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MSBL Unveils New Improved Website, Online Magazine

by Jeff McGaw

Essent-MSBL team

ABOVE: In September 2011, MSBL National Coordinator Brian Sigler, HardBall editor Jeff McGaw and HardBall publisher Jackie Piro met with Essent at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania. From Left: Ron Cahill, Brian Sigler, Eric Alessi, Mike Smull, Adam Taylor and Jeff McGaw. Photo by Jackie Piro.

After two decades and 87 issues HardBall, the official magazine of the MSBL, is being retired, but the wheels that cranked out the glossy, photo-filled quarterly publication will continue turning faster and more efficiently than ever before.

The MSBL is investing in a major technological upgrade to create a new Web portal that, when accessed, will lead the user first to an on-line MSBL news magazine with regularly updated content, and later to powerful league organizational tools.

In a proactive effort to keep the MSBL relevant as it enters its second quarter-century, MSBL President and founder Steve Sigler signed a deal with Easton Pennsylvania-based Essent Corporation, a business solutions and custom software design company, to create the complicated infrastructure of change.

When that project ultimately is complete, MSBL members will be better informed, better equipped to run leagues, and will enjoy access to content never dreamed about in the age of HardBall.

The on-line publication that will replace HardBall will anchor the new portal and will be the most visible sign of modernization. It will include regularly updated news stories, features, instructional pieces, photographs and many more areas of content—some of which will even be supplied directly by leagues.

More exciting changes will be rolled out over time and could eventually include tools to improve registration, scheduling, web page development and marketing for leagues.

"The mission is to build a comprehensive portal for the MSBL community,” said Essent Corporation President Eric Alessi. "A traditional information Web site is the first layer,” he said. "That extends into creating information management tools that allow leagues to more efficiently manage their leagues,” Alessi added.

"This web portal will be everything HardBall was and more and will help the MSBL become a smarter, more efficient and responsive organization overall,” said Sigler.

Sigler consulted some 40 league presidents from around the country prior to finalizing the decision and asked them about ways the MSBL could better serve the needs of its members. Though some said they would miss flipping through HardBall's pages, they overwhelmingly embraced the move toward technology and touted the advantages the move would create both for consumers of MSBL and baseball-related news and league organizers and participants.

The advantages are numerous.

"HardBall was integral in being able to communicate to our members and in making them feel like they are part of the community,” said Brian Sigler, the MSBL's national coordinator and son of its founder Steve Sigler. "Members always looked forward to seeing the reports, the instructional pieces, and the heartfelt stories about MSBL members.”

The downside was that HardBall came out an average of four times per year over its nearly 20 years, and most news was old news. "I don't want to wait four months for the information and I don't think our members do either,” Brian Sigler said. "This is going to allow us to push information out to our members in a much more timely way.”

Consider this example:

It took nine months for HardBall readers to learn that a group of 40 guys from the St. Louis MSBL had set the official record for the longest baseball game ever played in October, 2007. One issue of HardBall was filled with World Series and Fall Classic coverage. The next issue was the yearbook edition which was filled cover to cover with the season-ending recaps from leagues all over the country.

By the time the story about the long game found space to be printed, the new record had itself been eclipsed by a group of players from Long Island.

The MSBL has relied largely on the technologies and systems available to it upon its founding in 1986, including paper, print, snail mail, stuff in filing cabinets, and telephones. That the organization grew as rapidly as it did in a world without desktop computers, cell phones and the Internet is something of a marvel.

The technological upgrade will allow the MSBL to merge from the two-lane informational boulevard and onto the information super highway. That's welcome news for guys like Gerry Mecca, President of the North Texas Adult Baseball League and one of the presidents who weighed in on the matter.

"HardBall was a tangible benefit of belonging to the MSBL,” Mecca said, adding that the upgrades being talked about would be legitimate improvements to the current system. "I just want (running a league) to be administratively painless,” he said. "I don't want to take checks from people and hand contracts to them and take their email addresses a million times.”

Having the ability to build schedules, process registrations, provide on-line statistics, and see automatic team rankings would be great tools for league presidents, according to Mecca.

The Essent-MSBL Connection

For the past 30 years, the company that eventually became Essent Corporation gained a solid reputation in the business community by helping process intensive industries such as factories and warehouses solve efficiency problems.

By streamlining workflow, introducing innovative technology, automating repetitive tasks, utilizing best practices, and, in later years, designing custom software for companies, its customers improved their bottom line.

Later, the company expanded into creating packaged software solutions used by many clients to improve business processes including managing and communicating information.

"Managing and communicating information is exactly what we have in front of us today with the MSBL portal,” said Alessi.

The lynchpin between Essent and the MSBL is a baseball-loving guy named Ron Cahill, Executive Vice President at Essent and President of the Lehigh Valley MSBL.

In 2005, Cahill took over a fractured 18-team league. Teams were leaving and allegiances were divided, but Cahill optimistically predicted a happy, healthy, 60-team league would eventually result. "People thought I was nuts,” Cahill said.

It wasn't some weird pipe dream. Cahill's optimism was fueled by his strong background in sales and marketing, his understanding of the local demographics, and his professionally-honed ability to understand problems and solutions—including those that plagued his own league.

The New Jersey native instituted a league draft to fortify existing teams and add new ones, automated the record keeping, established a strong board of directors, improved league marketing, simplified the scheduling process, and brought clarity to the rule book. There are now 42 teams and counting, and the Lehigh Valley MSBL is Pennsylvania's largest MSBL league.

"He's totally turned around a somewhat stale and floundering league,” Steve Sigler said. "He solicited me and said ‘I think we can do so much more for you.'”

"He's astute and understands the MSBL and his business as well,” Brian Sigler said of Cahill.

A meeting of the minds was held last May. "We went in there and said ‘here's everything we can do,'” Cahill said. "We painted a picture.” That picture depicted a strong organization with 50,000 or more members that are highly interested in baseball. "We see a community of like-minded individuals,” Alessi said. "Our vision was to use technology to further unite that community and, through that process, to find ways we could also more efficiently do the business of the MSBL. We painted a picture that resonated very highly with Steve.”

"I felt a very good connection,” Steve Sigler said. "They get everything that I'm looking to accomplish. I feel the real drive on their part is that it's a team effort to succeed.”

To Change Or Not To Change

The MSBL is a healthy organization. It's been around for 25 years, publishes a magazine, offers an insurance plan with medical coverage for players, and organizes hugely popular tournaments on pro fields in Arizona and Florida and elsewhere, and at last count had some 34,000 players nationwide. The actual number of players who have played in the MSBL ranks dwarfs the current total.

Ford Motor Company was healthy when it was building the Model T, but remained healthy by producing other cars like the Mustang and the F-150 pickup. That is the driving spirit behind the momentous makeover of HardBall and the MSBL, Sigler said, and that is where Essent comes in.

The move to abandon a print publication was part of the natural evolution of things, Alessi believes.

Armies of calligraphers gave way to the early printing press. The quill gave way to the typewriter. Typewriters gave way to big, monochromatic, main frame video display terminals (VDT's) and now desktop computers are king.

"It's not inherently that the previous processes didn't work,” Alessi said. "It's that technology made the process better, and over time it became available to allow you do to the same process more efficiently,” he said. "The MSBL has identified that now is the time to take advantage of newer technologies,” Alessi said. "My approach is to try to do it as first class as I can. I think that attracts more people.”

The thing that really makes the MSBL click is "passion and the feeling of camaraderie,” said Sigler. "The zeal for the game is as prevalent as it was 24 years ago. We just don't play baseball; it's more than that. It's people who get together for a common purpose. We want to put out a good product,” Sigler said.

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