“And is there anything that can tell more about an American summer than, say, the smell of the wooden bleachers in a small town baseball park, that resinous, sultry, and exciting smell of old dry wood.” – Letter from Thomas Wolfe to Arthur Mann
link to letter here
Summer continues to be a fickle mistress here in Minnesota, placing hot steamy kisses on our lips one day, then disappearing for weeks without so much as a phone call. Following our 103 degree day, we’ve had nothing but sweatshirt weather. I like sweatshirts. In fact, about 30% of my wardrobe is composed of nothing but old sweatshirts, but it’s time for summer. It’s kinda sad seeing parents huddle under blankets at our little league games. Baseball is supposed to be a hot weather sport. A sport for fanning yourself with a program, and sipping a cold beer. A sport that is as much a part of summer, as the mosquito.
One of the most integral parts of childhood in Batavia was our minor league baseball team. From age 3 to 20, no summer would have been complete without at least one trip to a baseball game. When I was growing up the team played in an old wooden stadium about a mile from my house. When I was little my Mom and Dad would walk to the games with me. I can remember being 5 years old, eating peanuts with my Dad, and watching the game from the old wood grandstand. I couldn’t crack the shells myself, so I would just eat them shell and all. The crowd would stamp their feet on the floor boards during a Batavia rally, the chicken wire backstop would shake, and dust would settle down from the rafters.
June bugs would swarm the transformers on the light poles, drawn by the heat and glow of the mercury vapor lights, as the sun set over the left field fence. Dad would buy a program for 50 cents, and I would wait for the drawings to be announced between innings, hoping that I’d be the lucky kid to win a baseball, or free ice cream at the Dairy Queen. More often than not, it was a free car wash, or something of much less value to a 5 year old boy.
The homes on either side of 20 Prospect were owned by elderly women who belonged to a time of doilies and fringed lampshades. Born near the turn of the century they had raised their families, and buried their husbands long before we moved onto the street. Their large four square homes had more room than they needed, and in the summer they would lend out their spare rooms to the ball players.
Being just a short season Class A team, the players on the club were just kids of 19, 20, or 21, who were starting late after finishing up high school, or college ball, catching on to a minor league club after going late in the amateur draft. In the 70 year history of the club, there have been only a few big names to come through our little town. But growing up these kids were big leaguers to us. They were young, and muscular, and carried exotic names, accents, and skintones onto our little street. We’d see them in the early afternoon, walking down the street from the corner store with a Pepsi, and some chips on their way to the ball park for a game, and we’d pause from our games to watch them go by.
- 1981 Batavia Trojans
In those days before cable TV super-stations, professional baseball was something you either saw in person, or watched on Saturday afternoons. To little kids like us the distance between Dwyer Stadium, and Yankee Stadium was hard to understand. We knew that these players had a long way to go before they’d play in the major leagues, but we had no concept of what long odds they faced.
On the annual kids night, the stadium would be overrun with hordes of wild children. But except for a few nights when I went with my little league team, I always had to sit with my folks. I didn’t mind. They let me pick the seats in the last row of the grand stand where we could look back to watch foul balls hit the cars in the parking lot. Whenever a foul made it out of the park, which was almost every foul ball in Dwyer, a scrum of pre teens would go scrambling after it. Some nights the action in the parking lot was more entertaining than the game, as long haired “Jackie Earle Haley” types on ten speeds tried to impress the Farrah Fawcett haired girls in knee high tube socks and short-shorts.
The team rarely won during those year’s. They were the woeful Class A affiliate, of the woeful Cleveland Indians, and wins were few and far between. The stands and the field were in tough shape back then. Gaps in the plywood outfield fence would let balls through for ground rule doubles.
- Old Dwyer Stadium – 1998
As I got older, the games became a regular hangout for me and my friends, as well as half the kids in town. (The other half were presumably hanging out in the Pizza Hut parking lot, or drinking at the end of a dirt road somewhere.)
- The Old Wooden Grandstand
In the 80’s the team lost the Cleveland affiliation and came close to folding. They reverted back to an independent organization for a few years and struggled on. When the Trojan Manufacturing Company was sold to a German conglomerate the club dropped the “Trojans” nickname, to the chagrin of teenage boys. They resurrected the Clippers name from the early days when the team was sponsored by the Massey-Harris Company whose factory on Harvester Avenue was the city’s prime employer. By the 1990′s they landed the Philadelphia Phillies affiliation, and their prospects began to improve, both literally and figuratively.
But when Major League Baseball put strict new regulations into place regarding the dimensions and amenities that would be required to maintain minor league affiliation, the clubs days seemed numbered again. Miraculously, local government came through and secured state funding to tear down the old wooden stands, and replace them with a concrete and brick park, with a brand new field and clubhouse.
- The new ball park
- The New Dwyer Stadium
They changed their name to the Muckdogs for reasons that are still hotly debated around town, and the team survived. Not every New York Penn league town was so lucky. At some point in the last 20 years, the costs of running a minor league club, even a Class A one, have soared, and one by one the small upstate towns like Geneva, Elmira, Oneonta, and Olean have seen their clubs move on to bigger cities with deeper pockets.
Despite losing money for years the club has somehow managed to hang on. Who knows how much longer they will last, but for now the crack of wood bats will still be heard on the corner of Denio and Bank. Teenagers will still flit like sparrows through the parking lot in mating rituals as old as the game itself, and for the cronies on the First base line, the peanuts will taste as salty, and the Genny as cold as it always has. Blocks away on Prospect avenue, people will sit on their porches in the flickering light of citronella candles, while the far away sounds of the PA mixes with the soft buzz of mosquitoes.
Welcome home summer. Welcome home.