Baseball has long been a staple of small-town America, and, as Homestand, a rich, illuminating new Substack newsletter and upcoming book, document, the digitization and fracturing of American life magnify what minor league teams and stadiums offer their communities. The ballpark is one of our country’s last great remaining public spaces.
Will Bardenwerper, a Pittsburgh area-based writer, is chronicling a season with the Batavia Muckdogs, named for the fertile mucklands of surrounding Genesee County in western New York state. His book, to be published by Doubleday, will explore “the importance of small town baseball in bringing people together.” Meanwhile, he’s filing regular updates on Substack, and it’s essential reading if you love baseball or want to understand the changing tides of the Rust Belt and small-town USA.
Moundsville, WV, which we profiled in a PBS film, has never been big enough to field a minor league baseball team, but baseball has always been part of the town’s culture, including, up until network TV swallowed much of the country’s live and local entertainment in the 1960s, going to see teams of prisoners compete at the former state penitentiary.
In Batavia, an agricultural and industrial town of 15,000 (twice the size of Moundsville) near Buffalo, Dwyer Stadium is a rare public space where people can talk to their neighbors, share leisure time in their community with people who aren’t like them, and enjoy exciting live entertainment.
It’s part of a way of life that’s been under attack. In 2020, Major League Baseball slashed the number of minor league teams, labeled as “affiliated” because they field players under contract with MLB teams, to 120 from 162.
One of the teams that got cut: Batavia, which had had affiliated baseball teams belonging to different MLB clubs since the 1930s.
In many of the towns that lost their affiliated teams, the new squad is a college team with unpaid players competing in high-level amateur hardball. That’s what happened in Batavia, which is part of the Perfect Game league, made up of regional teams.
Bardenwerper is spending much of his summer in Batavia, commuting from his home in Sewickley, PA, where he lives with his family. While the newsletter offers analysis and reporting, the book will tell a more focused narrative centered around a handful of characters, in the style of Friday Night Lights.
Bardenwerper was drawn to Batavia because it’s near his home in Pittsburgh, and it was suggested to him by a writer in Batavia after Bardenwerper wrote a long story about minor league baseball in Harper’s.
The Harper’s piece, which I recommend, is about baseball in Pulaski, VA, which had had affiliated baseball for decades.
Bardenwerper tells the story of people coming together around ballgames, including players making friends with families. Rather than a sign of the apocalypse, the loss for MLB affiliation is a chance to rebuild something with deeper links to the surrounding community.
In this version of the story, we see the American small town not as helpless victim, but instead as a source of hope, albeit one that is imperiled by the insatiable appetite of capitalism—without-conscience, a shadow that has been encroaching for decades now.
In Batavia, Bardenwerper notes, every game “is a chance to showcase the community, whether it’s a beloved teacher or principal or the local high school band.” For each game, players are assigned a different “baseball buddy”, children from local youth leagues, with whom they play catch during warmups and take the field during pre-game introductions.
Small town baseball is as much community picnic as sporting event. Kids roam the stadium freely with their buddies – and often run the bases after the games – while their parents enjoy beers with their friends and neighbors. Though it features nine innings and bases 90 feet apart, it is entirely different from the increasingly soulless Major League product on offer in 30 of our largest cities. The cadence of life at the local ballpark reveals a deep hunger for a sense of community that can be hard to find, yet is still alive in these rickety bleachers across America.
Games in Batavia typically draw 2,000 to 3,000. On weekends, it can over 3,000, or one-fifth of the town’s population.
The ballpark, which was built in the 1990s to conform to MLB specs, is part of renewal which includes a brewery and several coffee shops.
Batavia “is agricultural but it’s very postindustrial, too,” says Bardenwerper. It’s surrounded by farms and has hosted factories that manufacture industrial farming equipment, but its industry was decimated by globalization in the 1980s and 1990s.
Like similar Rust Belt towns, Batavia has lost a generation of ambitious young people who’ve set out for New York City and other urban meccas.
“That process might be decelerating now that working remotely is more of an option,” says Bardenwerper. “That option of living in a nice house in Batavia for $150,000 can be really attractive.”
The Natural, he notes, was filmed at War Memorial Park in nearby Buffalo, and the iconic scene with the lightning bolt striking the tree which provided the wood for the magic bat was filmed near Batavia.
MLB’s reason for contracting minor leagues was that it wanted to focus more resources on fewer players in places with much better facilities. The current thinking about player development is that it’s best to sign a small number of elite athletes and give them tools for improvement, instead of stocking a farm system with hundreds of young men and seeing who can climb their way to the top.
In his Harper’s essay, Bardenwerper writes that he was interested in probing the issues and questions that go beyond the modern hyper-efficient management of baseball games, because they concern the majority of people who fail to ascend the narrow, slippery tip of the pyramid to the riches of the Show.
What about those who considered their time in the Appalachian League the highlight of their professional lives, as well as a source of potential future jobs, not to mention a lifetime of stories told over beers? What is baseball? Our national pastime, an enduring slice of Americana? Or just a business? Does an enterprise that purports to be part of the fabric of America—and one that for the past hundred years has enjoyed a unique federal antitrust exemption—have a responsibility to prevent that fabric from fraying? Or should the league simply maximize value for its owners, as most corporations do?
As Americans sort out what kind of society we’re going to live in in the 21st century, these are, in the end, the questions that matter more than winning baseball games.
John W. Miller
(Photos contributed by Will Bardenwerper)