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Elmira Pioneers

January 8, 2021 - 10:36am

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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).”

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Submitted photos -- Top: Nellie and Robbie Nichols; bottom, crowd at an Elmira Pioneers baseball game.

Previous: Owner of Elmira collegiate baseball league team to make pitch to operate a club in Batavia in 2021

January 7, 2021 - 3:25pm

The Batavia City Council on Monday night will be asked to consider a proposal from the owner/operator of the Elmira Pioneers, a team in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League, to place a PGCBL club at Dwyer Stadium for the 2021 summer season.

Interim City Manager Rachael Tabelski this morning informed The Batavian that Robbie Nichols will make a presentation during Council’s Special Conference session to take place via Zoom videoconferencing at 7 p.m.

It will be followed by a Business Meeting where the board – if it likes the idea – is expected to vote on a lease agreement with Nichols’ enterprise, known as CAN-USA Sports LLC. Nichols and his wife, Nellie, also own the Elmira Enforcers of the Federal Prospects (Ice) Hockey League.

“Robbie Nichols has been approved by the (PGCB) League to start and operate a team here in Batavia,” Tabelski said. “He has been interested in putting together a second team in the league and, with things happening the way they did with Major League Baseball, he actually had reached out to the (New York-) Penn league, and the NY-P put us in touch with him.”

Tabelski said representatives of other teams contacted her, “but none had league backing already -- nor a record of success in owning a team in this league.”

According to a memo from Tabelski to City Council dated Jan. 4, the terms of a new lease agreement to use Dwyer Stadium are as follows:

  • A five-year lease;
  • Rent from Year 1-3, $1; Year 4, $7,500 (placed into the Dwyer Stadium Capital Reserve Fund); Year 5, $10,000 (placed into the Dwyer Stadium Capital Reserve Fund).
  • Operator pays for the field maintenance and utility costs to operate.
  • Operator will allow use of the field, as appropriate, to community groups, Little League, high schools, etc.

The City has had long history with a Batavia professional baseball franchise, starting in 1939 with the Batavia Clippers as an original member of the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York (PONY) League.

The Batavia team later was named the Indians, Pirates, Trojans and Clippers (again) before taking the Muckdogs name in 1998 based on a fan poll that chose the nickname and logo.

In 2019, Batavia celebrated its 80th anniversary as the only founding member of the league still in existence.

Since then, MLB has taken control of Minor League Baseball and discontinued short-season competition, with the Muckdogs not among the teams invited to remain as a Major League affiliate.

Tabelski wrote that the PGCBL was founded in 2010 by eight summer baseball teams across Upstate New York in conjunction with Perfect Game USA, baseball’s premier scouting service. The league’s eight founding members were in Albany, Amsterdam, Cooperstown, Elmira, Glens Falls, Mohawk Valley, Newark and Watertown.

Per its website, current teams are located in Watertown, Adirondack (Boonville), Newark, Mohawk Valley, Utica, Oneonta, Albany, Saugerties, Geneva, Elmira, Amsterdam, Glens Falls and Jamestown.

Due to COVID-19, the league cancelled its 2020 season.

For more information about the league, go to www.pgcbl.com.

A telephone call to Nichols was not returned at the time of the posting of this story.

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