Bringing the Family to Batavia
A Shockingly Successful Summer Road Trip
My son Bates, about to turn five, poised to assist Public Address (PA) Announcer Paul Spiotta announce the next batter. To my surprise, he performed flawlessly, gaining confidence after each batter.
In an effort to reduce the amount of time I spent on the road and away from my wife and young kids this summer, we decided it would be nice for them to join me on one of my reporting trips to Batavia. While this sounds good in theory, as anyone who has traveled with young kids knows (ours are nearly five and three months!), it can be a challenge. I only half joke that I deployed to Iraq for a year with less stuff than we pack for a long weekend. Still, we figured it was worth a try, and hoped that my son Bates would enjoy the games as much as the young kids I had seen at previous games.
After about two days of my wife gathering every conceivable childrens’ necessity, off we went. It’s a four-hour drive to Batavia from Pittsburgh, and my fear was that little Shea would treat us to about three hours and 45 minutes of screaming, as she hates the car, but she mercifully slept all the way to Erie.
We stopped at a Bob Evans for a late breakfast. I mention this because, while there, we got to talking to our server, who had to have been well into her 70s, yet was still working hard. When we told her we lived outside Pittsburgh, she mentioned that her daughter lived there and that some of the younger women she knew with kids had been struggling to get baby formula in Erie, enlisting her to pick some up on trips to Pittsburgh. She then added how just getting to Pittsburgh had become a considerable challenge since gas prices have doubled in the last year of so.
I couldn’t help but feel for this woman who was a grandmother, still on her feet all day waiting tables, with a smile no less, all while struggling to afford to visit her daughter a few hours away.
I mention all this because I think it helps provide some context for my book. One is that while attendance has continued to be strong in Batavia and Elmira, lots of people - especially those removed from our more affluent urban and suburban precincts - have been hit hard by the economic setbacks of the past few years. They may be less inclined to spend their vanishing disposable income on recreational pursuits like baseball games, however affordable they may be compared to their Major League counterparts.
Secondly, though, I think it speaks to the value of the games in providing people a healthy escape from what for many are challenging times, whether economically, or just psychically, with societal mental health suffering from the collateral damage of prolonged isolation from COVID lockdowns in some cases and a media/social media landscape designed to keep us in a perpetual frenzy (and online!) over one crisis after another.
I left our hard-working server what I hope was a good tip, and we continued our journey north, eventually arriving at our hotel in Niagara, New York, where we planned on taking in a Muckdogs road game that evening. After unpacking our array of infant equipment to include mechanical crib, noise machines, special chairs, strollers, and scooter, the receptionist informed me that a band would be performing in the courtyard outside our room on this Friday night. In my former, pre-child life, I would have welcomed this as good news, and made my way there for some music and beer, but in my new incarnation as a parent who is ready for bed when younger people are just beginning to debate where to go out, this was unsettling news.
Thankfully, I requested and received a quieter room on the other side of the hotel.
We then made our way to Sal Maglie Field in a gritty section of Niagara to watch the Muckdogs take on Niagara. Driving there, we passed lots of abandoned store fronts, some worn down autoparts stores and towing centers, and homes that had seen better days, all while little Shea treated us to some impressively loud screaming.
Accustomed to games in Batavia played in front of a few thousand fans and with entertaining in-game promotions, the barebones operation in Niagara - played in front of maybe 100 fans - was pretty anti-climactic.
Sal Maglie Field, Niagara, NY
Overcast and chilly, with my wife trying her best to buffer three-month old Shea from the wind, I had some misgivings about bringing everyone with me on the trip — misgivings that were amplified envisioning a return to our hotel with overtired kids and a rowdy band keeping them up all night.
We were, however, thrilled to find a smattering of Muckdog faithful in the crowd, including friends Betsey Higgins and Ginny Wagner, Muckdog season ticket holders who routinely make the 45-minute trek from their homes in Buffalo to Batavia. As Muckdog pitcher Nolan Sparks kept the hometown Niagara Power in check with an impressive blend of velocity and control, my son Bates asked Ginny “Do you want to play with me?” She gamely took him on in a few games of tic-tac-toe before he pulled out all his Star Wars action figures and earnestly explained to her an imagined biography of each one.
Meanwhile Batavia piled on runs and soon took a 6-0 lead, aided by three Niagara errors. The PA announcer asked the crowd to “please return foul balls to the concession stand for a piece of candy,” which struck me as a less-than-fair deal!
Unwilling to subject little Shea to any more of the blustery cold, or myself to more of what had become a route, we bid farewell to Betsey and Ginny, and retreated to the hotel, where we managed to all sleep well, undisturbed by the music on the patio.
Saturday morning, after Bates enjoyed a fun visit to the bi-weekly “Lego Club” for children that Betsey runs at the library where she works, we made our way about an hour to the east along I-90 to Batavia. I introduced my family to my familiar digs at the La Quinta and then we headed to the evening’s game at Dwyer. It was “Blue Devil Night” at the ballpark, named after the local high school team, and one of the summer’s bigger draws as it included various in-game promotions and activities highlighting the school community. Skies were blue, and it was unseasonably cool with temperatures in the low-60s.
Bates with Dewey the Muckdog and the evening’s “Baseball Buddies” before the game in Batavia. Bates approached Dewey and earnestly asked: “Muckdog do you know Spike? Do you know Turtle-ey," referring to mscots in other cities he liked and whose “stuffies” he now owns.
I dropped in to say hello to Robbie Nichols, the owner, who was pleased that his team in Elmira had enjoyed a packed house the previous night. He had gotten about five hours sleep before waking up to begin collecting the supplies he needed for tonight’s game, including a stop at the printer for programs, and making the two-hour drive up to Batavia. I then spotted Marc Witt, the general manager (and his son-in-law), sweeping the concourse with one of his young kids in tow. Robbie’s wife Nellie, meanwhile, collected tickets at the front entrance.
I then brought Bates up to the small press box to help PA Announcer Paul Spiotta announce the names of the batters as they approached the plate.
Bates announcing the next batter (I will try to embed a video in a subsequent post).
Fearful that he might get stage fright, I braced myself for the worst, but he ended up doing a great job.
Clubouse manager Erik Moscicki helps instruct Bates on how to perform the batboy duties.
We then walked down to the dugout where Erik Moscicki, a Batavia native serving in his second season as Clubhouse Manager, helped show him the ropes on batboy duties. Brice Mortillaro, a catcher with the team last summer who is missing this summer with an injury, said that Erik is the heart and soul of the team. Erik takes evident pride in his work, hand washing the thirty or so uniforms every night, often not leaving until the wee hours of the morning long after the players have left, only to return to the ballpark the next day to do it all over again. The players notice his devotion, and have taken to bringing a cardboard cutout picture of Erik with them in the dugout at road games he cannot make.
Bates retrieving a bat.
Introducing my wife and Shea to some of the regulars I have gotten to know, I am uplifted by a warmth that seems contagious. Dave Fisher, a gruff Guif War veteran who volunteers working security at the games, comes over and whispers kindly to Shea, as does an older woman working at the concession stand. Moments like these help distinguish baseball at this level from the more impersonal variety on offer at major league parks, where the sheer size and frenetic atmosphere, coupled with technology like self-serve areas where one scans one’s purchase, can make the experience feel impersonal, the fan one of thousands anonymously contributing to a bottom line, enriching an owner they will never meet, much less get to know like the fans in Batavia, many of whom chat regularly with Robbie as he takes their orders at the concession stand.
This article about so-called “improvements” to Citi Field points to a future I am perhaps less excited about than others.
Sensors scattered throughout the ballpark will provide up-to-the-minute details for lines at concession stands, bathrooms and restaurants. Over time, data collected on fans’ personal preferences will be used to recommend everything from when to use the bathroom to when to get in the beer line.
While more efficient, many of the developments seem to me to be an unnecessary intrusion of the technology that is suffocating us everywhere else in life. What had been an escape to a simpler world of bat and ball and leather glove, observed in the company of one’s friends and neighbors, will soon not be immune from the otherwise omnipresent technological assault on every aspect of our lives.
The team Batavia had been scheduled to play was from Canada and had backed out at the last minute, forcing them to scramble for an opponent, which turned out to be Queen City, a Municipal League team from Buffalo. These things happen at this level, team owner Robbie Nichols explained, saying that he had learned to never assume players or teams would show up until he saw the “whites of their eyes.'“ Like most teams occupying this rung of the baseball ladder, Queen City featured players of widely different ability levels, the pitcher a portly junkballer throwing in the mid-70s but managing to keep batters off-balance much like a poor man’s Bartolo Colon.
I spend some time wandering the concourse to get a better feel for what’s happening off the field, and run into a group from the Genesee County Park, Recreation, and Forestry Department who have set up a stand where they hope to recruit volunteers. They are looking for people willing to do things like serve as Greeters at Interpretive Nature Center, help with special events like Earth Day and 5/10K trail run, and even to “provide a balanced diet, exercise, and well-maintained tank for our red-eared turtle Slider.” They also advertised for guided kayak tour and a full harvest moon hike at a nearby park. I am struck by how this is the sort of stuff that helps hold communities together, uniting people in pursuit of good things, rather than dividing them into warring tribes like so many of the algorithms of social media seem designed to do.
On the field, Batavia struggles, locked in a 4-4 tie in the bottom of the 6th against this middling team of amateurs. The more prepared people in the crowd put on the the jackets or blankets they packed to help protect against a chilly wind blowing in from the west. Finally Batavia pulls away from the pesky club from Buffalo, going on to win 10-4. The temperature had by now officially tranisitioned from chilly to cold, but at least fifty percent of the crowd remained for the post-game fireworks, which explode over the right field fence to the sound of classics like Here I Go Again and Sweet Child of Mine.
As I duck into the front office to thank the staff for allowing Bates to announce a few batters and help out as batboy, I see general manager Marc Witt rounding up his kids for the late night drive to Elmira, where he will try to snag a few hours sleep before the next day’s late afternoon start down there.
I head back to the hotel, fingers crossed that my own kids - who my wife had brought back and put to bed earlier - are sleeping despite this being Shea’s longest trip from home. Stopping to grab a hot chocolate in the hotel lobby to help warm myself up - something I never expected to do after a June baseball game - I quietly make my way into the room to discover they are comfortably asleep.
I hope that this day will provide the stuff of sweet dreams for Bates for years to come, though the reality is it will probably be lost amidst the swirl of childhood.
I know I won’t soon forget, though.
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