To truly understand what’s going on as minor league teams are pulverized into oblivion by Major League Baseball, you must talk to the people who deal every day with the fans and with the game right there in front of them.
That would be an usher behind home plate.
After visiting hundreds of ballparks throughout my career, I can tell you that without a doubt, behind home plate is where the action is and that is where you will find the pulse of any franchise. Ushers in that area are locked in, not only to the game, but to the fans and scouts who always sit in that sacred space.
Those ushers have the blood of baseball running through their veins.
In the minor leagues particularly, they see the same fans night after night to their seats. To those fans, the game is only part of the experience. Sections become neighborhoods.
Everyone knows everything that is going on around them. It is a family affair.
I also know this.
As much as MLB wants baseball to become Amazon-like under commissioner Rob Manfred, it must still take care of the Mom and Pop stores to have sustainable success.
That is how you grow the game, not with the travesty that took place this week as 40 minor league teams were told to get lost by Manfred & MLB Owners.
The Tri-City ValleyCats based in Troy, NY, are one of 40 franchises no longer affiliated with Major League Baseball and the fans, the people working for the team and the Capital Region – Troy, Albany and Schenectady – were crushed by the decision.
Growing up in Kenilworth N.J., I learned about friendships and commitment. You were loyal to your friends. You would never just leave them flat. If you got labeled a “flat-leaver’’ your name was mud.
Right now, MLB left 40 minor league teams flat, flat-leavers in the name of progress.
Shame on them.
For the last 13 years Dan Carubia has been an usher at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium, affectionately known as The Joe, home to the ValleyCats, the short-season Class A New York-Penn League team that was affiliated with the Astros the last 18 years.
Carubia closely followed every aspect of the team, was there for every game, knows the fans, and during spring training would travel to Florida to do interviews with former ValleyCats in conjunction the public relations arm of the team, players like (future Met) George Springer and Jose Altuve.
“I work right behind home plate and get to speak to the scouts and just get to meet the nicest people at the games and all the families,’’ Carubia said, the proud owner of a Shamwow, used to keep seats clean.
Carubia, 73, spent 35 wonderful years working for Milliken & Co. “At the time it was the leading producer of manufactured textile products in the United States, it was a $3 billion company,’’ Carubia said. “The first six years I was in the corporate finance office in New York City and then Milliken had about 65 mills throughout the South. I wound up getting into a division that made products for the industrial laundry business. I was in sales and marketing for them. I met some great people. Mr. Milliken was a wonderful leader.’’
The Ushers at The Joe: (left to right) Mike, Dan, Mike, Joe and Mike.
Dan Carubia has a sense for business and people. That job, which he loved, included plenty of travel so he got to see ballparks all around the country. He also is a docent at the timeless and beautiful Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
If baseball were to have a Greatest Fan contest, Carubia would be a finalist for his pure and long-lasting love of the game.
Whether at this picturesque ballpark or at the museum he makes people feel comfortable and happy, learning as they go. In fact, for youngsters seated in his Section 120, Carubia offers baseball quizzes.
“I ask the kids ‘What’s a can of corn? What’s a frozen rope? What’s the daylight play?’ If they don’t know it, then I give them a piece of paper that I printed out that tells exactly what it is, so we have a lot of fun,’’ Carubia explained.
That’s what being an ambassador of the game really is all about. That is how you grow the game on the grass roots level.
The fans at minor league games are special fans. Carubia tells this wonderful story about just such a fan.
“There is a lady named Marge Favo, she is a season ticket holder in my section and she is 93 years old’’ Carubia said. “She loves the game and she was voted the No. 1 fan of the ValleyCats a few years ago. For her 90th birthday I asked (team president) Rick (Murphy) if she could throw out the first pitch. And when I told her she was going to throw out the first pitch, she said, and she was drinking a beer at the time, ‘I’m not going to do this.’ I said, ‘Marge, you go out on the field, I’ll walk you down and you throw out that first pitch.’
“And by golly, she walked out there, the fans gave her a standing ovation, she waved to the fans, and she threw a nice pitch.’ ’’
“You made a mistake, sir, and for that you’ll pay, and Major League Baseball will pay for it in the years to come. That’s what I think the fans would say.’’
One of his neighbors, a young girl aged five, also threw out the first pitch at another game.
From five years old to 90 years old, the same opening pitch thrill. That is minor league baseball. No more. Not at The Joe.
Baseball is too busy “growing the game’’ than having these fans at the affiliated game. What a travesty.
Fun at the ballpark is a way of life in the minor leagues. Short season Class A baseball is a sweet summer serenade.
“That’s what minor league baseball is all about,’’ Carubia told me. “Everybody knows everybody. And the people come back into the sections year after year and their names are on the seats and then you have new kids coming in to watch the game. The kids can all have a catch at 5 o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Mothers, fathers can have a catch with their kids for about 20 minutes on the field. For a young kid to have a catch on a field that feels like a major league field, that’s really cool.
“It sets fans for life,’’ Carubia said. “That’s the ValleyCats motto: Making Fans for Life. Major League Baseball is taking that away.’’
Think of all the fans from teams that have been taken away. Growing the Game?
Throwing the Game is more like it.
“The fans tell me they would rather go to these games than Major League games because for $9 they can sit behind home plate,’’ Carubia, a Mets fan, said. “They can sit next to the dugout. They can talk to the players and the players sign autographs. Guys like Altuve and Springer have played here. (Michael) Conforto was on our field, Brandon Nimmo, Travis d’Arnaud. Edgardo Alfonzo was the manager for the Brooklyn Cyclones. It was just nice to see these people and see how well they progressed. It’s really cool.’’
In the words of Dan Carubia, ``Sometimes you gotta do a tarp pull``.
Right out front of the ballpark is a list of names. From The Joe to The Show.
“That lists every player that made the major leagues – even for one game,’’ Carubia said. “People would come into the park and say, ‘Wow, all those ballplayers played here. I want to see that and I want to get a program so I can keep that and see the names progress.’ ’’
And not just players. In 2018, Jason Bell was the manager who led the club to a NY-Penn League championship, its third, and is now with the Astros as the fundamentals coordinator.
“The fans are going to miss that interaction,’’ Carubia said.
The ValleyCats are working hard to bring Independent League baseball to The Joe in 2021. Elsewhere in the league, the Brooklyn Cyclones survived, now a High Class A team for the Mets in the Mid-Atlantic League. Hudson Valley swings over to the Yankees in that league as well. They are the Hudson Valley Renegades. The Aberdeen Ironbirds remain with the Orioles organization. The Staten Island Yankees are gone. Poof.
When word came this week, the ValleyCats were shocked and put out this press release:
“The ValleyCats are surprised and disappointed to learn of this decision by Major League Baseball as our organization has worked hard to develop a top-notch reputation across all levels of the industry. The first-class facilities at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium have been in compliance with MLB standards and our operation has always balanced the on-field, player development needs with the fan entertainment experience. We have enjoyed a long and successful relationship with the Houston Astros, one that has spanned multiple owners and five general managers at the big league level. The ValleyCats have consistently worked with their affiliate to prioritize player development as evidenced by the 80+ former ‘Cats who have made it to Major League Baseball, the team’s eight Stedler Division titles, and three New York-Penn League championships.’’
The Tri-City ValleyCats celebrate their championship in 2018
The fans strongly supported the ValleyCats and the team was always near the top in league attendance. The Joe is at Hudson Valley Community College. Parking is free. The ballpark is right off Route 4, a great location.
I asked Carubia, since he knows the fans so well, what would the ValleyCat fans say to Manfred about this decision to cut 40 teams, including their team?
He paused to choose his words carefully, words that came from the heart.
“You can come up and visit our team, our fans and you’ll see you made a mistake, sir, not only for the Tri-City ValleyCats but for the many other teams that were eliminated because they are the same teams we are, a little different where they were, but it’s the same criteria, Minor League Baseball,’’ Carubia told me, emotion filling his voice. “You made a mistake, sir, and for that you’ll pay, and Major League Baseball will pay for it in the years to come. That’s what I think the fans would say.’’
You cannot continue to treat minor league fans, the bedrock of the game the way baseball treated them this past week. There are indications there will be more minor league cuts in the future.
Growing the game in the worst of ways.
Carubia also is a photographer and has many pictures of the ballpark and the fans and from his times going to major league parks. Here is how that all started.
“My dad took me to my first baseball game at Ebbets Field and it was camera day,’’ said Carubia, who was nine at the time. “I was taking pictures of Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo, Clem Labine and all of a sudden my father said to me, ‘Hey, hop the railing.’
“I said, ‘Pop, I can’t do that.’
His father responded in a father’s way from that generation: “Hop the railing!’’
There were no touchy-feely parent-child negotiations back then. You did what your father told you to do.
“I hopped the railing,’’ Carubia said. “He wanted me to take a picture of Jackie Robinson. I remember Jackie talking to me, asking me if I was a Dodgers fan and saying thank you for being loyal to the Dodgers. That started the process.’’
Then around 1965 at Shea Stadium, one day he had a nice camera in his hands, so he decided to just walk onto the field.
“And nobody said a word,’’ Carubia recalled in amazement. It gets better.
“I was in the locker room when the Mets won in 1969. When they won in ’86 I was on the field for the sixth game and got a picture of Dwight Gooden and I got on the field at Fenway Park for Games 4 and 5.’’
How’d he manage that?
“I had a tie and jacket on and all of a sudden this truck came down Yawkey Way and the truck backed up to a metal gate. The gate slid up and I just walked between the wall and the truck and I was in Fenway Park. I just stood behind home plate and started to take photos.’’
Carubia would usher at Jets games at Shea Stadium on occasion. He worked the AFL championship game against Oakland on December 29, 1968, the 27-23 win that sent the Jets to the Super Bowl.
He brings the same sports joy to each ValleyCats game and like so many others in minor league baseball is searching for answers to why the team was shutout by MLB. By the way, two years ago, Carubia was still pitching in his own baseball games. Yes, he is no casual fan.
“It was great to play the game and I loved the way we worked as a team,’’ Carubia said of pitching, including 17 years in a New York City League. “And that’s is what I saw with the ValleyCats. To have all that knocked down like that, without any explanation as to why, what was the criteria for not including us? I don’t think Major League Baseball ever gave any explanation to anybody as to what happened and as to why we weren’t included. And that’s a shame.’’
A damn shame.