The Dog Days
The 4th of July Marks Midseason for the Muckdogs
Apologies for the delay in getting a post out. I feel like a long-haul trucker as I’ve been spending far too many hours on the interstate commuting back and forth to western New York.
I do want to mention a wonderful stop my son Bates and I made in Kannapolis, North Carolina, home of the Cannon Ballers, single-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, on our way to South Carolina a few weeks ago. It was the perfect way to cap off a long day spent in the car driving down from Pittsburgh.
Thanks for reading Homestand: Baseball and the Fight for the Heart of America! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
The more time I spend visiting small-town ballparks, and reflecting on my time in them, I feel like I’ve begun to identify what - for me - and I won’t presume to speak for all fans - feels like a sweet spot to the fan experience one can find in the low minors. Games at this level don’t feel as corporate and impersonal as MLB (and even some AAA) while still featuring quality, affordable baseball in generally first-rate facilities. There are goofy promotions and there is a relaxed family-friendly atmosphere (without going full Savannah Bananas and resembling a circus with a little baseball thrown in). In other words, for the baseball purist there is baseball being played by elite athletes with minimal distractions, while for the more casual fan there is increasingly tasty local food and beer, along with fun options for kids like bouncy houses, playgrounds, and splash pads. Places like Kannapolis get it, and surging attendance serves as evidence of this. What better way to spend a summer night…
Bates making friends with the men sitting in front of us. He also became buddies with a young boy who was with them and spent a few innings hunting for “zombies” with him in nearby seats. One of the pleasures of games in the low minors is how there is usually plenty of room for kids to roam as opposed to being jammed in to seats as can be the case at crowded MLB ballparks.
Kids enjoy up-close access to the bullpen.
Cannon Baller Bouncy House
Nice lawn area to stretch out just beyond the left field fence. Amenities like this make the experience feel less claustrophobic than crowded MLB ballparks, where kids - or mine at least - can have trouble sitting still for three hours.
They even had a splashpad!
After some time in South Carolina where we were joined by my wife and baby daughter who had flown down, followed by our 12-hour drive back to Pittsburgh, I dropped Bates off at home and continued on to Batavia the next day to catch the end of the July 4th weekend. I arrived in time to enjoy a Sunday matchup against Geneva, as well as postgame fireworks.
It was another beautiful afternoon, 80 degrees, sunny, with the seemingly ever-present light breeze drifting lazily from left to right across the outfield.
Muckdogs players Jerry Reinhart and Mitch Fleming took turns throwing BP while a remix of Take Me Home Tonight played on the PA system, the song punctuated by cracks of the bat.
I ducked into the clubhouse office of “Skip” Martinez, the manager, to ask how things had been going in my absence. He told me they’d been playing well, and were currently in second place in the western division. Four teams from each division will make the playoffs, where they will play single elimination games prior to a best of three championship series. Skip explained how there is a real benefit to clinching a spot with some time left in the regular season, so that managers can rest their pitchers for the playoff run when pitching arms will be at a premium as there will be no days off. Furthermore, top seeding is also much desired by team owners as it means additional home games to make a few bucks.
As I made my pregame rounds, I spotted team owner Robbie Nichols in the merchandise table. Though plagued all summer by an ongoing foot ailment, the longtime minor league hockey player usually still appears vigorous and energetic. Today, though, he looked tired. He told me that he missed his first game in over a decade of owning both baseball and hockey teams yesterday with a 24-hour bug of some sort. In a sign of how small and tight-knit the community is, I’d been tipped off to the fact that he might not be feeling well by his neighbors with whom I’d chatted and who told me that his truck hadn’t moved all day. Hobbled by his bum foot and depleted by the after-effects of his sickness, even the hyper-kinetic Robbie seemed to be feeling the dog days of summer, joking “there’s 28 days left in the season, but whose counting.”
It’s a close, fast-movie game, with Muckdogs starter Josh Milleville throwing six crisp innings of one run ball. This, despite the fact that the team had recently lost four players, some of whom had been major contributors. Losing players mid-season isn’t uncommon in summer ball, as college players have by now been playing for almost six months straight dating back to their school seasons, leading some to succumb to the grind and drop out for a variety of reasons.
Muckdogs fireballer Carlos Rodriguez, a powerfully built right-hander out of Tamps, who effortlessly throws in the low-90s, came in to close out the game. Players from divisional rival Geneva rose to their feet in the dugout, talking as much trash as any team I’ve seen to date, trying to will their batters to claw back from the 3-1 ninth inning deficit. Rodriguez struck out the first batter with a hard fastball. After a man reached first, the next batter, a powerful lefty, caught up with another Rodriguez fastball and hooked it around the right field foul pole for a game-tying homerun, the first I’d seen all summer. Rodriguez was pulled, and after some walks and an error, Geneva took a 5-3 lead into the 10th, going on to win 5-4 as a Muckdog rally fell short.
Deflated by the sudden defeat, the players half-heartedly signed some autographs before making their way back to the clubhouse as the fireworks exploded beyond the right field fence to the tunes of Toby Keith and Bruce Springsteen.
I decided to drop in to the front office to ask Robbie how his night had gone, only to discover him “napping” in his office with the lights out before beginning the assortment of tasks that needed attention before he and the other staffers could head home. Only then could he climb into his pickup and make the two-hour drive to Elmira for his other team’s game down there tomorrow.
Pregame with the local Knights of Columbus serving as Color Guard.
The evening saw the return of a past mascot, Maxwell T. Chomper, Esquire. I confess to having developed a little bit of a fascination with minor league mascots myself this summer, rooted in that of my son.
Another long summer night in Batavia — if only we could bottle them up and enjoy a few to help get through the February darkness.
Muckdogs players watch nervously as the game enters extra innings.
As I exited the ballpark after the long day of driving and then interviewing people at the game, I remembered that I’d signed up for the next morning’s 4th of July 5K earlier in the summer. After what felt like a very quick night’s sleep, my alarm went off and I made my way to Centennial Park for the race. The smell of manure from nearby farms was powerful as I drove to the park for the race on a glorious 70-degree morning. Feeling dehydrated and sluggish, I regretted the two IPAs I’d had the night before in an effort to unwind and get to sleep after the game. Nonetheless, I managed to drag myself around the course with a halfway respectable time, though not before resolving to get back in shape this summer. The sleep-deprived nights with a newborn girl at home coupled with too much time lost on the interstate had taken their toll. Still, it was a fun race, with plenty of people out on their front lawns and porches cheering us on. I’m grateful to my wife, Marcy, for turning me on to holiday 5Ks, as I’ve discovered what a great way they are to foster a sense of community.
4th of July 5K getting ready to kickoff in Batavia’s Centennial Park.
After running the 5K…
I then headed to the local comic store to pickup a small Star Wars toy for Bates, which he is now accustomed to receiving if his behavior earns him a good “report card” from his mom, only to discover they’re closed. Luckily, I remembered that I’d prepared for just this contingency on my last visit by picking up one extra action figure just in case, and so - relieved - I continued on my two-hour drive down to Elmira for the final game of the weekend.
As I drove, I noticed a father pitching to his son on a roadside diamond in the town of Leicester, son wearing a batting helmet as his dad scooped balls from a bucket and tossed them toward the plate. Having played pickup baseball with my buddies for hours and hours at a nearby park as a child, I was struck by how I literally cannot even remember the last time I’d witnessed anyone playing non-organized baseball, or even pitch and catch. This simple observation - which others have also relayed to me in various conversations about the future of the sport - says a lot about the health of baseball moving forward.
After making a short visit to see Mark Twain’s writing cottage and gravesite in Elmira, I made my way to the ballpark, winding through the city’s downtown which featured the empty buildings and storefronts that are sadly too common in some of the region’s more economically-distressed towns.
It is yet another beautiful afternoon, 75 degrees with an occasional cloud meandering past a bright sun, leading my embarrassingly superstitious side when it comes to weather to wonder when my string of remarkable good luck will end. The crowd at Dunn Field is small as I suspect most people are relaxing at home on the final day of this long holiday weekend.
The first fan to arrive was soon-to-be 94-year-old Herb Tipton, who made his way through the gate at 4:50PM, General Manager Marc Witt greeting him warmly before the gates even officially opened and retrieving his seat-cushion from its overnight storage place in a nearby merchandise tent. “Not gonna get that sort of personalized treatment at Yankee Stadium,” Marc observes. I’ll later spend some time talking with Herb, enjoying his modest, soft-spoken personality and quick wit. A Korean War veteran, it’s only after some probing that he told me about how he was nearly killed when an incoming shell landed in his foxhole on the night he was supposed to redeploy home from combat. Pointing towards the field, he said the enemy was as close to him as the left field fence. Somehow the man he dove on top of was wounded by shrapnel from the exploding shell while he emerged unscathed. Perhaps this helps to explain the peace he now clearly feels at the ballpark, as he watches the game alone with a serene expression, occasionally smiling as one of the many people he knows passes by and says hello.
I told him that his recollection reminded me of a similar situation in Iraq when some soldiers in my battalion were wounded by incoming indirect fire one night as they waited to board choppers to begin their journey home after a tough 14-month deployment. A long meeting with leaders from the unit replacing us was interrupted by the sound of mortars exploding nearby followed by the screams of men who had been hit while waiting in the flight line. We’d had to abruptly postpone the meeting to run outside and help with the injured (luckily no one was killed). Some of the soldiers from the incoming unit who were on their first deployment were visibly shaken experiencing this on one of their first nights in-country.
Anyway, apologies for the brief detour into the past. It occurs to me that perhaps it is the leisurely pace of baseball that can lead one to get lost in thought from time to time, though hopefully such thought is generally of a more positive variety.
Perhaps my conversation with Herb led me to remain in a contemplative mood as the game rolled along, though, as the sight of young kids running the bases between innings sparked memories of scampering around my grandfather’s backyard playing baseball as a child, some of my very first memories actually. As one summer rolled into the next, the time passing so much more slowly as children than it does now, we were under the pleasant illusion the games would last forever, my brother and I playing long into the summer twilight, fireflies flickering, warm grass under our bare feet, imagining the line drives of plastic balls rocketing off his house looming over left field as striking Fenway’s “Green Monster,” my grandfather lovingly heckling us from his lawn chair under a nearby shade tree, glass of scotch in hand.
Some neighborhood fireworks snapping in the backyards of houses just past the right field fence help snap me out of this reverie and back to the present, and the game unfolding before me on Dunn Field, which Elmira goes on to win 7-3.
Pump it Up plays on the PA system as the team gathers in the infield to celebrate their win, followed by Sinatra’s New York, New York.
The small crowd files to the exits, smiles on most faces. The holiday weekend will soon be over, but for now everyone is happy.
Herb Tipton, a Korean War combat veteran and season-ticket holder who just turned 94, always arrives early to take in pregame batting practice. He still drives himself to every game. He tells me he has sat in this same seat since 1973. He threw out the first pitch on Military Appreciation Night, and also does so every year on his birthday.
Longtime Elmira fan and “foul ball shagger” Charles Bennett. He says he always gets at least one foul ball and his best night featured 35. He’ll return them for a few bucks or sometimes some food from the concession stand or merchandise. He was kind enough to insist I take one he had retrieved to bring home to my son, Bates. There are a number of shaggers, most respecting each other’s unwritten zones of coverage, though some play a little dirty and will infringe on others’ turf.
Here is what I think was a good interview with Lucine Kauffman on WBTA. I encourage everyone to check it out. We discuss small-town baseball, today’s media landscape, the perils of social media, toxic politics, mental health, and much more:
Finally, this article by Scott Kindberg of the Jamestown Post-Journal is worth a read as it is a heartwarming tale of how simple acts of kindness at the ballpark can go a long way:
As always, if you enjoy these updates, please share them on social media and with friends, family, and neighbors and encourage them to subscribe. I appreciate each and every subscription.
Thanks for reading Homestand: Baseball and the Fight for the Heart of America! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.