BATAVIA — Each year there seems to be talk whether the Batavia Muckdogs will field a team, have a new owner or leave for a new city.
Those talks became a shock wave through 42 minor league cities all scheduled to cease baseball operations under the proposed Major League Baseball Minor League Reduction Proposal.
However, the Batavia Daily News has learned the New York-Penn League, one of the leagues on the reduction list, is not only holding out hope playing this season, but that the 2021 season would be a second option. The Covid-19 pandemic could force the 2020 season to be canceled as Major League Baseball is playing a reduced 60-game schedule.
League officials also told the Daily News they are looking at other options for leagues based in cities like Batavia for professional players affected by this reduction proposal.
Batavia has been the team toward the bottom of the standings and league attendance. However, what happened in 2019 has the franchise the crown jewel of the league and a template on how to succeed and make money in trying economic times.
This report will look at the front office, attendance, revenues, a social media boom, opinions from the city officials and what happened on the field and with the field at Dwyer Stadium 2019.
THAT MAGIC MOMENT
Maybe the excitement started for Batavia when New York-Penn League Commissioner and Batavia Muckdogs President Ben Hayes announced Tom Lawless would be the 2019 manager.
Lawless was not only a former World Series hero, but had a long-history of working with minor league teams and even earned the respect of the Houston Astros to manage the team through a gap in 2016.
In an interview with the Daily News last July, Muckdogs General Manager Brendan Kelly explained what Lawless meant to the team.
“From the first day, there was a new attitude here,” said Kelly. “The players showed respect to the fans, coaching staff, management, the community and each other. They really appreciate all of the upgrades to the clubhouse, the stadium and the field and it’s been one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve been a part of.”
With a manager in place, the Miami Marlins, led by CEO and part-owner Derek Jeter, Gary Denbo, the vice president of player development and scouting and Dick Scott, director of player development, stocked the Muckdogs with draft picks who came from established college programs as well as key free agent signings.
The team was 15-9 and battling for first place when everything changed thanks to a familiar face.
Enter Sean Reynolds.
The 4th round draft pick of the Marlins in 2016 who hit 17 home runs for Batavia in 2017, joined the team, was put in the lineup and crushed two home runs to knock off the Lowell Spinners, 8-6.
“The crowd was excited and I was excited to be back,” said Reynolds.
Each minor league team has a fan-favorite. The Muckdogs had many. J.D. Orr (finished with a .352 average) and Milton Smith II were back-and-forth for the league batting title. Orr was a terror on the bases with 29 steals in just 64 games.
Orr’s son would run the bases with the kids after the game and was also a fan favorite. Troy Johnston from Gonzaga was Mr. Clutch coming up with the big offensive moments leading the team to the playoffs.
Then there was Nic Ready. A son of a major leaguer, Ready was active in the Air Force and made all-world plays at third base. His 10 homes runs were all tape-measure shots and he set a new record with 30 doubles.
On the mound, Julio Frias and Edgar Martinez were established starters, winning games and handing the ball over to closer Evan Brabrand, who had 13 saves and a 1.19 ERA in 20 games.
On the last day of the regular season when Johnston caught a fly ball in Auburn, the Muckdogs had won the New York-Penn League Pinckney Division for the first time in nine years.
Despite the game being in Auburn, a huge crowd traveled from Batavia to witness history.
“Look at this!” said Johnston smiling at the crowd. “We had winning and losing streaks yet the fans stuck with us and pushed us over the edge to win a league title. We traveled really, really well. It almost felt like World Series Game 7 as more than half the fans were your home team and it was awesome to see.”
Lawless added, “They just win. We put a lot of pressure on the other team with baserunning, but we have good hitting and pitching and when they walk on the field, they expect to win.”
During media day in 2019, Kelly, entering his first year at the helm after being assistant GM the year before, said he hoped to draw 1,000 fans for fireworks nights and weekend games to make up for small crowds during the week.
When the season ended, Kelly’s Muckdogs averaged 1,165 fans a game as 43,118 came to games during 37 home games.
As a team owned by the league waiting for an owner and renting the field from the city, the Muckdogs have to pay taxes on each fan in attendance. As a result, the Muckdogs did not round up attendance figures like some teams can get away with.
The atmpsphere at the park, the sponsorships, in-game promotions, food and drink specials, autograph alley with the players and winning games all came together.
The team had a 47% increase in attendance and the most fans since 2008.
Three times the team had over 2,000 fans and the biggest night, which was one of the top three crowds in history was on July 27 when the gates were closed and 2,779 fans sold-out Dwyer Stadium.
But the crowning moment was the playoff game in Batavia, a win over Lowell. Season tickets holders had first-crack at a ticket, but each ticket had to be purchased for the game.
In an interview with the Daily News before the game, Kelly said, “We were at the ticket office until after 9 p.m. and there was a line to Bank Street for tickets right up until first pitch.”
A total of 1,872 fans witnessed the victory in Batavia that night. The Muckdogs were no longer last in attendance and capped it off by being first in the league standings.
For two years, the Muckdogs were fortunate Cooper Thomson watched a cricket field converted into a baseball field in Brisbane, Australia for the Australian Baseball League.
Only 15 at the time, Thomson started working on baseball fields, worked with Major League Baseball, worked for the World Baseball Classic and the Marlins, Muckdogs and MLB brought him to Batavia in 2018 and 2019.
He was hired in 2018 at age 20 as head groundskeeper
Working daily with Batavia’s Joe Mogavero, operations associate, they won the 2019 New York-Penn League Field of the Year. Thomson also won the league Turf Manager of the Year award and the Sports Turf Field Manager of the Year award.
Thomson worked on the Little League World Series fields and rushed back to Batavia to get the field ready for the post season.
“This is a very nice place to play for these young men,” Denbo said. “By far it’s one of the best fields in the league. The clubhouse has been taken care of. It’s just a really nice place. I guess the seats are fine, I haven’t been there, but people sit in them.”
Denbo, who was the hitting coach with the New York Yankees and credited for helping Jeter, would watch Muckdogs games from different seats, never bothered by the fans.
During an interview with the Daily News in July last season, Denbo looked at the field and said, “The playing surface is outstanding. The infield grass plays like a major league field. The mound and batters box is great and the clubhouse is fantastic, there is new furniture for the players and we are very pleased with that.”
He also talked about Kelly.
“Brendan has done a fantastic job since he took over. It’s an old ball park and it takes a lot of work and maintenance,” said Denbo. “The outfield walls and signs look professional and well-done, Brendan and his team have done a great job and made this ballpark very nice.”
In an interview with the Daily News this week while in Batavia, New York-Penn League President Ben Hayes credited the upgrades the league put in for Dwyer Stadium over the past two years as a huge difference maker.
“You could definitely see the difference from a few years ago when we first took over,” Hayes said. “I remember on opening day last year when Tom Lawless, who was my roommate when we both played for the Reds, told me, ‘This is as good as any major league field.’ Comparatively, what we’ve done has made a huge difference. It’s very noticeable.”
Hayes pointed to the grounds keeping efforts from Thomson.
“We needed a good, quality surface and that’s exactly what we got when Cooper came in,” Hayes added.
SOCIAL MEDIA DARLINGS
Kelly and Sales and Marketing Director Kerri Schmidt wanted more than just a Facebook page and Twitter for the Muckdogs. Rayanna Anderson, a sports marketing student at Alfred State College took over the social media platforms, and bolstered them including the Instagram account and added a snapchat.
She worked with her father, John Anderson, who was the managing editor at the time of the Daily News, to compile photos, videos and posts.
For the first time in team history, the Muckdogs, despite being the smallest market in all of minor league baseball, finished in the top five for interactions per post on Facebook, most followers added on Twitter, most Facebook interactions per post, most video views on Facebook, most interactions per post on Twitter and most video views and new users on Instagram.
On August 14, they captured a fun standoff on video as Harrison Dinacola stood with his hand on his heart from the anthem to the last pitch, longer than Ryan Haug from West Virginia. The other players decorated them with cups and tape but they could not move. The video appeared on ESPN, CNN and was featured on Milb.com and almost every major sports outlet shared it on social media.
“The video requests were stunning, but it was fun to see Batavia mentioned all over the country,” said John Anderson, who was a part-time media relations director. “There were also interview requests for player interviews all season and mail requests for autographs, baseball cards and merchandise.
“Sean Reynolds helped each game make a fun video to share with the fans, but more important, Reynolds was the last player to leave the park,” Anderson continued. “He would go in the stands looking for a kid he promised his 35-inch bat to, or autograph his cleats. This was contagious and all the players were so good to work with.”
He also said the fans had something to do with it.
“The Muckdogs fans went viral, whether it was the conga line or fans dancing,” said Anderson. “A lot of that credit has to go to Marty Czekala who ran the music, he always knew what to play and the fans loved it and expected certain songs each inning. And Paul Spiotta as a public address announcer could write his ticket anywhere in the country, but he loves Batavia and announcing events, from minor league baseball playoff games to Little League.”
SEEING KELLY GREEN
At the end of the season, Kelly was named the Robert Stedler Executive of the Year by his peers in the New York-Penn League. He was also a guest of the Miami Marlins on Sept. 20. On the field before the game that night, the team showed Muckdogs highlights and players like Ready and Reynolds, then honored Kelly and the Muckdogs for their commitment to the player development system, the transformation of Dwyer Stadium and improving facilities for future Marlins.
According to numbers the Muckdogs presented to the City of Batavia over the past two years, there was a 143 percent increase in merchandise revenue, 41 percent increase in sponsors and a 53 percent increase in food and beverages as well as the 51 percent increase in ticket sales.
Mike Riffle was the director of food and beverage, but outside of the two full-timers on the grounds crew, the Muckdogs did all of this with just three full-time employees. Nate Snyder, the clubhouse manager, was a Marlins employee.
The Muckdogs announced in January even more sponsorships, including a new partnership with the Batavia Downs. They were poised to possibly break even more records in 2020.
While all Batavia staff has been put on furlough, including Kelly, Hayes knows fans in Batavia have a lot of questions.
There are some who purchased season tickets and others who want to buy merchandise or sponsorships.
“Nothing has been canceled at this point but we will let all ticket holders know if and when a decision has been made,” said Hayes.
But if they do eventually get the go-ahead to play ball, Hayes said his league is ready.
“All of our clubs have plans in place right now for the health department requirements,” Hayes said. “From the buses to the hotels to their stadiums, we will be ready if things change.”
The City of Batavia deserves a lot of credit as well. Matt Worth and his public works department had everything working from electric to plumbing and the city put in capital improvements in 2019 with money set aside for 2020.
Rachael Tabelski, the acting City Manager for Batavia, had a walk through with Hayes on Thursday and was very impressed with some of the upgrades at Dwyer Stadium.
Tabelski grew up in Bergen and has been attending Batavia games back when they were the Clippers and she’s hopeful the 2019 season won’t be the last.
She was impressed with what she saw during her tour with Hayes.
“This was the first time walking through the locker rooms and everything looked great,” she said. “The field and facilities were also in good condition.”
Tabelski is realistic when asked about saving the 2020 season this spring, with everything going on, one can only hope there will be a 2021 summer in Batavia.
“There is no commitment at this time and it will be very difficult this season to move forward seeing that we’re still in a global pandemic,” Tabelski said. “With players that would be coming in from out of state ‘hot spots’ having to quarantine when they got here, it doesn’t seem realistic this season will happen. But, for next year, we always hope for the best, but it is out of our hands.”
Fortunately for Batavia, the future is in the hands of Hayes and Kelly who have demonstrated a commitment to the city and the community.