Batavia Home Opener
Long-Awaited Return to Dwyer
Happy Sunday! I’m drafting this in between yesterday’s four-hour drive home from Batavia and my return trip back up tomorrow morning for the evening’s game between the Muckdogs and Syracuse. Please forgive me for the somewhat irregular posts. It’s looking like it will take about a week for me to process all my notes and photos and select a few nuggets to share here. So, as I mentioned before, my intent is not to provide real-time updates on the Muckdogs, but rather some snapshots that provide a sense of what makes summer evenings at Dwyer special.
The Home Opener on June 4th provided a wonderful opportunity to do just that.
As I first emerged from the concourse on the first base side and took sight of the field mid-afternoon - well in advance of the evening’s 7:05PM scheduled start - I had flashbacks to the bitterly cold February day when I had last seen the stadium, frozen under a layer of ice that was topped by scattered snow. It had been just after 4PM and the sun had already almost set beyond the outfield fence. It was bleak and lifeless. Staring at the darkened expanse, it had been hard to imagine a pleasant summer night with those same concourses teeming with kids playing catch and adults in line for food and locally-produced Eli Fish beer (I recommend the IPA, by the way).
This was shaping up to he the sort of idyllic June evening that Buffalo resident and Muckdogs’ diehard Betsey Higgins, who says she never had any interest in baseball until a friend dragged her to a Muckdogs game five years ago, had promised during the relentlessly gloomy western New York winter. She’d told me, in the poetic language of the librarian she is, "When the lights go on underneath the pink clouds during the crepuscular hour, you forget everything, and it’s almost like a religious experience."
I must confess that part of me thought “I’ll believe it when I see it,” as that image seemed little more than a remote fantasy at the time.
Well, I would soon discover that - thankfully - it was real.
When I arrived, I ran into General Manager Marc Witt in the parking lot, and he commented on how fans appreciate being able to park for free within a short pitching wedge of the front gate. Accustomed to paying $15 to park about a 1/2 mile from the gates of PNC Park here in Pittsburgh, I certainly agree. In fact, the general ease of the experience - free parking nearby followed by short lines to hand over your paper ticket to the same few people you’ll get to know over the course of the summer (not to mention no invasive security checks of one’s every bag and possession) - make the entire process more relaxing.
I see owner Robbie Nichols welcoming a new kid who will be working in the concession stand, providing him some last minute instructions before warning that tonight could be the busiest night of the year. His new charge looks a bit intimidated by that prospect, but seems to realize there’s no turning back now.
Robbie’s wife Nellie is here as well to help with the Opening Day crowds (they will split duties for their two teams for much of the summer, with Nellie working gamedays in Elmira and Robbie in Batavia). She tells me they didn’t leave the stadium in Elmira after last night’s Home Opener there until around 2:30AM this morning, as there’s always so much postgame work that needs to be done, such as settling all the concession sales, cleaning the kitchens and bathrooms, reviewing the ticket sales, and every other odd job that inevitably pops up in the late-night hours of the empty ballpark needing attention before fans return the following day.
As the dance team comprised of local high school girls takes the field, a few white clouds drift by, the temperature topping out at a comfortable 70 degrees. There is a gentle breeze coming in from left field, and anticipation builds as a full slate of pregame ceremonies take place.
Finally, the long-awaited first pitch is delivered by local Tyler Prospero, and is fouled off down the third base line. Prospero returns to the team for a second summer, and is projected to be a leader after wrapping up his campaign at nearby Niagara University. He played Little League ball just beyond the left field fence on the nearby youth fields, and would head over after his games to watch the minor leaguers at Dwyer.
A number of readers have asked about the overall quality of the baseball, and, while the season is young, here are my observations thus far:
There is undoubtedly less power than there was in affiliated minor league ball, where top MLB draft picks were sometimes on the roster. I don’t think I’ve seen a home run yet, and when a player seems to get a hold of one, it often dies shy of the warning track into an outfielder’s glove (whereas in years gone by if the likes of Phillies legend Ryan Howard, who played here in 2001, had connected, those balls would end up in the woods). The pitching runs the gamut, with some solid performances where guys hit the low-90s with good control interspersed with others experiencing bouts of wildness and enough hit batsmen that one may hesitate at times to dig in too deeply at the plate!
Likewise, there’s been some excellent fielding and sharply turned double players, but with occasional sloppy errors thrown in.
However, when taken as a whole, I’ve found the baseball itself to be satisfying, especially for a few key reasons (and note that here I’m only commenting on the actual baseball, which is only one - and to some fans not even the most important - element of the overall experience on offer):
-The absence of home runs actually means there is MORE action on the bases, as there are lots of extra base hits into the gap, which means more excitement on the basepaths, as well as more singles and resulting bunts and attempts to steal bases.
-Pitchers and batters move quickly, without the seemingly endless time between pitches you see in the major leagues with pitchers wandering around the mound and batters stepping out of the box for extended stretches between every pitch, a phenomenon that can be agonizing when bringing young kids with their short attention spans to games.
-Additionally, there isn’t the obsession with analytics that can sometimes make MLB games seem more like a computer simulation than a real game, since these teams have just been assembled, and there isn’t an opportunity for the sort of advance scouting required to quantitatively predict and war-game every conceivable scenario in every situation. So the games are in some ways an appealing throwback to an earlier era of baseball, before games featured so much downtime, so many strikeouts, so few balls in play, and so many strategic decisions dictated by computers.
A crisp chill sets in after the sun sets, making me wish I had had the foresight to bring a sweatshirt. Still, a good number of fans brave the cooler temperature in anticipation of the postgame fireworks, which burst beyond the right field foul pole to an eclectic soundtrack ranging from Hanson to patriotic country to Britney Spears.
Following the fireworks, Robbie can be found at the front gate saying goodbye to the fans who are nearly all smiling as they stream toward their cars, buoyed by the awareness that another summer at the ballpark has finally arrived.
The next morning as I enjoyed my waffles at the nearby La Quinta for breakfast, I got a text from Robbie in response to some questions I had on the home opener. He told me he finished up working around 1AM, attendance had been an impressive 3,642, and he was back at the ballpark at 6:30AM getting ready to open the gates at 8AM for a youth tournament.
As I read his note I saw some of those kids walking out of the lobby hauling oversized baseball bags with their parents, presumably on their way to Dwyer, where another day on the diamond was soon to begin.
Fans queue up outside Dwyer before gates open for the Home Opener.
Members of Batavia American Legion Glenn S. Loomis Post 332 gather before taking the field as the evening’s Color Guard. Most are Vietnam veterans, though one served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Owners Robbie and Nellie Nichols gather with the dance team and Dewey the Mascot to welcome fans into the stadium for the first time in 2022. Gates will open at 6:07PM with Journey’s "Don't Stop Believin" blasting on the PA system. Nellie will hand out programs and collect ticket stubs.
The local brewery Eli Fish enjoys a good relationship with the Muckdogs, and brews a special Muckdog Ale.
Returning pitcher Julian Pichardo, a fan favorite from Tampa, signs autographs before the game.
The evenings’s “Baseball Buddies” from nearby Tri Town stand with the players during the anthem after having a chance to play catch with them before the game.
Robbie and Nellie take the field to address the sold-out crowd before the game.
Public address announcer Paul Spiotta takes in the action. Paul began announcing Batavia High School football games in 2000, and has done Muckdogs games in recent seasons. A lifelong Yankees fan (though he has soured on MLB after their contraction of the minor leagues), he’s also a trivia expert, winning two episodes of ESPN’s “2-Minute Drill” trivia hosted by Kenny Mayne in the early 2000s.
Finally, here is a link to an interview I did with Jay Moran, local host of NPR’s Morning Edition in Buffalo. There is an abridged 4-minute, and longer 15-minute, interview linked here where I discuss my book and plans for this summer: