Affiliated vs. Indie battle goes on

The message on the Web site didn’t leave much to the imagination.

It simply said “The Albany Diamond Dogs will not play in the 2003 season. Thank you for all of your past support.”

For the Dog die-hards – every minor league franchise, the rich and the poor, has them – it had to hit hard. Their Northeast League franchise had died; the ballpark it played in, Heritage Park, had a date with the wrecking ball, with Albany County looking to build a nursing home on the property.

What happened? Many will cite financial mismanagement and general ownership miscalculations, but was it a coincidence that just one summer after an affiliated team moved into Troy, N.Y., about 15 miles away, the 8-year-old independent Diamond Dogs were history?

“It didn’t help,” former Diamond Dogs co-owner Ed Batta told the area’s daily newspaper, the Albany Times-Union, in October of 2002. And if there was any doubt about the franchise reviving, Batta added, “At the expense of being trite, it’s a dream gone down the toilet.”

Score one, it would seem, for affiliated baseball over the independent variety. Of course, the independent leagues have also won a battle or two. The emergence of the Atlantic League’s Bridgeport Bluefish is one of the contributing factors toward the demise of the Eastern League’s New Haven Ravens, located about a half-hour up the road on I-95.

The Ravens’ inability to make a go of it in New Haven led to the sale of the team to one Drew Weber, also owner of the Lowell Spinners. All Weber did was relocate the franchise to Manchester, where it could prove to be immense competition for the independent Nashua Pride for fan and corporate support.

Can the Pride, entering their seventh year, survive the fight? Local skeptics never expected Nashua’s Atlantic League franchise to still be at Holman Stadium after three seasons, let alone seven. Baseball people have mixed projections.

“I’ve followed what they’ve done,” said Mark Sperandio, the owner and operator of the Everett (Washington) AquaSox a short-season affiliate of the Seattle Mariners who once considered putting an independent league franchise in Nashua. “Given the hand they’ve (the Pride) been dealt, nothing they’ve done has been a failure . . . But it’s going to get even harder now because of the economic reality.”

“I’ve been to Pride games and I’ve been to (Holman Stadium) before they made the improvements,” said Charlie Voelker, the former Diamond Dogs general manager. “I think people in Manchester are gong to support their team (the Fisher Cats), and I think people in Nashua are going to support the team in Nashua.’’

“What (Manchester’s emergence) does is get people in between (the two communities) used to going to the games – and that’s not a bad thing for anybody.”

Various battlegrounds

Independent Northeast League commissioner Miles Wolff is keeping an eye on a competitive situation in the Jackson, Miss. area, where independent Central League franchise, the Jackson Senators, face the invasion next year of an Atlanta Braves-owned Double A affiliate, moving from Greenville, S.C. into a nearby suburb, Pearl.

“They’re intent on fighting the Braves,” Wolff said of the Senators’ ownership. “Local ownership in Jackson has just bought that club. They say, ‘We think we have a good product, We want this team for Jackson, and the city of Jackson doesn’t want their stadium to go unused.

“It’s really early . . . it’s going to be tough. They’re going to fight it, it’s going to be an interesting fight. The ownership there, I think, has the will to see it through. That could be interesting. I think the local group will be well-equipped to handle it.”

There are more examples of affiliates invading independent league territory. Wolff is concerned about another Central League franchise, the Coastal Bend Aviators, located 12 miles west of downtown Corpus Christi, Tex.. They will face a 2005 fight from an affiliated team in downtown Corpus Christi owned by Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.

Ownership of the independent league team is not local, Wolff said, “and we won’t be as well equipped to handle that fight.”

Wolff, who once considered placing a Northeast League team in Manchester to play at Gill Stadium, but passed because of the renovation cost and presence of the Pride sees a pattern. He considers it a lack of respect for independent league franchises on the part of the affiliates.

“Absolutely,” he said, “What’s happening is affiliated ball is now coming in to independent territories . . . But in the northeast (in the Manchester-Nashua situation), it’s tough to become a regional team.

“At some point, if we can get in a fair fight, and Jackson may be it, with good local ownership that can go head-to-head . . . I think the independent product is really good and if we can, as I say, have a fair fight – which is have good ownership that can stand the financial hit for awhile, which it’s going to be (in Jackson), then affiliated teams may think twice before going into an independent market.

“Manchester is going to be the new kid on the block, and they’ll have, I guess, a gorgeous new stadium to open up the following year . . .

Former Albany Dogs general manager Charlie Voelker says that despite all the variables, there’s one constant that both teams should keep in mind, especially the Pride:

“If you do a good job,” he said, “and do it in the town you need to do it in, you’ll be fine.”

And if not? Then you end up with mostly empty stadiums holding a few sad faces. You end up with stadium workers like Frank Kozma of West Haven, Conn., an usher for the Ravens at Yale Field, who spoke these words to a reporter from the Meriden (Conn.) Record-Journal last June:

“It’s a shame they couldn’t get support here from the fans.”