The Worcester Tornadoes were a professional baseball club that played in Worcester, Massachusetts for eight seasons from 2005 to 2012. The Tornadoes were part of the independent Can-Am League, whose clubs have no affiliation with Major League Baseball. The arrival of the Tornadoes in the spring of 2005 marked the return of pro baseball to Worcester after a 71-year absence.
The team’s original ownership group, headed by Newton, Massachusetts developer Ted Tye, built a modest 3,000-seat baseball stadium on the campus of Holy Cross University over the span of just 10 weeks in the spring of 2005. Just prior to opening day, Hanover Insurance agreed to pay a reported $100,000 per year for stadium naming right from 2005 to 2007, which was one of the largest corporate sponsorship deals in the Can-Am League.
The Tornadoes’ first season in 2005 was a charmed one. The face of the ball club was field manager Rich Gedman, a Worcester native who played eleven seasons for the Boston Red Sox. The Tornadoes got hot at the end of the season and swept the Quebec Capitales 3 games to zero in the Can-Am League Championship Series that September. 124,745 fans came out to watch, giving the Tornadoes an average of 2,599 per game.
Local interest in the Tornadoes peaked at 2,779 per game in 2006 after the club hired veteran independent baseball exec Todd Marlin to run the front office operations. But Marlin’s efforts to reign in the club’s operational budget rankled Gedman and Marlin was dismissed at the end of the season. Attendance began to drop and a star-crossed attempt to get into the concert promotion business crunched the team’s finances. By 2009, attendance dipped to 1,818 per game and the original Tornadoes ownership group ran out of money. Maryland-based investor and former minor league exec Todd Breighner assumed the team’s debt and took over ownership in the fall of 2009. Gedman departed in 2010 after six seasons at the helm.
The Tornadoes’ great success story was the ball club’s discovery of Chris Colabello. The strapping 6′ 4″ 220-pound 1B/3B was an undrafted rookie free agent out of Worcester’s Assumption College during the Tornadoes’ first season in 2005. Colabello played all or parts of seven seasons with the Tornadoes from 2005 to 2011. Overall, Colabello labored in the minors for nine long seasons before making his Major League debut as a 29-year old rookie with the Minnesota Twins in May 2013.
Less inspiring was the Tornadoes’ pursuit of 47-year old steroid casualty Jose Canseco during the team’s final grim season in the summer of 2012. Owner Todd Breighner agreed to pay the former American League MVP $14,000 per month in a personal services contract later published by The Worcester Telegram & Gazette. But fans had little interest and Canseco was washed up, hitting .194 with just one home run in 20 games. Canseco later claimed he was never paid and filed suit against Breighner, issuing personal attacks against the team owner in the Worcester media.
Canseco wasn’t Breighner’s only problem during the summer of 2012. A trio of local creditors, including the hotel that was to provide Canseco’s accommodations, filed suit for unpaid debts during the 2012 season. They quickly attached the team’s few assets and the team was locked out of its Main Street office in August 2012. In the final indignity, the Tornadoes’ uniforms were repossessed during the season’s final week and the team was forced to play in generic loaner uniforms from the league office. By the end of August, the Can-Am League had seen enough and revoked the franchise on August 31, 2012.
Worcester was without baseball in 2013. Groups from several independent pro leagues and collegiate wooden bat leagues have expressed interest in bringing baseball back to Fitton Field in the summer of 2014.
==Worcester Tornadoes Games on Fun While It Lasted==
The New Haven County Cutters were an independent baseball team in the Northeast League (2004) and Can-Am League (2005-2007). The ball club, which played at Yale Field, struggled badly at the box office throughout its existence, but managed to hang around for four seasons before succumbing to the inevitable and folding on October 30, 2007.
The Cutters were a roadworn franchise, with roots dating back to 1996, when Wall Street commodity trader Jonathan Fleisig purchased an expansion franchise in the North Atlantic League, a low-level indy circuit. Fleisig’s Massachusetts Mad Dogs played four seasons (1996-1999) at Fraser Field in Lynn, Massachusetts, but the dilapidated ballpark was in such bad shape that portions of the structure were condemned and unusable during Fleisig’s tenancy.
Fleisig pulled out of Lynn in frustration after the 1999 season and put his franchise on ice for two seasons before resuscitating the ball club in Pittsfield, Massachusetts as the Berkshire Black Bears in 2002. Like Lynn, Pittsfield had a rundown ballpark (Wahconah Park) and a depressed local economy. The Black Bears muddled along for two summers in Pittsfield but failed to draw much support. The Black Bears didn’t leave much of a mark in Pittsfield, but Fleisig did make an impression – a bad one – on Ball Four author Jim Bouton, whose own effort to obtain the lease at Wahconah in 2002 lost out to Fleisig’s proposal. Bouton retaliated with a vengeful and entertaining memoir titled Foul Ball about his rivalry with Fleisig and his bureaucratic brawls with City of Pittsfield officials and journalists. The Black Bears gave up on Pittsfield after two seasons in December 2003 and signed a new lease deal at Yale Field in New Haven.
In New Haven, the team adopted the Cutters identity, along with a pastel palette of powder blue and yellow. Former NHL All-Star and longtime New York Rangers captain Brian Leetch was introduced as one of several minority partners in the club to lend some celebrity appeal. Management made some modest upgrades to ancient Yale Field, including the installation of no frills, air-conditioned luxury suites adjacent to the press box. Fleisig and his partners also hired The Goldklang Group in an advisory role, long-time minor league baseball investors and management consultants who operated a half dozen ball clubs around the country, including one of the most successful independent teams, the St. Paul Saints, and the Cutters’ own Northeast League rivals, the Brockton Rox.
The cover illustration on this 2005 Cutters program (above) is by the late Goldklang in-house artist Andy Nelson and uses the Group’s “Fun Is Good” brand mark. In the photo at right, you can see that the Cutters’ Northeast League rivals the Brockton Rox used the same branding that summer. In this and other years, Nelson’s artwork ignored conventional imagery of ballplayers and baseball “action” in favor of mascots, fans and other imagery that reinforced the Goldklang Group’s “Fun Is Good” brand and affordable family entertainment emphasis.
Fleisig’s previous stops in Lynn and Pittsfield were marred by dilapidated ballparks. In Yale Field he had another old and outmoded ballpark (1927) and he faced a new problem as well. The Cutters were coming into Yale Field on the heels of the New Haven Ravens (1994-2003), a double-A farm club of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Ravens were the worst box office draw in the Eastern League from 2001 to 2003, with their final lame duck summer of 2003 especially poor, as it was announced prior to the season that the club was moving to Manchester, New Hampshire in 2004. There are places in America where independent baseball thrives – Long Island, St. Paul, Somerset County in New Jersey to name a few – but the common thread is communities that have been starved for baseball for decades. In cities and towns where independent clubs come right in on the heels of departing affiliated teams, the track record is one of almost 100% failure. The indy ball concept tends to suffer by comparison when local fans have grown accustomed to watching “the stars of the future” for a Major League organization. New Haven was no different.
Photo courtesy of James Siscel, www.baseballroadtrip.net
Circumstance also dealt the Cutters a blow just before their New Haven debut in 2004. The club was scheduled to start on the road with a short three-game road trip in Allentown, Pennsylvania starting on May 31, 2004. The home opener was scheduled for Thursday, June 3rd against Brockton at Yale Field. But just three weeks prior to the season, the Allentown Ambassadors abruptly shut down, forcing the remaining Northeast League owners to replace them on the schedule with a collectively-financed road team called The Aces. All road dates at Allentown now became additional home dates against the Aces. For strong draws like Brockton and Quebec, the additional home dates were a boon to the bottom line. For New Haven, though, it was a disaster. With a winter’s worth of promotion and festivities targeted towards the Thursday, June 3rd home opener, the team suddenly had to open at home with on a Monday night during the school year. The Aces series drew only a few hundred fans, deflating the Cutters best laid plans for a grand opening. The instability on display with last minute schedule changes and teams folding also did little to promote the quality of independent baseball to an already dubious New Haven marketplace.
For the 2004 season, the Cutters drew a meager 56,982 for 52 home dates, a drop of nearly 85,000 fans from the Ravens 140,922 for 71 dates in 2003. Field Manager Jarvis Brown was let go after the club failed to make the Northeast League playoffs in 2004.
After the 2004 season, the Northeast League re-organized itself as the Can-Am League (short for Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball) as a legal maneuver in ongoing litigation with the former owner of the Allentown Ambassadors. The Cutters replaced Jarvis Brown with new Manager Mike Church and the team’s performance picked up. The Cutters made the Can-Am League playoffs in both 2005 and 2006. The club’s best season was in 2006 when the club finished 58-38 overall and lost to Brockton in the opening round of the playoffs.
Attendance ticked up slightly to 67,607 in 2005 and 62,356 in 2006, but the Cutters still languished near the bottom of the league at barely 1,000 fans per game. During the club’s fourth and final season in 2007, announced attendance improved to 1,653 per game (82,651), which ranked 8th among the Can-Am League’s 9th clubs, ahead of only the Nashua Pride. Ownership folded the club on October 30th, 2007.
2007 was a dark time for New Haven professional sports. The New Haven Coliseum – home to minor league hockey for the better part of four decades – was imploded in January. The October demise of the Cutters left New Haven without a professional sports team for the first time in 109 years in 2008.
Jonathan Fleisig finally gave up on his Lynn/Pittsfield/New Haven independent club after a decade of wandering through New England. He continues to be active in minor league hockey , where he has owned the Bakersfield (CA) Condors of the ECHL for more than 15 years, among other investments in the sport.
“Always go with your gut” and “always have a plan” both seem like solid pieces of advice. But what do you do when those two decision-making maxims contradict each other?
In December 2005 I set off for the baseball winter meetings in Dallas. I was three months into my first General Manager job, managing the business operations of an independent baseball club in Massachusetts called the Brockton Rox. The Rox were quite popular at that time, drawing close to 4,000 fans per game at Campanelli Stadium, an $18 million ballpark erected in 2002. But during the club’s fourth season in the summer of 2005, average game attendance declined for the first time. One factor among many was that the Rox’ entertainment set pieces – the mascot routines, music & video board selections, between-innings entertainment and nightly promotions – had grown stale and repetitive. Even on nights when the ballpark was full in 2005, the buzz of anticipation and the joyful noise of laughter and cheering felt subdued.
So I went to Dallas with a plan. I was going to hire a new Director of Promotions for the Rox, someone brimming with fresh ideas. And I was determined not to settle for anyone with less than two years of pro baseball experience. Promotions is often an entry-level position in the low-level minors. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but the constant turnover of enthusiastic-but-inexperienced young people is a key reason why minor league teams get stale.
Once a team is several years old, a funny thing happens: the taste and sophistication of the team’s fan base starts to surpass that of the young front office workers who arrive each spring to begin their sports management careers. Tired old warhorses like 1980’s theme nights, sumo wrestling contests, or mascots leading the crowd in the YMCA may seem fun & fresh to newly minted college grads who haven’t attended many minor league games yet themselves. But to the season ticket holders and other ballpark regulars, these are re-runs they have seen a hundred times over. The Rox were known for creative entertainment. We didn’t have the luxury of another dull season while a first-year staffer rode out their learning curve.
Several industry veterans advised that I was likely to be disappointed in Dallas. I was recruiting at the Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities (PBEO) job fair. The PBEO is a terrific way to break into front office work. Hundreds of entry-level jobs and internships are available all over the country. But we faced a few challenges. First, the PBEO is very much geared to students and recent grads. The pool of candidates with two years or more of experiences was going to be shallow. Second, independent baseball clubs like the Rox were banned from the Winter Meetings. We snuck into the PBEO with bogus credentials and posted a fake job description under the name of a New York Yankees farm club to attract candidates. We revealed the bait and switch at the start of each interview. The bad news: you aren’t going to be working for the Yankees or in a warm Southern climate. The good news: we might have a job for you anyway.
I liked two candidates on Day One. Mike Then was the Assistant General Manager of the Mankato (MN) Moon Dogs of the Northwoods League. Mike had the two years of experience I was looking for. He also had experience selling which was an unexpected plus. And Mike had existing relationships with key vendors who sold promotional items and with some great touring acts like Rockin’ Ray & Skyy Dogs USA and Jon Terry’s SRO Productions. My only hesitation with Mike was his steamroller enthusiasm. During a second interview over margaritas at the hotel bar, Mike talked a blue streak, rattling off dozens of promotions he already had planned for the Rox to fill our entire 50-game calendar. The Rox had a 12-person staff and part of our culture was that everyone collaborated on entertainment and customer service. I wasn’t sure how Mike’s style was going to go down with the rest of the gang. The point of the job wasn’t to have all of the ideas yourself. It was to draw out, cultivate and refine the best ideas from the entire organization.
The other candidate was Bailey Frye. Bailey and I immediately clicked in our first interview. She was charming, intelligent and genuinely creative. Bailey’s life was more or less a promotion in progress. Example: she and her best friend impulsively flew from New York to New Mexico after becoming convinced they had discovered a clue to the location of a buried treasure (they hadn’t). I also sensed that Bailey would work collaboratively with our staff, rather than pound them into submission as I feared Mike would.
But Bailey didn’t fit my preconceived plan. Her only previous experience was as a student intern for the Scranton-Wilkes Barre (PA) Red Barons, where she was the on-field emcee during between innings breaks in 2005. We met again for breakfast for a second interview and I pressed her further on the internship. What kind of office duties did she have with the Red Barons when the team was on the road?
“Oh. Well, the Barons didn’t have any work for me in the office,” Bailey admitted. “I only worked on game nights.”
My heart sank. Occasionally you start to actively root for a candidate during an interview. You know they’ve got longs odds, but you want them to say the right things to make you take the chance. But game day internships are the lowest form of internship. Some staff members don’t even bother to learn your name. You rarely get mentored. Bailey had no experience working in an office atmosphere of any kind, let alone a baseball front office. My gut told me that Bailey was the perfect fit for us, but I couldn’t reconcile her lack of experience with our plan for the team. A few days after the Meetings, I called Mike Then – the safer choice – and offered him the job.
And then serendipity happened. Mike turned it down. And I felt…relieved. I dialed up Bailey. A week had gone by since the end of the PBEO. Had I waited too long? Bailey answered the phone and told me she accepted an entry-level job selling tickets for the Kannapolis Intimidators in North Carolina.
“Congratulations,” I said. “Do you want to do that?”
And that’s how I lucked into hiring the best creative mind I ever worked with. (In fact, I’ve hired her twice). She immediately revived the Rox game day experience in 2006. I resigned after the 2007 season, but one of the last baseball promotions we worked on together was one of her best: KISS The Season Goodbye on August 25th, 2007 -Gene Simmons’ 57th birthday. This was the in-stadium video board promo:
The idea began when the Rox staff saw a KISS cover band called Kisstory play at the Westgate Lanes bowling alley in Brockton. They sounded pretty good. Ersatz Paul Stanley played a mirror ball guitar and had appropriately poofy chest hair. Mock Ace Frehley looked constipated but nailed all his solos. During “Strutter” a 70-year old woman emerged from the barroom crowd of 14 or so spectators and ground her hips lasciviously in front of a mortified Gene Simmons impersonator. Fake Peter Criss was a better drummer than the real Peter Criss.
“One of the ways I brainstorm promo ideas is to look through birthdays and anniversaries of famous people and events,” Bailey explained in 2012. “I loved using music to theme games anyway, but what really excited me about KISS is how visual and over-the-top they are, which is what a promotion should be all about.”
Bailey booked Kisstory for a post-game concert on August 25th. I don’t want to know where she found a group of high school majorettes (right) that performed to KISS songs in borderline S&M regalia. They couldn’t catch their batons worth a damn, but they looked killer flashing the devil horns in their KISS make up and black leather.
We brought Kisstory in early in the afternoon for a sound check and put them on a small trailer parked on top of home plate for a stage. They were deafeningly loud. I walked from home plate, down the left field line, out the back gate of the ballpark, through the Registry of Motor Vehicles parking lot and down around the corner past the Brockton Fairgrounds. I could still make out the chorus of “Christine Sixteen” on Forest Avenue about six blocks away.
The finishing touch were the Rox’ commemorative KISS uniforms for the night, featuring a Gene Simmons birthday patch on the sleeve. (These were auctioned off for charity to meet payroll during the game). The players actually liked these jerseys, unlike the pink ones we auctioned off for breast cancer research earlier in the year, when one pitcher actively tried to miss his scheduled start to avoid taking the mound in pink.
Unbeknownst to most of our staff, I had already handed in my resignation, effective shortly after the season. I knew I wouldn’t be working baseball again for a while, so I decided I wanted to sit in the production room and spin music for this game, a job I had loved during my first years in baseball as a promotions manager.
The challenge was to balance our KISS theme with the affordable family entertainment brand. We cut out a large swath of the KISS oeuvre from the playlist: “Love Gun” (too suggestive), “Lick It Up” (too sucky), and everything off of “Music From The Elder” (too embarrassing). We supplemented the soundtrack with a few era appropriate chestnuts by the likes of Van Halen and Cheap Trick. And, of course, Gene Simmons’ mind-blowing cover of “When You Wish Upon A Star” from his 1978 solo album. Those played well with many of the fans, who were legitimately a little rougher around the edges than a typical Rox crowd. More denim, more leather, more implants.
“I didn’t know their music that well,” Bailey recalled. ” The one song that sticks out in my memory is <Peter Criss’> “Beth” because I remember you telling me at the bowling alley that if the drummer came out from behind his kit and sang “Beth” we could hire them on the spot. I had never been so excited for a power ballad in all my life.”
The production booth at Campanelli Stadium makes for a tight fit. The P.A. announcer, video board tech and music tech are all jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, surrounded by computer monitors, microphones and sound boards. Early in the game, a Rox base runner broke from first on an attempted steal. I accidentally bumped a volume level on the sound board with my right elbow while the runner was en route to second. I already had my selection cued up for the next inning break. Paul Stanley yelled out “Cold Gin!” (Alive! 1975) as the catcher sprang from his crouch to fire the ball towards second. I quickly turned the level back to zero and then peered sheepishly at the field, where the catcher, umpire and pitcher were glaring up at the press box.
Bailey and her “Fun Team” of interns and local high school kids were in fine form that night, moving the theatrics along from one script point to the next with precision and efficiency. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the Rox and their opponents that night – a league-operated team of nomads called the “The Grays” that played all of their games on the road. The first inning took over an hour to complete. By 9:00 PM were still in the third inning. We had an extraordinary noise curfew of 11:00 PM, which was typically only an issue with fireworks displays. But the sound and fury of the afternoon’s Kisstory sound check easily rivaled any pyrotechnics show.
In the end, the Rox and Grays ended up taking more than four hours to complete a nine-inning baseball game. It was the longest non-extra innings game of the season. It was sickening and I had to pull the plug on Kisstory’s performance – the centerpiece of Bailey’s vision. The crowd booed vigorously and the band were clearly disappointed. But they came down for an impromptu late game autograph signing and generated a huge line. We brought the clumsy teenage dominatrixes/majorettes back out for an encore performance, accompanied by members of Kissory on air guitar. The crowd was grudgingly forgiving.
Bailey’s take: “To say I was devastated was an understatement. Not only was I bummed that all our planning and hard work wouldn’t have a chance to be realized by the fans, but I knew the band was going to be heart broken. One of the toughest things I have ever had to do was tell four grown men in full KISS makeup and costume that they wouldn’t get to play their rock n’ roll.”
Bailey Frye stayed at the Rox for four years. When she left the Rox after the 2009 season, I jumped at the chance to hire her for the Boston Breakers of Women’s Professional Soccer, where she once again designed the best in-stadium fan experience in the league. Today she is the Events Manager for the Baltimore Orioles, the team she grew up cheering for as a kid.
Last September, my wife and her sister entered a team in Pigskin Fantasies, the fantasy football league of which I have been a member for 10 years. The $140 entry fee was a modest investment compared with the $700 million that Bob McNair forked over for the NFL’s most recent expansion team, the Houston Texans, in 2002. Nevertheless their team, “Mayhem & Foolishness” shared a few of the basic trappings of a real professional football franchise: they drafted players, generated a modest revenue stream, established an online presence, and even created their own apparel – long sleeved t-shirts featuring the pirated likenesses of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.
For the record, Mayhem & Foolishness posted a record of 2-12 in 2011 and an operating loss of about $100. Now I know that my wife and my sister-in-law don’t think of fantasy football in terms of net profits. If they did, they wouldn’t have stuck with Ryan Fitzgerald down the stretch this fall. My wife is an entrepeneur, however. She runs her own busy psychotherapy practice and she identifies herself, with good justification, as both a therapist and a small business owner.
But what if my wife got it into her head that she was fundamentally in the business of fantasy football ownership – i.e. a professional gambler? At what point does an idea become an enterprise? When a business goes bankrupt the precise condition and timing of its demise is recorded. But can a dream that fails to catch fire ever cease to exist? If a friend insists that they are, despite all evidence to the contrary, a classic car mechanic or a bounty hunter or a professional magician, who am I to say otherwise? Maybe business is just really slow.
Consider the long, strange journey of the Plymouth River Eels, a proposed independent baseball team in Southeastern Massachusetts that insisted it was in business for upwards of four years but never truly was. Founded in 2005, the River Eels did almost everything you’d expect a minor league baseball team to do. Everything except play baseball games. They conducted clinics and name-the-mascot contests for local school children. They had architectural renderings and hired a groundskeeper and even commissioned a team song. At one time, the River Eels claimed over 1,500 season ticket reservations and signed 10-year sponsorship deals with local car dealerships and insurance agencies. As late as 2010, one team official continued to promote merchandise for the River Eels on Twitter.
When it comes to the Plymouth River Eels, two things are certain. The River Eels never played a game of baseball. And for (at least) three summers, the River Eels were Plymouth’s home town ball club. Only one of these statements can be true, but neither of them is wrong.
Massachusetts State Representative Tom O’Brien announced the formation of Bay Colony Baseball and Athletics, LLC and the Plymouth River Eels baseball club in November 2005, flanked by business partners Mike Rothberg and Erik Christensen. At the introductory press conference, the trio unveiled architectural drawings for a privately funded 5,500 seat ballpark with adjacent convention center and restaurant. Total price tag: an estimated $34.5 million. The River Eels expected to throw out their first pitch in May of 2007.
The Eels drew inspiration from the success of the nearby Brockton Rox of the independent Can-Am League. During the summer of 2004, the three-year old Rox drew 204,000 fans to Campanelli Stadium, an $18 million ballpark and convention center complex built in 2002. The Rox also ran the Campanelli Stadium concessions business, and grossed over $100,000 a night when Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Def Leppard came through town on summer ballpark tours.
But if the Rox offered a tempting model they also presented a problem: proximity. Campanelli Stadium is only 35 miles from Plymouth and the Rox tapped into the bedroom communities along the Route 3 corridor to Plymouth for a significant portion of their fan base. If Bay Colony Baseball and Athletics wanted a Can-Am League membership, it was going to have to buy the Rox’ permission.
Rox management was divided on the River Eels. The team’s out of state owners and advisors were skeptical of the project and of opening the market to a potential competitor. But Rox President Jim Lucas wanted to work with the River Eels on a deal: the Rox would help broker the acquisition of the Can-Am League’s struggling Elmira Pioneers franchise for somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000. On top of that, the the River Eels would pay a six-figure annual territorial rights fee to the Rox for several years. Lucas and O’Brien negotiated until August 2006, when the Rox abruptly ousted Lucas. Two months later The Brockton Enterprise reported that the former Rox President was under investigation by the Plymouth County District Attorney. Lucas was indicted by a grand jury in 2007 for allegedly embezzling approximately $50,000 from his former ball club. The charges were later dismissed, but with Lucas gone, negotiations with the Rox and the Can-Am League ended for good.
In 2006, the River Eels reached agreement with former California Angels shortstop Gary DiSarcina to manage the ball club, but on the eve of that announcement the Boston Red Sox offered DiSarcina a managerial post in their farm system. The River Eels let him go and it was just as well – the planned May 2007 debut came and went with no league membership, no groundbreaking and no deal to purchase the 28 acre parcel of land eyed for the ballpark.
“We haven’t heard from them in more than a year,” Plymouth Planning Director Lee Hartmann told The Patriot-Ledger newspaper in February 2008.
But the team continued to market itself in the community, hosting a used equipment drive and later a baseball clinic in January and February 2008. The team inked a 10-year sponsorship deal with a local Chevy dealer to sponsor the dugouts tops at the ballpark.
In May 2008 activity ticked up once again as the River Eels signed a purchase and sale agreement to acquire the stadium land for $5.1 million. By this time Bay Colony Baseball and Athletics was up against a deadline – the company needed to file a written plan for the property by June, or else lose favorable tax breaks approved by local voters in October 2007. But the land deal blew up for unspecified reasons on the day of closing. By this point, the looming economic crisis began to impact the project as well. Stadium contractor Payton Construction, which also built Brockton’s Campanelli Stadium, filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors in September 2007, leaving the River Eels without a builder.
After the land deal collapsed in May 2008, the River Eels went silent again, as they had for much of 2007. The last media article published on the team arrived in June 2009, in which River Eels Vice President Mike Rothberg insisted the project was still a matter of when, not if. River Eels front man Tom O’Brien was notably absent from that article.
Today, the River Eel has become more of a Loch Ness monster – an acknowledged myth that periodically raises its head in view of a few onlookers. O’Brien is now the Treasurer of Plymouth County. He has not commented in the press about the River Eels since May 2008. As late as March 2010, team co-founder Mike Rothberg posted an update on his Twitter account plugging a new and improved version of the River Eels website. However, that website finally came down later in 2010, nearly five years after the launch of the team.
The idea of the River Eels seems to have finally met its end sometime in 2010 or 2011 . On the other hand, the team remains only one tweet, one Facebook post, or one $25 box of business cards away from a return to its former condition.
The River Eels live?! A member of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League writes in to say that a man with Plymouth River Eels business cards attended an organizational meeting for the start-up collegiate wooden bat league in December 2010 or January 2011. But the new league debuted in the summer of 2011 and has since conducted another round of expansion for 2012 and a Plymouth River Eels entry has yet to surface.
The Elmira Pioneers ended their run in professional baseball as a member of the independent Northeast/Northern/Can-Am League, where they played from 1996 to 2005.
A small, isolated city in the Southern Tier of upstate New York, Elmira’s professional baseball history stretches back to 1888. The team joined the Double-A Eastern League in 1923, and spent most of the next fifty years there. With the city hit hard by the industrial Northeast’s economic woes of the 1970s, the Pioneers dropped down to the Single-A New York-Penn League in 1973. The affiliated club would eventually be a casualty of the ballpark boom of the 1990s, moving to a new stadium in Lowell, Mass., after the 1995 season.
At the same time, independent baseball had become an outgrowth of the renewed interest in the game. Looking to capture the success of the Northern League, which started in 1993, indy leagues exploded in 1995. The Northeast League was one of 11 leagues to begin the season (only 8 finished the year), and slogged through a shaky first campaign with six clubs in New York State.
After a mediocre first season, Newburgh Nighthawks owner Bill Cummings moved his club to Elmira’s now-vacant Dunn Field during the off-season. The team’s first hurdle occurred when the affiliated club’s ownership group was reluctant to let the new club use the trademarked Pioneers name; an alternate “Elmira Cougars” logo and identity had been developed when the prior regime relented at the last minute.
The new team’s most important asset was its ballpark, Dunn Field. A handsome 1930’s-era, 4,000-seat gem, the park was in excellent condition, with over $1 million invested in it by the City of Elmira in 1993 to meet National Association specs. In a downtrodden city that had lost 40% of its population since 1950, Dunn Field was a link to a more prosperous era, and Elmirans had a great amount of affection for and pride in the park. City fathers also recognized the importance of keeping professional baseball in Elmira: the Pioneers paid no rent at the ballpark, and, somewhat incredibly, actually received a subsidy from the City of Elmira that reached as high $50,000 per season during the independent team’s stay.
With former St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves stalwart Ken Oberkfell as the club’s manager, the “new” Pioneers went 31-41 in their first season in 1996, drawing a respectable 41,501. However, Cummings and the club’s other investors were unfamiliar with the Elmira market, and having lost a sizeable amount of money in their first year, the Pioneers nearly folded.
The club was rescued by the Ervins, a wealthy area family who purchased the team. Well-connected in the community, they immediately changed the club’s logo and got to work getting on board many of the sponsors and fans who lamented the loss of the affiliated Pioneers.
With fans starting to warm up to the independent club, attendance rose to 52,372 in 1997. On the field, despite an unspectacular 44-38 regular-season record, the Pioneers caught fire in the playoffs and won the league championship under veteran independent manager Dan Shwam, the club’s only pennant during its Northeast League tenure.
In 1998, the Pioneers were unable to recapture the previous year’s magic, and proffered a forgettable 32-51 campaign, with attendance virtually unchanged at 52,436. However, now at eight teams, the Northeast League was slowly gaining respectability among independent leagues.
At the same time, the Midwest-based Northern League had begun to explore markets in the Northeast. With the logistical and financial hassles that would inevitably arise with just a couple of teams far from the league’s main territory, the Northern instead merged with the Northeast League, creating a 16-team circuit that kept the “Northern League” name.
The two 8-team conferences only met for the midseason All-Star Game and the championship series, so it was more or less business as usual for the individual clubs. Unfortunately for the Ervins family, the Pioneers were still losing money, and the owners struggled with the realities of operating a team in Elmira, frequently ruminating during the off-seasons about whether they could continue to keep the club alive.
With only 90,000 people in Chemung County, and few other population centers nearby, potential corporate sponsorship for the team was limited. Furthermore, the nature of the area’s small, stagnant business community didn’t lend itself particularly well to sponsorship. Since everyone in town already knew exactly who and where they were to begin with, Elmira’s small businesses didn’t particularly feel the need to promote themselves with a fence sign or major ad campaign.
As far as fan support, the 1997 championship helped, as did division championships in 2000 and 2001, but the Pioneers struggled to convince fans of independent baseball’s merits, a common issue for many indy teams. The quality of play in the Northern League was certainly better than the New York-Penn League, and the team played to win, rather than to develop fans for a faraway Major League affiliate. Yet, the previous sixty years of seeing the likes of Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver, Wade Boggs, and Curt Schilling come through town had conditioned Pioneers fans to watch affiliated baseball.
The constant uncertainty surrounding the club’s future didn’t help, and fans and sponsors grew tired of frequent “Save the Pioneers” campaigns that tried to shore up the team’s limited resources.
Finally, prior to the 2002 season, the Ervins sold 51 percent of the club to Silex Corp., a Japanese ownership group led by former major-league pitchers Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu and Mac Suzuki. The new group bought the club with the intention of developing Japanese players in Elmira, and hopefully moving them to major-league organizations. With a limited number of Japanese players on the roster in 2002, the team put together its best season as an independent club, going 54-36, but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Patrick McKernan, the former assistant GM at Triple-A Albuquerque, had been hired as the Pioneers’ GM prior to the season, and the club’s attendance remained steady, in the 1,500 per game range. With the experienced McKernan running a tighter ship, the team lost the least amount of money in its independent history in 2003 (around $150,000).
Nevertheless, ownership’s enthusiasm for running the Pioneers was waning, and the club operated with a significantly reduced budget in 2004.
The experiment with Japanese players had been lackluster at best; players of any consequence were rarely sent to the team (only four Japanese players were in Elmira for 2004, and just two in 2005), and with a virtually nonexistent Asian population in Elmira, fans didn’t particularly identify with them anyway. Furthermore, the Pioneers had to deal with foreign players’ typical visa issues: not only could getting them into the country be problematic, but crossing the Canadian border was also a headache, meaning that the Japanese players were frequently left behind when the Pioneers went to powerhouse Quebec.
With former Detroit Tiger Greg Keagle, a native of neighboring Horseheads, as the club’s manager in 2004 and 2005, the bare-bones Pioneers trudged through two woeful seasons on the field, going 32-60 and 28-64, respectively. Ownership finally called it a day after the 2005 campaign, and the Pioneers transitioned to the amateur New York Collegiate League, where they remain today.