The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Sports in Utica
As summer winds down, the fall sports season will soon be in full swing. In the Mohawk Valley, there will be a full slate of high school and college sports. Unfortunately, no professional sports teams will compete in the Utica area. It’s almost a cruel reminder of the disappointment and void left by those professional teams. Fortunately the high school and college sports schedule can fill the void locally. So why don’t we take a look back at the good and bad moments in Utica sports.
After the Utica Devils broke the local fans hearts and left Utica after the 1992-1993 season, many professional teams tried their hands unsuccessfully to fill the void at the Aud. The Utica Bulldogs/Blizzard of the CHL tried and failed. More recently the Mohawk Valley Ice Cats of the NEHL made it through one season before leaving. But the franchise that tried and failed the most miserably was the Mohawk Valley Prowlers. The Prowlers began play in the UHL in 1998 after a failed season as the Dayton Ice Bandits in Dayton, Ohio the year before. To make a long story short, their demise came during the 2000-2001 season. As ownership had priced going to a game out of most people’s budgets, attendance was putrid. After some bounced checks, a player strike ensued and the team folded due to bankruptcy in January 2001.
Utica College got its men’s hockey program off the ground during the 2001-2002 season. After a couple of seasons of building the program, a buzz began to fill the Aud again as they started playing competitively against quality college teams in Division III. Attendance began to rise as the team started winning more and more games. The community began to take to the program as they have run off a string of eight straight ECAC playoff appearances, two ECAC Championship game appearances and one ECAC West regular season championship. This past season was monumental for the Pioneers as Utica College ended the season ranked 15th in the country. They ended the 2010-2011 campaign with a program best 17 wins. They also led all of not just Division III schools, but Division II as well in attendance for the FIFTH straight year, averaging over 3200 fans per game. In fact the last game of the regular season at the Aud last season set a school record with 3966 fans. The 2011-2012 season promises more of the same. After going 4-0 in an exhibition trip in Germany, Italy and Austria, the Pioneers will look to build on that momentum when they take to the ice at the Aud for their first game on October 21.
This team was as gritty as one could be. Think of the movie “Major League” about a bunch of washed up has-beens and castoffs in one magical run in Cleveland…and you’ve got the premise of what was going on in Utica in 1983. The Blue Sox were the only minor league team in baseball without an affiliation to a big league club. And the players and fans alike took on an “us against the world” mentality. The team bought into it and began winning games. Fan bought into the product on the field, and attendance rose as the underdogs won more and more games. The season reached a joyous climax when the Blue Sox won the NY-PENN League title that season, upsetting the Little Falls Mets (a team which featured 6 future major league players). Baseball writer Roger Kahn owned the team that year and would later write about his and the teams experience in the book “Good Enough To Dream.”
It was becoming more obvious that the 2001 season would be the last one for the Utica Blue Sox. The City of Utica needed to repair Donovan Stadium and at least bring it up to the standards of a standard level park. Fan support was waning. The team finished the year 27-47. One moment that stands out to me during that season was one I ended up being involved in. A two game series was suppose to be played between the Blue Sox and the Batavia Muckdogs. Weather cancelled the first game during that first day, allowing the Muckdogs to remain in Batavia for the day. After the rain had moved through that day and night, the sun was out the following day. It was a perfect day for baseball. The Batavia Muckdogs rolled into town expecting to play baseball at Donovan before heading off to their next series in New Jersey. There was one problem. The field was left uncovered the day before and was unplayable. Inexcusable and very “bush league” considering this was after-all suppose to be a professional baseball franchise. But that was not even the worst part. As a member of the Muckdogs radio team, we had all of our equipment set up ready to do a broadcast. The Blue Sox GM cowered in our booth communicating via walkie talkie with other members of the Blue Sox staff when a decision was reached to cancel the game. And then there was the cherry on top. Parking had been charged because there was suppose to be fireworks after the game. Not only were they NOT going to do fireworks, but they were NOT going to refund parking fees. At that point, my broadcasting partner and I looked at each other and packed our equipment up as fast as possible. As we left our booth and walked through the crowd, many fans sensed what was going on and started yelling at us. (There had not been an announcement made yet) We went into the Batavia clubhouse, relayed to the manager what was going on and he made the decision to get the players on the bus while still in uniform and get the heck out of there. As we drove away heading for New Jersey, I remember thinking to myself how disappointing that had to be for the fans STILL sitting there waiting for an official announcement regarding the game and refunds. All while there was not a cloud in the sun drenched sky. Cal Ripken Jr. would rescue the franchise from Utica and moved it to Aberdeen, Maryland in February of 2002.