team. We take good care of our players.
“We don’t count on ever getting a penny payback on the stadium,” he added. “That money was spent for the community.”
Providing an alcohol-free, family-friendly option is the intent, Epling said.
“We wanted to provide good, clean family entertainment,” he added. “We have a kids fun zone, and we have security at all of the exits. You can come in with your little children and turn them loose without any worries.”
The cost of Linda K. Epling Stadium, which can accommodate about 3,000 fans, was $7.3 million. The cost could have gone as high as $10 million to $11 million if the Eplings would have contracted the work out instead of doing much of it themselves, Epling estimated.
“We had already built a baseball field at Woodrow Wilson High School and we built one for West Virginia University Tech,” Epling said. “My wife wanted to build one more.
“After church one day, she told me that we needed to build one more field, a really nice one. The Lord has provided for us and blessed us with the finances. We were doing very well, so we started on the new field in 2009.”
Epling designed the field himself. Consultants were brought in the help with the building designs and turf installation.
“We designed it as a Major League field, to their regulations,” he said.
The field has hosted Big 12 Conference and Conference USA baseball, with West Virginia University and Marshall University using the facility at times for alternate “home” games. Earlier this month, the Thundering Herd won two of three games in a series against UNC Charlotte.
The stadium also hosts the Mountain East Conference (formerly the WVIAC) baseball tournament. That tournament is in its third year in Beckley.
“We’re excited every year,” Epling said.
Attracting a Major League-affiliated franchise to Beckley may be an option in the future.
“We could have already done that,” Epling explained. “But we feel that the Prospect League that we play in is the best thing going now, baseball-wise, in the United States.”
Between 20 and 30 former Miners players have gone on to sign professional contracts.
The 2015 Prospect League 60-game season begins May 27, with the Miners first home game slated for May 28.
“We’ve been having fun,” Epling said. “We’re proud of it. It’s been a great experience.”