Pro baseball just up the road
By Michael Turton
The professional baseball team closest to Philipstown does not play in Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The nearest pro ball is played in Dutchess Stadium, home of the Hudson Valley Renegades, a short, 10-mile drive north of Cold Spring on Route 9D. The Renegades play in the McNamara Division of the New York-Penn League, entry-level, single “A” professional baseball. The Paper’s Michael Turton visited Dutchess Stadium on July 30 for a behind-the-scenes look at the Renegades’ operation and to see them take the field against the Williamsport Crosscutters.
The setting says it all
The Renegades made their debut in Dutchess Stadium in 1994. The fact that the stadium was built in just 71 days instantly made it part of the team’s lore, even before the first pitch was ever thrown. The park exudes the intimate feel of a classic minor league baseball stadium — from the 4,494 seats that are all close to the field to the trademark advertising on the outfield fence. Think of the movie Bull Durham. Veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is telling his young pitcher Ebby Calvin Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) in no uncertain terms that he better throw a fastball. That’s what Dutchess Stadium feels like on game day.
For many of the Renegade players, Dutchess Stadium is the first in what they hope will be only a few stops in their upward climb to the major leagues, what ballplayers like to call “The Show.”
Teaching the Rays’ way
Jared Sanberg, nephew of Baseball Hall of Famer Ryne Sanberg, manages the Renegades. Sanberg played for the Tampa Bay Rays, the Renegades’ parent club, for three seasons, and holds several of the Rays’ minor-league records, including having hit 113 home runs. “My biggest job is to show the kids how to be a professional, to teach them the Rays’ way,” he said. For the players, the Rays’ way means a number of things — from learning the organization’s rules, to always running “a hard 90” down the base path to something that Sanberg stresses time and time again — having respect for the game.
Unlike in the major leagues, winning is not everything in single “A” ball. “Here it’s all about teaching,” Sandberg said. “We go out and try to win every game, but my job does not hinge on wins.” For some players, being on the Renegades may be the first time they have not been the team’s superstar. “A lot of them have never had to struggle, never known failure. They have to learn how to deal with that here.” Like the players he coaches, Sanberg has a clear goal in mind. “I want to manage in the major leagues,” he said.
Players adjust, local families help
Charles Epperson, a 22-year-old outfielder from Jackson, Miss., signed with the “Gades” as an undrafted free agent. “The pitching here is better. They’re a lot smarter; they’re not going to give you the same sequence twice,” he said, explaining how he has had to adjust after coming from college baseball at Jackson State University. “And the pace of play is a lot faster here,” he said. He lists speed is one of his strongest assets. “I have all the tools — I need to develop more consistency.”
Ryan Garton, a 22-year-old, right-handed pitcher from Trinity, Fla., has liked the transition to pro ball. “It’s exciting. There’s a lot more on the line here — you want to show all your talents.” Garton has found that the games have a very different feel than when he played at Florida Atlantic University. “The atmosphere is totally different. There are a lot more fans, a lot more cheering.” Joining the Renegades’ pitching staff has been a challenge. “I was a starting pitcher in college; now I’m in the bullpen throwing relief,” he said. “I used to pitch every seven days; now it’s one or two innings but every day.”
Players are billeted with families in the area. Carolyn Cuilty lives in Newburgh and has taken players into her home for six years. “They’re kids. Some of them have never been away from home,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun. You get to know their families, and it makes the games more interesting.” Cuilty also ushers at Renegade games. “I was coming to all the games anyway, so I thought I might as well make some money,” she laughed.
A unique record in baseball history
Rick Zolzer loves baseball and his job as the Renegades’ public address announcer. He’s been doing it since 1994 with the exception of a three-year break. “Every single game is different. Every inning is different. My job is to keep people entertained,” he said.
Zolzer, who lived in Cold Spring for five years and attended Haldane, is well known for his lively commentaries over the PA — perhaps too lively at times. On August 1, 1995, he became the only PA announcer in pro baseball history to be ejected from a game. Zolzer explained he got exasperated when an umpire called several balks in one game. He recalled how he let the more than 4,000 fans, and the umpires, know how he felt about the calls. “The only way you two clowns will get to the big leagues is if you buy a ticket!” he announced. The umpire was incensed and ejected Zolzer, who made his escape from the booth via the front window, where supportive fans helped him get away. He was fined by the league. The young Renegade players paid his fine.
Zolzer admits he pretty much defines the term “homer” — even more so early in his career. When a visiting player made an error, he’d announce: “Hey, why don’t you put a boot on the glove?” Or when an opposing player came up to bat he might use the PA to say, “I’ll bet that bat must feel like it weighs 60 ounces. You’re going to be SO embarrassed!” Zolzer claims to have changed his ways. “I’m older now. I know where to draw the line.”
Everyone wants to get to “The Show”
Fans can now listen to the Renegades on WKIP: 1450 and 1370 on the AM dial. Twenty- six-year-old Ben Gellman does the play-by-play broadcast for Hudson Valley games. Sitting in his small booth, directly above and behind home plate, he blends a myriad of statistics, player profiles and baseball trivia with a detailed description of what is taking place on the field, producing a smooth, nearly flawless and nonstop commentary.
Gellman holds a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Syracuse Newhouse School of Public Communications. He’s strictly a crew-of-one in the broadcast booth — no help with color commentary or technical issues. He does a pre-game interview down on the field. Between innings Gellman broadcasts prerecorded ads for local businesses directly from his computer, or reads the advertising copy himself from a binder prepared for each game.
After the game, he writes and posts a detailed game summary on the team website. “I do want to move up to the big leagues … just like everyone else around here,” he said. “It’s an ambitious goal for sure, but that’s where I want to be.” Before coming to the Renegades, he began his baseball broadcasting career with the single “A” Hickory North Carolina Crawdads.
Promote, promote, promote
The Renegades are renowned for their entertainment, post-game fireworks and special promotions. It’s part of a carefully crafted family atmosphere that helps the Renegades draw some of the biggest crowds in the league. On the night the Crosscutters came to town, it was Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro bobble-head-doll night. Before the game, Well Above Average, a band made up of just-barely-teenagers from Newburgh, played rock music on the Corona Cove deck just off the foul line in shallow right field. Just before the first pitch, all eyes gazed upward as a sky-diver jumped from a helicopter high above the stadium and delivered the game ball to the field. Between innings, grown men — volunteer fans — donned dresses and flippers to race around the field.
Young attendants used a large sling shot to propel t-shirts up into the crowd. After the game, fathers and daughters enjoyed a dance out on the field. The mastermind behind the nonstop entertainment is Director of Promotions Kaylee Swanson. “Our goal is to entertain people from the time they get out of their car until they leave after the game,” she said. “I arrived here only in April and put together programs for the 38 home games.” She added, “I love my job.” This is her fifth year in baseball after completing her degree in business administration. Swanson worked for teams in York, Pa. and Canberra, Australia before landing with the Renegades.
Affordable family outings
Complaints are common these days about the cost of going to a big-league baseball game — costs that make it prohibitive for most families to attend. That’s not the case at Renegades games. Ticket prices range from just $6 for general admission to $15 for a premium box seat. Group tickets are also available.
Like the big leagues, the variety of food and beverages has improved at minor-league ballparks in recent years. At Dutchess Stadium hot dogs are $3.50. Specialty sandwiches such as beef brisket and pulled pork are $6 to $7, and healthier fare such as salads and wraps are also available at reasonable prices. Beer is $6 for a 16-ounce draft, for both imported and quality domestic brands.
Promotions and reasonable prices seem to be working. Families are very evident throughout the stands, and it’s not unusual for family members to find their way out onto the field at some point during one of the numerous promotions. At the Willliamsport game, kids who had recently completed a baseball camp at Dutchess Stadium were among the young, on-field guests.
Back to the game
But in the end, the Renegades are all about baseball — professional baseball. They won the New York-Penn League championship in 1999, led by a very young Josh Hamilton, now a star with the Texas Rangers and one of the best players in the game. It has been slim pickings since then in terms of winning seasons, but 2012 is looking very promising. Hudson Valley started July badly, losing six of seven games, but since then they have had 17 wins against just four losses and now sit atop the McNamara Division. On July 30 they handled Williamsport rather easily, winning 7-4.
Matt Spann, a lanky, 6-foot-5-inch left-hander from Columbia, Tenn., pitched six strong innings for the Renegades, giving up no earned runs while allowing seven hits. He had two strikeouts and gave up no walks. The game supported the notion that baseball is America’s game. Between the Renegades and the Crosscutters, 25 states were represented by players in their lineups. The face of baseball continues to evolve as well. The two rosters also included players from Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
The last word
A fan sitting in the first row in left field offered his opinion of this year’s Renegades. “They’re looking good. We have a strong team this year,” he said. “They’re scrappers. They were down eight runs in one game and came back to win.” A trait that will serve them well in their quest to make it to “The Show.”