Yankees' Triple-A Club Will Hit The Road This Year

ROCHESTER, N.Y.—They have six homes, two names and zero idea how their upcoming five-month road trip will unfold.

The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees—aka the Empire State Yankees—are the gypsies of the Triple-A International League this season. They'll play all 144 games on the road while PNC Field, their 23-year-old ballpark in Moosic, Pa., undergoes a $40 million facelift.

The Yankees' 72 home games will be played at five fellow International League ballparks: 37 games at Rochester's Frontier Field, 10 at Syracuse's Alliance Bank Stadium, eight at Lehigh Valley's Coca-Cola Park, six at Buffalo's Coca-Cola Field and four at Pawtucket's McCoy Stadium. They will also play seven at short-season Batavia's Dwyer Stadium.

The Yankees will have more homes than Donald Trump in this surreal season.

"It's a year unlike any we've had here,'' says Dan Mason, who enters his 18th season as Red Wings general manager.

Dwyer Stadium seats just 2,600 for an attendance-starved New York-Penn League team that is for sale and is operated by the Rochester Red Wings. The home "clubhouse" is a small, square building down the right-field line. But it will be the home of the Yankees vs. the Red Sox—that's the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees vs. the Pawtucket Red Sox—on May 5-6.

The Yankees actually will play their first "home" games in Syracuse on April 14 and 15. Then, they'll make their Frontier Field debut on April 16 as the home team for a four-game series against the Red Wings.

Rochester fans will get to see their team play 80 games at Frontier Field instead of the usual 72, with eight against the Yankees. The Triple-A Yankees will play 45 games at Frontier—37 as the home team and eight as visitors against the Red Wings. They'll also play seven more in Batavia, about 20 minutes from down Rochester, for a total of 52.

Because Rochester will serve as the home base this season, numerous changes were made to the clubhouse level during the offseason.

The umpires' room is now the domain of the visiting team's coaching staff. The Yankees will take over the visitors' clubhouse, and the other 12 teams who visit Frontier Field will dress in a small community clubhouse. The Red Wings will stay in their clubhouse, but the family lounge, where wives, children and parents have gathered after games, is now the visiting team's training rooms.

And the umpires?

"The umpires will be nomadic," Mason says. "Wherever there's an empty clubhouse, that's where the umps will go."

Rochester will also serve as the base for the Yankees players and coaching staff, who are responsible for finding their own housing in the area.

"You just deal with it. It's not a great situation, but hopefully the stadium is much nicer when we return to it," Scranton pitching coach Scott Aldred told the Associated press. "This year will be a little tougher on everybody, but you grind through it and we'll be OK."

Development Decisions

Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations, says the constant travel will be the biggest challenge, but not the only one.

"A big and essential job will be to provide the players with an opportunity to prepare the right way each day,'' he says. "From strength training to conditioning to the fundamental work critical to consistent performance, each part of the players' daily preparation must be planned carefully.''

Newman says the Yankees will consider many things when deciding where to place a player on a rehabilitation assignment.

"Where an affiliate happens to be playing, home or road, is a part of the assignment consideration,'' he said. "I would not think that all of our rehabs would be sent to (Double-A) Trenton. Trenton is closer to the stadium in New York, and that's helpful. But there is a higher level of competition in the International League.''

The Red Wings asked the New York Yankees to come up with a name for their Triple-A homeless club, and the Yankees chose Empire State Yankees. The name was announced in early March and merchandise has been a huge hit. Through March 26, 165 caps had been sold in 21 states, from Nebraska and Arizona to Indiana, Maine and South Carolina. And the Red Wings had sold out of T-shirts featuring the Red Wings and Empire State Yankees logos and coffee mugs featuring the same two logos.

The numbers are impressive at the box office, too. The Wings have sold 400 season tickets to the 37 Yankees home games. And their ticket package—10 tickets to any games involving the Red Wings or Yankees—is up 700 over last year's total. "People are excited,'' Mason says. "They love the Yankees, and now they'll get a chance to see some of the Yankees' top prospects."The International League stresses that "Empire State" is only a moniker, similar to "Bronx Bombers." In all official standings and releases, "Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees" still will be used.

The Road Warriors

The Yankees' staff will include two men who will travel with the club throughout the season—broadcaster Mike Vander Woude and vice president of stadium operations Curt Camoni. Camoni's primary task will be to make the Yankees feel like they aren't on the road for five months.

The host cities for Yankees' home games will handle all tasks and expenses—ticket sales, promotions and in-game presentation—and will take any profit from the additional dates. Mason has long equated a game at Frontier Field as an entertainment show, and now his front office will be asked to put on 109 shows this summer.

"It's our risk and our reward," Mason says. "We have to pay for everything it costs to open the ballpark: ushers, ticket takers, electricity, grounds equipment. But the ticket sales and concessions, those will be ours.''

Wings CEO Naomi Silver sees this year's baseball marathon as a one-time opportunity to help an IL North neighbor.

"We think our fans will enjoy seeing the Yankees' top affiliate play in our city, and having the chance to see over 100 Triple-A baseball games," she said. "We're very excited about this."

The Red Wings have received numerous awards for their creative promotions—players raced against a thoroughbred for three consecutive years and Mason spent six nights sleeping in a tent in the team bullpen during a 12-game losing streak in 2002—and that "brand" won't change when the Yankees are playing at Frontier Field instead of the Red Wings.

"We'll have the same in-game promotions," Mason says. "It will just be geared toward the Yankees when they're the home team."

Except for when the visitors are the Red Wings for eight games, of course.

The New York Yankees are extremely popular in the Syracuse, Rochester, Batavia and Buffalo markets, and those teams are counting on Yankees fans to push through the turnstiles to see the team's top prospects.

Getting Some Help

Newman is aware of the Yankees' strong support in central and western New York, and appreciative of the support the team has received from minor league teams in those areas.

"It's the intention of the Yankees to repay that assistance by playing good baseball for the fans in the Rochester area," he said. "We'll do the same in Buffalo and Syracuse, as those franchises have been very helpful.''

While other front offices are serving as caretakers and promoters of the Yankees, the real Scranton/Wilkes-Barre front office will have perhaps an even more challenging task: marketing a team that has simply disappeared for a year. The staff will work in temporary offices while construction crews transform PNC Field from an outdated stadium into a state-of-the-art ballpark. They will focus on relaunching the team for 2013 and energizing fans about the new stadium.

Newman says it wasn't hard to re-sign players or sign six-year free agents.

"We didn't really notice much of a chance in our ability to attract free agents," he says. "Opportunity to get to the major league club is always the driving force."

The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Empire State Yankees will know one thing after their 144-game road trip: If they can make it here, there and everywhere, they can make it anywhere.

Jim Mandelaro covers the Red Wings for the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.)