How Three Minor League Teams Saved Hometown Baseball - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How Three Minor League Teams Saved Hometown Baseball

How Three Minor League Teams Saved Hometown Baseball

By Nick Fouriezos

SourceImages Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because baseball has always been a sport about having faith in the unseen.

By Nick Fouriezos

They were hundreds of miles apart, but on the night when the devastating news broke, they might as well have all been from the same small towns, the same struggling economies, the same weary fan bases. Forty-two minor league teams, a fourth of the Major League feeder system, could suddenly see their ties to the big leagues cut, the New York Times reported in November 2019.

In Erie, Pennsylvania, city councilwoman Liz Allen found out while scrolling through Twitter that her beloved Seawolves were on the list — a particularly devastating blow given that she also volunteers as an usher for the team and has baseball to thank for her marriage to Eric Compton, the game day scorekeeper. “There was, in my mind, a very fundamental unfairness,” Allen says.

In Binghamton, New York, avid Rumble Ponies fans couldn’t believe their eyes either, with booster club members Kevin Healy and Jim Maggiore furiously texting each other and feeling particularly bad for John Hughes, the owner who spent years pining for his own team and had recently poured millions of dollars into the Mets-affiliated club. “My reaction was just extreme anger. I just didn’t feel it was right,” Healy says.

Portland Sea Dogs vs Binghamton Rumble Ponies

John Mora of the Binghamton Rumble Ponies dives back to first on a pickoff attempt.

Source Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Getty

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a mayor and a city full of baseball fans were stunned to find their historic Lookouts slated to be axed as well. “To talk about a team that started in 1885 and just being done with that is shocking,” team president Rich Mozingo said in disbelief. “It hits you really to your core.”

People across America united by nothing except their shared love for the sport were thrust into a crisis. Many teams wouldn’t make it, seeing their affiliations with the Big Show tragically end. But this is the story of how three embattled towns decided to fight for the survival of their Double-A baseball teams, harnessing every bit of their determination, grit and no small bit of luck along the way.

*** 

After reading the news on her phone, Allen was afraid to speak, smarting from what felt as visceral as a slap to the face. Both Erie and the state of Pennsylvania had just committed to $16 million in improvements to the Seawolves stadium, with taxpayers footing $12 million of the bill with a grant. The team had been told by their affiliate Detroit Tigers to improve the ballpark, and they were responding, with a brand-new diamond and outfield, a team store, a left-field plaza and a kid zone on the way. 

MILB: APR 21 Erie Seawolves at Bowie Baysox

Erie Seawolves catcher Ramon Cabrera (#38) celebrates with Erie Seawolves outfielder Steven Moya (#44) at home plate during a regular season baseball match between the Bowie Baysox and the Erie Seawolves.

Source Daniel Kucin Jr./Getty

Now all of that seemed for naught. “It was a repetition of a story we’ve heard so many times,” says Allen, who, as a local reporter for decades, had covered countless tales of employers like the Hammermill Paper Company and General Electric promising to stay, only to leave amid the manufacturing industry’s decline. But while Allen wanted to speak up, she stopped herself — after all, what if her words accidentally hurt the team’s chances at staying? “You didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize the decision.” And so, at first, she let the pitch go by.

That was the kind of tough decision being weighed in Binghamton, another long-struggling factory town full of people who firmly believe its best days are still ahead. Only Hughes, the owner, decided to swing for the fences. Flanked by the Binghamton mayor and the local state senator, Hughes spoke bluntly at a press conference three days after the news broke, calling the proposal the first of many steps in “cleaning out minor league baseball from rural communities, working-class people who don’t have the means or ability to drive three hours to pay several hundred dollars to watch a Major League Baseball game.” 

“The anticipation is the hardest part. The waiting. And the unknown.”

Binghamton Rumble Ponies owner John Hughes

One of the very first owners to speak up and not hold back, Hughes made a bold play for someone who had owned the team for less than four years. But his passion was understandable: He had sacrificed a lot to restore faith in the organization, not just spending millions but also pioneering a popular name change — from the B-Mets to the Rumble Ponies — that celebrated the region’s roots as the carousel capital of the world. Like Erie, Binghamton had ponied up serious cash: dropping nearly $10 million into its stadium in recent years. “Shame on the commissioner,” said New York state senator Fred Akshar: “The fact that we would let a group of millionaires and billionaires turn small communities like ours on our heads is despicable, and it’s motivated by one thing: greed.” 

That public lashing wasn’t appreciated at MLB headquarters downstate in New York City. The backlash from numerous minor league teams, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said, may have caused lasting damage: “You know, when people publicly attack a longtime partner after they’ve committed to confidentiality in the negotiating process, usually people don’t feel so good about that.” 

Binghamton Rumble Ponies v Portland Sea Dogs

Stephen Villines (#28) of the Binghamton Rumble Ponies delivers in the fifth inning of the game between the Portland Sea Dogs and the Binghamton Rumble Ponies.

Source Zachary Roy/Getty

In Binghamton, that statement worried Maggiore, who had founded the Rumble Ponies booster club. “I do think we got in trouble with that,” Maggiore reflects. For a moment, it seemed like the aggressiveness from minor league teams was about to backfire. Even Hughes, despite his confidence, found himself up late at night, uncertain. “We put ourselves in a position to win,” the owner says, “but you’re never really sure until the announcement is made. Up until that moment, you lie awake, wondering if it’s a coin toss, a 50-50 chance. Where do we stand? Because nobody was really talking. It’s tough. It’s like the old Heinz commercial: The anticipation is the hardest part. The waiting. And the unknown.”

*** 

By New Year’s Day 2020, while there was little information coming from MLB, fans couldn’t sit on their hands any longer. In Erie, Allen finally found her voice, rallying her fellow councilmembers and calling local staff for Gov. Tom Wolf, who had visited the Seawolves’ stadium to announce the $12 million state grant just the year before. She turned back to the power of her pen, writing an op-ed for the Erie Reader about how the past and present of baseball could affect them all.

“Places like Erie rely on self-mythologizing tales about overcoming long odds to succeed, because we are all too familiar with such odds. We don’t stand out on the map. We are stereotyped as a down-on-our-luck Rust Belt community. Our geography puts us in the center of a lot of bad weather,” she wrote, titling her column “Save the Seawolves.”

In Binghamton, Maggiore and Healy were writing too — furiously sending letters to the offices of every New York lawmaker they could think of, with signatures from their 130 booster club members. “We signed and mailed each one, because we wanted them to go through the labor and process of opening an envelope,” Maggiore says. In February, when U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi held a town hall at the local elementary school, baseball fans peppered him with questions: By the end, Brindisi was wearing a Rumble Ponies T-shirt. 

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke had plans of his own. While at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C., he announced he was co-chairing a 20-person task force to save minor league baseball. “We know the impact that it could have on our communities — empty ballparks, jobless workers, and steep declines in tax revenue,” Berke wrote on Facebook. 

In Binghamton, Hughes was confident. Not only did the Rumble Ponies have the attention of the MLB, but the letters and public support had also gotten in front of Chuck Schumer, the powerful then-U.S. Senate minority leader (now majority leader) and New Yorker. Schumer convinced MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem to take a tour of the Rumble Ponies stadium with him. It was a stunning development: One of the most powerful men in America, convincing one of the most powerful men in baseball to visit a Double-A park. And it allowed those power players to see firsthand the stadium’s recent improvements: the renovated player facilities, the clubhouse upgrades, new batting cages, a party deck near right field that young fans frequented. 

“Schumer taking this action was really a difference-maker for us, because without that, nobody would have seen firsthand what we had accomplished,” says Hughes, who notes that it would have fallen flat if the stadium hadn’t been enhanced already. “The No. 1 thing nobody wants to do is embarrass Senator Schumer and have him bring MLB here and have a gong show going on.”

Minor League Contraction Baseball

From left: MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem, New York Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, then-U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Binghamton Mayor Rich David and Rumble Ponies owner John Hughes stand outside NYSEG Stadium in Binghamton, N.Y.

Source John Kekis/AP

A groundswell of support was surging from the fans. A national hashtag had emerged, #SaveHometownBaseball, to go along with the Chattanooga mayor’s task force and a similar one in the U.S. Congress. Similar attention was growing in Erie, as winter began to thaw into baseball season. And in Binghamton, when a Rumble Ponies bat boy started a local social media campaign, Healy and Maggiore hopped on and got thousands of online signatures in just a few days.

But after Schumer’s visit on Feb. 24, 2020, there was one more major surprise in store. “We were building a serious campaign, making all sorts of progress,” Hughes says. “And then less than 30 days later, COVID shut down the world.”

*** 

The effect was immediate and forced fans to get creative. “Everything was off the board. We had to rebuild and reload,” Hughes says. In places like Binghamton, where the economy was already struggling, the prospect of losing their team too was devastating. “We’re not a prosperous area, to be candid. To lose that would have been an economic blow,” Healy says.

In Erie, Allen had to find new ways to reach people while stuck at home. Looking around her house, she realized exactly how much Seawolves gear she had accumulated over the years. And so, early in the pandemic, she began wearing a different branded T-shirt or hat or other outfits each day, tweeting in support of the team daily while keeping the fire to survive alive … while still being mindful that an over-the-top strategy could be used against the team later. She kept up the Twitter campaign for about three weeks before switching to other baseball ephemera, keeping the baseball spirit alive for her 1,400 followers. “It was just a way to show solidarity,” Allen says now. 

It was sometimes difficult to keep the faith. Chattanooga had been pushing to update its 20-year-old AT&T Field as a last-ditch effort to keep the team’s affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds. Amid the pandemic, resources had dried up, and the prospect of another publicly funded stadium was a tough sell. “It’s not like the stadium is going to fall down tomorrow,” Lookouts co-owner Jason Freier told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Still, the team knew that MLB wanted to see progress. “The thing we can’t do is lose baseball in Chattanooga over this,” Freier said. “We’re hopeful that Major League Baseball can be reasonable and give us time to work this out.”

MiLB 2019: Chattanooga vs Jacksonville JUL 2

Chattanooga Lookouts pitcher Reiver Sanmartin (#25) during an MiLB baseball game against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp in Jacksonville, Florida.

Source Gary Lloyd Mccullough/AP

It had been a tough year. In Erie, Allen hadn’t seen most of her fellow baseball fans in months, not since the January funeral of Les Caldwell, the official scorer of the Seawolves for decades. Ray Cantor, a fellow usher in his 80s, died in July. Neither got to see whether the Seawolves would be saved. Every employee of the Seawolves had been temporarily laid off, with only General Manager Greg Coleman left. That meant employees like Chris McDonald, an account executive with a young daughter and a pregnant wife, and Mark Pirello, who had children too, weren’t taking a paycheck for months. 

This is the hardest thing that I’ve been involved with in my 40-plus years of having a day job.

Erie SeaWolves owner Fernando Aguirre

Yet fans remained hopeful despite a year defined by unceasing obstacles. It helps that baseball has always been a sport of strange superstitions, with no clock and long odds — where you never know if you’ll connect with the incoming fastball, but you swing anyway.

For Allen, a Roman Catholic as passionate about the sport as she is about her faith, the baseball diamond has always been a cathedral. It felt especially so one late-summer night, when she was finally able to step onto the field again, next to the baseball family she cherished. The Erie Seawolves still couldn’t play, but the team organized a series of socially distanced movie nights to keep fans connected. Spread out over the grass, they watched baseball classics on the Jumbotron: The Sandlot, A League of Their Own, Field of Dreams. Stories about overcoming adversity and always, always sticking together. 

liz 1

Liz Allen, in her Erie Seawolves hat, with her husband, Eric Compton.

Next to her was Compton, her husband. The two had dated at Marquette University until she broke up with him. It was only after their two favorite teams — her Pirates and his Mets — split a four-game series that the avid baseball fans started talking again. “We had avoided each other for six weeks, came out of class and started talking about the series. If the Mets had won all four games, she wouldn’t have come anywhere near me,” Compton says. They stayed in touch, and after three other spouses and multiple kids between them, the lifelong friends finally married while in their 50s. “Thirty-seven years after our first date, in October of 1970, we got married,” he says, beaming like a schoolboy.

And now, sitting next to her favorite teammate in the Seawolves outfield, it was impossible for Allen not to wonder whether hometown baseball was gone for good: “Is this the closest we’re going to come to baseball again in Erie?” she thought.

On one night in November 2019, baseball fans across three cities and dozens of others learned their teams were at risk. And after a yearlong struggle for survival, a night in December 2020 brought the news they had all been waiting for with the official word from MLB. Chattanooga would keep its team. Binghamton also survived, finally putting an end to Hughes’ sleepless nights. And Erie? The team’s owner called the experience “the hardest thing I’ve been involved with in my 40-plus years of having a day job.” Yet the Seawolves too had slid in, safe at home. 

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