- Steve Berthiaume, ESPNEWS anchor
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. -- In more ways than mere geography, this is as far as you can be from Phoenix's All-Star festivities and still call yourself a professional baseball player. While MLB celebrated its midsummer show business, the Pittsfield Colonials struggle to stay afloat in the baseball business. A member of the independent Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball -- the Can-Am League -- the Colonials operate on a spot where baseball has been continuously played since 1892, in a ballpark built backward by today's standards, facing due west into the sun. While players hope for another chance with a big league organization the front office hopes for survival in a park known locally for its history and nationally for its scattered track record of temporary tenants.
Pittsfield is a small city of about 41,000 in the extreme western part of Massachusetts, surrounded by the trees and hills of the Berkshire Mountains where hiking, camping and cozy bed and breakfasts attract tourists. Baseball has existed here as far back as 1791, when the game was so popular it had to be banned within 80 yards of Pittsfield's new meeting house to protect the expensive windows. Wahconah Park opened in 1919 and after World War II, when games were played in the early afternoon, a grandstand was constructed around the west-facing diamond. Now when games begin at 7 p.m., the sun sets almost directly behind the center-field fence, blinding hitters and causing Wahconah's famous "sun delays." This is a place where baseball can grind to a halt not just on rainy days but on perfect summer evenings. It's only a temporary delay, but then again so is any baseball existence here.
Throughout its history Wahconah Park has been home to more than a dozen teams affiliated with several different major league organizations; one by one, each team moved on. Because the Can-Am League is independent, the Colonials have no affiliation with any big league franchise but they are the first professional team since 2003 to call Wahconah home. For nearly a decade, the classic park was used only for college and summer league games. After a very competitive season last year, the Colonials' first in Pittsfield, there is concern that they may simply be the latest team to have to move on.
"It's always a struggle here," says Pittsfield manager Jamie Keefe. "It has been for a long time. Everybody that comes in here thinks that they're the ones who can change it and make it a little bit better." Now Keefe finds it has become his turn. A New Hampshire native and third-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1992, Keefe's career as an infielder peaked with 58 at-bats in Triple-A, where he hit .190. He's in his 13th year as a coach and manager and his first full season in Pittsfield, where he took over for former Red Sox slugger Brian Daubach, who left to join the Washington Nationals organization. While Daubach now works with Bryce Harper and the cream of the Nationals' talent crop, Keefe pulls double duty as the Colonials' general manager, finding his players through word of mouth, open tryouts and by pouring over transaction lists for roster casualties.
"Eighty-five percent of our guys were with major league affiliates and got released after getting their second or third chance and we're trying to get them that fourth chance to go back to an affiliate club," Keefe said.
A scan of the Colonials' roster finds many players at age 26 or 27, fighting to keep their careers alive. Pittsfield has players who were drafted by big league clubs anywhere from the third to the 36th round but were eventually let go. Younger players just out of college who went undrafted are hoping to get noticed. Angel Molina plays right field and first base for the Colonials. He showed promise in the Florida Marlins system as a 22-year-old at Class A Greensboro of the South Atlantic League where he batted .284 and led the team with 18 home runs and 79 RBIs. However, that was in 2004. He never moved higher than Double-A and was eventually released. He's 29 now and a grizzled veteran by Can-Am League standards. Molina hit .350 with Pittsfield last season and like every one of his Colonials' teammates wants just one thing.
"What I want is for somebody to give me a shot again," he says. "If I know somebody give me a shot, I'll put great numbers up there. If you see my numbers when I play with the Marlins, from '04 all the way to '07, I always go almost 100 RBIs, 10 or plus homers and .285, .290, .300 and I know I can still be up there playing baseball but I not that lucky. ... One of these days somebody gonna see me and at least give me a shot."
Pittsfield plays a 94-game season and players make about $1,100 a month. All hope to get a call just to return to the low levels of a big league organization. Those calls come in just frequently enough to keep dreams alive and when a Pittsfield player does draw interest, Keefe doesn't stand in their way.
"They'll get him," he said. "I've been in contact with four clubs on three or four of our guys in the past few weeks." Keefe acknowledges, however, that even those lucky few players to be called from Pittsfield's independent limbo will hardly be treasured by their new affiliated clubs. "They're not going to invest much in this guy. They're gonna maybe buy his contract for $2,000 (or) $3,000 from us during the season and send him to the New York-Penn League or send him to the South Atlantic League or the Midwest League. He may play shortstop here every day but he may be a second baseman in the Midwest League or a left fielder or a utility guy. Those are the roles that we try and help fill."
Filling the ballpark has become a more pressing concern.
Wahconah Park feels like visiting baseball's version of a historic battlefield site. Indeed, the Colonials' vintage early 1900s uniforms are designed to match the decor. Behind the infield grandstand's five rows of plastic box seats are nine rows of wooden benches with chipped red paint revealing the blue and orange colors of the Pittsfield Mets, a previous tenant. Wooden owl decoys dangle from roof beams to scare off nesting birds. Game-day field preparations include filling holes in the foul territory behind home plate dug by raccoons who live under the ancient grandstand.
"They've got a good thing going under there," one crew member says. As you walk to the grandstand's back row, you feel each wooden board sag a bit with a rubbery bounce. A metal ladder goes straight up through a narrow opening to the press box, a tiny wooden shack perched on the roof.
While the field crew shines up the bases with a new coat of white spray paint, the experienced Pittsfield fans arrive knowing not to sit directly behind home plate. Here at Wahconah, the regulars instead begin filling up the wooden benches to the extreme right of the first base side, out of the direct sight line into the setting sun in center field. Below, in a cramped clubhouse that lacks air conditioning and is hotter insider than the sweltering July day, Jamie Keefe looks at the disappointing attendance figures. "We really wanted to get to the 12-hundred mark (fans per game) this year," Keefe says. "We're not there. We're averaging 736 right now, so we'd like to double that obviously. If we could get ourselves to a thousand, to average a thousand for the rest of the season, that would sure make us happy."
The Colonials owner has already told the local media that his club is losing money and he cannot promise the team will return for a third season. Years ago, the city nearly built a new ballpark. "Ball Four" author and former big league pitcher Jim Bouton was involved and wrote a book about his failed Pittsfield experience called "Foul Ball." Keefe and his Colonials are fighting to avoid becoming the latest headstone on this baseball battlefield. "If you grew up in the Northeast you know about this ballpark," Keefe said. "We don't have the best drainage in the world and we don't have the most beautiful seating arrangement in there, but man it's comfortable, it's cozy and when there's a thousand people in here it's really loud."
A thousand just might do.
You can learn more about the Pittsfield Colonials on the team's website.
Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter: @SBerthiaumeESPN.