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How much longer will baseball survive in Batavia?

June 29th, 2011 · 1 Comment · Baseball, Blog

Every time I make the drive to Batavia for a Muckdogs game I wonder if it will be my last. The New York-Penn League club is on such shaky financial footing that each offseason there are rumors it will be sold and moved. There simply aren’t enough fans streaming through the gates to break even.

The small-town charm of the park is both its greatest asset and biggest curse. Last night’s announced crowd of 1,124 (which must have included a few ghost runners) was described in the local paper this morning as a “large crowd.” Plenty of good seats were still available when I arrived half an hour before the first pitch. I shelled out my $7.50 for a seat behind the plate and wound up in the first row, the taut netting the only thing preventing screaming foul tips from finding my throat. It’s the same real estate I inhabited twice last year as well. There, among the scouts and off-duty hurlers charting their teammates’ offerings, I try to get a feel for what pitchers are throwing and what hitters can do with it. I keep score and jot notes and enjoy some grass-roots baseball.

If the Muckdogs, which are owned and operated by the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, close up shop, the next closest NY-P teams will be Auburn (63 miles) and Jamestown (140 miles). I’m reluctant to spend more time in the car than I do watching the game, though I won’t completely rule out ever doing it. When my son, who’s now 19 months old, is bigger and can sit through a long enough chunk of a game to make it worth the trip, I’d like him to experience some small-town, old-time baseball. Sure, we’ll take him to see the Red Wings, but that’s a completely different animal. Rochester is to Batavia what New York City is to Rochester.

Frontier Field here in Rochester is a beautiful, modern park, but I like going to small yards that aren’t supposed to be replicas of big league cathedrals. I like seeing the employees walking around in golf shirts and shorts instead of pressed white shirts and slacks. It’s baseball, not Wall Street. I’m okay eating a hotdog because there aren’t 75 other choices in the concourse food court, and I don’t mind having to set my drink on the ground by my feet because there aren’t built-in cupholders. No exploding scoreboard? Not really a problem for me. As long as we’ve got a grass field, some bases, a ball, and two willing foes, I’m good.

The quality of play may not be the same as in the majors or high minors. That’s part of the charm. When was the last time you saw a professional ballplayer walk and get wild-pitched and passed-balled around the bases? I saw it happen last night, in the second inning when it seemed like more balls skipped off the Muckdog catcher’s glove than landed in it. But somewhere out on that field, a future big leaguer or two spun a curveball or drove a pitch into the gap. Maybe he even chased a series of pitches to the backstop. I can’t tell you for certain who he was–yet. But in a few years I’ll be watching a game on TV and thinking, “hey, I saw him play in Batavia.”

Dwyer Stadium is tucked into an old residential neighborhood in Batavia, about five minutes off the Thruway. Every time I drive in I think, “if I lived here I’d walk to the park every night.” Maybe if I lived a block away from the stadium I’d grow to loathe all the fans cruising down my street before and after games, but I don’t think I would. I’d be one of them. Not that we’re apt to move any time soon, particularly to Batavia, because what’s there after all, right? Which is why we’re in jeopardy of losing teams like this.

Over the past couple of decades, small towns across the region have lost their NY-P franchises. Geneva (1993), Watertown (1998), St. Catharines, Ont. (1999), Utica (2001), Pittsfield, Mass. (2001), and Oneonta (2009) have seen their teams depart. In their stead, new clubs have taken up residence in Brooklyn; Staten Island; Troy (near Albany); Norwich, Conn.; Aberdeen, Md.; and Niles, Ohio.

Where will the Muckdogs wind up? I have no idea, though it’s hard to envision them sticking around Batavia much longer. Maybe I’ll break down and take my son before the end of the season. He’s not really ready, but by the time he is we might have to drive to Brooklyn to catch a game.


One Comment so far ↓

  • Joe Kehoskie

    Great article, James. The situation in Batavia is sad. Barring a financial miracle, the NY-P’s days at Dwyer Stadium are numbered.

    I’m from Auburn and grew up working for the Auburn Astros (now Doubledays). The modern NY-P is unrecognizable compared to the NY-P I knew and loved in the ’80s and early ’90s.

    In addition to the cities you listed, Elmira, Little Falls, Newark, and Niagara Falls (New York), and Hamilton and Welland (Ontario) all lost their NY-P teams within the past 25 years. (Back then, Hamilton and Erie were the “big cities” of the NY-P.) If not for the city of Auburn owning the Astros/Doubledays, Auburn likely would have been one of the very first casualties.

    The NY-P is over 60 years old, but as soon as next season, it could be down to just two teams that have been in the league for 20 or more consecutive seasons: Auburn and Jamestown. The modern NY-P is incredible, but the progress came at a sad cost.