Three years ago, Naomi Silver and the Rochester Red Wings (International) took over operations of the Batavia Muckdogs in hopes of rescuing and reviving their downtrodden neighbor.
In the end, putting off the inevitable is all they seemed to accomplish.
Unless Batavia makes a dramatic comeback at the gate, this season will likely be the last one in which the Red Wings will operate the Muckdogs. It will also likely mark the end of baseball in Batavia.
“I have had discussions with (Genesee County Baseball Club) president (Brian Paris) and told him that we would probably not be interested in coming back for another year,” said Silver, the president of the Red Wings. “So he is going to have his work cut out for him.”
Silver should know. With the Muckdogs on the verge of folding after the 2007 season, the Red Wings agreed to pay off the New York-Penn League club’s debt and take over its daily operations. Silver assumed that implementing the same operational model that has made Rochester one of the steadiest teams in the International League could renew fan interest just 35 miles down the road in Batavia.
The Red Wings streamlined operations in Batavia, helped increase corporate sponsorships and even had the benefit of a team that won a league title in 2008. Yet fan interest in the hometown Muckdogs remains minimal.
Attendance has dropped since the Red Wings took over operations. The Muckdogs averaged 1,230 fans per game in 2007. That number dipped to 1,199 during Batavia’s 2008 championship run before falling to just 963 in 2009—ahead of only the now-defunct Oneonta Tigers in the NYP. Roughly midway through this year’s schedule, the Muckdogs ranked last in the league with a 1,045 average.
Meanwhile, the Red Wings didn’t get any return on their investment. Silver said the club lost “a couple hundred grand” in 2008, roughly $100,000 in 2009 and is on pace for a little less of a loss than that this year.
“It wouldn’t take a miracle to turn it around, but it takes a certain community spirit to make something like this work,” Silver said. “In a lot of communities, particularly where the population is rather small and drawing power is not the greatest in the world anyway, it becomes increasingly hard for a team to generate enough excitement and turnstile attendance unless something major happens. A small community can make it work if a team is new to them or a new stadium becomes all the buzz for several years. That may be enough to get them excited for years to come.
“In Batavia, it is real tough. We market much the same way as we do in Rochester. It’s a miniature version, but it just doesn’t get the same attention. People are missing out. And then the franchise disappears. And then you don’t get it back. Once you lose it, you don’t get it back.”
And that may very well be Batavia’s fate, as the team likely cannot support operational costs on its own. A sale is the last option for Muckdogs ownership, Silver said.
“People need to know that now is the time to get out and support the team,” Paris, who essentially presides over the team for the local nonprofit ownership group, recently pleaded in The (Batavia) Daily News. “We need to know that at the end of the day we’ve explained this situation as best we could. This is a crucial juncture. (If Batavia loses the professional baseball team) it is never coming back. It’s not just going to be off for a couple years then come back.”
Paris could not be immediately reached for comment; the voicemail at his office was full and did not accept messages. New York-Penn League president Ben Hayes did not immediately return a message left at his office.
Silver says she has taken the failure rather hard.
“I can’t help but think a community like Batavia needs this, as much as any type of community draw or asset,” Silver said. “You just can’t afford to lose this type of thing. It will be a loss. It will leave a hole. Unfortunately, you don’t know it until it’s too late.”Batavia is a jewel of a franchise. In so many ways it has been absolutely fantastic. But it needs a big infusion of fans and sponsorship support. It has a few loyal sponsors, but you need the whole community to get behind you to make a go of it.”
Cal League Crusade
Batavia is not the only team to face challenges this upcoming offseason.
Bobby Brett continues to search for a buyer for the High Desert Mavericks (California). Brett is required to sell the team after he purchased fellow Cal League affiliate Rancho Cucamonga last season (it should be noted that no team has been sold since then).
Cal League president Charlie Blaney said he is optimistic that a sale is forthcoming and that they are not pursuing another waiver from Minor League Baseball to allow Brett to own two teams in the same league.
“Our focus is on selling the team,” Blaney said. “The waiver is not on our radar.”
High Desert’s lease on Mavericks Stadium was set to expire after this season, but the team agreed with city officials on a pair of one-year extensions through the 2012 season.
Meanwhile, Blaney has been diligently pushing a new ballpark for the Bakersfield Blaze that would keep the team in town. Blaney says he has “found some interest, but nothing concrete.”
“Bakersfield is one of the best markets in the state and I’m trying to do everything I can to keep a team there. I’ve been knocking on a lot of doors,” Blaney said.