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Batavia Baseball Faces Uncertain Future

Muckdogs raise curtain on 2010 New York-Penn League season

There was once a time when Buffalo baseball fans could point their cars in almost any direction and find a professional baseball game within a short drive.

The New York-Penn League, a short season “A” level league, was flush with teams in upstate New York and southern Ontario, but as the 2010 season begins, just two remain—the Batavia Muckdogs and the Jamestown Jammers. The Muckdogs opened their 2010 season this past Saturday at Dwyer Stadium.

Over the past two decades, the league has undergone a huge metamorphosis. Gone are small-town teams playing in dusty neighborhood ballparks in places like St. Catharines, Geneva and Utica.

Where have the teams moved? Try MCU Park in Brooklyn, a veritable baseball theme park attached to the famed boardwalk in Coney Island. Or Aberdeen, Maryland, where Cal Ripken owns his own baseball team, and adjacent to the ballpark is a hotel that architecturally replicates Baltimore’s B&O Warehouse at Camden Yards. Or the State College Spikes, who play in a gleaming new ballpark right in the shadows of Beaver Stadium on the Penn State Campus.

This past season, legendary owner Sam Nader of the Oneonta Tigers finally called it quits, and the team he so loved and shepherded over the generations left the dog-eared Damaschke Field for good, relocating to Norwich, Connecticut.

Nonetheless, community activist and Genesee County Baseball Club board member Russ Salway looks towards this season with a combined sense of hope and foreboding as he spreads the word about his beloved Muckdogs. “I got involved in all this back in the late ’90s, and we still had a lot of these teams in this region, but now there are just three left.” Salways says. “The landscape has definitely changed but that is the case in all of minor league baseball.”

Salway, his fiancé, and their combined families with four children at home also share their space with two ball players, and all live within walking distance of Dwyer Stadium. “The kids just love it. It gives us a chance to engage with these guys in a very special way, and we keep in touch with these players as they advance through the system on their way to the big leagues.”

The Muckdogs won the league championship in 2008, beating upstate rival Jamestown in a thrilling three game series. While that did a lot to raise attention and spirits around the club, it did little to erase an accumulated deficit which reached $200,000.

“We couldn’t continue the path we were going on,” says Salway. So we brought in the Rochester Red Wings organization to assist us in the day to day management of the team.”

The results have been noticeable, and everyone gives high marks to their involvement. Merchandise offerings have been upgraded and expanded, new concession items are selling well, including the must-have Muckdogs Chow. “We’ve consistently ranked in the top 25 in minor league baseball in terms of merchandise sales since we became the Muckdogs,” Salway says.

Team broadcaster Pat Malacaro also appreciates the community spirit that surrounds the Muckdogs, while also wondering what the future holds. “There is a hardcore group of season ticket holders here, and game day in the stands is a real community social experience, but one asks if it’s just a matter of time before some out of town investment group swoops in and makes a big offer,” Malacaro says.

All Muckdogs home games and select road games are broadcast on WBTA 1490 AM. Malacaro calls the games, in addition to his duties as an on-air personality at WGR sports radio. “Teams like the Muckdogs are a throwback to the way baseball used to be,” says Malacaro. “You come to a game here and you get to see a group of prospects, and one or two of them might make the majors, and you get to see these guys before they get the ego and the notoriety.”

Salway agrees. “These players see the shiny new ballparks in places like Staten Island and State College, but once they spend a couple weeks here they are treated like the town heroes. They go to civic events and youngsters are clamoring for autographs.”

So why would a Buffalo-based baseball fan want to go to Batavia to see a game? “It’s as grassroots as you can get,“ Salway says. “You sit in the stands and you can hear the game, the ball hitting the mitt, the banter on the field. It’s also a great social atmosphere.”

The Muckdogs hosted their Opening Day this past Saturday, and will play a 76-game schedule that runs through Labor Day. “Make no mistake,” Salway says. “This league has vastly changed, but we here in upstate New York are still the heartbeat of the New York-Penn League.”

“We need the support from Buffalo and Rochester,” adds Malacaro. “This is a regional asset. We hope to keep it here for good.”

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