Long-term gift helps keep ball in play

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In recent years, it’s become commonplace for baseball teams from such large universities as Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan State to visit Jacksonville and play the University of North Florida Ospreys. While the northern teams enjoy coming to a warmer climate early in the season to play a few games, there is another factor in play that some baseball enthusiasts might fail to notice.

The annual Kennel Club Classic, soon to be known as the bestbet Classic, is the name of the tournament drawing these high-profile college baseball teams to UNF’s Harmon Stadium. The tournament was made possible through an endowment created in 1993 by Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, Inc., which operates the three bestbet poker, simulcast and racing facilities in North Florida. The endowment defrays some of the costs associated with staging the tournament and provides visiting teams with reimbursement for a portion of their lodging and meals costs.

Howard Korman, president of Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, Inc., said the idea was born in discussions with UNF’s first baseball coach, Dusty Rhodes, and Doug Harmon, first president and founding member of the Osprey Club, the Athletics booster organization.

“In those early days, UNF was a wonderful university with a beautiful campus, but it was hidden behind trees,” Korman recalled. “I discussed a way with Dusty and Doug that we might be able to bring some top name schools to Jacksonville to increase the exposure for UNF, both nationally and within our Northeast Florida community.”

Korman said the idea of financing an annual tournament was akin to professional baseball teams coming to Florida for spring training.

“We knew there would be northern teams anxious to get out of the cold and snow that time of year to play a little baseball.”

The tournament has succeeded in doing what Korman, Rhodes and Harmon set out to accomplish. Since the first game in 1997, it has attracted more than a dozen teams from major college athletics programs to play at UNF.

Current baseball coach Smoke Laval praised the tournament because it helps to stretch tight budgets.

“The endowment comes in very handy because we don’t have the finances to guarantee money when these top teams come to UNF,” Laval said. “Not only are minimum payments guaranteed, but additional assistance can be provided for travel and meal expenses.”

Another benefit Laval said is the help the endowment provides with defraying the costs of baseballs and umpires during the tournament.

“Our regular budget doesn’t cover these expenses that most people don’t think about,” he said.

The Ospreys also benefit from the opportunity to play some of the top teams in the nation.

Laval said he could use more dedicated boosters who might be willing to underwrite the costs associated with taking the Ospreys to an out-of-state tournament at least once a year.

The tournament isn’t the only beneficiary of funding from the Jacksonville area kennel clubs and poker facilities. In 1994, the University unveiled the James J. Patton Osprey Nest, which was made possible through a six-figure gift from Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, Inc. The fully enclosed seating area is available for use by groups for special functions and is used for alumni or postgame gatherings. Patton was the president of the Jacksonville Kennel Club until 1987 and continued to lead the kennel clubs as chairman of the board of directors. Patton’s daughter, Mary Carr Patton, has continued the Patton leadership as the current chairman of the board.

While Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, Inc. has made donations to a number of Jacksonville charities, Korman said the UNF gift is the organization’s lone contribution in the athletics arena.

“We wanted to create some exposure for UNF, and I’m thrilled we were able to do that.”