Remembering One of America’s Last Community-Owned Sports Teams
The question is not really why things end;
The question is are endings merely endings,
Or beginnings also?
—Jesse Wills, “Requiem for a Church Condemned”
The Nashville Fugitive poet’s question hangs over our heads this summer like awaterlogged baseball suspended in midair. For the Batavia Muckdogs (née Clippers) of the Class A New York-Penn League, born 1939, are no longer under local ownership.
The Muckdogs were one of the last truly community-owned teams—an arrangement hated by professional leagues in all sports and levels. A 25-person volunteer board ran the franchise, which was bequeathed to us by our baseball-loving and civic-minded forebears.
As the long-time vice president of the board, my duties consisted mostly of watching baseball games and hoping fervently that president Brian Paris didn’t die. We both held up our ends of the bargain.
I shan’t bore you with accounting details, but during the 2007 season we incurred an unusually large, somewhat murky, and certainly unsustainable financial loss. Standing at the abyss, we were rescued by our Burned-Over District neighbors, the Triple A Rochester Red Wings, who for the last decade have managed day-to-day operations while we retained ownership. This past off season, the league vetoed a continuation of this partnership and seized the franchise, which will play out the string in Batavia until a buyer can be found. (Benevolent millionaires who want to keep the team here are welcome to apply!)
Our fate was sealed when the league embarked on a policy of madcap geographic expansion, so that it now stretches from Burlington, Vermont, to Aberdeen, Maryland, and from Staten Island to Morgantown, West Virginia. The result? Eight-hour bus rides, vastly inflated lodging and transportation costs, and the purging of the small cities that once were the heart and soul of the New York-Penn League. Oneonta, Geneva, Jamestown, Elmira, and Niagara Falls are gone; Auburn and Batavia are the last of the Mohicans. What shall it profit a league if it gains Norwich, Connecticut, but loses its soul?
Growth, as Ed Abbey used to say, is the ideology of the cancer cell. And of professional sports.
Our board had no choice but to approve the forfeiture. Nevertheless, I cast a symbolic nay vote on behalf of 79 years of Batavia baseball supporters.
“This going to end up in a book?” asked Dr. Al Barcomb, the last Montreal Expos fan.
I suppose it just might.
But for now, I gotta keep my mouth shut.
In any event, Dwyer Stadium will never be empty. It has too many ghosts. If and when the league flees its birthplace, we will play host to a team in one of those amateur circuits for collegians who have yet to turn pro.
Batavia is a damn good baseball town. Before the bottom dropped out last summer, average per game attendance for the Muckdogs was about 6 percent of the city’s population, which placed us, on a per capita basis, in the top half of the league. Yes, Brooklyn outdraws us by 7 to 1—but Brooklyn also has a population more than 175 times larger than ours. We apologize for nothing.
And if I may play George Babbitt for a moment, Batavia is the smallest city in America with both a professional baseball team and our own symphony orchestra. So there.
The Muckdogs had consistent support from small businesses, the Mom and Pop shops and delis that are the lifeblood of any community. The big box chain stores and corporate welfare clients, by contrast, wouldn’t even buy an outfield sign. The bastards.
Ah, but on to more pleasant baseball thoughts.
Three summers ago I sat in the backyard under a summer sun reading “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” a lovely Joseph Mitchell profile of an African American sexton in a Staten Island cemetery. Upon finishing, I walked in the house and declared to Lucine, “We’ve never been to Staten Island. Let’s just go.”
Checking my emails, I found a note from Richard Kostelanetz, the avant-garde litterateur, with whom I had last corresponded perhaps 20 years earlier.
“Comrade Bill,” he asked, “will you accompany the Muckdogs” when they travel to play the Staten Island Yankees?
The coincidence so staggered me that I had to take a walk to regain my sense of balance. Surely this was providential! Or was it a sinister trick by some gremlin in the cursed computer, luring us to a capsizing Staten Island Ferry?
We didn’t go. It’s an eight-hour train ride to the Vampire City. But maybe this summer, Kosti. Maybe this summer.
Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t my America. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.