Home Away From Home

The Yankees Triple-A affiliate recently continued its 2012 road show by “hosting” the Norfolk Tides in Batavia, N.Y.

By Bob Socci

The baseball was about to land just a few feet behind them when the couple came face-to-face with the Yankees catcher.  She wore a midnight blue Derek Jeter t-shirt.  He was in a similar top, only his bore a “13” beneath the surname of Alex Rodriguez arcing between his shoulder blades.

Shortstop Ramiro Pena turns a double play for the Empire State Yankees vs. the Norfolk Tides in Batavia, N.Y.

Sitting slightly to the third-base side of home plate, they were suddenly separated by inches from Francisco Cervelli.  The only thing between them and Cervelli, who’d been seen the last two years catching in more than 130 games for New York, was the thin netting tied to the backstop.

A year or two ago getting this close to Cervelli pursuing a foul pop-up in pinstripes would have cost upwards of 1,400 bucks.  On this recent Friday it took a mere $18.  This wasn’t the Bronx, and the iconic facade of the house that replaced the house that replaced “The House That Ruth Built” was nowhere in sight.  Nor were any of the other 29 ballparks home to major league clubs.  No matter that the big leagues were just a phone call away.

Cervelli was here, at this moment, in this spot, because his prior role as backup to Russell Martin is now being occupied in New York by Chris Stewart.  Two days before the start of the season Cervelli was sent to Triple-A.  At any point from 2007 to 2011 such a demotion would have prompted a move to Moosic, Pa., where the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees made PNC Field their home.

But for the next five months of 2012, the Triple-A Yankees are without a stadium of their own.  PNC Field is undergoing $40 million and a year’s worth of renovations, and the team formerly known as Scranton-Wilkes Barre has been re-branded the “Empire State” Yankees.

Although that’s a misnomer for 12 of the 72 home-away-from-home games they are scheduled to play this season.  Those dozen contests will be staged in Pawtucket, R.I. and Allentown, Pa.  Where the name fits is in the three other International League cities housing the Yankees: Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester.  The latter hosts the most, staging 37 dates at Frontier Field.  Oddly enough, in eight of those games the real home club, Rochester’s Red Wings, is relegated to the role of “visitor.”

Strange as that seems, at least there’s a familiarity, breeding more comfort than contempt for Yankee players, coaches and even opponents.  Otherwise home to IL North Division rivals, those stadiums are up to Triple-A standards.  And though much will appear out of place — starting with the Yankees wearing pinstripes and “hosting” the Paw Sox in Red Sox Nation — enough will be the same (i.e., playing surfaces, clubhouses and stadium amenities).  Still in Triple-A surroundings, it will remain the next best thing to being in the big leagues.

There is a sixth place where the nomadic Yankees are hanging their batting helmets this spring and summer: the tiny town of Batavia, N.Y.  That’s where Francisco Cervelli had his close encounter with Ms. Jeter and Mr. A-Rod.  They were among the roughly 1,300 watching Cervelli and his band of baseball gypsies play the Norfolk Tides on a late-April Friday.

Officially, it was the seventh night of a 10-game so-called home stand — a “home stand” that began with two games in Syracuse, continued with four in Rochester and was set to conclude with four in Batavia.

South of the New York State Thruway, east of Buffalo and west of Rochester, Batavia is a burgh of roughly 15,000.  While its Western New York neighbors have large stadiums set in the center of their cities, its cozy park, Dwyer Stadium, is tucked into a mostly residential area.  And while Buffalo and Rochester field teams — Bisons and Red Wings, respectively — who compete at the top level of the minor leagues, Batavia’s club — unmistakably the Muckdogs — is closer to the bottom.

In fact, the Muckdogs season doesn’t open until June, shortly after baseball’s amateur draft.  Affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Muckdogs are members of the New York-Penn League.  Many, if not the majority, of players passing through Batavia this summer will be selected in this year’s draft.  Mostly college kids, few will advance as far as Triple-A, much less reach the majors.

And yet those who do will join an impressive list of NY-P alumni.  Many are enshrined across the state in Cooperstown.  Some, no doubt, will soon be.  Still others are Hall-of-Fame caliber, whether inducted or not.  These notables include Tony Perez and Pete Rose, teenage teammates on the 1960 Geneva (N.Y.) Redlegs.  Jim Rice debuted at 18 with the Williamsport (Pa.) Red Sox in 1971, five years before Wade Boggs was a pro rookie at the same age for the Elmira (N.Y.) Pioneers.  Randy Johnson, Bernie Williams and Robin Yount also played in small Upstate New York cities like Jamestown, Oneonta and Newark.

Sadly, several of those towns have only their baseball past to preserve.  There is no NY-P present for them; their mom-and-pop franchises lost to greater metropolitan areas, as the minors became big business by the start of the 21st century.  The Yankees, for example, uprooted from Oneonta in favor of Staten Island.  Their chief rival is the Mets affiliate, once located in a place called Little Falls and now situated on Brooklyn’s Coney Island.

Batavia, however, remains one of the last bastions of a mostly bygone era.  Barely.

The Muckdogs are community owned and operated, but reportedly have been for sale since Aug. 2010.  They stay anachronistic instead of becoming defunct due only to current ownership’s desire to find a buyer who won’t move the club, as well as a partnership with the nearby Red Wings.  Rochester’s franchise, also community owned, has managed the Muckdogs since 2008.  According to The Democrat and Chronicle, the Wings have lost $600,000 under the arrangement.

Besides lacking amenities universally found in newer ballparks, Batavia’s Dwyer Stadium, re-built for $3 million in 1995, seats just 2,500.  And even that small number seems larger than necessary.  In 2011 the Muckdogs drew a league-low 37,029 to 35 home games, or a mere 1,058 per date.  Meanwhile, NY-P leader Brooklyn averaged 7,002 (totaling 245,087) for the same number of contests.

This summer may very well prove the winter of discontent for Batavians who recall Manny Sanguillen catching Gene Garber as young Bucs; eventual Super Bowl hero John Elway homering for the Oneonta Yankees; and Chase Utley preceding Ryan Howard by a year as future Phillies.

Whatever the future holds, whether or not these are indeed Batavia’s final playing days, pro baseball plays on at Dwyer Stadium.  With no less than the Triple-A Yankees facing Norfolk in April, Pawtucket in May and Louisville in June.  In all, seven games were originally scheduled in Batavia because other IL parks were unavailable due to conflicts with their own clubs.

It’s the rare chance for Yankee fans in these parts — which is to say most fans around here — to get a first-hand glimpse at someone like Cervelli, whom they’ve regularly watched on the YES Network the last few years.  True, he came through the NY-P with Staten Island in 2006.  But those Yankees never made it to Batavia.

Against the Tides, top farm club of the Baltimore Orioles, Cervelli’s battery mate is 39-year-old Ramon Ortiz.  A decade ago, he won 15 regular season games for the Anaheim Angels, before beating the San Francisco Giants in Game 3 of the 2002 World Series.

Ortiz has fallen from the game’s pinnacle.  He is in Batavia trying to make the New York Yankees his eighth major league team in a 17-year pro career.  A sinewy 5-foot-11, Ortiz still appears to be “Little Pedro,” a nickname earned long ago because of his resemblance to Pedro Martinez.  Yes, they still look alike; though in stature on the mound more than stuff to the plate.

Behind him at shortstop is Ramiro Pena, who spent much of the last two seasons spelling either Jeter or Rodriguez on the left side of New York’s infield.  Back in Triple-A, he has just 8 hits in his first 41 at-bats.  At the same time, he fights bad hops off an uneven infield in Batavia.

Backing Ortiz in the outfield is DeWayne Wise, whose crowning moment as a major leaguer occurred the afternoon of July 23, 2009.  Wise had been inserted as a 9th-inning defensive replacement for the Chicago White Sox against the Tampa Bay Rays.  It just so happened that pitcher Mark Buerhle was three outs from a perfect game.

It also figured that the first batter after Wise entered would test him like never before.  Gabe Kapler drilled a 2-2 pitch into deep left-center field.  Wise sprinted across the alley, leaped at the wall, raised his glove above the fence and made a juggling catch as he tumbled to the ground.  Under the circumstances, it was unquestionably one of the greatest plays of all-time, preserving perfection.

Now Wise is off to a very good start to the new year, hitting .485 with three home runs and 8 RBI entering the Norfolk series.  Still, he is in Batavia, where beautiful weather — 76 degrees at game time of the series opener — will soon give way to a constant and chilling rain.  The following day, there will be no game at Dwyer Stadium.  DeWayne Wise will have use this Saturday for neither glove nor bat.  Meanwhile, in Seattle, another White Sox pitcher, Phil Humber, will pitch a perfecto.  In the process, there will be no need for a defensive sub or a spectacular play.

By the time this first game between the Yankees and Tides is decided, Ortiz is no longer a factor.  He pitches 7.0 innings and leaves in a 4-3 deficit.  But Wise leads off the 8th inning with a walk and scores the first of three runs to lift Empire State to a 6-4 advantage.  Although Cervelli is the lone Yankee not to bat in the bottom of the 8th, he remains behind the plate when Juan Cedeno escapes a 9th-inning jam thanks to a sensational game-ending double play.

Soon the rain begins to fall.  It continues through Saturday and into Sunday.  The Yankees and Tides reconvene early Sunday morning, expecting to play a doubleheader.  However, less than two hours before the scheduled first pitch, there is a change of plans.

Both managers, Dave Miley and Ron Johnson, are concerned about conditions.  A bumpy outfield terrain was already treacherous enough on Friday.  All the rain the last 24-plus hours has made it all but unplayable.  Each should know of what he speaks.

Miley is in his seventh season as the Yankees’ Triple-A skipper, after briefly managing the Cincinnati Reds.  His clubs have amassed more than 1,600 victories in the minors, including the 2008 IL title for Scranton-Wilkes Barre.

Johnson is less than a month into his first year with the Orioles.  Most recently, he was 1st base coach for the Boston Red Sox, after managing the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket.  In an earlier baseball life guiding the Omaha Royals, Johnson had the unenviable task of taking his team on a three-week road trip in the middle of the season.  At the time, the Royals affiliate shared Rosenblatt Stadium with the College World Series.  Part of an annual rite of summer, the team skipped town before and during the CWS.

Perhaps that experience informs his perspective.  Johnson is constantly upbeat, despite already less than ideal circumstances.  He remains that way when IL president Randy Mobley directs the Yankees and Tides to hold a single nine-inning game rather than the expected doubleheader.

It is a cold, damp Sunday.  The temperature is 39 degrees, with a windchill of 34, when Dellin Batances deals his first pitch to Xavier Avery.  Betances is a 6-8, 260-pound prospect struggling in the season’s opening month.  He has walked 11 batters in his first 13.0 innings of 2012 and owns a 10.38 ERA.  Betances begins this day with, what else, a walk to Avery.  Two batters later, he issues another.

And so it will go, for both teams, the better part of the next three-plus hours.  Understandably, fewer people have taken the three left turns off the Thruway at Exit 48 to get to Dwyer Stadium today.  Those who did get here, by any route, will witness a pace slowed by a combined 18 walks by nine different pitchers.  Betances is not only charged with six bases on balls, but uncorks a wild pitch, commits a balk and unleashes a run-scoring throwing error.

Like Friday, Norfolk grabs an early lead.  Today the Tides get two extra-base hits by their newest member, catcher Luis Exposito, in the first five innings.  His two-run double puts them ahead, 5-2, in the top of the 5th.  This is just Exposito’s second game, acquired by the O’s when he was claimed off waivers from the Red Sox.  He is well reputed as a solid defender and a strong game manager.  Johnson knows him well.  Picking up Exposito is a smart move by Baltimore.

It comes at a price, however.  His arrival means someone must depart.  That someone is John Hester.  Almost exactly a year ago, Hester joined the Orioles as part of a multi-player trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Educated at Stanford, he played for the D-Backs for small fractions of 2009 and 2010.   Only last weekend Hester’s 14th-inning homer ended a Norfolk win over Charlotte.

He came to Batavia with his teammates for the second leg of an early season road swing.  It was a wasted trip.  Before the series began Hester was released.  Late Friday afternoon he sat on a curb outside the Clarion Hotel in Batavia, flanked by a Diamondbacks suitcase and Orioles duffle bag, waiting for a ride to the airport.  In Triple-A environs or around the bend from a Wal-Mart in a place for the game’s beginners, baseball is a harsh business when a player reaches the end of a road.

Fortunately for Hester, another opportunity will almost immediate present itself.  In a few days, he will sign with the Angels and report to the Salt Lake Bees of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

As for the team Hester left behind in Western N.Y., it suffers another late-inning lapse on Sunday.  This time the Yankees rally in the last of the 7th inning.  Both Wise and Jack Cust — he of more than 200 lifetime minor-league home runs — produce RBI doubles.  Empire State, slash Scranton-Wilkes Barre, entrusts a 6-5 lead with closer Kevin Whelan.  He ends his save by inducing a pop-up to Pena, some 3 hours and 12 minutes after Betances offered ball one to Avery.

Before leaving the park on Sunday, everyone is certain they won’t be returning the following day for the scheduled series finale.  The forecast calls for far worse than the weather they’ve just played through on a field deemed unfit for a twin bill.

Their assumption proves correct.  A heavy snowfall starts overnight, wiping out Monday’s afternoon game by early morning.  The Tides collect their belongings, head to the airport in Buffalo and return to Norfolk.  The Yankees meet in Rochester, before busing to Pawtucket.

Two of the seven contests the Yankees are supposed to hold at Dwyer Stadium are in the books.  And two others are casualties of the weather, as if it’s winter in Batavia.

Bob Socci began calling Norfolk Tides baseball in 2006, long after his first job behind a pro baseball mike as the P.A. announcer for the Auburn Astros of the New York-Penn League.  For more recent samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

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