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Mets Legend Mookie Wilson Joins Long Island Entrepreneur’s Executive Team
By Adam Stone
Back in June 2021, my childhood friend Jeff Ahn was watching the Women’s College Softball World Series at his Syosset home alongside his then-10-year-old daughter, with Oklahoma and Florida State locked in a fierce battle for the national championship.
It was an exhilarating moment for them both, and Ahn was thrilled to highlight the powerful young women on display as athletic role models for Josie.
“And after watching some of those games, I found my daughter trying to do some of the same things that the college-level players were doing and trying to emulate them,” said Ahn, a senior vice president at a financial services firm. “It seemed like she was developing role models or heroes with some of these college players.”
But then the series ended. And, unfortunately, a professional equivalent didn’t exist to turn to for further inspiration.
“There was no platform for those players, for my daughter to continue following them,” Ahn reflected in a phone conversation two weeks ago. “When I think about my role models, they’re all pro baseball players, and I feel like that’s something that I can’t give to my daughter.”
Ahn is intent on changing all that – with a little special help from Mets legend Mookie Wilson.
“Mookie’s an ambassador,” Ahn said of picking the now 67-year-old retired outfielder for his executive team. “He’s going to help promote the sport. He’s going to have a say in the room in terms of how the organization should be.”
I’ll get to Mook in a minute.
‘Leveling the Playing Field’
Over the past year, Ahn has excitedly told me about his plan to launch a professional women’s softball team right here in New York.
His dream crept close to gametime reality last week, with the unveiling of the team’s maiden schedule.
The New York Rise begin their six-week debut season in Chattanooga, Tenn. on June 19 against the Oklahoma City Spark before a home opener on Long Island scheduled for Monday, July 1 against the Florida Vibe. (Ahn is currently finalizing exciting home field details.)
His franchise is one of four independent teams participating in a schedule of games organized by the Association of Fastpitch Professionals, a loose affiliation of like-minded organizations looking to grow the sport.
Alongside the Rise, the Spark, and the Vibe, the Chattanooga Steam rounds out the roster of teams. They will all compete during the regular season for playoff seeding. A postseason champion will be crowned on July 28 following a tournament at Frost Stadium in Chattanooga.
“The message really is that we should be leveling the playing field for women in sports,” Ahn told me. “And this is just a great game. There’s no reason why there isn’t already a pro team in New York.”
Rise executives are in the process of filling out a 15-player roster, to be led by a three-person coaching staff.
The team will likely be a healthy mix of experienced players and recent college graduates.
Ahn tabbed Rodney “Crash” McCray (a former Major League Baseball player who gained notoriety for crashing through an outfield fence during a minor league game in 1991 in Portland, Ore.) to serve as the Rise’s field manager.
In thinking about the marketplace potential for a first-class on-field product, Ahn pointed to, among other factors, a surge in popularity in the streaming of thousands of college softball games available on ESPN. (The college regular season kicked off last Thursday.)
“You can turn on the TV and you see the College World Series fill up the Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City with well over 10,000 fans and they’re sticking people in bleachers in the outfield because they’re trying to create capacity,” Ahn observed. “This sport is headed in the right direction. The growth is there.”
He is confident enough to be investing a significant amount of his own money in this business venture.
But what makes him the perfect person to seize the moment?
“I feel like my passion for sports and baseball in general, my past experience in business, my experience as a fan, a coach, a player, I just felt like if this was done right, pro softball, it could be incredible,” said the 45-year-old, who has also previously coached his now 15-year-old son Alex’s youth baseball teams.
Let’s Make Some Noise
And while the team’s home base will be Long Island, Ahn forecasts fan interest from across the Tri-State region, Westchester very much included.
“We will be looking to try to play some games beyond our home field to get the entire New York, New Jersey area excited about a team,” said the NYU Stern School of Business graduate, also noting how fans can keep abreast of personnel developments and ticket information at thenewyorkrise.com and on the team’s social media accounts in the coming weeks.
Even with plans to develop partnerships with sponsors, generating ticket sales remains at the heart of the business plan. To achieve that goal, Ahn is focused on creating a festive gameday atmosphere, with mascots, promotions and lots of buzzy between-inning marketing.
He’s fully confident he’ll build a culture that emanates positive energy around a sport known for its fun-loving characters.
“The softball players are really into the game,” said Ahn, who maintains a professional background in accounting and financial due diligence for mergers and acquisitions. “Every member of the roster is just fully tuned in and they’re creating noise and it’s just a good time.”
Meet the Mets
Ahn and I grew up together in Port Washington, on Long Island, and have been close pals since second grade.
We even participated in Mets Fantasy Camp together in the winter of 2018, which turned out to play a pivotal role in Ahn’s entrepreneurial adventure.
He has always possessed a naturally and uniquely charismatic and hilarious personality, and it came as no surprise when he forged a genuine friendship with Mookie Wilson (among many other players) when we were together at the Mets spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
After sharing his vision with Wilson last year, Ahn eventually persuaded the New York fan favorite to join him as one of the five executives of the Rise.
For those not familiar with the great Mookie Wilson, he was famous in his playing days for his blazing speed, infectious smile, and on-field hustle, not to mention an iconic grounder that trickled through Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs in game 6 of the 1986 World Series. He’s one of the most popular Mets of all time.
As Long Island kids in the 1980s, we grew up cheering for Wilson at the old Shea Stadium in Flushing, screaming “Mooooo!” which would sometimes be mistaken by outsiders as booing.
It’s personally mind-blowing for me to now think of Wilson as one of Ahn’s professional colleagues.
I reached Wilson for a phone interview two weeks ago, and asked him why he believes pro softball can work as a business.
“There is definitely a market for it because there are a lot of people who do enjoy women’s softball, and I think that bringing it to a place like New York is going to be outstanding because I think there’s just a lot of people that it will appeal to,” said the 1986 World Series champion, whose adult daughters, both teachers, played college ball at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. “I don’t think you can do it anywhere, but I think that New York is a perfect place, particularly on the island area where we’re going to be specifically playing.”
Wilson noted how Ahn has stressed the importance of incremental progress, highlighting the need to resist any temptation to push for premature growth of the organization.
“That’s one thing that we were definitely very adamant about, is about not trying to be too big too soon,” Wilson said.
But, longer term, might the association of independent fastpitch teams eventually aspire to partner with Major League Baseball as part of an effort to support women’s athletics?
“Well, I think that is the hope that will happen,” Wilson replied. “Just like the NBA and the WNBA. Let’s hope that there’s somewhere down the line that they see that this is really good for everybody involved, the players and the organizations and the communities.”
It’s no secret that starting successful women’s professional softball in the United States has historically faced significant obstacles.
Over the past quarter-century, there have been numerous attempts to establish professional softball leagues. However, a combination of fragmented promotional efforts and significant economic headwinds have thwarted sustainability.
“I think that women’s softball is probably one area that has probably been a long time overdue to at least offer that to the people,” Wilson observed after referencing successes in women’s professional sports with soccer, tennis and basketball.
Ahn, who excelled in football, baseball and wrestling in high school before playing rugby and studying accounting at Binghamton University, is as disciplined and diligent as anyone I’ve ever known.
His parents are Korean immigrants who moved to the United States from the Seoul area in 1981. They first arrived in Queens, later settling in suburban Port Washington, in Nassau County, where they raised Jeff and his older brother Frank.
Growing up, as close as we were, I very rarely saw Ahn’s parents. His mother, Sun Hee, and father, Hyeok “David” Soong, were almost always working, running a small market on Brooklyn’s Fulton Street.
“They moved to try to start up a better life,” Ahn recounted.
In fact, speaking of Sun Hee, the way she was raised compared to Josie helps illustrate exactly why Ahn is so passionate about women’s athletics.
He sees similar core personality traits in his 76-year-old mother and Josie, who is now 13.
Sun Hee, when raised in Korea, was not “given that positive encouragement to do things and try things,” Ahn observed, and she remains somewhat reserved.
Josie is also naturally on the quiet side, but when she plays softball, her inner lion roars.
“She’s as loud as can be,” Ahn said about his daughter’s empowered on-field persona. “And I feel like my mother would have been just like my daughter if I raised my mother.”
Get Your Reps
Cassie Reilly-Boccia, co-owner of Athletes Warehouse in Pleasantville, was a four-year starter for the Alabama Crimson Tide softball team, where she won a national championship her senior year, in 2012, following a dominant local softball career at Yorktown High School.
Reilly-Boccia’s excitement was palpable when I told her about the Rise last Tuesday.
“Representation is so important at that next level,” said Reilly-Boccia, a doctor of the softball swing who used to train my older daughter when she played travel ball. “College softball has had exposure, but the next step has been lacking. Girls view college as the end, not a stepping stone.”
As a child, that lack of representation led the lifelong Yankees fan to prepare class projects in grade school where she shared her dream of one day becoming the first woman to play in the Major Leagues, even though baseball was not her sport.
“I definitely remember I was in love with the Yankees, but I didn’t have anything to look up to from a softball standpoint,” Reilly-Boccia recalled.
But the creation of professional women’s ball in New York is not just about transcending gender issues; it’s also about geography, with the Northeast long lagging behind other parts of the country in advancing the game.
“To have someone backing and trying to grow this professional league is huge for those looking to pursue the sport,” Reilly-Boccia remarked. “Softball in the Northeast is underrepresented. It faces challenges with weather and competing sports like lacrosse.”
And as nice as it is for fans to monitor college ball remotely from February through June, or even take road trips or fly to watch elite play down south or out west, Reilly-Boccia said local softball families will benefit from having the girls of summer nearby.
“Yeah, people will hop in a car and go in a heartbeat, for sure,” she said of the likely eagerness among lower Hudson Valley area fans to drive just an hour or so to Long Island to watch the Rise.
‘The Way Society Is’
Last week I also contacted Eric Holtz, founder of GameOn13, an Elmsford-based baseball and softball training facility, to get his take on Ahn’s endeavor.
Holtz seemed like the perfect local person to talk to about a startup pro team.
He played third base and pitcher for the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox of the Israel Baseball League during the 2007 season, and knows the challenges and rewards of the sports business.
In addition to starting GameOn13 a decade ago, Holtz was also the head coach of the 2020 Israeli Olympic baseball team.
He stressed the importance of providing young women with role models but also opportunities to pursue their passion after college athletics.
“I’ve sat on the board of little leagues, I know girls never got the same opportunities boys do,” said Holtz, whose now adult daughter and two sons played softball and baseball growing up. “It’s just the way society is with athletics, and for Jeff to do what he’s doing and give these women an opportunity for me is just outstanding.”
(Personal note: My daughter used to play for GameOn 13’s Fury tournament teams, and Ahn’s son Alex has participated in a couple of Holtz’s weekend fielding clinics.)
It’s also worth emphasizing that even if only a handful of players ultimately pursue professional careers, just the opportunity for young athletes to dream big holds immense value.
“So just from the aspect of giving them an opportunity to experience something beyond college and maybe play pro for a handful of years before it’s time for them to grow up, for me, I think it’s just an incredibly exciting opportunity for these young ladies,” Holtz also noted of the Rise.
When discussing the potential reach of the team, Holtz underscored the importance of community engagement, suggesting partnerships with local leagues, travel teams and training facilities to foster excitement and provide mentorship opportunities for young players through camps, clinics, signings and other events.
As an entrepreneur himself who has taken a variety of risks and professional turns – launching a wood bat company, for example – Holtz commended Ahn’s willingness and ability to turn a daring idea into action.
“This is huge to actually go ahead and pull the trigger and do it,” Holtz said. “My hat goes off to him. I think it’s phenomenal. I think there’s a tremendous future in it. And I think the sky’s the limit for what he can do with it.”
While acknowledging the many financial challenges associated with trying to debut a new sports franchise, given the expense of travel, insurance, personnel and all of the logistical demands, Holtz genuinely believes Ahn is filling a void in the marketplace.
“He could get people coming there from the whole tristate area because this doesn’t exist,” said Holtz, adding how the Rise will deliver locals an affordable complement to attending Major League Baseball games. “Now you can take your daughters to a game who are playing travel ball and give them the same type of mentors to look up to. I think he could attract people from all over the place.”
Even though Ahn has spent his work career earning paychecks, not distributing them, I’ve always believed he was a born entrepreneur.
I remember about seven years ago joining him at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to watch the Nets. It was there that Ahn shared with me how he’d recently read Phil Knight’s 2016 memoir “Shoe Dog.”
He was inspired by the company founder’s tenacity in spearheading Nike’s ascendance.
Around this time, he launched his first business venture, a socially conscious online apparel brand named Bulldough, with a logo inspired by Ahn’s love of bulldogs.
I knew he was on the road to something significant, even if the exact nature of his larger vision hadn’t yet fully materialized.
It’ll be exciting to see the big reveal around the Rise’s mascot.
Ahn’s wife Stephanie, along with Josie and Alex, serve as his core brain trust, advising him on all manner of related business decisions.
Josie (an elite catcher in her own right) accompanies her dad to help scout players at tournaments and the pair have trips planned to visit Stanford and Oklahoma City early next month.
As gratifying as her experience with softball has undoubtedly been, Josie also sees how her sport faces a steep uphill battle in trying to achieve even a fraction of baseball’s mass appeal, with its rich history stitched within the fabric of American culture.
When I spoke to her last week, she recalled accompanying her older brother in 2021 and 2022 to Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, for a Little League tradition. More than a thousand young players (almost all boys) gathered to trade pins and immerse themselves in our national pastime.
“I hope in the future there’s something like Cooperstown for softball,” she told me. “Because even though I wasn’t playing, it was really fun to walk around and see other people that love the sport.”
But more than anything, Josie’s just plain excited to see her dad’s vision take shape, especially given her potential future interest in coaching and entrepreneurship.
“It’s going to probably get big soon,” said the eighth-grader, who plans to help around the clubhouse this summer with odd jobs.
Ahn, for his part, said he wants to show his daughter how positive, fundamental change only happens when people take action, instead of just pointing out inequities.
“I don’t think there’s something equivalent like that in softball,” he said of the Cooperstown issue. “There’s some national tournaments and all, but there’s not a Cooperstown-type experience. I don’t see why we couldn’t do that. And Josie’s even brought that up to me a few times.”
There appear to be many related ways for Ahn to use his new brand to aid the broader softball and women’s sports community.
As a former reporter who launched a local newspaper business in 2007 amid industry collapse, I’m familiar with the necessity of blending passion with pragmatism, of combining heart with a clear head.
I asked Ahn how he aims to make those two notions complementary, instead of competing.
“Yeah, I think it started with a passion project,” he said. “But then for the passion project to be sustainable, then you have to think about the business aspect of this as well. We’ve been very mindful about how we’re planning to market this venture in this upcoming season and what are some of the things that are important to us from a business milestone perspective.”
As for the choice of the team moniker, Ahn said he picked Rise for several reasons.
It’s the name of a softball pitch but the word also conjures images about the resilience of New York.
He thought of the role our state played in the Revolutionary War, and in recent post-9/11 history, with the rise of the Freedom Tower.
“It was in line with the New York mentality of we’re tough, we’ll come back, we stand for something,” Ahn explained.
In fact, the notion of standing for something rose to the forefront of Ahn’s mind when in Louisville two months ago for the National Fastpitch Coaches Association softball convention.
While sitting in a packed ballroom with more than 2,000 people at the convention, Ahn was struck by the fact that he was likely “the only Asian guy in this entire room.”
Some internal doubt started to creep in.
“So am I the right guy to even be doing a venture like this?” he recalled thinking.
But then Ahn realized “that’s probably how women feel in general in life, and it’s probably how my daughter feels as well as an Asian catcher.”
“For that reason,” Ahn added, “I felt like I had to do it.”
From the enactment of Title IX in 1972 to Brandi Chastain’s iconic shirt-ripping moment in the 1999 soccer World Cup to the cultural resonance of the Williams sisters inside and outside of tennis, women’s sports have made breathtaking strides over the past half-century.
Yet there are still important mountains to scale.
Throughout the process of willing the New York Rise into existence, there have been several moments of uncertainty for Ahn.
But he shook those thoughts away, plowed forward and went all in.
“I think I have to do this,” Ahn told me. “I don’t think I have to. I know I have to do this. It’s something I have to see through.”
I’m so glad he did.
Adam Stone is the publisher of Examiner Media. E-mail him with tips and feedback at email@example.com.