Triple-A Yanks Know There's No Place Like Home

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre plays first "home game" in the Empire State

ROCHESTER, N.Y.—Ah, home, sweet home. If only the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees could remember what it felt like.

If home is where the washing machines are, the nomads of the International League arrived there Monday. Displaced by a year-long upgrade to their PNC Field, the temporarily dubbed Empire State Yankees suited up in their home whites for their first of 37 contests in Rochester's Frontier Field. Forgive the players for feeling like it was just another stop on a 144-game road trip, particularly when they were squaring off against Rochester's first born, the Red Wings.

Righthander Dellin Betances, who surrendered all five Red Wing runs and threw just 44 strikes among his 96 pitches, cited his unfamiliarity with the park as a contributing factor in his prolonged control struggles.

"It was definitely weird, because we were not in Scranton," Betances told the Scranton Times-Tribune's Donnie Collins following the Yankees' 5-3 loss. "We really try not to think too much about it. But this was the first time I had ever pitched here, and it felt like a road game."

Betances and his Yankee teammates will be living in hotels all season, checking out every time the team leaves its adopted base in Rochester. Their only familiar real estate will be the visitors' clubhouse at Frontier Field, which has been transformed for the season into a second home clubhouse.

For nearly half the team, Monday was the first visit to Rochester thanks to an extended exhibition schedule that kept them in Florida until the major league roster was pared to 25 just before Opening Day.

"I went on the exhibition trip at the end of spring training and packed for three days," said second baseman Doug Bernier, who spent the 2009 and 2011 seasons with Scranton. "And I was actually living out of that suitcase until last night. So a three-day trip turned into about two weeks. We've just been doing a lot of laundry and just trying to make the best of the situation."

Indeed, Scranton's two-man clubhouse crew, who will work every Empire State "home" game this season, was overwhelmed with bag after bag of dirty clothes, left in the laundry room by Yankee players desperate for something clean to wear off the field.

The team's fantastic journey has disrupted life for them as well. Clubhouse assistant Mike Macciocco will spend half the season on the road, traveling with the team for its home games. He recognizes already that the vagabond lifestyle may take a toll on his relationship with his girlfriend back in Scranton.

"She don't like this too much," he said with a grin. "It's kind of been rocky. It's tough to leave for the whole summer."

At least he gets to travel back to Pennsylvania when the team hits the road. Mike Vander Woude, the club's director of broadcasting and media relations, is resigned to not returning home until the All-Star break in July. Unlike the players, he leased a two-bedroom apartment so his wife and two young children could come visit during the season.

"My son turns five in June, so he's going to start kindergarten in the fall, and my daughter just turned three," said Vander Woude, who lives in Dunmore, Pa., a short 10-minute drive from PNC Field. "You make adjustments. The great thing is, with Skype and with cell phones and everything else, I get a chance to video chat with them every day so they don't forget what I look like. You make do. And in the grand scheme of things, it's going to be one season."

While it will be a struggle for the club, it's a bonanza for Rochester-area Yankee fans, who typically turn out in large numbers to support their team as the visitor. Threatening weather held Monday's crowd in check, despite an unusually balmy game-time temperature of 74, but the diehards were out, clad in their Yankee gear.

Sporting his new Empire State Yankees cap and a Derek Jeter t-shirt, Richard DeFiore, of Greece, N.Y. (a Rochester suburb), was among the crowd gathered at the end of the Scranton dugout before the game, hoping to augment an extensive autograph collection. A Red Wings season seat holder for 25 years, DeFiore proudly claims to have been third in line to snatch up Yankee season tickets as well.

Ron Christopher, another longtime Red Wings regular, has been a Yankee fan since the 1950s. His Bronx Bomber autographs number more than 1,300, including greats like Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMiaggio, and Johnny Mize. While he's excited by the chance to see New York's up-and-comers as many as 45 times this season (including the road eight games they would normally play at Frontier), he won't take the outcome of the games between his two favorite Triple-A squads too seriously. "It's a win-win situation," Christopher said. "I can't lose."

Elizabeth Finn, who attends about 15 Red Wings games each season, sat with her father near the first-base dugout. A Yankees fan from birth, she was ecstatic when she heard Rochester would be assisting Scranton through their difficult campaign.

"I asked for a ticket package for Christmas," she said. "I have vouchers for eight games already. I'm going to try to go to at least 20. I think probably most of them are going to be Yankee games."

That's music to the ears of Red Wings general manager Dan Mason, who anticipates the crowds growing as the weather warms. Though Monday's paid attendance was 2,824, the actual body count was significantly lower. The crowd was so quiet throughout much of the game you could pick out individual voices and clearly hear vendors hawking peanuts and bottled water from up in the press box. Foul balls into unpopulated sections rattled around until they ran out of steam and were scooped up.

"It's still April and it's still a Monday night," Mason said. "Even for the Red Wings it's always a tale of two seasons. There's what we draw before kids get out of school and what we draw after. In less than half the season we draw over three-quarters of our attendance."

He's not alone in expecting the crowds to pick up.

"It seems like even when we come here as the visiting team we get a pretty good response," Bernier said. "So it's kind of exciting. I think we're excited to see how the fans treat us.

"Sometimes on the road you never know what you're going to get. You get booed and heckled. We get that here, but overall you get a lot of people that are rooting for you, people who know who you are, who want some autographs and stuff. People here are really nice and friendly and we appreciate that."