NIAGARA FALLS - Jim Cheetham, Len Kramer and Joe Chadima have attended at least one game for almost every baseball team that has called Sal Maglie Stadium home since the ball park opened in 1939.
The lifelong Niagara Falls residents have seen a who's who of future major leaguers pay their dues during their developmental processes while attending the games of the Buffalo Bisons, Niagara Falls Pirates, Niagara Falls White Sox, Niagara Falls Rapids and short-lived Niagara Falls Mallards at the neighborhood "barber shop" on Hyde Park Boulevard.
So the former ball players - about 40 years removed from their LaSalle High School playing days - had to satisfy their curiosity and see what the Cataract City's newest baseball tenant, the Niagara Power, was all about.
After attending their first New York Collegiate Baseball League game June 21, the veteran trio liked what they saw, and compared the product to what they've seen from previous minor- league teams in the Falls.
"It's got a professional atmosphere," said Cheetham. "I'm surprised at the quality of pitching and how fast these guys are throwing.
"The people that work here have things [prize giveaways] in between innings for the people. We go see the Bisons play, and it's the same [game-day] atmosphere except the Bisons play at a higher level. But this is a good caliber of ball. This is like Class A ball to me."
Such praise doesn't come lightly from a man who has seen current Major League players Derek Jeter and Tony Clark along with former big leaguers Johnny Bench, Frank Howard and Dale Berra play here during the past four decades.
The NYCBL may not be classified as a professional league, but it does have a low-level minor-league feel to the players on the Power, all of whom play collegiately either at junior or fouryear schools and have dreams of some day making it to the majors.
Formerly known as the Northeast Collegiate Baseball League, the NYCBL is a wooden-bat league that has been around since 1978. It is sanctioned by both Major League Baseball and the NCAA. Scouts attend games and file official progress reports on potential prospects.
The rosters of NYCBL teams aren't limited to just draft prospects or bluechip talents from major collegiate programs like those in the better known Cape Cod or Alaskan baseball leagues, but the NYCBL clubs still have enough highly skilled players on their rosters to warrant comparisons to an all-star team, or developmental all-star squad.
Team rosters are made up of players from all parts of the United States. Niagara features players from as far away as the state of Washington (Aaron Croskrey of Big Bend Community College) and as near as Tonawanda (Chas Mye, who plays at Lake Sumter Community College in Florida). Players arrive early at the ballpark for fielding and batting practice, pretty much hanging around the park for a minimum of six hours, depending on the length of the game. Aside from catered pregame meals at McMahon's on Grand Island prior to home starts, the team doesn't eat big time when it hits the road.
Speaking of the road, the travel is just as grueling in the NYCBL as it is in the minors, if not more so. The Power and their cohorts make same-day round trip drives for all road games since teams do not stay in hotels, even if it has games in Elmira and Scio on back-to-back days.
There are rare exceptions, like Hornell having back-to-back games scheduled in the Falls against the Power June 20-21 for the purpose of seeing the Natural Wonder that is the falls. For the most part, a team may have a three-game home stand, but it's usually against three different opponents.
If such a lifestyle during the twomonth NYCBL season helps players in their quest to reach the majors, or some level of professional ball once college is finished, they believe the grind is worth it.
"It prepares you for the next level," said 22-year-old pitcher Steven DeFratus, a senior at Division I Cal State Northridge and native of Oxnard, Calif. "The different crowds, meeting new people and doing interviews . . . you've got to be able to handle every aspect of the game on and off the field."
The NYCBL basically gives scouts a chance to see if any MLB talent has slipped through the cracks. Current major leaguers who played in the NYCBL during their collegiate careers include current Toronto Blue Jays shortstop and former Bison John Mc- Donald, Houston pitcher Brad Lidge and Atlanta Braves hurler Tim Hudson.
Former major leaguers who graduated from the NYCBL include catcher Kirt Manwaring (San Francisco, Houston and Colorado) and former Bison utility man Greg LaRocca (Cleveland and San Diego).
"I think this league is huge for guys to get an opportunity to play and be seen," said Sam Kirby, the first-time manager for the Power who, like his players, is honing his coaching skills in the league to see if he has the goods to be a manager, or if he is meant to be an assistant.
"The NYCBL is one of the top collegiate leagues in the country," Kirby said. "We get a lot of talent in, and they get an opportunity to be seen. More than anything for me it's been a great experience because I've had the opportunity to work with players from all over the country, and I'm learning from those players how they're coached in their programs and how I can make adjustments in my own coaching philosophy and style just to continue to improve."
Niagara third baseman Trey Karlen is a 19-year-old sophomore-to-be at Division II Texas A&M Kingsville. He hopes to use this opportunity as a springboard into the Texas Collegiate League, considered by Baseball America as a top-tier wooden bat league on par with the Cape Cod league.
"If I can play there [in the TCL] that'll be huge," said Karlen, who was hitting a team-high .333 with a teamleading 11 RBIs after the team's first 15 games. "But if I can't, I'd like to come back and play here. It's a nice atmosphere.
"My whole family is pushing me to go as far as I can, and they'll help me get to wherever I've got to go. It's a pretty nice atmosphere playing here," he said. "They treat you like a minor leaguer, which is nice."
He also liked Western New York's weather, especially since it's nowhere near as hot as in Texas, even during last week's heat wave.
The team was only averaging about 200 fans per game through its first nine league home dates entering this weekend, but Cal Kern, team president and owner, said the Power isn't considering closing up shop.
Kern said the nonprofit organization is committed to making baseball work in a community that loves the sport but hasn't had any luck hanging on to any of its teams.
"I think when we got the idea of doing this, and we started sharing this with people in the community, I think the feeling was, 'Well, show us, prove it to us,' " said Kern, a former All-American soccer goalie for Buffalo State College who played his last scholastic baseball game with Kenmore East in Sal Maglie Stadium.
"We want to see what's going to happen this summer," he said. "I think there have been so many opportunities that have fallen through I think people said 'Nah, it's just another guy trying to bring a baseball team to Niagara Falls.' But I think the support was there and now people are seeing some pretty good baseball."
He won't get any arguments on the product from Cheetham, Kramer and Chadima.
Ticket information Electric chair premiere seating for Niagara Power games - stadium-style chairback seats behind home plate - costs $5. A general admission ticket costs $3. The senior citizen discounted price is $2; children ages 12 and under are free, as long as they're accompanied by an adult.
For advance tickets or group rates (parties of 10 or more), call the ticket office at 773-1748.
For more information, visit the team's Web site at www.niagarapower. org.