Sliders owners happy to provide baseball in Slippery Rock

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 9:23 p.m.

Mike Bencic was working for Campbell Bus and Tours in 2007 when he was assigned to drive a professional baseball team, the Frontier League's Slippery Rock Sliders, from one city to the next.

Soon enough, he was telling his wife, Laura, all about the team.

“We started to go to home games and took our daughter, Meghan, and we enjoyed having a team close to home,” Laura Bencic said.

The Bencics, from Slippery Rock Borough, enjoyed it so much that they tried to buy the Sliders, but it was sold in January of 2008 to an investment group based in Detroit and ultimately folded in 2012.

When the Prospect League, a collegiate summer league, started up in 2008, the Bencics became owners of the new Slippery Rock Sliders and now own more than 70 percent of the team. They declined to say how much they invested.

Mike Bencic is still the team's bus driver, but now he is also the team's accountant, marketer and handles the team's day-to-day financial operations.

Laura Bencic coordinates player housing and contracts year-round and during the season manages game day operations.

“Laura and I do 90 percent of the work running the team, but we enjoy it,” said Mike, who has missed only two of his team's games in five years.

The Bencics knew what they were getting themselves into in the spring of 2008 when they were approached by Leo Trish, then the deputy commissioner of the Frontier League, about owning a team.

They jumped at the change to bring summer baseball back to Slippery Rock.

“There wasn't a whole lot of discussion about it, because we thought it was a great opportunity from the beginning for ourselves and the community,” Laura said.

To remain eligible to play college ball, the players are unpaid. The team puts them up with host families. Playing in the Prospect League gives players a good chance to hone their skills and get noticed by pro scouts.

It was also an opportunity for collegiate baseball players such as right fielder Fred Ford, Jefferson College in Missouri, and catcher Radley Haddad, Butler University in Indiana.

“My first year I was redshirted, so I was really looking for an opportunity to get on the field every day before I went back to school,” Haddad said.

Haddad liked playing in Slippery Rock so much in 2011 that he rejoined the team in 2012.

“I really had an awesome experience my first summer from playing on the field, to the organization treating their players right, and my host family was incredible, so I decided instead of taking a risk and playing somewhere else I'd play for Mike and Laura again,” Haddad said.

The Yankees signed Haddad as an undrafted free agent two weeks ago, and he is playing in the Gulf Coast League.

“You just say the word Yankees and it carries a lot of weight to it, so it's really a dream come true, and Mike and Laura are part of the reason I'm here,” Haddad said.

Kansas City selected Ford in the 7th round in 2012's MLB Draft.

“Playing for the Sliders helped me tremendously, because it was the first time I'd ever played against some really good competition, and I'd say I struggled,” Ford said.

Slippery Rock also prepared Ford, who now plays for the Royals' Class A affiliate in Lexington for playing every day in the minors.

“I look back at that summer, and everything off the field was outstanding, from the people we were around to the area we lived in, and they prepared you for what it will be like at the next level,” Ford said.

There were 45 players who have played in the Prospect League who were selected in the 2013 MLB Draft.

“This is the highest level college players can play at before they hopefully go pro,” Mike Bencic said.

If watching potential major leaguers isn't enough, the Sliders let their fans interact with players after every home game.

“We let families and fans to go on field after the game to get autographs from our players and meet them,” Laura said.

Shawn Annarelli is a freelance writer with Trib Total Media.

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