It has occurred to Dave Chase that when he agreed to become the new general manager of the Batavia Muckdogs after the New York-Penn League took over ownership of the venerable franchise, the situation at Dwyer Stadium is much worse than he anticipated.
Maybe, he thought, this isn't the right job at the right time.
“I have my moments when I wonder, 'is this the mission or not?' " Chase said during a tour for the media yesterday of the stadium. "The fans, the people I’ve talked to, have convinced me, it is an important mission. The fact is, I have 40 years, Brenden has 18 years, the ongoing theme is, we’re going to give this our best shot.”
Brenden is Brendan Kelly, who is experienced in baseball operations, including a nearly eight-year stint with the Buffalo Bisons, and whose wife is a schoolteacher in Batavia. He's the new assistant general manager for the Muckdogs, one of three recent full-time hires by Chase, who has had to rebuild the Muckdogs' staff after the Rochester Red Wings lost its contract to run the team.
The new management team comes into a situation that has them scrambling to get ready for the season, which opens June 18. The office was stripped of all useful equipment and furniture and what Chase first walked into was an office and clubhouses filled with broken chairs, tables, miscellaneous junk, no ticketing system, and disconnected phone lines.
"I’m blown away by how filthy it was," Chase said. There was trash everywhere, a lot of broken things. We discovered that if it has a plug on it and it’s still here, it’s broken."
The city has painted the offices and clubhouse and put down new carpet -- part of anticipated maintenance for Dwyer and included in the city's budget -- but everything else is up to the league to handle.
"It’s a good thing we open on June 18 instead of April 6, that’s for sure," Chase said.
The Batavian has received calls and emails over the past week or so from fans trying to find out when they can buy tickets. With the phone disconnected, they can't get through to the office; and the website, run by Minor League Baseball, hasn't been updated.
Chase is still putting together the promotional calendar (firework nights will be on Saturdays this season, meaning eight shows, which Chase says is in response to fan feedback) and he's still looking for a sponsor for pocket calendars. He may need to get those printed without a sponsor, he said.
It's really only been the past four days that Muckdogs' office has been staffed but there has been a steady stream of fans coming in, Chase said. He said fans will need to be patient while staff gets operations reestablished.
"I say we’re starting (baseball operations) at zero and we started six months late," Chase said. "Someone else said, ‘you’re not starting at zero. You’re starting at minus three and six months late.’ So people need to be patient. If they want the same old routine, disorganized unprofessional approach, we could probably do that today, but we’re going to bring in better standards and a more professional approach to what we do and that takes time.”
Chase said he's received a lot of fan feedback that they were dissatisfied with the baseball experience at Dwyer, that things seemed disorganized and not focused on the in-game experience. That will change this season, Chase said.
“I want to change the mentality of the ballpark," Chase said. "When those gates open on June 18 at six o’clock, Brenden and I are going to be at the gate. When the game is over on the 18th, we’re going to be at the gate. I got a lot of complaints that in-game presentation was sloppy; (they) weren’t paying attention — there’s got to be a professional attitude and that’s what we’re going to bring here. I don’t think it’s been here in 10 or 20 years, by the way.”
Muckdogs staff probably won't be able to sell tickets until the beginning of May but the new, lower season ticket price is only $175 if paid before June 1.
That's the fan experience, but Chase also needs to be concerned about the player experience, and player safety, and the quality of the game the young professionals who walk onto the Dwyer field are able to perform.
As bad as things are on the operations side of Dwyer, the field is perhaps even worse, Chase said.
The pitcher's rubber and home plate are not aligned. If a pitcher used the rubber as a guide, a properly thrown pitch would zip five feet behind the back of a left-handed hitter.
Second base is aligned with neither the rubber nor home plate.
The grass in front of the pitcher's mound was repaired before last season but the repair didn't take because it was right before opening day, according to Chase.
The infield isn't level -- the visual evidence during our tour is the large puddles of water on the first base side, and a person standing in the outfield can see a small rise in the dirt to the left of second base.
The lip of the back of the infield, where the grass meets the dirt, is higher than it should be, and the entire back of the infield slopes down into the outfield at an elevation of more than nine inches in places.
That just isn't acceptable on a professional field, Chase said.
The outfield looks flat from the stands but when you stand on it, the small dips and raises in the sod are clearly visible. The grass itself is not suitable for baseball.
"It’s like walking on golf balls," Chase said. "Right now, if you were to hit a ball on this field, if it wasn’t muddy, if it wasn’t soft, you’re probably going to get it in the chops, and the whole outfield is that way."
Longtime groundskeeper Don Rock, who has publicly lobbied for his old job back after the league took over ownership, and has received fan support, won't be coming back, Chase said. He acknowledged that Rock was probably not given the proper equipment to do the job but said the league needs to bring in a grounds crew with more knowledge and experience.
The league and a consultant are assisting in the search for a new head groundskeeper.
As soon as the field is dry enough and when it looks like there will be at least a 10-day period of dry enough weather, work will begin to fix all the problems with the field, Chase said.
The infield dirt will be replaced with same dirt used at Marlins Park in Miami (the parent club of the Muckdogs). The lip will either be lowered or extended to make it level with the outfield. And the pitcher's rubber and second base will be aligned with home plate. The city is going to roll the outfield and the grass will be overseeded, which hopefully with make fielding groundballs a little less treacherous.
Sponsorship signage in the outfield, Chase also revealed, will be brought up to modern Minor League park standards.
Part of the city's scheduled maintenance for Dwyer has been the replacement of the roof of the front of the stadium and fixing the outfield scoreboard.
Although one problem for Chase with the scoreboard is there's no longer a computer with the proper software in the Wayne Fuller Press Box to run it. That's just one more thing he will need to figure out before opening day.
Chase just returned from a four-day meeting of NYPL executives, which was his chance to update them on the situation in Batavia.
"My mission there was really to get them to understand what’s going on here," Chase said. "For them, for everybody, it’s a weird situation, that the league owns the team. So when I tell them, ‘I have nothing.’ I don’t have a tape dispenser. I don’t have a stapler. I have nothing. I didn’t have a desk until a couple of days ago. They didn’t understand what is going on, so I was trying to get them up to speed, and then the punchline is, ‘I’m spending your money.’ They don’t like to hear that.”
For all the troubles that need attention at Dwyer, Chase said it's the response of the fans that make it all worthwhile.
"The community has been fantastic," Chase said. "The people that I’ve met are very nice. They’re cordial and they express an excitement about baseball. A lot of them have told me they’re relieved to know baseball is back. From that point of view, it’s great. The condition of the facility is shocking."