Lively Tales About Dead Teams

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1983-1988 Watertown Pirates

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Waterbury PiratesNew York-Penn League (1983-1988)

Born: 1983
Affiliation Change: 1989 (Watertown Indians)

Stadium: Duffy Fairgrounds

Team Colors:

Owners:

 

The Watertown Pirates were the short season Class A farm club of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the New York-Penn League for six seasons from 1983 through 1988.

Tim Wakefield WatertownSeveral future Major League stars spent a summer in upstate New York city during the Pirates era, including Jay Buhner (1984), Moises Alou (1986 & 1987) and Tim Wakefield (1988).  Wakefield was in his first summer of pro ball after the Pirates selected him in the 8th round of the 1988 amateur draft.  He would later spend 20 years in the Majors as a knuckleball pitcher, retiring in 2011.  But Wakefield played first base for Watertown and never pitched an inning.

The Pirates played in a glum little econo-park called the Alex Duffy Fairgrounds.  At the end of the 1988 season, the Pirates moved their NY-Penn affiliate across the border to Welland, Canada and the Cleveland Indians moved into Duffy Fairgrounds.  The re-branded Watertown Indians played from 1989 through 1998 before departing for a shiny new ballpark in Staten Island.  Given the severely outdated nature of Duffy Fairgrounds, it’s unlikely that pro baseball will ever return to Watertown without a new facility.  The Fairgrounds are currently used for collegiate amateur baseball in the summer.

The Watertown Pirates are of minor note among minor league industry types as the first pro sports investment for sports psychologist Dr. Eric Margenau.  Margenau bought the team in 1986 with his partner in United Sports Ventures, Jay Acton (who was a prolific minor league operator in his own right).  Margenau would go on to own upwards of 20 different minor league baseball, hockey and Arena Football teams from the 1980’s through the 2000’s.

That’s longtime Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Ed Ott plastered all over the cover of Watertown’s 1986 yearbook (above right).  Ott, who was part of Pittsburgh’s 1979 World Series championship team, managed Watertown in 1986.

 

==Links==

New York-Penn League Media Guides

New York-Penn League Programs

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Written by AC

July 15th, 2014 at 12:58 am

1976-1992 Peninsula Pilots / White Sox / Virginia Generals

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Carolina League (1976-1992)

Born: 1976
Moved: 1992 (Wilmington Blue Rocks)

Stadium: War Memorial Stadium

Team Colors:

Owners:

 

Legend has it that Joe Buzas purchased the Philadelphia Phillies’ foundering double-A farm club in Reading, Pennsylvania for $1.00 in 1978.  Miles Wolff entered the Durham Bulls in the Carolina League in late 1979 for an expansion fee of $2,417.  Buzas flipped the Reading Phillies to Craig Stein for $1 million in 1986.  By 1995, Stein pegged Reading’s value at $8 million.  Wolff sold the Bulls for a rumored $4 million in 1990, two years after the release of Bull Durham helped fuel the minor league boom.

During the 1980’s, overlapping events fueled a surge in minor league baseball valuations.  The 1981 Major League Baesball strike sparked media and fan interest in alternatives, of both the minor league and Rotisserie league varieties.  Wall Street traders and corporate investors development an interest, spurred in part by the merchandising bonanza of Bull Durham and the “if you build it they will come” entrepreneurial mantra of Field of Dreams.  This new breed of operator knew how to push and tug the levers of municipal politics like the mom-and-pops never dreamed of, fueling a stadium construction boom.

Investors clamored to get in but the supply of Major League farm clubs was fixed – a monopoly governed by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.  This meant that prices soared not only for profitable, well-operated clubs like Reading and Durham, but also for basket case clubs that struggled to maintain Major League affiliations in antiquated ballparks.  The membership itself – that was the thing.  Once you acquired one, you had a relatively portable asset with no small number of cities willing to float a bond for a gleaming new ballpark.  Basket case in point: the Peninsula Pilots of the Carolina League.

The single-A Carolina League set up shop at War Memorial Stadium on the Virginia Peninsula in 1963.  Adopting the “Peninsula” moniker, the ball club fed the appetites of baseball fans in the adjacent cities of Hampton and Newport News for the next dozen summers.  The club took on six different identities in a little more than a decade – Senators, Grays, Astros, Pilots, Whips, Pennants – as Major League parent clubs kicked the affiliate back and forth.

After a summer without baseball in 1975, the Philadelphia Phillies placed their single-A farm club in Hampton in 1976, ushering in a ten-year period of stability and on-field success for baseball on the Peninsula.  Under Phillies’ management, the Peninsula Pilots won Carolina League championships in 1977, 1979 and 1980.

The 1980 Pilots set a Carolina League record with a 100-40 record and swept the expansion Durham Bulls in the Championship Series 3 games to zero.  18-year old pitcher Roy Smith posted a 17-6 record, tops on a staff where five pitchers posted ten or more wins.  Bahamian outfielder Wil Culmer won the Carolina League batting crown with a .369 average and led the club in home runs with 18.  21-year old shortstop Julio Franco would go on to the greatest Major League success of any of the 1980 Pilots.  He drove in 99 runs and stole 44 bases for Peninsula that summer.

In 2001, baseball historians Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright ranked the 1980 Pilots #74 on a list of the 100 greatest minor league teams of all time, compiled for MiLB.com to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Association.

In 1982, the Phillies sold the Pilots to Joe Buzas, operator of their double-A club in Reading.  As with Reading, Buzas reportedly bought the Pilots for the price of that game program over there – one dollar.  A legend in minor league circles, it is believed that Buzas owned between 60 and 82 baseball teams at various times from 1958 until his death in 2003.  Buzas was the polar opposite of the P.T. Barnum-style minor league huckster who sought headlines with outlandish promotions.  Tight-fisted and hands-on, Buzas’ gift was to wring profit from a struggling ball clubs, even with only a few hundred fans seated in the grandstand.

“<Owning ball clubs> was his hobby.  He made a lot of money from it,” Gerry Berthiaume, one of his former General Managers recalled to The Hartford Courant in 2003.  “He wouldn’t spend it to market his clubs, but for the people who worked for him, he was a generous person.”

Buzas flipped the Pilots in 1985 to Williamsburg developer Gil Granger for $160,000.  The Phillies departed the same year after ten years on the Peninsula.  Granger signed a new, but ultimately short-lived, affiliation deal with Chicago of the American League and his club played as the Peninsula White Sox in 1986 and 1987.  During Granger’s final year of ownership in 1988, he couldn’t find a Major League parent club at all.  He changed the name of the team to the Virginia Generals and played as a “co-op” team, borrowing players from several different Major League organizations.  That summer Baseball America called the Granger’s Generals the “worst” and “wackiest” team in professional baseball.

Nevertheless, Granger was able to sell the club in 1988 to Jay Acton and Eric Margenau’s United Baseball for $600,000, nearly quadruple what he had paid three years earlier.

Acton ditched the Generals adventure and revived the Peninsula Pilots name for the 1989 season, but he was not immediately able to reclaim a Major League partner.   The club endured a second straight season as a co-op team, meaning the club had to pay many of the player-related costs typically picked up by the parent organization.

“Let’s face it.  We have a very bad image among farm directors,” Acton told the The Daily Press of Newport News in 1989.

“<The> ballpark that was in terrible shape.  The bleachers were broken, the little concession stands were trashed and it looked like no one had played baseball there for a very long time,” said John Tull, a 26-year old who arrived to work for the Pilots shortly after the Grangers sold to Acton & Margenau in October 1988.  “When I got there, the very first day, the GM they hired for me to work for resigned.  He said he could not work there.”

By opening day 1989, Tull, with only a one-year student internship under his belt, was the new General Manager.  The Pilots in those days often played to crowds of 300-400 fans.  The team had an unusually high number of rainouts because it didn’t own a tarp.  The small band of characters who ran the ballpark found ways to amuse themselves, if not always the Pilots faithful:

“Terry Armour, was our beat writer from The Daily Press/Times Herald.  Terry filled in as PA announcer once in a while.  He was a character.  One of the funniest guys I knew,” recalled Tull in 2011.  “Sometimes Terry would break out Harry Caray doing Take Me Out to the Ballgame for the crowd.  One night during the 7th inning stretch instead of Take Me Out to the Ballgame he started singing Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit over the PA instead.  Looking back it was funny.  At the time it was funny too.”

In 1990, Acton signed an affiliation with the Seattle Mariners – who provided the long-awaited tarp! – giving Peninsula its first parent club since the 1987 Peninsula White Sox.  The relationship with the Mariners would be rocky – literally.  During the 1991 season, the Mariners pulled several top prospects from Peninsula and refused to send others over their displeasure with the quality and safety of War Memorial Stadium’s uneven playing surface and replaced them with younger, greener players.  The Pilots responded by setting a Carolina League record losing streak of 22 games, a streak which they finally broke with a victory on the season’s final day.

“There is nothing like this,” the Pilots 1991 field manager Steve Smith told The Associated Press after setting the loss record.  “The beautiful thing about this is everybody contributed.”

During the 1991 season, Acton announced plans to move the club to Wilmington, Deleware, where city officials agreed to build a new ballpark.  War Memorial Stadium was now obsolete and would officially be in default of National Association minimum standards set to take effect in 1994.  Then in the offseason, Acton seemingly struck a $1.68 million deal to sell the Pilots to local developers Bob and Marilyn DeLuca, who would build a new 5,000-seat stadium to keep baseball on the Peninsula.  The DeLuca’s operated the club through much of the winter, but the deal fell through a month before the 1992 season.

As soon as the DeLuca sale fell through, Acton struck a new deal with former New York Mets star Bud Harrelson and Long Island investment banker Frank Boulton to sell the club to them at the conclusion of the 1992 season.  Harrelson operated the club essentially on loan during the summer of 1992, while final details of the $1.6 million sale were worked out.  At the conclusion of the 1992 season, Harrelson and Boulton moved the club themselves to Deleware where the former Pilots franchise plays to this day as the Wilmington Blue Rocks.

 

==Slideshow==

 

==YouTube==

 

==Links==

Carolina League Media Guides

Carolina League Programs

 

 

==Downloads==

2011 interview with former Pilots General Manager John Tull

Peninsula Pilots – White Sox/Virginia Generals Sources

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