This season, the Miami Marlins celebrate the franchise’s 25th anniversary. There have been two World Series championships, more than 4,000 major league games and countless name changes to their ballpark. It’s a significant milestone, inspiring an entire “Anniversary Weekend” in June, complete with alumni activities and special edition merchandise.
That being said, this longevity pales in comparison to the Short Season A Batavia Muckdogs.
Individual game tickets went on sale Monday morning for their 2018 campaign. It will be the sixth summer for the Muckdogs as a Marlins affiliate in the New York-Pennsylvania League (NYPL). Before that, they developed players for the Cardinals (2007-2012), plus prior agreements with the Phillies, Indians, Mets, Tigers and Pirates, modifying their own nickname several times along the way. The baseball club was founded in 1939.
Despite sustaining through several generations, the mood in Batavia leading up to next month’s home opener is anxious, not festive. The small, blue-collar city in western New York has struggled to keep pace with the changing industry. Dwyer Stadium, built in 1996 for $3 million, is wearing down. Average Muckdogs attendance makes a Marlins Park crowd seem vivacious. Most importantly, prospects are being set up to fail at a critical stage of their professional careers.
Fish Stripes spoke with five former Muckdogs players—ranging from late-round draft picks to those with legitimate major league ceilings—about their experiences. While all of them expressed gratitude to the Marlins organization for the opportunity to pursue their dreams, they described game conditions as uncomfortable and, at times, dangerous.
The tradition of professional baseball in Batavia nearly came to an end this past offseason.
The Rochester Red Wings, Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, managed operations for the Muckdogs from 2008-2017. But in October, the NYPL declined a request by the Red Wings and the Genesee County Baseball Club to extend their arrangement. The club transferred control of the franchise to the league in December.
Entering 2018 without any promising ownership bids, the NYPL agreed to another summer at Dwyer Stadium and named Dave Chase as new general manager. Chase brings ample experience with him into this new role, according to Howard B. Owens of The Batavian, as a longtime broadcaster, publisher, museum director and minor league commissioner.
He might represent the last hope for the city and team to salvage their eight-decade relationship.
By Chase’s own admission, the field is a disgrace (h/t Howard B. Owens):
The pitcher’s rubber and home plate are not aligned. If a pitcher used the rubber as a guide, a properly thrown pitch would zip five feet behind the back of a left-handed hitter.
Second base is aligned with neither the rubber nor home plate.
The grass in front of the pitcher’s mound was repaired before last season but the repair didn’t take because it was right before opening day, according to Chase.
The infield isn’t level—the visual evidence during our tour is the large puddles of water on the first base side, and a person standing in the outfield can see a small rise in the dirt to the left of second base.
The lip of the back of the infield, where the grass meets the dirt, is higher than it should be, and the entire back of the infield slopes down into the outfield at an elevation of more than nine inches in places.
“With the field, you can tell it was definitely older,” one former pitcher told Fish Stripes. “All the players loved traveling because we didn’t have to play in Batavia.”
An outfielder who began his pro career with the Muckdogs echoed that same sentiment:
“The team always looked forward to traveling to other teams’ cities because they were so much more fun and much nicer than Batavia, and the hotels were leaps and bounds nicer in most cases. On top of that, the fields we’d play on when we traveled were much nicer than Batavia’s.”
Another outfielder confirmed that it was a “rough” surface, but said he never complained to coaches or the groundskeeper. “It’s a part of the game.”
Beyond that, Muckdogs fans expressed their dissatisfaction, too. Owens reports that locals approached Chase directly about what they considered “disorganized” and “sloppy” event management under the previous administration.
“There’s got to be a professional attitude and that’s what we’re going to bring here,” he insists. “I don’t think it’s been here in 10 or 20 years, by the way.”
However, Chase doesn’t have an obvious fix for everything.
A fan from out of state made an impromptu stop in Batavia to attend a weekend series during the 2017 season. He told Fish Stripes about the inconvenience of spending nights in Buffalo—about 40 miles away from Dwyer Stadium—because there were no reasonable alternatives nearby.
The combination of all these issues is unusual, even by minor league standards.
Ballpark Digest surveyed baseball executives, broadcasters and journalists for their 2018 player-development system rankings. Overall, the Marlins ranked squarely in the middle of the pack, tied with the Orioles and Rangers for the 14th-highest total score (151).
But you’ll notice one of their affiliates graded out much differently from the others, weighing down the entire organization:
Marlins Player-Development Rankings by Affiliate
|Level||Player Facilities||Fan Experience||Proximity||Stability||Potential|
|Level||Player Facilities||Fan Experience||Proximity||Stability||Potential|
|Triple-A New Orleans||7||6||7||7||10|
|Short Season A Batavia||2||2||2||2||4|
The Digest editors noted, “Dwyer Stadium is the system’s most glaring issue, as it has arguably outlived its life as a functional ballpark for professional baseball.”
It’s not hyperbole to say that the industry considers this NYPL relic among the very worst places for player development. Among the 180 different MiLB levels—six per major league franchise—included in the rankings, Batavia’s score (12) tied the Short Season A Tri-City Dust Devils (Padres) and the rookie league Elizabethon Twins for dead last.
“In my opinion, baseball should not be in a town like that,” a pitcher told Fish Stripes. “It didn’t feel like professional baseball.”
It’s impossible to prove any correlation between discomfort and performance. Talent can overcome great adversity, but the Marlins didn’t have much of it in recent years. Their failure to acquire top amateur players has been well documented. In combination with several ill-advised trades, the front office under Jeffrey Loria depleted the farm system, leaving new ownership little choice other than to reset the franchise heading into 2018.
That being said, none of their other affiliates struggled as mightily as the Muckdogs over the previous five seasons (cumulative .415 winning percentage). Perhaps more telling, many Marlins players who were ineffective in the NYPL have gone on to meet or exceed expectations once promoted to higher levels of the organization. Unfortunately, there have also been plenty who never got those second chances after poor production in Batavia reflected poorly on them.
After admitting to the deplorable conditions, how much can Dave Chase actually do about it on short notice?
In April, the Batavia City Council voted to approve a $49,838 contract to replace two roofs at Dwyer Stadium (h/t Mike Pettinella, The Batavian). A few weeks later, Chase declared that “the new infield dirt is the same dirt used in Miami” and most other major league facilities, according to John Anderson of The Daily News.
To improve the fan experience, the Muckdogs will offer free WiFi and accept credit cards at concession stands for the first time. These baby steps are intended to reverse their steady attendance decline. Dwyer has averaged fewer than 1,000 fans per game in every season under Marlins affiliation, including a record-low of 806 per contest last year (smallest turnout in NYPL).
Their official website is still a work in progress. The 2018 schedule page doesn’t list the start times for any home games. Purchasing tickets is only possible at the stadium box office or through browsing Etix.com. Chase and other members of the front office are named on the site, but without any biographical details or contact information.
Batavia has a few more weeks to prepare: the Pirates affiliate West Virginia Black Bears come to town on June 18.