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Mudville: June 13, 2024 1:25 am PDT

A Baseball Love Letter

Dear Baseball,

I am a Yankee fan through and through. Let’s get that out of the way first.

Allow me briefly introduce myself: I am Colin, I live in the beautiful city of Charlotte, North Carolina, and I love baseball. My love for the Yankees is known, but it was Minor League Baseball, specifically at the Triple-A level, that helped me truly fall in love with the game.

I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Syracuse, New York. Both are small towns that have deep baseball roots. Since my extended family, mainly my grandparents, still lived in Scranton, that meant there was a lot of time during my childhood summers split between the two cities.

And here’s the first time I’m going to get romantic about it … I think it makes me one of the luckiest guys on the face of the earth. I got double the action, double the fanbases, and double the love of the game.

One of my first baseball memories was the final game for the Chiefs at Syracuse’s legendary MacArthur Stadium. One of the best parts of Minor League Baseball is the community. In Syracuse, there was a very well known man named James “Jimmy” Durkin. Durkin—who passed away in 2019—is a Chiefs Wall of Fame inductee (2016) and had a voice that could carry above the most boisterous crowds. He was loud and he was friendly. He was always visible at games.

This particular day stands out for me, not so much because it was the final game at the old ballpark, but because Durkin’s loud voice had made my baby brother (of only 7-months) cry and cry and cry and cry. Of course, Durkin wasn’t trying to make my youngest brother scream so loud that the players on the field could hear. Durkin was just doing the job he loved.

“There’s power in that, but there’s magic in seeing a young kid fall in love with baseball. That’s what Minor League Baseball can provide.”

Eventually, the baby stopped his crying and we left after the game having been a part of local history. And Durkin became someone I looked forward to seeing each time I went to a game in Syracuse.

A few years later, I ran the bases at the new P&C Stadium (now NBT Bank) during the Metro Mattress sponsored contest. From second base to third I sprinted as hard as I could and beat my competition—a girl who stood no chance against a kid who always wanted to compete. For my efforts, I was rewarded with a red SkyChiefs (the new name of the team) hat that I wore all waking hours of the day. I was devastated one summer day when I realized I had lost the hat. It still haunts me that I don’t have that hat. I was beginning to really love baseball during that time.

The Metro Mattress base race was my first time on that field, but not the last. I played games there many times growing up. None was more memorable than the Sectional Championship that my school (Liverpool High School; Liverpool, New York) won during my Junior year. Nothing beats the feeling of rushing the mound and being in the middle of a dogpile with a bunch of your best friends.

During my childhood, the Chiefs/SkyChiefs were affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays. I saw many great future Major Leaguers play in Syracuse, including Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter. My favorite players were Shannon Stewart and Vernon Wells. I even got a chance to see the great Deion Sanders play during his final baseball season (2001). I remember the juice in the crowd that day and it was a special moment for the entire Syracuse community to be proud of.

Allie Reynolds

“Subject and Object in Today's Yankee Thriller - The subject is Allie Reynolds - the object the sweet pellet that figured most prominently in today's thriller at the Yankee Stadium. Reynolds pitched his second no-hit game of the year (he holds two fingers to symbolize this) and the Boston Red Sox suffered their first hit-less game since 1931, in the history-making 8-0 win by the Yanks over Boston in the first game of today's double-header.”

Of course, whenever the Columbus Clippers (the Yankees’ affiliate when I was a kid) came to town, you could bet that I was at those games. Again, I saw many future stars for the organization, including one of my favorites, Alfonso Soriano. I was also rewarded one day in 1999 when slugger Darryl Strawberry came to town with the Clippers during his rehab assignment on his way back from defeating colon cancer. That day, I made sure to show up early because I desperately wanted Strawberry’s autograph. My resolve got me the ultimate prize and I still have the card to prove it!

Down Route 81 we go now to Scranton, where the Red Barons were the team of my childhood, an affiliation of the Philadelphia Phillies. My memories of these games are just as vivid, but they feel more nostalgic. There was a special feeling about going to games with my grandparents that I’ve never let go of. Before games, we would show up at old Lackawanna County Stadium, park the car or truck, and eat Arcaro’s Pizza out of the trunk. The mountain in the backdrop of the field really was fascinating to my young mind. The organ seemed to have more pizazz and the summer nights seemed to last forever.

In Scranton, I saw great players like Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, before they were World Champions. I also saw fellow Championship teammate Ryan Howard in 2005, about a month before he was permanently called up to the Phillies squad. I remember him hitting absolute bombs in batting practice and wondering why he was in Triple-A? It’s always fun to think about that and know the monster player he turned out to be. That was a star-in-the-making moment!

I also got a chance to see Roger Clemens pitch for the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees (they are now the RailRiders) on Memorial Day in 2007; Clemens’ last season in baseball, as he was ramping up for an unremarkable return to the Yankees.

George Scott and Yaz

“Boston Red Sox v Cleveland Indians - CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 21: George Scott #5 of the Boston Red Sox gets ready to give teammate Carl Yastrzemski #8 a big kiss after an MLB game against the Cleveland Indians on September 21, 1967 at Cleveland Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)”

So many good things came from my experiences at Triple-A baseball games in Syracuse and Scranton. The memories are unlike anything else I have from my childhood, with the community, and with my family.

I write this memoir today because I am worried. The future of Minor League Baseball is bleak. It will (probably) never fully go away, but as the years pass, more and more teams end up on the chopping block. This takes local and affordable baseball away from small communities like Syracuse and Scranton. Most importantly, it takes away the opportunity for kids to fall in love with the game and romanticize about it like I do.

In Charlotte, we also have Triple-A baseball. The Knights have a beautiful uptown stadium and each season is routinely in the top echelon of attendance. I romanticize about the day I can take my daughter to a game, get there early, park in the lot, and eat a tray of pizza together.

As of now, I have that opportunity. But will it always be here? That I’m less sure of. Charlotte is a possible site for MLB expansion, which means the game of baseball becomes less affordable for a middle-class family like mine. Or, more dramatically, Charlotte could have its affiliation (currently with the Chicago White Sox) stripped and left to find a new team or a new league. It’s all that tenuous with the current baseball landscape.

Johnny Mize

“Baseball Player Johnny Mize Kissing His Bat - 10/4/1952-New York: Yankee Johnny Mize places an affectionate smack on the bat he used to crash a fourth-inning homer off Dodger pitcher Joe Black at the Stadium in the fourth World Series game of 1952. Mize round-tripper was half of the final 2-0 score, by which the Bombers beat Brooklyn to even up the Series.”

A lot is said and written about how to “save the game” or how to “make baseball more exciting” for younger folks. So much of that focuses on the big-league game. I get it. That’s where the money is. But if minor league baseball keeps getting left behind then I can’t help but wonder how many more fans the game loses. Losing fans because of lack of access seems silly and sad to me.

So here’s my plea to you: if you live in a community that has any level of baseball lower than MLB, affiliated or not, consider (in normal times) buying a ticket to a handful of games. Think about the impact the money you invest into local baseball does for the economy you are part of. There’s power in that, but there’s magic in seeing a young kid fall in love with baseball. That’s what Minor League Baseball can provide.

The Yankees started my interest in baseball but Minor League Baseball helped me grow to love baseball.

Is that romantic enough for y’all?

Colin Cerniglia is the founder and CEO of the Talent 409 Leadership Academy. The Talent 409 Leadership Academy works with athletes and coaches to guide them through their leadership development. The Leadership Academy also works with athletic teams to enhance their vision and culture. Colin is also the creator and host of the Dynamic Leaders Podcast. The podcast features some of the most compelling leaders in sports and in business. These guests share their stories while providing tips and tools for listeners to become better leaders. His first non-fiction book, Culture of Excellence: What The Yankees Can Teach Us About Leadership, was released in September 2020 and is an Amazon #1 Bestseller. Colin lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his wife Christine and daughter, Stella.

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