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100 Things: Cherish tradition with the Batavia Muckdogs

It's Western New York's field of dreams.

Batavia's Dwyer Stadium is in such an idyllic setting that it seems to appear out of the ether. Going there, you pass Centennial Park, a village green right out of Norman Rockwell. Victorian mansions are decked out for summer.

The Batavia Downs, the legendary horse racing track dating to 1940, was an earlier stop on our 100 Things journey. The ballpark, though the stadium itself was rebuilt 20 years ago, is another priceless piece of history.

Jerry Maley was 9 when, on May 10, 1939, he watched the Batavia team's first game on this very field.

"I rode my bike over. I didn't know what was going on," he laughed.

[PHOTOS: Sharon Cantillon's shots from the Batavia Muckdogs home opener]

Jerry Maley, a Muckdogs season-ticket holder, attended the ball club's first game in 1939. He was 9 years old. He went on to play professional baseball with the Batavia Clippers, the team's original name. Sitting next to him is friend Wally Ancker. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Several years later, Maley's dream came true when he found himself playing for the team, then called the Batavia Clippers. He moved on to the Olean Oilers, helping the team win its championship in 1950.

On June 19, looking younger than his years, Maley sat squinting into the evening sun, enjoying a fresh triumph. The Batavia team, now called the Muckdogs, was opening yet another season.

"We're the last city in this league with a team that was there from the beginning," he beamed.

The New York-Penn League, formed in Batavia, is the oldest continuously operating Class A league in pro baseball. The oldest team in the oldest league – that's a home run.

Things have changed little over the decades.

Many Muckdogs, in accordance with long tradition, stay with Batavians who live near the ballpark. The story is told of one player who went on to the big leagues who tried to repay his Batavia "foster parents" by sending them a car. They refused it. He sent them $50,000. They refused that, too.

Baseball isn't a business here in Batavia. Baseball is love.

"It is so good to be back," exclaimed Karen Kopper, as staffers hugged her. "It's a long offseason."

The crowd's view of the field at Dwyer Stadium, the home of the Batavia Muckdogs. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Kopper drove in from Tonawanda with her walker – named Willy Walker – and her baseball notes. "I've been a regular for years and years. I grew up here," she said. She rolled her eyes, seeing The News' camera. "Heavens to Betsy, what is this?"

Lynda Dusen was overseeing the Booster Club split.

"I've been coming here since I was 4," she said. "My parents brought me, and my grandparents came here before that. It's fun, it's wholesome, and it hasn't changed."

Children from John F. Kennedy School, in accordance with long season-opening tradition, sang the national anthem. The Vietnam War Veterans Color Guard presented the flag.

Then came a moment of silence for fans who had passed away in the offseason.

"This is not going to be good," sighed Diane Hawn, a prime Muckdog booster. As names were read, she bowed her head. "Oh, no," she kept saying. "Oh, no."

As Batavia battled Auburn, surely the faithful departed were watching. The game was that riveting.

"Look at how close things are," said Hal Mitchell, the Vietnam vet who is president of the booster club. As if on cue, a ball flew into the sky and seemed to linger, supernaturally, directly over our heads. Luckily it landed instead on the roof of the stands. From some speaker came a comic crashing, shattering sound.

A section keeps an eye on a pop-up that sailed foul – into the stands. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"I've seen windshields shattered, cars dented. I've seen people get hit with baseballs," Mitchell said.

Once, a fan in a front row needed stitches. "But a few games later, she was back."

Who could stay away? The golden sheen of the movie "The Natural" – there was something of that spell in this place.

Nobody hawks beer or popcorn. Aside from an occasional burst of "Uptown Funk" or "Sweet Caroline," it's pretty quiet. You can imagine the 1940s. You can savor the thwack of the bat.

"It's an old-school ballpark," said Travis Sick, the team's young general manager, who sported a dapper suit. "There's not a bad seat in the house. And you're seeing future pro stars."

His advice to a newcomer: "Hang out along the third base fence. Grab a couple of autographs. Then stop by the beer deck and grab a Philly cheese steak."

Or a Zweigle's white hot, reminding you how close to Rochester you are. There's also Muckdog Chow, a Rochester garbage plate.

What is a Muckdog, anyway? The name refers to the rich soil produced by local farms. The team has an unofficial mascot in Georgia, a fox terrier mix that head groundskeeper Don Rock brings to the games.

Georgia, adorable and heavy as a pot-bellied pig, must have brought good luck. The Muckdogs, initially behind, took the lead. The lead grew.

Hearts were full by the middle of the seventh inning. Hawn stepped up to the plate and sang "God Bless America." Next came "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

In the game's last moments, the crowd went crazy. Fans pounded their feet. Grassroots noisemakers rattled and clattered.

"We could end it now!" a little boy behind me gasped. And we did – with victory. Shouts rang out. Batavia won the championship in 2008. It could happen again!

There was just a touch of anxiety.

The team is for sale. It has been, for 10 years. The details are too complicated to go into. They're too inside baseball. But the old league has grown, and small-town ball could become history.

"It breaks my heart that we could lose this team, after all these years," said Kopper, the Tonawanda fan with the walker.

Better ticket sales, folks believe, could help attract a buyer who would keep the teams here.

"There are people who live right across the street from the stadium and never come to the games," Kopper agonized. "I want to go into their houses and drag them out."

If they were smart, they'd thank her, for introducing them to the magic of the Muckdogs before it's too late.

"To me, it's real," said Rock, the groundskeeper. "It's not as if you're paying $8 to go to a movie. It's real."

Fans file into Dwyer Stadium before the Muckdogs' home opener. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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