Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo, woo, woo…

That I am a lover of nostalgia, has been well established by now. And if my sentimentality is not enough to turn your stomach, let me add my love of “authenticity” to the list of pretensions.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the trend for the past 20 years has been an increasing “corporatization” of minor league baseball. One by one the old wooden, small town ball parks have been disappearing, as MLB pulls their affiliates into larger markets and looks to squeeze as much cash as they can out of their farm system. I understand that the economics of minor league baseball have changed irrevocably. The romantic day’s of long bus rides to Podunkville, and cold showers are things of the past, and today’s prospects are treated far better than pro’s were 40, or 50 years ago. However, I really am having a hard time accepting the heavy handed MLB branding initiatives that are going on behind the scenes in the minor leagues.

Here’s a link to the only site that I can find that gives a comprehensive overview of the problem.

I don’t think I am being a conspiracy nut about this, but as you look at these different caps & logo designs it’s apparent that there is just a small handful of design templates, and one MLB appointed graphic design firm at work here.

Compare the artwork in the following three logos. I call this template, the “Ginormous Mascot with Club” design

Clinton Lumberkings

Clinton Lumberkings

Lake County Captains

Lake County Captains

Trenton Thunder

Trenton Thunder

Then there is the “Mascot Peeking Through Initials” design template:

My Beloved Muckdogs

My Beloved Muckdogs

Binghampton Bees / Mets

Binghampton Bees / Mets

Greensboro Grasshoppers

Greensboro Grasshoppers

Finally, we have the most egregious of the designs. “The Anthropomorphic Cap”

Lake Elsinore Storm

Lake Elsinore Storm

Orem Owls

Orem Owls

Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs

Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs

This last one is enough to give me feverish nightmares of the Amityville Horror.

I am happy to see that Minor League Clubs have begun to drop the practice of copying their MLB affiliates nicknames, and I applaud their attempts to somehow link the club to the uniqueness of the local community by choosing nicknames that somehow connect to the history of the area. However, the heavy handed, generic, corporate approach makes me want to retch. Do they think we are that stupid? Do they think we don’t notice, or care? Do they think we will be good little consumers and lap up whatever mass produced corporate pabulum they spew our way?

Apparently yes. The “Disneyfication” of Minor League Baseball is getting out of hand. Honestly, they are straining so hard to look “cute” and “marketable” it’s hard to take them seriously. If I were a player I would be embarrassed to wear any of these caps. Not even for ironic purposes, which as a Gen-xer, is firmly established to be the end all, be all of fashion statements (Case in point, in 2003 the AAA farm club of the Dodgers, in Albuquerque New Mexico nicknamed themselves the “Isotopes” after the fictional Springfield Isotopes from the TV show The Simpson’s, and experienced a huge increase in merchandise sales.)

Personally, I think the “Poochies” would have been more appropriate.

The Itchy, Scratchy, and Poochie Show!

The Itchy, Scratchy, and Poochie Show!

If MLB really wants to tie the teams to their communities, why can’t they let each organization choose it’s own name, its own logo, and its own look? Wouldn’t it be wiser to allow each team to contract with local graphic artists, and ad agencies to develop their own image instead of using a centralized, corporate overlord from MLB to squeeze them all through the sausage maker of MLB dictated branding guidelines? I think going with local control over branding would allow the teams to forge closer ties to local companies, who will become sponsors, and advertisers, and marketing partners in the community. The result would be not only better looking business, but better business.

I know, all of American life has become mass produced, franchised, and Walmarted into anonymity. You can drive from coast to coast eating at the same restaurant, sleeping in the same motel, and getting gas at the same gas station, so why should we expect anything different?

Sigh… There’s nothing wrong with a simple letter on a cap. It’s worked for over a hundred years, and it will likely work for a hundred more.

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Play ball!

“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
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
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
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 ball park

 

The New Dwyer Stadium
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.

For Sale: One Class A Short Season Minor League Baseball Club

The 1981 Batavia Trojans

Daddy Warbucks, if you’re out there, this would be a good time to come forward and save the day.

Or perhaps this would be the point in the movie when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland would give a rousing speech and rally the citizens of Genesee County to pool their money and buy the club.

Or maybe the citizens of Bedford Falls will rush out in the snow to help out good ol’ George Bailey, and save the Building and Loan.

Alas, there is more depressing news on the Muckdogs Financial Situation as reported by WBTA. Link Here:

$6 Million Dollars is the estimated asking price, based on the recent sale of the NY Penn League Oneonta club. Hard to believe anyone with that kind of scratch is going to keep the ‘Dogs in B-town instead of looking for a bigger market somewhere else.

Let’s face it, the Muckdogs attendance average of 1,100 is almost 10% of the population of Batavia. The Triple-A Rochester Red Wings by contrast, draw an average of 6,900 per game from a city of 220,000 people, (1 Million if you throw in the surrounding communities). The Muckdogs NY Penn league rivals the Brooklyn Cyclones drew 7,300 per game in 2008 in the Megalopolis of Brooklyn fer cryin’ out loud.

Think about that for a minute. A Class A short season team in a Giant Metro area can outdraw a Triple A franchise in a Regional Metro Area. You don’t need a Harvard MBA to figure out that it’s the size of the market, not the quality of the ball club that determines profitability in Minor League Baseball.

When you consider the attendance figures of Rochester, and Brooklyn, the numbers for the Muckdogs actually seem impressive for a city of 15,000 people. In fact, if I could pull the attendance figures for the last 30 years of Batavia baseball, I’d be willing to bet that they draw more people in 2010 than they have in 90% of their seasons since the 1970’s. Despite the spin from Rochester Community Baseball, and St. Louis Cardinals organization, it’s not a lack of community support that is killing the team, but the ballooning operating costs that Minor League Baseball clubs have incurred since the MiLB Baseball’s Facilities Standards went into effect in 1991.

Of course, MLB Incorporated doesn’t want to sell that message. Better to blame the citizens that stand to lose the franchise they supported since 1939, than highlight the insatiable need to grow the profit margins of MLB Inc.

Look, I’m a businessman. I understand the economics of it, but it still makes me sick. So I say “to hell with them” Batavia. You deserve better. I know the good folks of GCBC would keep the club in Batavia if they could, but they can’t and it isn’t your fault. Don’t let them lay the guilt on your heads. You put up a good fight, and spent countless summer evenings in that dusty wooden grandstand supporting a bunch of ball playing kids from all over America, and the Caribbean. Year in and year out, you were there, buying 50/50 club raffle tickets, peanuts, and cold cups of Genesee Beer, living out the lives of small town American’s that we so claim to love, and cherish. You were there.

It wasn’t these folks in the first baseline bleacher seats when Bernardo Brito jacked a homerun into the City Pool. It was guys like Russ Salway that were there, stomping their feet in the bottom of the ninth, with the winning run at the plate, until the dust from the rafters rained down on their heads. The Muckdogs are Batavia’s team. Not a trademarked property of MiLB.

The old Dwyer

So when some businessman from Hamilton, or Missasauga, buys the club and moves them to Canada (bad stuff in Batavia is always the fault of Canadians) and renames them the “Tim Horton’s” or “Butler’s Rangers”, don’t hang your head. Baseball in Batavia will live on so long as there is a ball, and a bat and nine guys willing to play the game on the corner of Denio and Bank Street. The dark forces of Corporatization can take your affiliation away, and sell it to the highest bidder, but they can’t take away your soul.

(But the Lord knows they would if they could.)

Bury My Heart at Dwyer Stadium

Ahem… sorry about that screed. Whew! Glad I vented that one.

Now, in all seriousness, and sobriety, I do wonder what will happen if GCBC sells the team. GCBC is a non-profit set up to own and operate the Muckdogs. If the team does indeed sell for $6 Million, they will net around $5 Million of that with the remainder going to Rochester Community Baseball. Even when the debts are paid off, they will still be holding a nice size chunk of dough. What the heck do they do with it?

Personally, I think the best option for GCBC is to pursue a team in the NY Collegiate Baseball League, as I mention here. But will College Summer baseball eventually fall prey to the same economics that Minor League baseball has?

My investigation of the Northwoods League suggest that local interest can be satisfied by the quality and competitiveness of College Summer baseball, and the economics of the amateur game are still amenable to small town teams like Batavia. Hell, with MiLB abandoning the Muckdog trademark, GCBC could even step in and buy the rights to the name and logo and continue to call the team the Muckdogs if they wanted.

So, there may be a silver lining in this cloud after all. In the long run if high level amateur baseball can take root in Batavia I think the community would be much better served. Now the trick is to make it happen.

This can’t be good…

After posting about the possibilities of life after Muckdog baseball, I had an email conversation with Ray from the Batavia Daily News. We were theorizing on what might happen, if and when the team was sold. I had read on a Cardinal’s blog back in January, and again last Friday that for each year that Rochester Community Baseball operates the club, they gain a 5% share in the team if it is sold by the Genesee County Baseball Club. (owners of the team). This being the 3rd (and final) year of the agreement with the Red Wings parent organization, their share would amount to 15%. At an estimated value of $3-5 million, a sale would just about offset the half million in operating losses incurred in the 3 years of operation.

I began to wonder who & or what the “Genesee County Baseball Club” is exactly. I assume it is a non-profit set up to operate the team. So I decided to put my “mad googling skillz” to work. Low and behold, I stumbled across something that cannot be a good sign. The Genesee County Baseball Club Inc. canceled their trademark registration of the Muckdog logo on July 17th. Now, the Muckdog logo, as I mentioned before, has been one of the few money makers for the team. By licensing this trademark image to Little Leagues across America, the team has been able to create a revenue stream beyond gate receipts. So the news that they would cancel the trademark, is alarming indeed.

Here’s the link to trademark news

No Longer Trademarked

Now before I jump to conclusions here, I do have to point out that just because the Trademark is no longer registered, it does not mean that the club has no right to the logo. By using the logo, and marking it with the little “TM” the club would still retain common law rights to the use of the logo, and stop others from using it. Another possibility is that the mark may have been applied for again in a separate application, or is being changed in some way. (changes would have to be covered by a new application). Further research beyond the means of this humble blogger is required to determine whether this mark is truly abandoned in commerce. How ’bout it news guys? Can you pick up the trail from here?

Life after the Muckdogs?

OK, yeah, I know I said I was on hiatus, but I have been thinking about the pending move of the Muckdogs out of Batavia and what the future might hold. So I felt the need to post on it, since I have already posted several times on the subject.

Judging from the tone of some of the recent articles, and interviews with the staff of the Red Wings who are currently operating the ‘Dogs, it is becoming apparent that the Muckdog’s days are numbered. The trend within Minor League baseball has been to move small, Class A affiliates out of small towns and rural areas, and put them in suburbs of larger urban areas to reach a larger fanbase, sell more tickets, and consequently make more money. This trend began back in the 90’s when MLB placed new requirements on the minor league clubs that their stadiums meet certain minimum specs. The result of the rule was that many of the clubs in smaller towns were forced to either rebuild their stadiums, or move to an area with newer facilities. For a lot of these small towns the $ required to build new parks were just not feasible. Meanwhile, other towns scrambled to update their stadiums to keep their teams. (Batavia and Auburn are two examples of rebuilt stadiums from this time).

Out with the old...

In with the new.

As the years have progressed, the costs of owning and operating a minor league club have risen to the point that the small NY Penn league teams have struggled to keep their head above water. Gradually MLB woke up to the possibilities of milking more $$ out of their minor league system. The result has been a steady “corporatization” of minor league ball that has driven up the interest in owning and operating minor league clubs. This demand for minor league teams has resulted in the sale and move of many of the remaining small town teams. Last year it was Oneonta club that was sold and relocated to suburban Connecticut. Batavia seems to be the next in line with Auburn not far behind.

I have lamented this corporatization before, but in the last year have come to grudging acceptance of the fate. Economic trends like this do not change quickly. They move in like a tide, and recede only gradually. I can’t foresee it changing. The Muckdogs will be moved, this year, or next, or the year after. It is inevitable. So I began to think, what would life be like after the Muckdogs? Would Dwyer Stadium sit vacant, hosting only high school, and community college baseball, or is there future life in it yet? It’s a wonderful little facility, and it would be a shame to see a community asset like that go to waste. So I decided to do some investigation, and see what has become of the other towns that were once a part of the NY Penn league, but have lost their teams through the years.

So what has become of Oneonta, Geneva, Niagara Falls, Elmira, Little Falls, Watertown, Hornell, and the other 12 cities that once were home to NY Penn league franchises. The result surprised me. The New York Collegiate Baseball League has been around since 1978. (Who knew?) It is a summer wood bat league for collegiate baseball players to get a feel for the demands and style of minor league baseball while maintaining their amateur status. There are actually quite a few of these leagues in existence.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me. Collegiate Summer baseball is about the only “minor” league baseball left in Minnesota and Wisconsin, aside from the Independent St. Paul Saints. Such classic minor league stadiums and cities as Eau Claire, Wisconsin have hosted Collegiate Summer teams in the Northwoods League since the mid 90’s. Collegiate Summer baseball has grown to fill in the void left by Minor League Baseball as the farm clubs have moved out of small cities and towns in rural areas as the operating costs of running a team are lower. Attendance seems to fall into the Mouckdog average of 1,400 / game, for communities of similar size. The quality of the baseball is surprisingly good, and many of the players in the Northwoods League have gone on to the majors.

So, will Batavia follow in the footsteps of Oneonta, Geneva, Niagara Falls, Elmira, Little Falls, Watertown, and Hornell, and make the jump from the NY Penn to the NYCBL? It’s an interesting thought, and an idea that excites me the more I think about it. Is there an ownership group out there that would step forward to bankroll the startup of a team? Could Batavia pull it off without missing a season? I see no reason why we couldn’t. B-town is every bit as capable of supporting a team as any of the towns mentioned above. Heck, Batavia is even more capable as it brings with it a more modern, and up to date facility than many of the towns that have NYCBL clubs.

Best of all, it wouldn’t take a million dollars to make it happen. Anyone out there willing to go in on putting an ownership group together drop me a line. I’m in.