A city with a ballpark steeped in history is being reenergized by its hometown team and its lineup of youthful leaders.
If the wooden grandstand of Wahconah Park in Pittsfield could talk, it would have some stories to tell – very old stories. The ballpark was built in 1919 and has seen a slew of teams call it home. The Pittsfield Hillies, Electrics and Dukes are just three of the numerous clubs from various independent professional leagues that have etched their place into the park’s history. Baseball hallmarks like Sparky Lyle, Carlton Fisk, Greg Maddux and Rafael Palmeiro have donned Pittsfield jerseys. Now, the Pittsfield Suns of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League are trying to take their place. At just 26, Kevin McGuire is the teams’ general manager.
“This fan base went through a rough patch of about 10 years in Pittsfield with different baseball teams,” McGuire said. “We even went dark for a year and didn’t have baseball. We came in and we asked them to give us a shot.”
The team came to the city in 2012 after the Pittsfield Colonials of the Can-Am league left in 2011. The team features a roster of 30 college or recently graduated players who take the field 56 times, 28 home and 28 away, during a season that runs from June to August. The league has a total of 10 teams spread across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine. In order to maintain a regional tie, the league requires half of a team’s roster to have a baseball or family connection to New England. Tom Conley is the team’s manager. A four-year starting catcher at UMass-Amherst, Conley, now 23, was named manager in December 2012.
“It’s a special place,” Conley said. “These people really enjoy their baseball and I think they’re smart baseball fans. They like just coming out to a game. They’re in between Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park so it’s a nice place to take their kids for cheap.”
The ballpark is coming off an exciting year of field improvements as well as hosting the league’s all-star game in July. McGuire says the club’s third year is going to be even bigger as the World Series trophy, won by the Boston Red Sox, will pay a visit in June. And the 4,500-seat park will offer fireworks following every Friday night game.
“This is the 90th anniversary of Lou Gehrig playing at Wahconah Park,” McGuire said. “We are going to do an iron horse bobble head. It will actually be a horse and it will look like it is clad in iron and his head will bobble up and down.”
The Suns are kicking off the 2014 season before the snow even melts. The organization featured New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman at a Hot Stove event at the Colonial Theatre in January. Cashman received a warm welcome in the home state of the team’s historic rival the Boston Red Sox.
“We had been looking to do an event like this for the last year and a half,” McGuire said. “It was a matter of finding the right A-name celebrity that would make a real impact in this great baseball community. Since we came into town in 2012, we realized what an amazing baseball community this was and we wanted to give them something that we knew would be worth their while to come out and be a part of.”
While the organization is working to improve the fan experience both within and outside the confines of the ballpark, Conley says the draw will be the play on the field.
“I think the product on the field has really transformed from its first year to now,” Conley said. “There are 10 teams in the league now. A 56-game schedule, it’s really kind of like a minor league schedule. I think the product that we are going to see out on the field is going to be a lot better than even last year, which was a good product, but I think this year will be the best that it’s had.”
The team is owned by the Goldklang Group, whose leadership has an interesting dynamic. Co-owner Marv Goldklang has been a limited partner of the New York Yankees for more than 30 years, while Vice President Tyler Tumminia is married to Boston Red Sox GM Ben Cherington. McGuire, who was named the league’s executive of the year in 2013, says the organization is committed to the city of Pittsfield.
“The fans and the business community gave us a shot and took a chance on us,” McGuire said. “We are forever grateful to them for that. We’re now going to take the chance on Pittsfield and we’re going to look to sign a long-term lease with the city of Pittsfield to be here for a very long time.”