Paraphrasing a line from the movie “Field of Dreams,” Robbie Nichols of Elmira believes that if he builds a quality and entertaining baseball club, the people of Batavia will come in droves to Dwyer Stadium this summer.
A former pro hockey player in the American Hockey League and International Hockey League, the 56-year-old Nichols has his sights set on starting a new franchise in Batavia as a member of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League.
As reported first on The Batavian, Nichols will present his plan to Batavia City Council on Monday night and is hopeful the governing body approves terms of a lease agreement put forth by Interim City Manager Rachael Tabelski.
“City Council’s approval is the final step,” said Nichols, who, along with his wife, Nellie, owns the Elmira Pioneers in the PGCBL and the Elmira Enforcers hockey team in the Federal Prospects Hockey League. “I will meet with them on Monday night and we have a press conference scheduled for Tuesday at 3:30 at Batavia Downs Gaming.”
Nichols said he will announce the Batavia team’s nickname – reports indicate that “Muckdogs” is a possibility – and will announce the team’s manager.
“We’ll also have some other good things to share about the club and then we’ll hit the pavement running,” he said.
Owner Promises Top-Notch Play
Nichols said the PGCBL features mostly Division I college prospects from the ages of 18 to 21 who are hoping to catch the eye of scouts and get drafted by a Major League team.
“It’s top quality ball,” he said. “We had a player drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Orioles last year – Jordan Westburg” (a shortstop who signed a $2.3 million bonus with the Orioles last June). Westburg played for Elmira in 2018.
Nichols said the players are “serious” about their craft – “good athletes and I think that everyone is going to be really surprised by the talent that will be out on the field.”
“We really need the support of City Council to get this approved as fast as we can because we are a little bit behind the 8-ball,” he advised.
He said the Elmira Pioneers already have 35 players signed and all set for the season, and most of the other teams do as well.
“We’re getting a late start (in Batavia) but I know we can get this done and be able to get a top quality team on the field,” he noted, adding that he expects 13 or 14 teams in the league in 2021.
The wood bat league season runs from the end of May into the beginning of August – 56 to 60 games equally divided between home and away contests, Nichols said.
'It's the Community's Ballpark'
Nichols said he is energized by the prospects of duplicating what they have done in Elmira, where attendance at Dunn Field has soared in recent years. The Nichols have been involved with the Pioneers since 2012, taking sole ownership of the team in late 2017.
“We took our team that had averaged about 700 fans a night to 3,000 a night, and we do a lot of promotions – a lot of exciting things,” he said. “A lot of fireworks shows and we really want the community to be involved because it’s their ballpark. We’re the holder of the keys and we want Dwyer Stadium to be a multi-use facility, so we’re going to encourage Little League games and high school games. We want it to be used by everybody and that’s what the park is there for.”
He spoke of the rich history of Batavia baseball.
“Everybody I have talked to in Batavia – everyone’s got a story about the baseball team. They used to go to the field with their grandfather or their grandfather was an original batboy of the team,” he said. “Everyone’s got great stories and memories and we just want to continue the tradition of baseball in Batavia.”
Nichols said he hopes to bring in special events such as games against a club from Canada and also against the Wounded Warriors team.
“You should see the Wounded Warriors; they are just amazing,” he said. “Some of the players have no legs and it’s amazing to see what these guys do. It’s a real baseball game and they have really good players.”
Connection to the Buffalo Sabres
He couldn’t guarantee an appearance by the Wounded Warriors in Batavia this year, but said there will be a Buffalo Sabres alumni softball game and, “if I can pull it off, an alumni hockey game on an outdoor rink at Dwyer Stadium.”
“I have many friends with that (Sabres) organization.Ric Seiling was an ex-roommate of mine, and I’ve already talked to him,” the Hamilton, Ontario, Canada native said.
Nichols made it clear that the success of the franchise hinges upon community involvement.
“We will be knocking on the door of every business owner as we really want the community and the city to get behind it,” he said. “I’m excited about the way things have happened here in Elmira with the team. The fans love it. The players are very accessible and meet with the fans. They’re all just looking to advance their careers.”
He mentioned that since the players will be in Batavia for about 75 days, he will be reaching out to the community to identify some host families.
“These kids will become the fabric of the community, and these players are so much different than athletes of the past. They come in in just incredible shape, and they’re here to work out every single day,” he said, adding that the team’s manager has signed about 20 players at this point.
The Nichols Believe in Giving Back
The Nichols are heavily involved in civic activities in the Elmira area.
On Thursday, Robbie Nichols and 10 of his hockey players participated in a food bank.
“I believe in giving back to the community and we do so in a number of ways,” he said, “including Christmas drives for the needy where we provide food, gloves, hats and other items.”
He and his wife have owned the hockey team for about two and a half years.
“Somehow, 10 years ago I bought a baseball team and then they asked me to bring a hockey team back to the area, and I did that, too,” he offered. “My first love, I guess, is hockey – being from Hamilton – and my wife, Nellie, is a huge Dodgers’ fan from the Los Angeles, California area. And that’s how we came up with CAN-USA Sports LLC (their legal business name).”
Submitted photos -- Top: Nellie and Robbie Nichols; bottom, crowd at an Elmira Pioneers baseball game.
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