"Play Ball" After a Long Winter
All winter Batavia Muckdogs fans kept telling me “Just wait till summer at Dwyer.” Their voices could sometimes take on an almost mystical quality, and I couldn’t help but wonder if these poetic odes to warm summer nights with a bright sun casting shadows over the trees beyond center field would come true. I did know, though, as my feet got soaked stepping into icy slush puddles along Main Street in Batavia, a biting chill seeming to cut right through my windbreaker, that I hoped it to be so.
Cold February night at Dwyer Stadium.
Owner Robbie Nichols addresses the Muckdogs’ faithful at his second annual “Season Ticket Holder Party” at the Eli Fish Brewery in downtown Batavia. General Admission Season Tickets came in at $99 for the 30-home games, or less than the price of one good ticket to an NFL, NBA, or NHL game, and not much more than one decent ticket to an MLB game. Also, and maybe it’s just me, but there is something uniquely satisfying opening a stack of old-fashioned paper tickets and imagining the good times they will deliver over the course of the summer. And, at the Season Opener, it would be especially gratifying to hand the ticket over to Robbie’s wife, Nellie, as she helped work the entrance to the stadium. Paper tickets seem more personal and spark in me fond memories of going to games in years past with my dad and family - and then collecting the used ticket stubs as souvenirs. It’s just not the same to scan codes from your iPhone into a machine manned by an anonymous MLB gate attendant after being searched from head to toe for contraband.
Muckdogs season ticket holders listen as this year’s squad is introduced. The Eli Fish Brewery is locally owned and has been working hard by delivering good craft beer and food to establish a beachhead for new businesses to re-populate Main Street in Batavia.
The calm before the storm outside historic Dunn Field in Elmira, NY, before the evening’s season home opener vs. the Muckdogs. Robbie Nichols owns both teams, and told a local radio host he will root for whoever is playing at home.
A picture on the exterior of the Dunn Field grandstand captures Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in October 1928 as they played an exhibition game there. Schools reportedly closed early to let kids attend the game in front of a packed house. The Babe delivered, walloping a 500-foot home run where, according to the local paper at the time, “the sphere ascended skyward with a speed of a bullet after its collision with the Ruthian war club and was still traveling upward as it went over the fence” landing on the roof of a house on Phoenix Avenue.
Hall of Fame Manager Earl Weaver lived in a modest house in Elmira and managed there for four years beginning in 1962.
Legendary baseball lifer Don Zimmer was married at Home Plate in Elmira, and this photo can be found in the concourse at Dunn Field. He spent 65 years involved in professional baseball at all levels.
Stitches the Mascot getting ready to help open the gates for the Home Opener as a few hundred fans had already gathered outside waiting for admission.
Robbie takes a quick moment to smile before taking the field for the pre-game festivities.
Local elementary school kids from the Corning-Painted Post School District sing “God Bless America.”
Kids from the Twin Tiers Cadet Squadron, an auxiliary of the Air Force Civil Air Patrol, rehearse for their Color Guard duties.
Owner Robbie Nichols mans the concession stand, where either he or Nellie worked all game trying to keep up with the long lines. In a season where there are only 30-home games, and where the Home Opener is one of the biggest gate draws of the year, every sale counts.
Packed house… official announced attendance was 4,639. This figure is pretty remarkable for an amateur college league (note: The Oakland A’s have had some crowds smaller than this this season).
The sun setting over the Dunn Field parking lot.
Finally, just a brief administrative note so I can clarify a little bit about what I hope these dispatches will be (and won’t be).
As I mentioned, I’m spending the summer traveling and going to these games as I work on a book. However, given the length of time it will take me to actually write the book, and the slow nature of book publishing, it will likely be close to two years before you will be able to head over to Barnes and Noble to buy it. So, I am posting these short snapshot updates as a way to provide a flavor for the project and - hopefully - generate interest in the eventual book. It is also a good forcing function to keep me on top of my research and photography.
This isn’t the place to come for daily updates on how the team is doing. For that, I suggest the team’s Twitter feed or the Muckdogs Fan Page on Facebook.
There also won’t be a “narrative arc” to these posts where I tell the story of the summer from beginning to end, nor will I be introducing the key people or larger themes of the eventual book in much detail. In short, these short dispatches won’t amount to a “mini-book.”
This is for two reasons: One, I just don’t have the time to construct a self-contained story here since I’m expending so much time and energy collecting material for the book (and endless hours in the car driving). Secondly, the goal is obviously to whet the reader’s appetite for the book. If everyone emerges from these posts confident they already know all there is to know about what baseball means to these communities, and as a result has little interest in the book, then this was an entirely self-defeating exercise!
So, for now, I ask that you trust me that these posts are just the tip of the iceberg - put together rather hastily - to provide a taste of what small-town baseball is all about. They are like an appetizer… while the book will be the main course.
P.S. As always, I ask that you please spread the word and let friends and family know about this project, and encourage them to subscribe. And don’t hesitate to comment on the posts or reach out to me. I’m trying to build a community of interest. Some of you have already shared great stories and recommended valuable articles to me, which have helped me quite a bit as I continue to explore this fascinating baseball ecosystem.