I need to make a phone call, but I’m not sure where to start.
In 2003, I was in my first year as the broadcaster for the Kalamazoo Kings, a minor league baseball team that played in the independent Frontier League. The Kings had a rough year on the field, firing their manager with more than half the season remaining and finishing in next-to-last place in their six-team division. But, it was a good year for me; management and the fans seemed pleased with my on-air work and several others around the league complimented me on the job I did. Near the end of the season, I was named the Frontier League Broadcaster of the Year. A couple of months later, I got a plaque for my achievement, my name written in gold script. I gave the hardware to Mom, who still displays it in my old bedroom. I called Kings games again in 2004 and again won Broadcaster of the Year. Joe Rosenhagen, the tobacco-dipping general manager of the Kings, requested that the team be allowed to display that plaque in their office and I was more than happy to oblige. It would be nice to have the second plaque, I thought, but it’s neat to know my award will be on display in Kalamazoo long after I leave.
As it turned out, I left Kalamazoo in the spring of 2005. The Kings carried on without me, winning the Frontier League Championship in ’05 followed by several more successful seasons on the field. The Kings continued to pride themselves on community outreach and charity, donating lots of tickets and all of their profits to the less fortunate. However, attendance started to dip after the championship year and 2010 was the final season of Kalamazoo Kings baseball. Officially, the team suspended operations, but it doesn’t appear that suspension will be lifted anytime soon.
I’m sure my Broadcaster of the Year plaque is sitting in a box in a closet or storage shed somewhere. And, if the Kings are no longer, I’d love to have it. But, I don’t know who to call.
The first minor league team I worked for was also named the Kings and also relocated, but that was the plan. In 2000, shortly after completing my junior year of college, I got an internship with the Queens Kings, of the short-season New York-Penn League. The Kings were in their first season, moving from St. Catharines, Ontario, where they had been a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate for many years. The franchise still had one more year left on their Player Development Contract with Toronto when they were purchased by New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon after the 1999 season with the intent of moving the team to Coney Island, on Brooklyn’s southern tip, where the team would be a Mets affiliate. However, a stadium in Coney Island wouldn’t be ready until the 2001 season, at the earliest, and plans to play temporarily in other Brooklyn venues fell through, leading Wilpon to strike a deal with St. John’s University that allowed the ballclub to play in a renovated baseball stadium on their campus in Queens as a Blue Jays farm club. Several people in the residential community surrounding St. John’s were opposed to the plan, afraid that the Kings’ 38-game home schedule would lead to traffic snarls and that the night games and noise from the ballpark would become a distraction that would interfere with their quality of life.
As it turned out, the community’s concerns were mostly unfounded. Despite playing in America’s biggest city, the Kings were last in the New York-Penn League in attendance, so noise and traffic weren’t significant issues. And, the Coney Island stadium was completed in time for the 2001 NY-Penn League season, so the Kings left St. John’s with a brand-new baseball field to become the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Mets affiliate that’s seen nothing but success both on and off the field.
Things have worked out for the erstwhile Queens Kings, but not for the Yakima Bears, the second minor league baseball team to employ me, and the first to hire me as their radio broadcaster. When I got there in 2002, the deck was already stacked against the Bears, who were in the smallest market in the short-season Northwest League. Moreover, Yakima, Washington was in an out-of-the-way locale that relied heavily on agriculture, which helped lead to high unemployment and a lack of discretionary dollars for families and businesses. The Bears played in a tiny stadium on the Yakima County Fairgrounds that lacked the amenities of many of the other league’s stadiums. And yet, I had a great summer getting paid to talk about baseball and getting to know the close-knit group of Bears supporters.
Even though I wasn’t surprised when I started reading about the possibility that 2012 could be the last season of Yakima Bears baseball – I’d heard stories about the Bears exploring relocation even before I got to Yakima – the reports of the Bears’ demise saddened me. I knew how much baseball meant to that community and I worked closely with many of the people who put in many hours of labor to keep baseball viable in Yakima. Not to mention, I have many fond memories of my season with the Bears, even if it was the least successful season in their history. But, the Bears’ history ended last week, when they played their last game in Yakima; they’ll spend 2013 and beyond in a sparkling, new facility in Hillsboro, Oregon. Unlike Yakima, Hillsboro isn’t in the middle of nowhere; it’s a suburb of Portland, the largest metropolitan area in the United States without professional baseball. Their stadium is sure to have many of the money-making amenities that were lacking in Yakima and Hillsboro’s populace is sure to help the franchise move out of the Northwest League’s attendance cellar, which is where the Bears resided for a good portion of their 23-season existence.
After Yakima and Kalamazoo, I wound up in Binghamton, New York, as the voice of the Double-A Binghamton Mets of the Eastern League. Like Yakima, Binghamton is the smallest market in its league and plays in a stadium that was built without many of the frills modern minor league stadiums have. However, the folks in Binghamton worked hard to modernize the ballpark as much as they could, constructing a weight room for the players, adding luxury boxes and installing a state-of-the-art video board, among other things. But, like Yakima, Binghamton often finds itself at the bottom of its league in attendance and, for years, some have quietly wondered how much longer Double-A baseball would last in Binghamton. Those concerns grew louder several months ago, when news reports out of Ottawa, Ontario claimed that owners there were ready to buy the B-Mets and move them into a refurbished stadium in Canada’s capital city. Binghamton’s team president strongly and forcefully denied those reports, but the skepticism remained.
That skepticism was quashed with last week’s news that Binghamton and the New York Mets agreed to extend their Player Development Contract for four more seasons, through 2016. So, the Binghamton Mets appear safe for at least a little while longer; hopefully, baseball remains in Binghamton for the foreseeable future. Several of the B-Mets staff members I worked with have moved on, but a few remain. I still check the Eastern League standings to see how Binghamton is doing. The fact that the Binghamton Mets still exist means part of my past still exists. You can never go home again, but it’s nice to know that your old home still stands. It’s nice to know there’s still somebody I can call.Follow @raford3