The end of an era
Dwyer Stadum in Batavia will be home to a franchise in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League for the 2021 season. Photo by: BILL POTRECZ.
The news was buried among the pre-Christmas rush and COVID-19 pandemic.
In early December, Major League Baseball announced its list of 120 teams invited to be a part of the minors after restructuring for the 2021 season. Part of the restructuring was the end of the New York-Penn League, which will cease operations after being founded in 1939 as the PONY League (Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League).
The Aberdeen IronBirds, Brooklyn Cyclones and Hudson Valley Renegades joined the new Mid-Atlantic League, becoming the new Class A affiliates of the Baltimore Orioles, New York Mets and New York Yankees respectively. The Mahoning Valley Scrappers, State College Spikes, West Virginia Black Bears and Williamsport Crosscutters moved to the new MLB Draft League for players to showcase themselves to teams in advance of the annual draft. As well, the Staten Island Yankees folded, while the fates of the Auburn Doubledays, Lowell Spinners, Norwich Sea Unicorns, Tri-City Valley Cats, and Vermont Lake Monsters are uncertain. Batavia this week announced it will host a team in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League for the 2021 season.
The news hit home for those with memories long enough to remember the St. Catharines Blue Jays (1986-1994), St. Catharines Stompers (1995-1999), Welland Pirates (1989-1994) and other franchises such as the Hamilton Redbirds (1988-1992) and several franchises in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
“The writing was on the wall, but until you actually hear the announcement that it’s over, it is like a punch in the gut,” former Stompers general manager John Belford said. “As a baseball fan, the fact all those towns are going to lose their connection with Major League Baseball is very, very unfortunate.
“It’s kind of short-sighted.”
The news was not surprisingly met with disappointment and anger by the league.
“The elimination of this historic League as part of Major League Baseball’s player development system is truly heartbreaking for the New York Penn-League’s fans, communities, club employees, and club owners,” league president Ben Hayes said. “Sadly, most of the New York Penn-League’s clubs played their final professional baseball games in 2019, and neither they nor their fans knew at the time that it would be their last professional baseball season.
“The elimination of these classifications of professional baseball by Major League Baseball will result in thousands of players, who would have had an opportunity to develop and compete to play in the Major Leagues, will no longer get the chance to live their dream.”
In my previous incarnation as a sports writer at the St. Catharines Standard, I was fortunate enough to chronicle the day-to-day happenings of both the St. Catharines Blue Jays and Stompers. I saw first hand how impressive and important it was to have a professional baseball team call St. Catharines home. The fact the team was an affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays was the icing on the cake.
Not only did St. Catharines benefit from free exposure to ball fans all over the globe, but local fans could follow players from their inception into pro ball all the way up to the big leagues. Pat Hengten, Carlos Delgado, Jeff Kent (who should be in the Hall of Fame, incidentally), Shannon Stewart, Woody Williams, Dave Weathers, Vernon Wells, Michael Young and many, many others passed through Community Park en route to the big leagues.
“No. 1 draft picks were arriving at your home stadium and you got to see their careers start. This league was highly rated and top prospects came and started their careers here,” said Belford, now senior manager, business development with the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games.
The league was also a close-knit community with fans from nearby teams making the trek across the border each way to follow their clubs on the road.
“There’s lots of great memories. In 1989 when I started working for the Welland Pirates, on any given night if your team in is Niagara Falls, N.Y., you go over there and have pizza and wings across the street and watch your team play,” Belford said. “One of my first great memories is that era when there were so many teams close by.”
Indeed, on more than one occasion a quick road trip to Batavia or Erie was made, even after St. Catharines lost its franchise in 1999.
In July of 2018, I hopped in the car with Belford, my son Ryan and buddy Pete Kozela for such a trip to Batavia to see the Muckdogs. I have a soft spot for Batavia, a small town about the size of Thorold located outside of Buffalo. I’ve written about it many times and always enjoyed a trip there.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to travel to see games in Mahoning Valley, Jamestown, Auburn, Vermont, as well as Watertown and Erie when they were part of the league. Those memories are special and will never be forgotten or duplicated.
The end of the NYP League also made it crystal clear Niagara will now likely never be part of a pro league again. Not that the region was in line for a franchise anyway — no park, no team — but there was always a small part of me, buried way down deep, that held out hope.
For the record, the Brooklyn Cyclones were the last champions in 2019. The Oneonta Tigers won 12 championships, the most among all teams in the league, followed by the Auburn Mets/Twins/Phillies/Doubledays (8) and Jamestown Falcons/Expos (7). The St. Catharines Blue Jays are on the list too, having won a championship in their first year of existence in 1986.
The league may be gone, but the memories will linger forever.
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