Written by Mark Firkins
While spring brings me comfort and the start of a new baseball season, it’s summer that brings out my true passion for the game. June signals the start of the NY PENN League. A Class A, short season league that plays from mid June until Labor Day weekend (75 games), featuring 14 teams in three divisions (McNamara, Pickney, and Stedler). The NY PENN League has a long and proud history dating back to 1939. The team closest to my home in Western NY is in Batavia (halfway between Rochester and Buffalo). Batavia has been called home of the NY PENN League and is one of the founding clubs.
The current team is called the Muckdogs and they are affiliated with the Miami Marlins. In the past they have been called the Clippers, Trojans, Indians, and Pirates. They have been affiliated with the Pirates, Mets, Indians, Tigers, Cardinals, and Phillies.
With a population of less than 16,000, Batavia is one of the smallest cities to host a professional baseball team in 21st century United States. Yet, they have produced more than their share of Major League players. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Carlos Carrasco, J.A. Happ, Gene Baker, Woodie Fryman, Matt Carpenter, Andy Ashby and dozens of others have all called Batavia home for a summer.
While I enjoy my trips to MLB stadiums and my press box view at AAA Rochester, I honestly feel most at home in Batavia and the other NY PENN League stadiums I visit. There is no seat that is not up close to the action. You can hear the players chatter and manager/coaches talk in the dugout. The Umpires calls are loud and clear. The crack of a maple bat can be heard anywhere in the park. While most stadiums are more modern with plenty of good amenities; the crowds, character, and feel of this league is not that far removed from the classic baseball movie Bull Durham.
For most of the players in this league, this is their first taste of professional baseball and part of their long journey to the majors. It’s a diverse mix of the occasional #1 draft picks through #40 picks. Recently graduated and drafted high school players, junior college, Division I, and international players are assembled onto a team and all play together. I’ve seen Indians top pick Will Benson, OF – Mahoning Valley Scrappers, play against Marlins #40 pick Matt Foley, Catcher (both players I have profiled and can be seen in my older posts). I was treated to a perfect game on June 24, 2015 (thrown by Muckdogs Pitchers, Gabriel Castellanos, Brett Lilek, and Steven Farnworth) and have seen 22-0 losses. On rare occasions I’ve seen veteran MLB players on rehab assignments face off against top prospects.
The players are there to learn, mature and develop. There’s no shortage of ex-MLB players who have, or still are, coaching at this level to teach these fresh players the ins and outs of the pro game. Pat Borders, Travis Fryman, Tim Raines, Luke Carlin, Joel Skinner, Buck Showalter and many other famous names have all manned the dugouts in this league. The Brooklyn Cyclones alone feature 1980’s Mets greats Edgar Alfonso, Howard Johnson, and Bobby Ojeda as their coaching trio.
The NY PENN League opens on June 18th. I will once again find my seats in the sun a few rows above the visitors dugout, on the third base side. While rosters are still being put together, I’m excited to watch a fresh batch of eager, young players from all of the teams. I look forward to seeing all of the different uniform colors, interesting team names and logos. I’m eager to witness a player get his first professional hit, RBI, and home run with a wooden bat. As the season progresses I start to wonder, which of these players will eventually make it to their MLB club? Who will be the next Francisco Lindor and rise rapidly through the MiLB system to stardom? Will I watch a player quietly fly under the radar and play his way to a Major League roster like Brian Anderson? Which player will be like Pitcher Brandon Mann? A player who grinds out another season in the minors, becomes a fan favorite, has the heart of a lion, and never gives up on his dream of playing in the MLB.
Summer and baseball go hand in hand. It’s time to get outside, visit with friends you haven’t seen since the end of last season, and meet and chat with new, great baseball fans at the ballpark you’re at that night. To me there’s nothing more American than watching our national pastime and seeing young talent getting their first chance to play professionally. The NY PENN League offers just that, 14 teams, 350 players, most playing professional baseball for the first time and providing their fans with entertainment.