This is Homestand, a journal focused on small-town baseball and community. I will provide periodic dispatches from reporting trips as I write a book for Doubleday exploring the importance of small town baseball in bringing people together. The newsletter will be free and include accounts and photos from my travels, using baseball to provide a window into life in places far from the big cities that too often dominate our news and culture. I will introduce the reader to the devoted fans, management, players, and coaches who populate this fascinating - yet endangered - ecosystem.
I will explore how - in our age of increased political polarization, accompanied by a retreat from healthy in-person interaction to the more toxic world of social media - coming together at the ballpark with one’s friends and neighbors serves such an important societal good. The newsletter will expand on some of the themes first addressed in this article for Harper’s: https://harpers.org/archive/2021/10/major-league-baseball-puts-minor-league-teams-out-to-pasture/
In the course of reporting that story, I was struck by how for decades the minor leagues and amateur summer leagues have helped anchor communities buffeted by powerful socioeconomic forces. Small town baseball is as much community picnic as sporting event. Kids roam the stadium freely with their buddies - and often run the bases after the games - while their parents enjoy beers with their friends and neighbors. Though it features nine innings and bases 90 feet apart, it is entirely different from the increasingly soulless Major League product on offer in 30 of our largest cities. The cadence of life at the local ballpark reveals a deep hunger for a sense of community that can be hard to find, yet is still alive in these rickety bleachers across America.
The nearly century-long rhythm of summers at these ballparks is at risk, though, as Major League Baseball (MLB) recently extinguished 40 minor league franchises, and could have their sights set on more minor and independent league teams. Additionally, the minor league teams that escape elimination are vulnerable to being gobbled up by private equity investors like Silver Lake, which reportedly has up to 40 of minor league baseball’s remaining 120 teams in its crosshairs.
One of the towns that was stripped of its minor league team is Batavia, in upstate New York. Baseball in Batavia was resurrected, though, through the devoted efforts of a new team owner who, along with a supportive City Manager and devoted fans, established a new team now competing in a college amateur league. I will chronicle how this team - the Muckdogs of the Perfect Game League - has worked to establish a foothold in the void left by MLB. I will, however, also visit a number of additional towns where - for now at least - baseball continues to enjoy a rich tradition, places where, in the words of one fan, “for 34 nights a year, we have something that tells us things are gonna be OK.”
MLB’s contraction plan drastically scaling back the minor league footprint in smaller communities aligns with an increasingly winner-take-all economy, where a handful of individuals and corporations grow fabulously wealthy while much of America is left behind. First went the local factory, off to China, followed by the local grocery store, swallowed by Walmart. Then the local diner was eaten by fast food chains, as the local movie theater disappeared into AMC & Netflix. And then, of course, anything that had managed to survive the carnage thus far was wiped out by Amazon. And now, the same sad story is beginning to be played out on our baseball fields as well.
In MLB, millionaires play for billionaires, in front of urban and suburban fans who must cough up hundreds of dollars on tickets and concessions. Meanwhile in the low minors and college summer leagues, admission is five bucks and the promotions endless: Dollar Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, and Thirsty Thursdays dot the schedule. A family of four can get parking, two adult tickets, two child tickets, four hot dogs, two sodas, two beers, and a program for around $50, less than half the price of two nosebleed seats in the Bronx. Players in the low minors struggle to get by on less than $5,000 for the entire season while Bryce Harper of the Philadelphia Phillies will make roughly $1,000 for every minute he is on the field, and $63,000 per at-bat, over the course of his 162-game season. That means he will make more per at bat than a child care provider in North Carolina will earn in three years.
There is a spirit that is manifested during nights at the small-town ballpark, though, one that is hard to articulate yet impossible to miss. In this version of the story, we see the American small town not as helpless victim, but instead as a source of hope, albeit one that is imperiled by the insatiable appetite of capitalism—without-conscience, a shadow that has been encroaching for decades now.
Maybe some answers to what ails us can be discovered under the lights in places like Dwyer Stadium in Batavia, New York, where the bleachers bend under modern day forces, but have yet to break.
Baseball is the latest battleground upon which we see the forces of Wall Street taking on Main Street, two competing visions for the future of America. I will chronicle the struggle by documenting the experiences of those on its front lines, seen through the prism of one of the most American things we have.