Officials trumpeted the return of a Prospect League team to America's Hometown with an announcement Tuesday at City Hall.
Officials for the Prospect League club returning to Hannibal are on a mission to regain the trust of their fan base.
The team is focused on the future.
Nothing more, nothing less.
“We have baseball back in Hannibal,” owner Rick DeStefane said Tuesday during a 23-minute press conference at City Hall. “It's very exciting for baseball, it's very exciting for the Hannibal citizens and the surrounding community, and most importantly it's very exciting for the fans.”
Following a year of turmoil as the former Cavemen franchise suspended operations this past winter, DeStefane joined new general manager Matt Stembridge and league commissioner Dennis Bastien in trumpeting the club's return to America's Hometown.
All three officials vowed the new club will be different and move beyond the prolonged losing funk, unpaid debts and broken lease agreement that plagued the former team.
“They're buried six feet under,” DeStefane said of the issues. “We had our problems, but I want to put those to bed. I have no one to blame now but myself. The buck stops with me and that's where it is.”
“We aren't what they were,” Stembridge said of the former club, which was established in 2009 and most recently co-owned by DeStefane and California businessman Bob Hemond. “Let's just start there. You do it the right way, it'll take care of itself. Wins and losses, how will that translate? This roster will be a competitive roster. Will I tell you we'll win a championship? Man, I hope so, that's the goal.”
The resurrection of the Hannibal team, coupled with the emergence of an expansion team in Canton, Ohio, moves the college wood bat league to a dozen clubs for the 2018 season.
“We're very proud to resurrect the Prospect League franchise here in Hannibal,” Bastien said. “There were some situations and issues that cropped up after the 2016 season that were addressed by the league and the ownership group. We feel the ship has been righted and that things are rolling.”
Stembridge will run the day-to-day operations of the club. During his 10 years of experience coaching at the college level, including the past five as pitching coach at Quincy University, he mentioned he built connections he believes will help field a winner.
The Hannibal club has agreements in place with several players for the 2018 season, Stembridge said. He came away from the recent league meetings confident his roster is on par with competition and added he hopes to have the team's on-field manager hired within the next week.
“We have a pretty good understanding of the current roster,” he said. “I do want to leave room in that roster, because I think the coach needs to take some ownership in that roster, so the intention is to really provide the coach with a list of resources of, 'Here's what I've got.' As of right now, we've got a good group together, but there's some fluidity in that.”
Helping Stembridge in the front office will be David Jacob, who played for Stembridge at QU and is now a minor league player in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. He plans to assist Stembridge through the spring.
“As a player, I love playing in front of fans,” noted Jacob, whose career includes a stint with the Springfield Sliders in the Prospect League. “That's how you can get a good product, if word gets around they had a good time in Hannibal. You've got to try to rebuild that.”
Stembridge suggested that Clemens Field, the downtown baseball stadium the team leases from the City of Hannibal, provides one of the best playing environments in the league.
“As far as resources at that stadium, it's one of the best situations in the league,” he said. “Right away, we've got that to our advantage. We can sell that. The field needs to be special too, and we'll get it there. When we do that, these college players are going to enjoy the summer, they're going to look for development and they're going to win.”
DeStefane and Stembridge each mentioned their goal is to not only field a winning team but one that beats the river rival Quincy Gems, who are expected to battle Hannibal more than any other squad.
“I'm a winner,” DeStefane said. “I like to win. I'm a good loser but I'm a much better winner. We want to be competitive, we want to beat Quincy and we want to be on top.”
“We'll find a way to beat the Gems,” Stembridge echoed. “We'll find a way. That's something that will be a priority.”
Gems owner Jimmie Louthan welcomed the return of his rival. He attended the press conference and was lauded as a key contributor to bringing the Prospect League back to Hannibal.
“I love it,” Louthan said of the smack talk. “That's good for everything. Believe me, I've done it too, just not publicly — yet. It's good to build that rivalry and it's great for both organizations.”
The Hannibal-Quincy rivalry became one-sided in recent years as the Cavemen went 54-122 from 2014-2016.
The Hannibal club has yet to reach the league playoffs.
“You do it the right way and you surround yourself with good people and good resources, and this team will be something you can be proud of. We've got people who are enthused,” Stembridge said. “Everyone around the community has been supportive and offered their help in any capacity, which is neat.”
DeStefane expects the team will remain for the long term.
“We've got the 30-year lease, and I'm looking for a long-term situation here,” he said. “This is not my team. This is your team. I don't do this for a living. I do this because I love Hannibal and I love baseball.”
Mayor James Hark began Tuesday's press conference with a vote of confidence for the team.
"Sounds to me like winning ways are on the horizon," he said, "and that's what we're after."