A few months ago, the Prospect League was named one of the top four summer wood bat collegiate leagues in the country. Increasing that visibility and respect became an immediate goal for the league.
The way Doug Epling sees it, the chance to do that fell in the league’s figurative lap — and they blew it.
The West Virginia Miners were all set to welcome Garrett Wolforth to Beckley. Actually, he made it to Beckley and even practiced with the team before its season opener.
Before that day, however, the league declared Wolforth ineligible because of his age. More specifically, it was because Wolforth had just graduated from high school and was not yet on a college roster.
That was a clear violation of league rules, as spelled out in the league media guide:
“All Prospect League players must have completed the college Spring semester immediately preceding the Prospect League season and must have college athletic eligibility remaining. High school players, including recent graduates, are not eligible to play in the Prospect League.”
“Garrett Wolforth was declared ineligible to play in the Prospect League, before the season started, as he did not qualify under our rules,” Prospect League Commissioner Bryan Wickline said. “The rule has remained unchanged since the beginning of the Prospect League in 2009.”
“We broke the rule, unintentionally,” admitted Epling, who owns the Miners along with his wife, Linda K. Epling.
Epling and the Miners were not unaware of the rule. Their reason for trying to bring Wolforth along was based on precedence.
In 2011, Bradley Strong was an 18-year-old who had just graduated from Richlands (Va.) High School. He had signed a letter of intent with Western Carolina, but was not yet on the Catamounts roster. Yet he was allowed to play for the Miners.
“We inquired at that time, without reading the rules, with the commissioner (Dave Chase at the time),” Epling said. “The commissioner said that he could play in the regular season but not in postseason play, which he did.”
Wolforth’s situation was similar. He signed a letter of intent with Dallas Baptist, but of course was not on the DBU roster.
Wolforth’s situation was also unique. Originally, he was a member of the draft class of 2016. However, he graduated from Concordia Lutheran High School in Tomball, Texas, a year early and was able to get reclassified. He will not turn 18 until October.
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Because of the precedence set with Strong, Epling felt his team had a case. So a special owners meeting was called to discuss the issue. It was during that meeting that Epling began to feel that he would never have a chance of convincing the other owners to make an exception.
“The self-appointed guru of the rules from Richmond (Duke Ward) stated that it had to be a bylaw change, and I argued with that because I had already gotten a legal opinion at that time,” Epling said. “We have a set of bylaws for the Prospect League, and the operations agreement, which is highly unusual but it’s not illegal. The bylaws go with the corporation usually, generally spreaking, and the operations agrreement goes with an LLC (limited liability company), which we are.
“I even read the rule to them, that it was not a bylaw change, that it was a two-thirds vote. They listened to me not one bit. They paid no attention to what I was saying because they already had their minds made up.”
According to Epling, the Miners had votes of yes from eight owners and no from the remaining four, which would have been two-thirds. But because of the contention that a bylaw change was required for any change in rules, the motion failed.
Epling did not let the issue die. He had received an e-mail from his Charleston-based attorneys that he says confirmed the two-thirds majority requirement.
“I called the commissioner — and I knew the commissioner was against it, too,” Epling said. “He said bylaws trump the operations agreement, which is not true. When I read him (the e-mail), he immediately says, ‘Doug, let me call you back in 30 seconds.’ I never received the call back.”
Instead, Epling says he received a call from Ward.
“The self-appointed guru calls me and says, ‘Doug, I have been reading the rules and I see where we’ve made a mistake, and it should be two-thirds vote’ — like I said,” Epling said. “He said, ‘We’re going to call an emergency meeting tomorrow,’ which they did. But when they did that, I knew they went to work.. A stall tactic was all it was, in my opinion.
“They go out and politicked the ones who were with us — and we were politicking for our side — but the ‘old guard’ that runs the league, I knew it was all over.”
Wickline did not address that allegation in an e-mail.
“The league did discuss an ‘exception’ to the rule, at the request of West Virginia after the season had started, and it was not approved by vote of the Board of Directors,” Wickline said. “I am not at liberty to discuss further the confidential contents of our Board of Directors meetings.”
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Why all the hubbub over Wolforth to begin with? Because he carries huge credentials and a very high ceiling.
Wolforth helped lead Concordia Lutheran to a Texas private schools championship, and his summer team last year won the Perfect Game 17-under World Series.
Last week, Wolforth was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the 33rd round of the MLB first-year players draft. MLB Network had him ranked as the No. 14 catching prospect in the entire country.
Wolforth has said he will honor his commitment to Dallas Baptist. He will not be draft eligible again until 2018.
It was not only Wolforth’s status as a player that made him an attractive get for the Prospect League. His dad, Ron, owns the Texas Baseball Ranch in Houston. The ranch helps pitchers increase their velocity while maintaining arm health. Nearly 80 TBR alumni had been drafted before this year.
Among the clients of the ranch include Major Leaguers Trevor Bauer, Justin Verlander, Scott Kazmir, Tyson Ross and Barry Zito. Ron Wolforth’s credentials are legitimate.
Ron Wolforth, who was in Beckley for the Miners’ season opener against Jamestown, wrote a letter to the Prospect League last week expressing his disappointment in the decision to keep Garrett out of the league.
“My wife (Jill) and I got to observe four different teams on our short visit to watch our son play. There is no diplomatic way of saying this: From my perspective, I saw very few prospects in the Prospect League,” he wrote. “Granted it was only four teams and it is early, so several players may not have reported but very, very few of the players that I observed would be described as ‘prospects.’ … I found it decidedly ironic that a league that calls itself the ‘Prospect League’ would deny entrance to a young prospect that by multiple services had rated as the 3-7 best catching prospect in the entire 2015 MLB Draft … which is limited in prospects itself. It made very little sense to me.
“It only took a small amount of research on my part to confirm that my observations of the quality of athlete playing in the Prospect League compared to other top collegiate summer summer leagues were correct. The Prospect League is clearly behind and challenged in getting prospects. Why you as owners would close or place as off limits an entire potential poll of talent when you are lean on prospects is really curious.
“The Prospect League could, in my opinion, over time be special but the current small, reactionary thinking will definitely not take you where you wish to be.”
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Which is exactly Epling’s problem with the whole thing. He admits a personal interest, based on his son Tim’s longtime friendship with the Wolforth family.
But he believes strongly that the league lost a huge opportunity to increase its awareness by having a player of Garrett Wolforth’s caliber on one of its rosters.
“The Prospect League is a young league trying to get its notoriety out there,” Epling said. “It wasn’t about the boy getting to play for West Virginia. It was for the league. … We have sone bright business people in here that are forward-looking and new at innovative ideas, that being at Jamestown and Kokomno, Dr. (Chris) Hanners (owner of the Chillicothe Paints) is always looking like that — Champion City and Terre Haute. Those guys are very innovative, looking at it from a business perspective, which it should be, and they argued for this. Not for West Virginia — sanction us, we made the mistake, go ahead and sanction us, fine us $10,000 or whatever.
“But the benefit was this: We had a blue-chipper coming in here that assuredly — and you never know whether he gets hurt or anything — but if he stays (healthy), he is going to be another Bryce Harpeer. There will be other players come though this league of this caliber, but not very many. I think the chances are lessened now, by far.
“What came with this kid was one of the five most influential families in the United States. Influential in the pros, all the college ranks. College coaches go there for instruction and training, along with players. Major League players. What we did, talking about notoriety for the league, this family would promote the Prospect League, which it is in bad need of.
“So we’ve lost. This will never come (again). There will be other players to come but not with same influence that this had. I feel the Prospect League would have jumped up. After this year I feel the Prospect League would have jumped up after this year right under the Cape (Cod League).
“The league in itself lost big time. Had the Wolforth family been involved with us, the league would have jumped up. Now we have to wait and see what it does next year.”
— E-mail: gfauber@
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