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OCT 14- OCT 21, 2014

New Sal Maglie Operator Ward Has Checkered Past in Arena Football

By Mike Hudson and Frank Parlato

October 14, 2014

Ray Ward (4th from left) with members of his Mobile Bay Tarpons. Coach Willie Gaston 3rd from left.

“Every saint has a past, and every sinner a future,” author and playright Oscar Wilde once said, and he could have been talking about Ray Ward, whose proposal to operate Sal Maglie Stadium was, according to Mayor Paul Dyster, the only one received by the city.

Completely rebuilt in 1999 under the direction of former Mayor James Galie, who hoped to see it become the home of a minor league baseball team, Sal Maglie Stadium has fallen into disrepair over the years. Operated by the Niagara Falls City School District primarily for use by its sports teams, the peeling paint and broken seats speak for themselves. A bank of night game lights, struck by lightning three years ago, still hasn’t been repaired.

Looking to cut costs, the school district gave the stadium back to the city, which then set about trying to find an operator.

Enter Ray Ward, 42, a Wheatfield resident and youth baseball enthusiast who saw the facility as an answer to a prayer.

“You’ve got a stadium where Johnny Bench played, Rick Honeycutt pitched, one that saw thousands of professional baseball games over the years,” Ward told the Niagara Falls Reporter. “What kid wouldn’t want to play there? But until now, the only ones who got the chance were those on the high school team.”

Ward said that a combination of elbow grease, sponsorships and contributions from the youth leagues, which pay for field time no matter where they’re playing, could make operating Sal Maglie a break even proposition. And the sale of food and soft drinks – Ward is a restaurateur by profession –just might enable him to turn a profit on the operation.

“I’m an advocate of youth baseball,” Ward said. “That’s what I’m doing here.”

Anywhere else this would be a simple, heartwarming story. But this is Niagara Falls, where things are rarely heartwarming and never simple.

Back in 2011, Ward sold Ray's Sanborn Pizzeria on Saunders Settlement Rd, and took the proceeds down to Mobile, Ala., where he bought a franchise in the Southern Indoor Football League for the Mobile Bay Tarpons.

“I had a heart attack, went through a kind of midlife crisis, and I felt like I needed to get out and chase a dream,” he said.

From the start, things did not go well. Ward had about $125,000, nowhere near enough to launch a professional sports franchise.

Tarpons head coach Willie Gaston said that he and players on the team were becoming increasingly suspicious even before the first game of the season.

“He seemed like a genuine guy, and I always thought an arena football team would work in Mobile,” Gaston told the Reporter. “I signed a contract for the season at $10,000 and never saw a dime of it.”

Gaston, who was an All Conference defensive back at the University of Alabama and went on to play for the Houston Oilers of the NFL, said Ward showed up in a beat up jalopy and made calls using a flip phone held together with duct tape.

“He was slick though. He made a killing down here,” Gaston said.

The team’s first two games augured well. Home field upsets of the established Georgia and Abilene teams had the fans in Mobile excited, if a little confused.

One fan, Ronald Broughton, who purchased season tickets, said he knew something was amiss when the credit card transaction appeared on his statement as a purchase at a Ward’s New York pizzeria.

As far as Gaston and the team were concerned, the victories were bittersweet.

“Nobody got paid,” he said. “And this was even after Ward pressured everyone to get their families to buy season ticket packages.”

Travis Barber was a player. He said about a week before the first game the players were asked if they could buy their own equipment, and that’s when he knew it was time to cut ties.

"Everybody wanted it so bad,” Barber said. "… there really was a lot of … effort from the players and coaches, but they all got burned. Ray Ward took them for a ride.”

Barber said Ward may have started out with good intentions, but "got in over his head” and instead of taking responsibility, he just "bailed out and ran.”

"Ray Ward had no money.” Gaston said. “But Ray was a smooth talker. He made us believe we didn’t have anything to worry about.”

Meantime, as the season progressed, pressure mounted.

Rent to Mitchell Arena where the Tarpons played had not been paid, and totaled $30,000.

Ward said that the league misled him on the price, and dimensions of the stadium were actually 10 yards too small for the team to play regulation games.

Gaston said that on the day of the team’s third game, a road game again against Abilene, Ward told him he needed to go back to New York in order to raise money to keep the Tarpons running. It would be the last time he would ever see the man who had hired him.

The road trip was a disaster. The bus the team was given to make the 12 hour drive had no bathrooms and no air conditioning. The team was miserable. After being beaten badly by the Abilene squad, they reluctantly boarded the bus for the ride back to Mobile.

And the bus immediately broke down.

Sal Maglie Stadium would be a premier place for little leagues....

 

“We didn’t get back to Mobile until late Monday,” Gaston said. “Guys got fired from their regular jobs. How are you supposed to support your family? Now Ward’s was nowhere to be found and I’m dealing with these players who never got paid, lost their jobs, and they’re angry.”

Gaston said he tried to call Ward repeatedly but found that every number he had had been disconnected.

Ward said that he sold the team to Roland Turner, a music promoter in Mobile, one week prior to the Abilene trip, and says he has a contract to prove it, though he couldn’t produce the contract as of press time.

Turner’s account of the day Ward left town - as told to the Alabama publication Lagniappe, was different than Ward's: "Ray kept calling my phone, but I didn’t answer because I was on a conference call. Then I look in my rearview mirror, and Ray is behind me flashing his lights. So I pull over, and Ray (was upset) claimed to have heart problems, so I was worried he was having a heart attack. I tried to make sure he was OK, but he was just saying, ‘Man, I have to go. I have to get to New York today, but I don’t have any money to get up there.’ So I gave him $1,500 and sent him on his way. He called me a little later saying he had a flat tire, so I sent a mechanic and a tire out there to him. And I haven’t heard from him since ... yep, he got me.”

Ward disputes Turner's contention, saying Turner made him the "fall guy," when he decided not to field the team.

Ward said, "I left thinking he was the owner and I suppose he realized, like I did, that the league was falling apart and he probably thought 'let Ray Ward take the blame.'"

At the time, the media was blaming Ward.

Lagniappe writer, Johnny Davis wrote of Ward back in May 17, 2011, when the team was falling apart:

"He came, he saw, and it appears he screwed us over. You name ‘em ... it looks like Ray Ward screwed ‘em….. He rode into Mobile a few months ago with big promises of establishing a legitimate professional sports team. In the end, it turned out to be a big sham.

"…Here in Mobile, everybody was left screwed over: the players, the coaches, the season ticket holders, the sponsors, the Mitchell Center, local businessmen and pretty much anyone in the area who cares about Mobile.

"… The players and coaches never got paid. The season ticket holders didn’t get an entire season. The sponsors got next to nothing for their money. Ward skipped out on a nearly $30,000 tab with the Mitchell Center. Local businessman Roland Turner says he is out nearly $40,000 because of Ward. Ward even walked out on equipment and apparel debt to Bowen Sports and Riddell. According to Turner, the money for several pairs of shoulder pads ended up coming out of the paycheck of a local Riddell representative.

"And indeed, he even got us. The Tarpons had an advertising contract with Lagniappe.

"Altogether, it’s a pretty sizable list of people Ward burned, but there may be countless others who just haven’t come forward.

"In an interview before the season, Ward told me he would be here 30 years if that’s what it took to make the Tarpons successful. So what went wrong? Was he lying? Did he come to Mobile planning to screw us all over?"

When the Reporter asked Ward why he didn't rebut the harsh criticism that appeared in the local Mobile media at the time, Ward said he had, as a part of his contract with Turner, a "gag order" that prevented him from talking about the sale, which, he said, was for the sum of $10,000.

Some of what Ward claims is backed up by the fact that the SIFL apparently thought Turner bought the team from Ward since a letter was sent by SIFL commissioner Gary Tufford to some 600 season ticket holders, saying that Turner (not Ward) should be contacted if they wanted a refund on their season tickets.

Turner told Lagniappe that the SIFL spent weeks "drawing up paperwork” but ultimately the SIFL could not come up with satisfactory terms and Turner declined ownership.

This went on behind the scenes.

Publically Ward took all the blame.

Which brings us back to baseball and Niagara Falls.,

“Look. I’m just trying to save Sal Maglie Stadium,” Ward told the Reporter. “I’ve learned from (the Mobile experience)... I’ve got a conscience. I felt bad about it for a long time and I still feel bad about it. But you live and learn.”

Ward said that at Sal Maglie, he will work with Rev. Cal Kern to keep the Niagara Power playing there; will field little league teams and, importantly, Ward will pay rent to the city and make repairs himself at the stadium at no cost to the city.

Also, Ward said, the deal with the city will be on a one year trial basis.

If he succeeds, it will be renewed.

"It won't cost the city a dime," Ward said.

Ward described the way he would set up teams and provided information that showed he had some teams already lined up for games- at reduced prices.

Little league playing at Sal Maglie.

When the school district operated it, they charged $1,100 per game - which made it out of reach for little league teams. Ward said he will be charging $150 per game, just enough to break even - and affordable for teams.

In his own words, Ward explained: "Sal (Maglie Stadium) needs a lot of work. It's not like it needs millions of dollars worth of work. The painting of the façade, that’s probably the most expensive part; the concessions stands are right up there with it but that's what I do…. fix up restaurants. I just think if you keep a good product on the field (concession). We will have homemade pizza and pretzels. The more comfortable you make people, the easier it is to get them to spend money…. I think Sal is a great venue. It's a missing thing in Niagara Falls. I think, just focus on Sal and what it can do for some kids. Since the early thirties it has created memories; local baseball is fading and baseball is affordable especially for Niagara Falls…. Guess what's a cheap sport to play? Baseball. You need a glove, a bat….

"I’d like to see Sal succeed; it deserves to succeed; that place is gorgeous. I don't care what anybody says…. I know what kids are playing in… Sal is better.

"Right now I have over 100 games tentatively scheduled. I have 13- 16 year olds that are going to travel out of there… existing travel (little league baseball) organizations that didn't have a home. Two teams are from Tonawanda; one from Amherst.

"There is nothing like Sal Maglie around. It is one of the finest stadiums you can play little league….. Let’s have all the kids running through there. Let’s have camps, clinics. It is =an affordable way for parents to create memories. I have one boy, 11. These are the years when we can create memories. If he can run out of Sal, that is a memory. I have had a lot of people come up to me and say to me 'I used to come up there with my dad and the lights were on and they were playing ball.' Those are the things you want, you want the community involved and it's affordable. Baseball is an affordable sport."

Will Ward prove to be a savior or a charlatan?

Will he be a saint with a past or a sinner with a future?

Only time will tell.

‘Sal’ needs work, but Ray Ward says he can do it, at no cost to city.

 

 

 

 

 

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