When Minor League Lights Go Dark

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There are substantial differences in minor league baseball—not just in terms of the game being played, but in the places where the game is played—the towns, the cities—the places where fans live.


“The nameless player…won’t win a gold medal or a World Series ring this year. You won’t see him on a Wheaties box and he won’t star in any sportswear ads.”

Patrick Coffee, “An Ode to Minor League Baseball and All Working Class Heroes.”

Coffee writes about McGarryBowen, an ad agency, a firm that sought to capture the essence of minor league baseball for the Brooklyn Cyclones of The New York-Pennsylvania League. Here’s what the firm dreamed up.

It’s minor league ball. Plain. Simple. Alluring.

I know it. I’ve felt it. It was a big part of my life growing up.

But there are substantial differences in minor league ball—not just in terms of the game being played or the players playing it, but in the places where those games are played—the towns, the cities—the places where fans live.

Courtesy: Sperling’s Best Places

For every team that draws well, like the Cyclones (about 210,000 last year), there are teams that struggle bringing fans through the gate. I’m talking about teams like the Bristol Pirates (ave. 530) and the Lakeland Flying Tigers (ave. 334).

That’s what this column is about. It’s about one city that has had minor league team for a very long time, but a city where minor league lights may be going out.

It’s the story of Batavia, NY, a small city in Western New York, the place where I grew up–and a place that has historical value in the scheme of minor league ball.

That’s because New York-Pennsylvania League (NY-P) baseball is played here. The NY-P is the longest, continuing Class A minor league baseball league in history (it was classified as a Class D league back then). And the league was born in Batavia.

The year was 1939 and the place was the Hotel Richmond on Main Street. Batavia became a charter member of the NY-P’s predecessor—The PONY League—an acronym that stands for Pennsylvania, Ontario, and New York. League teams also included Bradford, PA, Hamilton, ON, and Wellsville, NY.

Batavia is the only team from that start still playing Class A ball–even though the team was forced to drop out of competition twice (1954-56 and 1960) for financial reasons.

Courtesy: Ben’s Biz Blog – WordPress.com

Today, the NY-P is a brand, not a location. The league stretches across to New England and down to West Virginia—with just enough teams from NY and PA to make the name legit.

The NY-P in 2017 is a “Short Season,” Class A League. Teams play about 100 games roughly from the time local schools go on summer recess (mid-June) to the time the first school bells ring (early September). The NY-P is designed for young and newly signed pro players–for kids fresh out of high school, lower potential college grads, and Latin players from the Americas and the Carribean. Two–perhaps three–players on any Class A roster (about 10%) eventually make the major leagues.

I’ve watched various iterations of the Batavia team—carrying nicknames from Clippers, to Trojans, to Muckdogs–and Indians, Pirates, and others in-between. It’s an interesting history, too. The Clippers (for clipping, not sailing) were named for Harvester International, a farm implement manufacturer, which had a local factory in town. The Batavia Trojans (for construction equipment, not the other equipment) honored the Trojan Division of Eaton Corp. Today’s nickname, Muckdogs, celebrates the area’s rich farm land.

The stadium—built as State Street Park—was constructed during The Great Depression as a WPA project. It was renamed MacArthur Stadium, the place I knew as a kid. Today it’s Dwyer Stadium to honor Edward D. Dwyer, a businessman who dedicated himself to the sport locally.

While I have loads of memories about minor league baseball in Batavia, I hadn’t been back for a game in (I guess) about 40 years. I was back again, last week, to watch a game on the 4th of July.

Not much has changed about that place over the years, but one thing certainly was different: Cigarette smoke didn’t cloud the air.

I found it reassuring to experience something that has remained pretty much the same over the years. But I also know that minor league baseball in Batavia is very likely to come to an end…and soon.

It’s a matter of dollars and sense, really, the ability to attract enough fans, sell enough concessions, hawk enough merchandise, and get enough sponsors to “make it” financially. Plenty of towns and cities can, but Batavia (sadly) doesn’t seem to be one of them.

Minor League Baseball has evolved as a corporate subsidiary (so to speak) of a billion-dollar business, Major League Baseball. The industry–like any industry–is always looking for new and expanded markets. A new wrinkle in the minor league business plan is putting teams in college towns, places that have sports fans eager to watch local teams play. Those places also have good facilities where college teams play–facilities that would otherwise go unused over the summer months.

Examples include the West Virginia Black Bears (Morgantown, WV, WVU) and the State College Spikes (University Park, PA, Penn State). In Lansing, MI (Michigan State), a new stadium for the Lugnuts is the centerpiece of urban renewal. Condos and townhouses are located in and around a stadium that seats 11,000 and averaged 4500 fans per game in 2016.

Monongalia County Ballpark, WV (photo, Minor League Baseball)

Batavia can’t compete. Size is one reason (pop-15.5k, 2016). A compact service area compared to many other minor league teams (including those in the NY-P League, save Auburn, NY), is another.

But let’s not mince words. Baseball, the game, doesn’t help. Baseball just isn’t as popular as it used to be, nationally or locally. Pro football is big in Western New York, and hockey and lacrosse are increasingly popular youth participation sports. Interest in all three sports is aided by nearby pro franchises–football’s Bills, hockey’s Sabres, and lacrosse’s Rattlers.

Although 2100 people watched the Muckdogs on July 4, I’ll speculate that the majority of fans were there because it was a holiday and/or to watch the after-game fireworks show. In a league with a median home attendance of about 2450 fans a game, only 811 fans per game attended Muckdogs’ games in 2016. Batavia is the only team in the league to draw an average of fewer than 1000 fans a game. The Muckdogs ranked #273 nationally in home attendance last year, and total home attendance for 2016 was down 12% from the year before.

Those are bad numbers for management.

Second baseman Sam Castro bats for the Muckdogs against the Auburn Doubledays at Dwyer Stadium, Batavia, NY, July 4 2017

There were days (certainly when I was a kid) when many Class A teams were run less like a pro sports franchise and more like a community nonprofit organization of the time. There were relatively few baseball professionals in charge and local service clubs pitched in to help.

Those days are largely gone. They’re gone in favor of the professionalization of pro sports—from management, to marketing, to facilities management—even in the minor leagues.

Local ownership has shifted to professional management, too. Batavia has a hybrid structure—The Genesee County Baseball Club, Inc. owns the team and the Rochester Red Wings baseball club operates it.

What’s the result? Bill Bruton, former sports editor of The Batavia Daily News, put it this way:

”When the Muckdogs got in financial trouble almost a decade ago the Rochester Red Wings were brought in (2008) to operate the club. That put a shelf life on the franchise. The Red Wings get 5% equity for each year they operate the team up to 50%. At the end of this season (2016), they will have 45% equity. The Red Wings lose more than $100,000 a year on paper, but they are picking up more than $200,000 in equity each year. Whenever they are sold, the Red Wings will earn well over $2 million. After next year (’17) they would hit their 50% threshold, so they are going to push for a sale to get their money.”

The team was actually slated to move to Maryland last year (watch a detailed video report here), but the deal feel though. While ownership and management continue to find ways to sustain the franchise–fireworks after every Friday home game is one example–nothing seems to work. “We’ve tried everything (to attract more fans),” said the Red Wings president, “but things (in that regard) haven’t changed.”

Local high school coach, Rick Krzewinski, believes that pro Class A ball may be replaced in Batavia by collegiate summer ball in a ‘Wooden Bat league,’ like the one that exists in Cape Cod and other places around the country. Wooden Bat leagues operate in New York State and several franchises are located in towns that used to have NY-P League teams.

Courtesy: Batavia Muckdogs

But even if that’s the future, the loss of pro baseball in Batavia will be just that … a loss–an irreplaceable loss, as I see it.

There will ”probably be … letters to the … editorial section (of the local newspaper) asking people to come out and support the Muckdogs and try to save baseball in Batavia,” Krzewinski wrote last year. “But the sad truth is even if Batavia were to increase attendance by 50%, will it really matter?”

Probably not.

I’m just thankful that, years ago, minor league baseball was there for me. Sometimes, though, there just aren’t enough people there for it.

________________________

This article is dedicated to Mary and Ed Burns, faithful supporters of the Batavia Muckdogs.

I’ve written previously about Batavia baseball. See “When Minor Is Major.’

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About Frank Fear

I’m a Columnist at The Sports Column. My specialty is sports commentary with emphasis on sports reform. I also serve as TSC’s Chief Operating Officer and Managing Editor. In that role I coordinate the daily flow of submissions from across the country and around the world, including overseeing editing and posting articles. I’m especially interested in enabling the development of young, aspiring writers. I can relate to them. I began covering sports in high school for my local newspaper. In college I served as sports editor of the campus newspaper and worked in the Sports Information Director’s Office at St. John Fisher College. After finishing grad degrees at West Virginia and Iowa State I had a 35-year academic career at Michigan State. Now retired, it’s time to write again about sports. I strongly support TSC’s philosophy–democratizing voice by giving everybody a chance to write.



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