BATAVIA − A few hundred people cluster at Dwyer Stadium on a hot August Monday night. The Batavia faithful have come out to watch baseball and support their team, even with the Muckdogs having the worst record in affiliated baseball. They are encouraging, understanding the circumstances of short-season Class A ball and the realities of the New York-Penn League. They come because they love baseball and the community baseball creates in this small town.
“Nice throw catcher!” a man yells as Pablo Garcia tried to thwart a baserunner early in the game. He wasn’t successful, but that didn’t matter. The fan appreciated the honest effort. “You’ll get it next time!” another fan offers during a routine ground out.
Shirley Fanara enjoys the game from her box seats in Section 8.
“Ours is a social section,” said Fanara, who has been on the board of the Genesee County Baseball Club for 35 years. “It seems like we party all the time. Everyone comes over and talks. We have a good time and there’s the energy of the game and I enjoy the people we’ve met. We’ve met more interesting people from out of state than anything.”
She tells the story of meeting a father and son who were spending part of the summer touring ballparks in the Northeast. They wished they allotted for more games in Batavia, they said, enjoying the small park atmosphere of the 2,600-seat Dwyer Stadium.
It’s an old city-run stadium, but that’s the bulk of its charm. Ticket prices top out at $8 and the stadium’s intimate setting puts fans close enough to the field to hear the players and coaches. There’s no hawking of snacks in the seats, no yells of “beer here!” from roaming vendors. The entertainment is rather low-key, eschewing the stereotypical Barnum & Bailey minor-league atmosphere. At heart, it’s just the community gathering to talk over a baseball game.
The game, of course, is important business for the players. The New York-Penn League is the first step for many of them. Most of the roster is composed of players drafted in June, then assigned to a short-season team for their first taste of pro baseball after leaving high school or college.
But Batavia remains an unusual spot. The city is the birthplace of the New York-Penn League, the place where the league first came together in 1939 as the PONY League (Pennsylvania-New York-Ontario). It is Americana, the quintessential visual when thinking about baseball, apple pie and the American way.
Only this piece of Americana is fading into memory. Once a league clustered in Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania, with a few outposts in southern Ontario, the New York-Penn League has expanded to 14 teams in eight states. New facilities in bigger markets have lured owners to move.
The Muckdogs have been for sale since 2010. The dream is to have an individual or group purchase the team and keep it in Batavia. The reality is different.
Just this spring, the Muckdogs were nearly sold to a group from Maryland but the deal was nixed after territorial objections from the Baltimore Orioles, the Double-A Eastern League and the Class-A Carolina League.
So the Muckdogs stay in Batavia, owned by the Genesee County Baseball Club, operated by the Rochester Red Wings, affiliated with the Miami Marlins, and playing in a stadium owned by the City of Batavia.
The layers are plentiful. The history is deep. The league is changing. What was once a sporting force in Western New York is now finding success in areas other than Western New York and Pennsylvania.
It was 1950 when Carroll Anstaett was offered an opportunity to play for the Olean Oilers so he packed his bags and moved to the small city in southwestern New York State. He had never been to Olean; had no connections to the area. But when baseball calls, you listen.
Anstaett played two seasons in the league and was the catcher for the 1951 Olean team that won the league title in a playoff with Jamestown.
“We had some super teams with top players,” said Anstaett, who turns 91 in October and remains active in the Olean community. He came to Olean to play baseball and never left, working as a manager for the investment firm Smith Barney.
He will tell baseball stories all day. Like the time he helped convince Paul Owens to be a player-manager for the Oilers. The Salamanca native and St. Bonaventure graduate went on to win three batting titles in the PONY League before taking a series of jobs in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, becoming the team’s general manager from 1972-83.
Batavia folks will tell you stories of Major League connections, too. Recent ones like Ryan Howard (2001) and Chase Utley (2000) and historical figures such as Gene Baker, who in 1961 became the first African-American manager of an affiliated professional baseball team.
There’s something charming about Batavia’s baseball stadium, something that conjures up the great speech from “Field of Dreams” about the constancy of baseball.
“Honestly it hasn’t changed much at all,” said Russ Salway, an executive member of the Genesee County Baseball Club and a season-ticket holder for the last nine years. “I attended Batavia Trojan/Clipper games as a child here and there. I started taking my children to games in 1998 and have to say one of the best things is that it’s pretty much the same now as it was then.”
While baseball time has slowed in Batavia, the rest of the league has changed. The original six − Jamestown, Olean, Bradford, Niagara Falls, Hamilton and Batavia − formed one of 41 affiliated leagues in 1939.
In the 1960s, minor league baseball went through two reorganizations. In 1963, Class B, C and D were eliminated and the New York-Penn became a Class A league. In 1967, short-season Class-A ball was introduced. New York-Penn League teams went from 130 games down to 79, the number they play today. Fewer games, incidentally, also means less revenue generated from things like ticket sales and concessions.
The current look of the New York-Penn League goes well beyond the borders of those two states. The 14-team league is in eight states with the majority of expansion happening in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Batavia (1939) and Auburn (1954) are the oldest teams in the league. Williamsport is next with 24 seasons over two stints: 1968-72 and from 1994 to the present.
Teams have clustered in the Greater New York City area moving to State Island and Brooklyn, both with new, high-capacity stadiums.
The league also has teams in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Vermont and West Virginia.
It is the “New York-Penn” league in name only these days as owners are moving teams out of small towns and old stadiums into bigger markets with newer facilities.
“A short-season A team used to be a lot like Bull Durham,” said Rich Baseball Operations President Jon Dandes, referencing the classic baseball movie. “They played in the oldest stadiums, had leaky roofs and part-time grounds keepers. It was the place every player started and it didn’t make a difference if it was first-round draft choice or the thousandth player picked. That’s where he went. … Now you start talking about the ballparks and the sophistication of the facilities has gone up because of larger college programs.”
The State College Spikes play at Medlar Field, also home of the Penn State baseball team. The Mahoning Valley Scrappers play at Eastwood Field, also home to Youngstown State.
So when the opportunity came for Rich Baseball to move into the newly opened Monongalia County Ballpark to be shared with West Virginia University, it became a bittersweet no-brainer to move its New York-Penn team and Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate from Jamestown to Morgantown.
“We had a great relation with the city so that was bittersweet,” Dandes said of Jamestown. “But the reality was the community was getting smaller and there wasn’t enough money to really do what we needed to and the facility was getting a lot of feedback.” The feedback about Russell Diethrick Park was not positive. Dandes tells the story of Wally Backman, who came to manage the Buffalo Bisons after one year managing the Brooklyn Cyclones.
“When Wally was manager in Brooklyn he threw a hissy-fit about the Jamestown ballpark, refused to let his players dress at the ball park and made them dress in the hotel,” Dandes said. “But Morgantown made sense to us, not just for the facility but to make it easier for our affiliation with Pittsburgh.”
The stadium didn’t help draw fans to the games in Jamestown, either. In their last five seasons the Jammers averaged 1,051 in the 3,000-seat ballpark, not nearly enough to keep the holdout in the Southern Tier afloat.
The attendance game
When it comes to minor league baseball, regardless of level, there are two things teams cannot control – its roster and the weather.
The challenges are the same from Class A to Triple-A, with the only difference being the scale of the business.
And regardless of scale, the name of the game for minor league baseball business remains putting people in seats.
Therein lies the biggest challenge in keeping the Muckdogs in Batavia.
“Obviously Batavia is a very small community, probably one of the smallest if not the smallest market in all of minor league baseball,” said Muckdogs general manager Travis Sick. “So it has its challenges as well. … I know the economy is getting better but people are still stretched a little thin sometimes so we try to make it as affordable as possible with ideas to give people the most bang for their buck if they’re going to come out and spend an evening with us.”
Daily promotions strive to bring value for fans with Family Four-Packs on Wednesdays, which include four tickets, four hot dogs, four drinks and a program for $32. On Thursdays the first 100 kids under 12 get a free hot dog, soda and snack item. The same goes for the first 100 seniors over 60 on Sundays. And Saturday nights feature $1 draft beers for an hour before the game.
Other promotions include Friday night fireworks, baseball hat giveaways and between-inning games of dizzy bat and rubber-chicken toss. There are sponsored nights for civic groups. One game allowed fans to bring their dogs to the park. Another began with a pregame chicken wing eating contest.
Yet Batavia consistently ranks at the bottom of league attendance. Granted, it always will: At 2,600 seats, Dwyer Stadium is the smallest park in the league. But looking at percentages – how much of the stadium that game average fills – is where it gets bleak for the Muckdogs.
Last year Batavia averaged 921 fans, filling the stadium to only 35.4 percent capacity. By comparison Auburn, which plays at the 2,800-seat Falcon Park, averaged 1,408 fans filling 40.28 percent capacity. The best draws in the league have some of the bigger population bases to draw from, including Troy, Wappingers Falls, Brooklyn and Lowell, Mass.
The near sale of the Muckdogs hasn’t impacted the box office. Through their first 20 dates the team was averaging 889 fans.
“Consistently there’s a core group of fans who are phenomenal fans,” said Naomi Silver, president and CEO of the Rochester Red Wings. “They’ve been coming to ballpark for a very long time and really care about their team.
“We would like to see more people in attendance but it just may not be in the cards for them. We’ve tried everything. Things just in that regard have not changed,” she said about attendance figures. “We’re not pushing it as though we have to get out of there immediately, but some day the right individual or group will come along and purchase the team and make the decision if they need to move it, or if they will be able to stay and get enough support locally."