On Friday night the Batavia Muckdogs will take the field at Dwyer Stadium to begin the defense of their New York-Penn League title. Only their 3rd championship in their 70 year history. Here on the front porch of 20 Prospect we salute this dual milestone of a 3rd Championship and 70 Years of History, even if we still cringe at the name “Muckdogs.”
The were not always the Muckdogs. They have at various times in their existence been called the Clippers, Indians, Trojans, and Pirates. But despite the changing names over the years, they have always called the New York Penn league (and its earlier incarnation the PONY league), the City of Batavia, and Dwyer Stadium, their home. They have come close to ceasing operations on a number of occasions, and did for a few years in the 50’s, and again most recently last season when the club was in debt and on the verge of losing its affiliation. But at the 11th hour, the nearby AAA Rochester Redwings stepped in to operate the club as an affiliate of St. Louis Cardinals. And so they remained in operation, and had a heck of a run through the season and on into the playoffs where they won their first championship in over 40 years.
Time has not been kind to Batavia, or the Muckdogs. Even with this new lifeline of cash and “professional” management from Rochester, they will be lucky to turn a profit this season. It would be a shame to lose them. While they are just a short season Class A ballclub playing before a few hundred fans most nights, they are a part of the community, and their history is woven like a thread through the history of the town, and the inhabitants of 20 Prospect.
When I was a child the homes on either side of me 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 rent rooms to the ball players.
Being just a short season Class A team, the players on the club are just kids of 19, 20, or 21, who are starting late after finishing up in college ball, or 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 few big names to come through 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. They always stood out and we’d pause from our games to watch them go by.
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 kids 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. Most ended up out of the sport, playing amateur ball or working out for other clubs if they didn’t get the call up to double A within a season or two.
On hot summer evenings I’d sit in the old wooden grandstands eating peanuts with my Dad, and watching the game. The june bugs would be swarming 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. We’d get a program for 50 cents, and 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 8 year old boy. Kids ran wild all over the place, but except for a few nights when I went with my little league team, I always sat 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 see if the foul balls hit any 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, as long haired boys on ten speeds tried to impress Farrah Fawcett haired girls in knee high tube socks and short-shorts.
Before they renovated the grandstand in the 80’s, the crowd would stamp their feet on the floor boards during a Batavia rally, dust would settle down from the rafters, and the chicken wire backstop would shake. But it seemed like we rarely contended during those year’s. The club was the woeful affiliate, of the woeful Cleveland Indians organization, and what wins we had 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. As kids we’d sometimes watch from the gaps in the fence as we waited for the post game fireworks on the 4th of July.
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 resurrected the Clippers name from the early days when the team was named in honor of the Massey-Harris Company whose works were the city’s prime employer. Within a few years they landed the Philadelphia Phillies affiliation, and their prospects began to improve, both literally and figuratively. 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.
She is a beauty.
They even kept the name. The new Dwyer Stadium is a fine facility that should serve the club and Batavia for many more years, so long as the corporate overlords from Rochester can find a way to turn a profit. Not every New York Penn league town has been 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. Nowadays MLB seems to be looking for more professionally run organizations, and larger fan bases like the Brooklyn Cyclones, which makes the Muckdogs’ 2008 Championship run all the sweeter. Take that Bud.
They may not draw the same crowds they do in Brooklyn, but the people in the seats at Dwyer have been there longer. They know each other, for better, and for worse. When they rebuilt the place they were careful to preserve some traditions, like the standing bar rail behind the home team dugout, where one night the drunks and the home team scattered when a foul ball hit the lights above the field and glass came raining down. Even though I am 1,000 miles away, I take some comfort in knowing the names and the faces of the old men that will belly up to that rail on Friday night. One taught me English in high school, one served for years on the City Council, and one old blowhard even wrote a book or two of blustery, overwrought prose about our home. The aging parents of childhood friends still sit in the same place they did when I was a kid. I wish I had the guts to buy them all a Genny and thank them for being there, but that’s not my place to do. Besides, my nephew and brother like to hang out in the right field beer deck, so when I am in town that’s where my beer money belongs. I guess the bond of blood is thicker than the bond of baseball.
Come Friday night I will close my eyes, and sit here on the front porch of 20 Prospect in my rocker, in the glow of the citronella, and wait for the traffic to pick up around 9:30 pm, in a flurry of 5 – 6 cars cutting down Prospect on their way to Oak Street, heading home from the game. It’s not my home anymore, but its still my hometown. And win or lose, the night always ends with blowing out the candles and kissing the kids good night. Good night Batavia, sleep well.