Batavia, New York, is located approximately 35 miles southwest of Rochester, but the two cities are united by more than just geographical proximity. They are also, now more than ever, united by Minor League Baseball.
The Batavia Muckdogs, named for the fertile "muck" farmland that is prevalent in the area, are the lone remaining charter member of the Class A Short Season New York-Penn League. In fact, the league -- originally known as the PONY League (Pennsylvania, Ontario, New York) -- was founded in the city in 1939. The Red Wings, meanwhile, are the oldest continuously operating franchise in Minor League Baseball. The team, originally known as the Broncos, has competed in the Triple-A International League since 1899, and professional baseball in the region dates back even further.
Both the Muckdogs and the Red Wings are community-owned, and prior to the 2008 season, a relationship was formed between the two entities. The Red Wings are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Muckdogs, assuming all expenses and receiving all revenue. This arrangement has, at the very least, extended the tenuous existence of the Muckdogs, who play in no-frills, city-owned Dwyer Stadium and have for years struggled to draw fans as a result of operating in a small market with a stagnant economy and declining population.
I visited Batavia and Rochester as part of an end-of-season New York-based stadium road trip, and while there spoke to executives in both cities in order to get a better understanding of the unique relationship between the two clubs.
Travis Sick has served as the Muckdogs general manager since 2009, an impressive feat considering that he only began working in Minor League Baseball two seasons prior. He began as a Red Wings intern, transitioning to the Muckdogs front office in 2008 when the Red Wings assumed operations of the team.
"The Red Wings took over because, before that, management weren't paying their bills, weren't doing the right thing," he said, speaking to me during Aug. 22's game against Mahoning Valley. "The league threatened to take over the team, and from there they probably would have left Batavia and never came back. The Red Wings stepped up and saved baseball in Batavia at that point. It would be a shame to lose it. They've been here since 1939 and I don't think they wanted to see that happen."
Here, he paused.
"The financials, they're okay. They're not great, we'll put it that way. But the Red Wings are committed to making it work."
Indeed, the Red Wings have lost money in each of the seven seasons they've operated the Muckdogs. However, they receive a five percent stake in the team's ownership for each year that they do so, meaning that they now own 35 percent of the club. This percentage will be capped at 50 percent after 10 years, with the non-profit community group Genesee County Baseball Club (GCBC) retaining a technical majority.
"In the New York-Penn League, the market price [for a team] is five or six million and [the Red Wings] are going to get some of that back if the team is ever sold," said Sick. "We have been officially for sale since 2010, but they're not going to take any lowball effort they can get. They don't want someone to swoop in and immediately move the team… The [GCBC] isn't going to accept just any offer that comes through either. Obviously they would have a say in that, being majority owners. If the team is ever sold, the Red Wings get whatever percentage they have and, in the GCBC bylaws, their proceeds from a sale would go to benefit youth in Batavia."
The Genesee County Baseball Club consists of a 25-member Board of Directors, who are elected each year. Brian Paris serves as GCBC president, and Bill Kauffman as vice-president.
"I attend the board meetings; I answer their questions," said Sick. "I'm a go-between, between them and the Red Wings. I take their suggestions and suggest things to them that they can help out with the ballpark. They don't have a lot of money to work with, but they can make certain improvements to enhance the atmosphere. … [GCBC] understands the situation and ultimately want to see baseball succeed here, so they're going to do anything they can. They spread the word about the Muckdogs and have taken up some sales efforts as well. I'm the only employee who works year-round here, so I can use all of the sales help that I can get."
The Rochester Red Wings, who call Frontier Field home, are minority owners of the Batavia Muckdogs. (Ben Hill/MiLB.com)
The next day I visited Rochester's Frontier Field and, while there, spoke with Naomi Silver. Silver is the chairman and chief operating officer of Rochester Community Baseball, the organization that owns the team. Silver is a major player in the team's decision to take over day-to-day operations of the Muckdogs.
"Batavia was a ballclub that was in that awful position of being under the threat of going out of business," said Silver. "They could just not afford to operate any longer. It's a team that has great value, but if you can't pay your bills and you can't open the gates then, you're going nowhere. You have to sell the franchise, the league will force a sale. … It's not a robust community from which we can draw enough people to make it viable. [Running the Muckdogs] is kind of a community service right now."
Silver would know a thing or two about baseball-oriented community service. In 1956 her father, Red Wings president Morrie Silver, launched a successful stock drive that raised enough money to keep the team in Rochester.
"[The Red Wings] were in a little bit of trouble because the [parent] St. Louis Cardinals were going to close the operation. At that time it was common to have more than one Triple-A team, and they were going to shut down Rochester because it was not the most successful," said Silver, regarding the events of 1956. "My dad devised this plan of stock ownership, so he made phone calls and started pounding the pavement to sell shares. It was a pretty public campaign, 8,000 people got involved and they sold 42,000 shares at $10 apiece. That raised almost enough money, and my father put in the rest to buy the franchise and the stadium from the Cardinals. And we have operated successfully ever since."
The Red Wings remain a community-owned operation to this day. The number of shareholders has declined somewhat, but 42,000 shares remain and Silver estimates that they are valued between $90 and $100.
So was Silver's family legacy a motivating factor in the Red Wings decision to operate the Muckdogs?
"Oh, I don't know," she said, after a long pause. "I just kind of fell for them, you know? It's very tough on a community when they lose a team. Very tough. It's usually a sign that the population has faltered or the economy has faltered. So we'll run it for as long as we can."
Just how much longer remains an open question. The Muckdogs lose money every year, and their market demographics are increasingly out of step within an ever-evolving New York-Penn League that includes attendance powerhouses such as the Brooklyn Cyclones, Lowell Spinners and Aberdeen IronBirds (the only NYPL team to draw fewer fans than the Muckdogs in 2014 were the Jamestown Jammers, who are relocating to Morgantown, West Virginia, for next season). Given these circumstances, it seems improbable that a buyer will emerge who is willing to keep the team in Batavia.
"It's very rural out here, not a lot of big business, so you're working with a lot of different sponsors and a lot of smaller groups," said Sick. "We have to stretch out, marketing not just to Genesee County but the surrounding counties as well. The city of Batavia only has about 16,000 people and Genesee County only has 60,000. We always joke that, per capita, we're drawing the most in the league. But that doesn't equate to the bottom line."
What also doesn't equate to the bottom line is Batavia's distinct sense of place and increasingly anachronistic status as a bastion of small-town baseball within a league, and an industry, dominated by larger markets and new, amenity-laden facilities. GCBC vice president Bill Kauffman, a Batavia native and well-known political writer and novelist, spoke to me about the inimitable charm of the Muckdogs during the game I attended in August.
"We consider ourselves the Green Bay Packers of Minor League Baseball. This team was passed on to us, and we hope that we can pass it on to the next generation," said Kauffman, whose published works include a book about Batavia entitled Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette.
"The stands are a meeting place. You can feel the presence of the people here, and you can feel the presence of those who have passed away. There's a great continuity. … This is the soul of baseball, right here, and this team is central to our identity."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.