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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning

"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

The Park by the Airport, 3 of 3

The Park by the Airport, part 3 of 3: [note: This is part 3 of a three part series about Heritage park and the Albany-Colonie Yankees, a staple of SmAlbany culture for the better part of a dozen years. Part 1 discusses the actual ballpark - Heritage Park in Colonie. Part 2 discusses the team. Part 3 discusses baseball in Albany since the A-C Yankees left town.]

When the AC-yankees left town after the 1994 season, it was a serious disappointment for many people. They hadn't left town because of poor attendance, they had left town because standards had been raised for double-A ballparks, and it was either renovate Heritage or hit the road. Unfortunately, they hit the road because Norwich, CT had just built a beautiful new park, Dodd Stadium, that they could play in. Dodd was firmly in the mold of the new minor league "superparks" that began sprining up around the country in the 1990's. Heritage, the same old beer-and-dog park that we described in part I of this series, just could not compete, even with hypothetical renovations:

Dodd Stadium (top) and Heritage Park (bottom): simply no comparison

So the team packed up and moved. That was basically the story for professional sports in Albany at the time period. I never really had experienced the idea of a sports team leaving town, but then in the early 1990's that seemed to happen to almost every team in Albany: the Patroons (for a year the "Pontiacs") packed it in after the 1993 season. Who can forget the two disastrous hockey teams of the early 1990's in Albany - the Albany Choppers and the Capital District Islander's? They left town in 1991 and 1993, respectively. The town that was once called the "major league of minor leagues" was suddenly left with almost no professional sports. Then they started trying wierd stuff: do you remember the indoor soccer team that played at the Knick for about 20 minutes?

It was particularly crushing to me that the AC yankees left. I never thought of baseball teams moving - it was something that happened in New York in the 1950's. And I also didn't realize how much attention I had paid to the AC yankees until they were gone. Or how much fun it was to have a double-A team in your town that was affiliated with the most popular big league team in your town. Had I known any of this at the time, I probably would have gone to more games than I did.

After the AC yankees left, it was quickly arranged that a team from the new Northeast Independent league would move into Heritage Park. They were called the "Diamond Dogs" and for a while I was actually excited about them. I went to a game their first season, and I was quickly disabused of the thought that baseball at Heritage would ever be the same: almost no one was there. The players, while certainly good at baseball, were obviously not Double-A quality and had almost no chance of ever seeing the real minors, never mind the majors. And worst of all, there was genuinely no baseball excitement there. It seems odd to say that, but it was true. It felt like you were watching a Babe Ruth league game, excpet that you didn't even know anyone who was playing. It was awful.

Amazingly, the Diamond Dogs lasted a full 8 seasons at Heritage. How they survived financially, I have absolutely no idea. I do remember that they started to really cut ticket prices toward the end. I think I went to a game once on a buy-one-get-one-free that cost a total of $4. I also knew a guy who played for them their last two season, a friend of my wife's from college. It still didn't make the games interesting, nevermind exciting. When the Dogs packed it in after the 1994 season, I'm not sure anyone truly cared.

Luckily, before they left, State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno of Rensellaer got his hands on some money to build a brand new minor league "superpark" of our own. Ground was broken in Fall 2001 and by summer 2002, we had a New York Penn league Class A minor league team in the stadium - the Tri-City Valley Cats, affiliated with the Houston Astros. They've played three full seasons at "The Joe" now, and I can say this about them:

1) the stadium is absolutely beautiful: it really is a joy to go to a game at the Joe. The field is kept in tip-top shape, the amenitites are first rate, the seats are comfortable and close to the field, and the atmosphere is family friendly. The ticket prices are also very reasonable - the top tickets prices are $8.50 and you can gets seats for as little as $4.50. The only bad thing about the stadium, in my mind, is its location. It's located at Hudson Valley. That makes parking easy, but it makes the stadium lack some of the charm that a downtown stadium could have had. Obviously, the stadium was going to go in Senator Bruno's district. But they could have put it in downtown Troy, or at least in something that resembled a residential neighborhood. Instead, you drive onto a college campus. I'm not saying it's terrible, or damning of the project as a whole, but it could have been really cool somewhere else. There's no businesses or restaurants near the stadium. You just come to the game and then you leave the game. It's kind of like going to Shea Stadium in that sense.

2) The baseball is pretty good and the fans are into it: This is such an upgrade from a Diamond Dogs game that I can't even describe it. The players are generally raw talents - many of them are fresh out of high school, but a lot of them have serious potential. And although they haven't had their first major leaguer yet, they undoubtedly will have some soon. The fans seem to be into the team as well. The Diamond Dogs were a novelty act, but the Cats seem to have a following of loyalists. So you get real cheering and real excitement. It definitely is fun. And the team has been quite good for the last two years.

3) It's not the AC yankees: This cannot be empasized enough. If you go there looking for the AC-yankee experience, you will be disappointed. Although the baseball is good, it's still class A ball - you'll never see a team with a pile of guys that you know are going to be in the majors soon, like the 1989 AC yanks. Plus, even if they do make the majors, it's with Houston. You just don't have that "today I'll watch them play here and in September I'll watch them play on TV in New York" aspect to the experience. Although the fans are into it, they don't seem attached to the individual players as much as people were attached to Bernie and others back in the day. And this makes sense - most people at AC yanks games cared about the futures of the players there, since they were big league yankees fans. Valley Cats fans, for the most part, are not Houston Astros fans.

Still, I recommend a trip over there. If you like watching live baseball, it's a great atmosphere and an inexpensive, enjoyable way to spend an evening.
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At 11:33 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

Aw, I loved the CDIsles. :)    

At 9:24 AM , Anonymous Tim said:

Then they started trying weird stuff: do you remember the indoor soccer team that played at the Knick for about 20 minutes?

The New York Kick! :D (At least I *think* that was their name...)

I never knew the AC Yanks left because of the facilities. I thought they were just another in a long line of teams that left because nobody gave a flip anymore.

The CD Isles never actually left the area. They were bought by Al Lawrence and became the River Rats. Yes, they moved from the RPI Fieldhouse down to the Knick, but at least it's not Connecticut.

And the Choppers... hoo boy. That team never should have been allowed to exist in the first place, but they did leave a lasting impression on the Capital Distict: the AHL placed the Islanders in Troy (despite having the Red Wings just up the road in Glens Falls) specifically because they were afraid of the competition from the IHL's Choppers. Had that never occured, we might not have the Rats today.

Great stuff. I found the Heritage Park series through AlbanyEye; I'll have to remember to stick around. :)    

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