by John Furgele
Over the past 20 years, there has been a boom in minor league baseball. New stadiums, better marketing, and in game entertainment has made minor league baseball a fun place to be over the summer in America. Because of this explosion, independent leagues have popped up as well. Because the demand for minor league baseball is so great and so many cities want a part of it, independent leagues like the Atlantic, Can-Am, Frontier, Northern, and American Association have formed. As a result, we have affiliated minor league baseball (Class AAA, AA, A, Rookie) and the various independent leagues.
But, it wasn’t always this way. Back in 1966, minor league baseball was very minor league. Teams were located in very small towns and there wasn’t much emphasis on attendance and marketing the focus was to develop players for the next level of play. There wasn’t much marketing done to entice fans to come to the ballpark; fans found the games because they were….fans.
One of those small towns is Oneonta, located in southeastern New York State with a population of a bit more than 13,000. Oneonta has played in the short season Class A New York-Penn League since 1966. Back then, the NY-P League had teams in places like Little Falls, NY, Geneva, NY and Newark, NY. Today, those small cities are gone, replaced by the likes of Albany, Brooklyn and Staten Island.
The reason Oneonta has remained is owner Sam Nader, an Oneonta businessman still going strong at age 89. The Oneonta Tigers are a throwback to the simpler days of minor league baseball, in fact, when I called the Tigers office, the voice on the other end was Mr. Nader himself. Unlike many of their NY-P brothers, the Tigers do not play in a state-of-the-art stadium. They play at Damaschke Field, which first opened in 1940. No luxury boxes, no fancy seats, just baseball. The Tigers sell baseball, which unfortunately, in this day and age may be not be enough to attract big crowds.
The Tigers are averaging about 700 fans per game this season, and included in that was a game against the Tri City Valley Cats that drew 341. Sometimes, selling baseball doesn’t bring the casual fan to the ballpark. Today’s game requires stunts, fireworks, giveaways, contests, relay races and much more. In some parks, there are 5,000 fans there, but very few are watching the game with all the distractions going on. Oneonta is a small city, so expecting the Tigers to draw 4,000 per night is probably not realistic, but Nader expects attendance to increase with the better weather.
“I expect by season’s end, we’ll be averaging around 1,500 per game,” Nader said. “Attendance so far has not been very good, but we’ve had a lot of rain.”
With demand for minor league baseball at such a high, there is no doubt that Nader has been asked to sell the Oneonta franchise in the past. But, he has always declined, viewing the Tigers as a community asset to the “City of the Hills,” that is Oneonta, which by the way is about 20 miles from Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. The region may not be heavily populated, but obviously it is rich in baseball tradition.
Nader announced this week that the time has finally come to sell the Oneonta Tigers. The team will be purchased by Miles Prentice, a lawyer who also owns the AA Huntsville Stars of the Southern League and the AA Midland RockHounds of the Texas League. Prentice tried to buy the Kansas City Royals and the Boston Red Sox, so we trust he has deep pockets and is looking to create his own minor league empire.
The pending purchase is leading to speculation that Oneonta will eventually lose its baseball team, but Nader is hopeful that this is not the case. One condition of the sale is that the team has to remain in Oneonta through the 2010 season, so we know that Damaschke Field will have at least two more seasons of NY-P League baseball. After that, who knows, but Nader thinks there is a chance for Oneonta after 2010.
“We are encouraging them (the new owners) to stay,” Nader said, “and they have been impressed by the area, but they will absolutely be here through 2010.”
Nader, of course, can’t guarantee more than that, and with an old stadium in a small town, the chances of Oneonta staying are remote. The once chance may be the link to Cooperstown. Who wants to be the person that takes professional baseball away from where the game’s roots are? But, these are different times. Minor league baseball teams are in business to make money and they do that by opening new stadiums, selling luxury boxes and advertising. Cities like Oneonta no longer provide those big dollar opportunities. It happened in Little Falls, Geneva and even happened in Utica and Niagara Falls, cities with five times the population of Oneonta.
Oneonta has hung on—for 43 seasons. That’s a pretty good run and the man to thank for that run is Sam Nader who still answers the phones and whose voice can be heard on voice mail. Though we don’t know what will happen after 2010, one thing we call can do, regardless of where your loyalties lie is root for Oneonta.
They deserve it, thanks to Sam Nader.