The Sussex Skyhawks were an independent professional baseball team based out of Augusta, New Jersey. Founded in early 2006, the Skyhawks followed on the heels of the New Jersey Cardinals (1994-2005), a short season Class A farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals that left town following the 2005 season.
The Skyhawks were owned and managed by Floyd Hall, the former CEO of Kmart (1995-2001) and his son Larry Hall. The Halls were experienced minor league operators who built an ice rink and a 4,000-seat baseball stadium in Montclair, New Jersey and owned the New Jersey Jackals of the Can-Am League. The Jackals (1998-present) are a rock of stability in the Can-Am League, but the Halls wouldn’t have quite the same good fortune in Augusta.
The Skyhawks were the worst team in the Can-Am League during their first two seasons in 2006 and 2007 under field manager Brian Drahman. Things turned around in 2008 after the Skyhawks replaced Drahman with Hal Lanier, the former manager of the Houston Astros who was the National League’s Manager-of-the-Year in 1986. The Skyhawks made the playoffs with a 52-42 record and defeated the Worcester Tornadoes in the first round. In the championship series, Sussex swept the perennial league power Quebec Capitales 3 games to zero to capture the 2008 Can-Am League title. Despite the improvements on the field, Skyhawks attendance was only 1,713 per game which was second worst in the eight-team loop.
In 2009 the Skyhawks returned to their losing ways, finishing 38-56 under Lanier. Former Major League catcher Ed Ott replaced Lanier as field manager in 2010. The Skyhawks finished dead last at 35-56. After five seasons of play the Skyhawks had three last places finishes and one league championship. Attendance dropped year-over-year for all five seasons of the team’s existence, bottoming out at 1,670 per game in 2010.
The Halls threw in the towel and folded the team in January 2011. Skylands Park in Augusta sat empty for three summers. The Can-Am League returned to Skylands Park with the formation of the Sussex County Miners in 2015.
The Pittsfield Colonials were an independent pro baseball franchise that toiled for two summers at historic Wahconah Park. The Colonials failed to find an audience in Western Massachusetts’ Berkshires region, but they did make a fashion statement with their collared, old-timey uniforms.
Colonials owner Buddy Lewis was an executive at Nocona Athletic Goods, a domestic manufacturer of baseball gloves. In 2009, Lewis was part of the investor group responsible for the American Defenders of New Hampshire and the Pittsfield American Defenders, a disastrous duo of military-themed ball clubs. The Pittsfield American Defenders were an amateur team, competing in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Their season was a washout thanks to poor weather and general lack of interest.
Up in New Hampshire, where Lewis’ group operated a professional team in the independent Can-Am League, things got real weird, real quick. The Nashua Pride (1998-2008) played independent ball at Holman Stadium for over a decade, but in 2008 Pride owner John Stabile, exhausted by years of heavy financial losses, sold the club to Buddy Lewis’ group. Lewis’ partners included Terry Allvord, a naval veteran and promoter of barnstorming U.S. Military All-Star baseball teams. Allvord’s group re-branded the Pride as the “American Defenders of New Hampshire”, cloaking the team in desert-style camouflage uniforms.
The Defenders’ patriotic/military theme quickly crossed into morbid tastelessness. The team’s mascot, a plush figure in fatigues and war paint, was named “Ground Zero” and wore the jersey number 9-11, for instance. The Defenders were an epic flop, evicted from Holman Stadium before their only season ended for failing to pay their bills. Among the unpaid invoices at issue were the overtime details for local police and fire personnel who provided game day security at Holman Stadium. It was the ultimate irony for an organization that built its brand around reverence for military personnel and public safety officers.
Allvord quickly vanished and took the military concept with him. The Pittsfield-based collegiate team was sold off and packed off to Bristol, Connecticut. Buddy Lewis still owned the carcass of the New Hampshire ball club, as well as the lease at Pittsfield. In December 2009, he decided to give the Can-Am League a second try and moved the former American Defenders of New Hampshire 150 miles west to Pittsfield. The re-branded Pittsfield Colonials would be the city’s first professional baseball team since the departure of the Berkshire Black Bears after the summer of 2003.
Former Boston Red Sox slugger Brian Daubach (above left), who endured the 2009 debacle in Nashua as the Defenders’ camo-clad field manager, relocated with the team to Pittsfield. Daubach took the Colonials to a third place finish at 48-45 and then onto the Can-Am League championship series, in 2010 where they lost to the Quebec Capitales.
At the box office, however, the Colonials were a flop, finishing last in the league with 29,485 fans for 42 home dates. By comparison, the six other Can-Am League clubs drew between 70,000 and 150,000 fans each.
Nevertheless, the Colonials returned for a second season in 2011. Daubach departed, but the team didn’t miss a beat under new skipper Jamie Keefe, improving to 53-39. The Colonials made the playoffs again, but lost in the semi-finals. Attendance ticked up marginally to 37,154 for 44 dates, but was still worst in the league. At league meetings in October 2011, the Colonials ownership either wouldn’t or couldn’t replenish the team’s $200,000 line of credit and the Can-Am League voted to terminate Pittsfield’s membership.
The Colonials were replaced at Wahconah Park for the amateur Pittsfield Suns of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League in 2012.
Berkshires resident and Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer James Taylor performed the National Anthem at the Colonials’ first home game in 2010.
Nashua, New Hampshire has a fascinating but unsteady history with postwar baseball. In 1946, Branch Rickey placed a Class B Brooklyn Dodgers farm club in the city’s Holman Stadium. Rickey chose Nashua after his Danville, Iowa farm team refused to take on two promising African-American players, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella. The Nashua Dodgers would be the first racially integrated team of the modern era, one summer before Jackie Robinson arrived in Brooklyn. Nashua also featured a 34-year old first baseman named Walter Alston winding down an unremarkable minor league career. As player-manager, Alston led the Nashua Dodgers to the New England League title in 1946. He later won four World Series crowns as manager of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers and joined Roy Campanella in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983. For all that remarkable legacy, the Dodgers lasted only four seasons in Nashua, folding in 1949.
Baseball did not return until 1983, when George Como,Jerry Mileur and Ben Surner bought the Holyoke (MA) Millers double-A Eastern League club and moved it to town. After one season as a California Angels affiliate, Como and Surner signed on with the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates. During the Pirates three-year run in Nashua from 1984 to 1986, Pittsburgh finished dead last in the National League East three years straight, posted the worst record in baseball in 1985 and became the focal point of an infamous FBI cocaine sting that ultimately ensnared the Parrot Pirate mascot. In May 1986 Nashua fans purchased only 150 advance tickets for a local exhibition game against the big club from Pittsburgh. Nashua officials cancelled the game due to lack of interest, piling on more national embarassment for their parent club. Como and Mileur moved the club to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that winter.
By the early 1990’s, Holman Stadium no longer met the improved standards required by the Professional Baseball Agreement, the set of commandments governing the partnership between Major League Baseball and its farm clubs. Like many small communities with charming but outmoded Works Progress Administration ballparks, Nashua had been shut out of affiliated ball. What arrived next were independent leagues, beginning with the low budget North Atlantic League in 1995. The Nashua Hawks took roost in Holman in 1995. A year later they were evicted midseason, with City officials padlocking the gates against the club thanks to unpaid bills.
In late 1997, Chris English, a hedge fund manager from suburban Boston arrived in town representing the Atlantic League, a far more respectable and well-financed independent start-up whose investors were involved in major ballpark construction projects in Bridgeport, Long Island, Atlantic City, Newark and Bridgewater, New Jersey. The Nashua Pride would be an anomaly within the Atlantic League in many ways. The team was distant from the league’s New York-Philadelphia axis and there would be no $30 million stadium project in Nashua. Instead, English and his General Manager Billy Johnson embarked on a renovation of Holman Stadium, which included the installation of 2,800 box seats salvaged from the recently demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to replace the flat concrete slabs of Holman’s old grandstand.
The Pride averaged 1,581 fans over 57 home games on sales of approximately 250 season tickets during that first season in 1998. Former Major Leaguer Milt Cuyler began the 1998 season in Nashua before earning a September call-up to the Texas Rangers, helping to establish the Atlantic League as a worthy destination for ex-Big Leaguers.
The Nashua Pride hit their peak in the summer of 2000. English and Johnson hired former Red Sox star Butch Hobson as the club’s new field manager. Hobson was something of a cult figure in New England. The Alabama native played football for Bear Bryant before coming up with the Sox in 1976. The next season, Hobson hit 30 home runs batting primarily out of the #8 spot in the line-up, a virtually unheard of feat in the pre-steroid era. Sox fans tended to forgive Hobson’s erratic fielding (43 errors in 1978), knowing that he suffered from loose bone chips floating in his right elbow. He was known to manually adjust the painful chips between plays. Hobson only played three full seasons in the majors due to his injury problems, which added to the mystique of what might have been for the handsome cornerman.
Hobson later managed the Red Sox through three fallow seasons from 1992 to 1994. In 1996, Hobson, an admitted partier during his playing days turned born again Christian, was arrested in a cocaine sting while managing the Philadelphia Phillies triple-A farm club. Hobson refuted the charges, ultimately pleading no contest and performing community service. Although the incident may have derailed his opportunity to return to the Majors as a Manager, Red Sox Nation never seemed to hold it against him and he was greeted as a returning hero in Nashua during the summer of 2000.
Buoyed by a veteran roster stocked with former Major Leaguers such as Casey Candaele, Milt Cuyler, Sam Horn, Glenn Murray, John Roper, Ken Ryan, and others, the Pride won the 2000 Atlantic League Championship, sweeping the Somerset Patriots in four games. At the box office, the Pride drew 140,000 fans – an average of nearly 2,000 per game and an increase of 50,000 fans over the inaugural season two summers earlier.
In addition to a beloved manager and a winning team, the Pride also benefitted from the ever-growing notoriety of The World Famous MonkeyBoy, a mischievous dancing mascot portrayed by the Pride’s ticket manager Chris Ames. Monkey Boy arguably rivaled Hobson in local popularity during the 2000 season and Ames would ultimately take the character with him as a national touring act that continued for many years after he left the Pride.
English commissioned a documentary film crew to chronicle his ball club during the 2000 season. 81-year old Curt Gowdy provided the voice over narration. After negotiations to sell the documentary to pay cable and Japanese broadcasting interests fell through, a (mostly) family-friendly 58-minute edit was released on VHS format in the spring of 2001 under the title Stolen Bases. The film owed its title to a central scene where Hobson, upon being ejected, ripped a base out of the ground, autographed it and handed it to a kid in the Holman Stadium grandstand on his way off the field. Stolen Bases had two private screenings in Nashua and was briefly offered for mail order purchase through Baseball America paired with a Butch Hobson Bobble Head doll.
In 2001, with Pride attendance on the upswing, the City of Nashua approved $4.5 million in upgrades to Holman Stadium. The improvements included a new steel second level with luxury suites and expanded press box, 2,800 new chairback seats, and new administrative, retail and box office space. The renovations were completed in time for the 2002 season, but the season seemed cursed from the outset. Manager Butch Hobson missed time in June for an angioplasty. On July 4th, 2002 the Pride embarked on a 21-game losing streak, the third longest in minor league history at the time. Attendance declined for the second straight year to 120,960, from the 2000 peak of 140,000.
In early 2003, the Toronto Blue Jays double-A affiliate in New Haven, Connecticut announced plans to relocate to Manchester, New Hampshire for the 2004 season. The Pride would now face competition from Major League-subsidized farm clubs located both 15 minutes to the north (Manchester) and fifteen minutes to the south (Lowell Spinners) along the Route 3 corridor. At the end of the 2004 season, Chris English threw in the towel after seven seasons of operating in the red.
“After they announced Manchester, it became clear we needed to move,” English recalled in 2011. “The 2000 ALPB Championship was one of the most entertaining years of my life. But no one could save Nashua.”
English handed the reigns to BKK Nashua, LLC, a consortium of fellow Atlantic League owners including league founder Frank Boulton (the “B” in BKK), Peter Kirk (“K”) and Steve Kalafer (“K”). With English’s departure, the BKK trio effectively controlled seven of the eight Atlantic League clubs, excluding only Mickey Herbert’s Bridgeport Bluefish franchise. League founder and CEO Boulton owned the immensely profitable Long Island Ducks and also controlled the Atlantic City Surf franchise. Kalafer, like Boulton, owned one wildly successful club (the Somerset Patriots) and one troublesome one (the Newark Bears). Kirk, a highly respected operator with a long track record in affiliated ball, had two Pennsylvania-based Atlanic League expansion teams preparing to debut in gleaming new stadiums under construction in Lancaster (2005) and York (2006). And collectively, the BKK trio had stepped in to purchase the Camden Riversharks club earlier in 2004 after its founder died suddenly .
In 2005, the Nashua Pride returned to the Atlantic League Championship Series for the third time in Hobson’s six years at the helm. And for the third time, they would face their arch rivals, Sparky Lyle’s Somerset Patriots. The Patriots swept the Pride this time around, 3 games to zero. Off the field, the 2005 season was difficult, as the opening of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats new stadium in nearby Manchester and budget reductions combined to reduce the Pride’s announced attendance to an all-time low of just 1,270 per game.
In the fall of 2005, Frank Boulton arranged a sale of the Pride to local real estate developer John Stabile and engineered the Pride’s transfer to the Can-Am League. The Can-Am League was another Northeast-based independent loop, which played a shorter schedule than the Atlantic League in cities stretching from New Jersey to Quebec City. Nashua became the first of several struggling Atlantic League franchises to be relegated to the lower cost Can-Am League. Atlantic City and Newark would follow in subsequent years. The sale of the Pride to Stabile put the franchise in local hands for the first time after eight seasons.
With the jump to the Can-Am League in 2006, the era of recognizable stars in Nashua essentially came to an end. Between 1998 and 2005, former Major League All-Stars Dante Bichette, Pete Incaviglia, Lance Johnson, Felix Jose suited up for the Pride as did 1989 National League Rookie-of-the Year Jerome Walton and closer Mel Rojas who signed a $13.75 million dollar contract with the Chicago Cubs in 1996, but earned only $3,000/month to pitch for the Pride in 2002. The Pride also sent several players to the Major Leagues, most notably the future Anaheim Angels All-Star Brendan Donnelly who pitched for the Pride in 1999 and made his Major League debut with the Angels at the age of 30 in 2002.
The Pride lasted three years in the Can-Am League, winning a league title in 2007. Community enthusiasm and attendance rebounded somewhat under the Stabile family’s ownership, but the team continued to run deficits of several hundred thousands dollars annually. Hobson departed after the 2007 season to return to the Atlantic League with Peter Kirk’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, but not before trotting out the base stealing trick one more time for Can-Am League fans in Lynn, Massachusetts.
The Pride lasted one final summer without him. In September 2008, after losing another half million dollars, an exhausted John Stabile sold out to Boston Baseball All Stars, LLC. Boston Baseball All Stars CEO Lt. Commander (ret.) Terry Allvord had toured the country for years with his U.S. Military All-Stars teams. Now in control of Nashua’s Can-Am League franchise, Allvord and his partners re-branded the team as the American Defenders of New Hampshire. The club would also play in uniforms modeled after desert camouflage fatigues.
Allvord’s military-themed promotions quickly crossed the line past conventional patriotic flourishes. The team’s mascot, a plush soldier in fatigues and war paint was named “Ground Zero” and sported the uniform number 9-11. The management initially sought to stop play each night at 9:11 PM to play Lee Greenwood’s three-minute long God Bless the USA, even if the game was between pitches of an at bat. Can-Am League officials quickly put the kibosh on that one.
The gimmick didn’t play in Nashua. American Defenders crowds often numbered fewer than 100 fans. The team traded or released its best players in midseason to dump payroll. General Manager Chris Hall, the final holdover from the Stabile regime, was let go in favor of Boston Baseball All-Stars investor Dan Duquette, the former Boston Red Sox GM who fired Butch Hobson in 1994. In August 2009, the City of Nashua evicted the American Defenders from Holman Stadium, parking a tractor on home plate to prevent the team from finishing its home schedule. Ironically for an organization that wrapped itself in the flag, the team’s list of unpaid creditors included the Nashua police and fire departments that assigned first responder details for the games.
In the summer of 2007, the worst kept secret in Ottawa was the impending loss of minor league baseball. The Ottawa Lynx, triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, were lame ducks set to move to a new stadium already under construction in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Lynx’ departure was contentious – the team had two years to run on its lease at Lynx Stadium. Lynx owner Ray Pecor and the City of Ottawa traded multi-million dollar lawsuits while the Lynx played out their 15th and final season.
Enter Miles Wolff and his independent Can-Am League. The former Baseball America publisher is best known as the man who purchased the Durham (NC) Bulls for $2,417 in 1979 and helped turn the team – and with it, minor league baseball itself – into a cultural phenomenom thanks to the 1988 Kevin Costner-Susan Sarandon film Bull Durham. In the 1990’s Wolff sold the Bulls and played a pivotal role in reviving the long-dormant industry of independent baseball – modestly budgeted leagues and teams which operate without subsidy or oversight from Major League parent clubs.
Wolff secured permission from the Ottawa City Council to take over the two remaining years on the Lynx’ lease in November 2007. The move marked the second time in recent years that the Can-Am League had entered a market immediately following the departure of a long-time affiliated baseball club. The league swooped into New Haven, Connecticut in early 2004, immediately after the city lost its Toronto Blue Jays farm club. The Can-Am’s New Haven County Cutters failed in 2007 after four seasons of red ink and community apathy. By contrast, the Can-Am League established strong followings in virgin markets like Brockton, Massachusetts or in places like Quebec City (owned by Wolff himself) where fans had waited decades for the return of professional baseball.
If the International League, to which the Lynx belonged from 1993 to 2007, was one level below the major leagues, the new Can-Am League is one level above oblivion, which is not to say that the baseball is awful.
In a nod to the area’s bilingual heritage, Wolff gave the club a dual English/French identity: the Ottawa Rapids/Rapides. Local designer Mike Eby designed a sharp set of primary and alternate logos in a blue/black/grey/white scheme. But these designs were mothballed when new ownership materialized just weeks before opening day.
In late April of 2008, Rob Hall and Rick Anderson and of Canadian online DVD rental house Zip.Ca purchased the Rapids. In an nod to Zip.ca’s corporate identity, Hall and Anderson changed the club’s name to the “Ottawa Rapidz” complete with a new logo that incorporated the Canadian maple leaf.
The Rapidz debuted in Ottawa on May 22nd, 2008. The club struggled mightily to compete on the field, finishing the first half of the season with a last-place record of 13-34. In late July, 68-year old Manager Ed Nottle returned briefly to Evansville, Indiana to be with his wife Patty, who was awaiting cancer test results. While Nottle was gone, the Rapidz reeled off a five-game winning streak. When Nottle returned to Ottawa a few days later, Hall dismissed him, attracting negative attention from fans and media due to the circumstances. Despite the shake-up, the Rapidz finished with a league worst 31-63 record.
Opening Day 2008 – photo courtesy Nicolas Rouleau
Off the field, the Rapidz finished fifth in the eight-team Can-Am League with announced average attendance of 2,197 per game. Rob Hall later told The Ottawa Sun that actual turnstile figures for the Rapidz in 2008 were 1,256 fans per game, with attendance boosted by aggressive distribution of comp tickets.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Rapidz first season in September 2008, Hall announced he was shutting the team down. Hall claimed an eye-popping $1.4 million in operating losses for just over four months of ownership. The figure was stunning given the extremely lean (less than $100K) player payrolls in the Can-Am League and the team’s moderate $108,000 annual rental fee for Ottawa Baseball Stadium. Hall cited those lease terms as the straw the broke the camel’s back. With the original Lynx lease set to expire after the 2009 season, Rapidz ownership met with city leaders in September to negotiate a long-term extension. Hall chose to interpret the city’s negotiating position – later characterized by Ottawa officials as offhand remarks – as a demand to increase the team’s annual rent burden from $108,000 to $1 million dollars per year starting in 2010. He subsequently cited this “demand” on the Rapidz website and in press interviews as the primary justification for shuttering the franchise. The Ottawa Citizen accused Hall of using the City as a “scapegoat” and both Wolff and City officials denied that the City imposed such terms.
At the end of September 2008, Can-Am League owners voted to revoke Hall’s membership and draw down his $200,000 letter of credit as a result of his failure to enter a team for the 2009 season. Just like the Lynx a year earlier, the Rapidz would now leave Ottawa under a cloud of lawsuits. See our downloads section below for .PDFs of several court records from these cases.
In November 2008, Wolff announced that the remaining Can-Am League members would provide $50,000 each to operate a team in Ottawa for the 2009 season, tentatively to be named the “Rapids” with the original pre-Zip.ca artwork. Wolff later scrapped that idea and held a name the team contest, with “Ottawa Voyageurs” announced as the winning entry in February 2009. In late March 2009, less than two months before opening day, the Can-Am League’s Atlantic City Surf folded. Without the Surf – and with no new local ownership for Ottawa on the horizon – the rationale for operating Ottawa as a ward of the league evaporated. Ottawa was no longer needed to ensure an even number of teams for scheduling purposes and the Voyageurs operating expenses would now have to be split among a smaller pool of owners. Can-Am League officials therefore announced that the Voyageurs would fold along with the Surf, thus ending the brief and chaotic existence of the Rapids/Rapidz/Voyageurs..