When the professional baseball circuit now known as the New York-Penn League was founded in 1939, one of its six original teams hailed from the western New York city of Jamestown. That team, the Jaguars, was the first of many NYPL teams to have called the city home. (The Jammers, Class A Short Season affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, are the current iteration.)
But Jamestown's long and distinguished Minor League Baseball history is coming to a close -- at least for the time being, and quite possibly forever.
On Sunday morning, Jamestown residents awoke to the following news, as reported on the front page of the local Post-Journal: "Report: Jammers Leaving." A scenario that Jammers fans had long feared was now a reality: the team is relocating to Morgantown, West Virginia, in 2015, planning to play in a brand-new facility shared with West Virginia University.
On Sunday afternoon, I visited Jamestown's 73-year-old Russell Diethrick Park and witnessed the concluding game of the Jammers' penultimate homestand. The attendance was announced at 389, but within this paltry crowd were individuals for whom New York-Penn League baseball was a way of life. The attitude among the Jammers faithful with whom I spoke was one of frustration, resignation and, above all, sadness. The team's imminent departure was a cause for mourning as it marks the cessation of what has been a cherished and irreplaceable summertime tradition.
Russell Diethrick Park is a decidedly no-frills facility that evokes a bygone era, consisting of a covered grandstand and bleacher seating on the first- and third-base lines. Upon entering the ballpark, the first person I encountered was Andrew Sisson, a stocky, short-haired and smiling 16-year-old who was perched behind a rectangular wooden box, painted a deep blue, hawking Jammers programs. This kind of work has become second nature to him -- in addition to vending, he has served as batboy and, on occasion, "jumped into the [mascot] suit."
"[The Jammers' departure] is upsetting to me, because I've known a couple of the players really personally. A couple of them have stayed with us over the years because they needed a place to stay while they were playing," said Sisson, whose father, George, used to serve as the team's assistant general manager. "There are a couple guys I can name who are big now: Scott Cousins, Logan Morrison, Chris Coghlan. There was one night we were out until one in the morning shooting baskets with those guys, talking about how they have a shot -- ya know -- start out in Jamestown and end up in the Majors. … There's not many things to do in Jamestown, but there's always, 'Hey, let's go see a Jammers game.' I find it really fun, and I wish it could've kept going."
Meanwhile, in the grandstand, the most loyal Jammers fans can be found in Section B. There, behind home plate and shaded just down the first-base line, one finds a boisterous, retired high school baseball coach named Bill Schroeder. Bespectacled and outfitted in a Toronto Blue Jays hat and novelty T-shirt (a skeleton holding the vertebrae of another skeleton below the words, "I got your back"), Schroeder is alternately irreverent and sincere when speaking about his long history attending games at Russell Diethrick Park. He played high school games at the stadium in the mid-1960s and has been attending Minor League games since 1972.
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"I love baseball. It wouldn't matter who's here or what's here. I'd come. Absolutely. I've always been a baseball man, baseball coach, baseball person," he said. "Well, they've got a pro team here so I'm gonna go to the games."
He gestures at those sitting around him.
"Then I ran into these idiots, and then you got these lowlifes up here. One after another, we all met, and we have a great time," he said to the general laughter and mild protestations of those around him. "Those of us sitting here, we loved the Montreal Expos when they owned the team [from 1977-93]. Marquis Grissom played here, Andres Galarraga played here. And they not only won, they were fun. They were entertaining, and they played the game the way it was meant to be played."
But, those days, there were a lot more people in the stands.
"Now this is a general statement, not specific, but the people in Jamestown don't [care at all] about this team. There's a little bit of apathy," he said. "On giveaway nights or buyout nights when one of the businesses would buy out [all of the seats], we used to get 2,800 or 3,000 [fans]. But these days there are a [heck] of a lot less people. Maybe it's the economy in this area of New York, this county. It's awful -- people are moving out left and right. … There's been a gradual tailoff.
"Anytime you lose a professional franchise, especially a small town like this, it's a kick in the ass. It makes you look bad. John Elway played here, Don Mattingly played here, Pete Rose's son played here -- I could go on and on and on. But when it leaves, you're going to have an empty building, and there's going to be a void."
After Schroeder finished speaking, I heard a quiet, measured voice behind me.
"It's sad. This is just sad."
This was Tim Kindberg, sitting next to his brother, Steve. The Kindbergs have been coming to games at Russell Diethrick Park for their entire lives.
"It's a whole father-son baseball thing, that's what it's about," said Kindberg. "One night in 2009, we had an overnight here. We had the tents set up, Steve had his son and I had my two boys. We slept in right field, and that night our boys helped clean the uniforms. Those kind of memories. It's really sad.
"My dad, in the 1950s, he sold peanuts here," he continued. "But now, how can this place compete with multimillion-dollar stadiums? And I understand. I mean, it's a business. If you owned a Major League team and you had a place to put your affiliates, would you want them here? I understand, but it's sad. … There were a group of us who became good friends just by watching the games here, and we're going to lose that."
Julie and Bruce Dudgeon, a middle-aged married couple, are a key component of this informal group of good friends.
"Bruce and I have been part of a committee trying to keep the team here," said Julie, removing her glasses and wiping tears from her eyes. "But unless there's a rabbit to be pulled out of a hat, I'm afraid this will be it. … This is really a great place -- a great family place. Lots of memories. Our kids grew up shagging balls and hanging out with the players. We had players out at our house."
"The players used to stay at JCC [Jamestown Community College] in the dorms, but college starts before the baseball season is over, so we'd take one or two ballplayers into our house," added Bruce. "Other people would do the same thing and the team would be spread all around the town. When you've got a ballplayer, 20 years old, and feed him a home-cooked meal, you've got a friend for life."
"It was a great thing for our sons to have their big older brothers," said Julie, after the laughter following Bruce's comment died down. "They met people from all over the country, actually all over the world. It was safe and it was friendly -- just a great thing. There are a few people here who are just die-hard fans, so passionate, with the influence to make things happen. And they've knocked themselves out trying to keep the team. You just can't give up..."
"You just can't give up," said Bruce, picking up where his wife left off. "Like Yogi Berra said, 'It ain't over 'til it's over.'"
"But the attendance is not here, you can see that," said Julie. "There are just a lot of factors. But it's a great place. You don't find places like this. If it is the end, it's very sad to think of it. For 75 years, they had baseball here."