Baseball Group Pitches Players, Food and Fun at Wahconah
That's on the menu this year as the newest group trying to revive the national pastime in Pittsfield pitches a summer of traditional fun and a little of the unexpected.
"Our goal is that every single night will be an adventure," said Leslie "Buddy" Lewis, owner of the new Pittsfield Defenders baseball team, to a capacity crowd at the Berkshire Hills Country Club on Thursday morning. "It's not just baseball, we really want this to be a family friendly venue."
Lewis was the main speaker at the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce monthly "Good News Business Salute" breakfast, which included Dan Duquette, former Red Sox general manager and Duquette Sports Academy in Hindsale, as the emcee.
Duquette is part of the partnership that includes Nokona Athletic Goods Co. managing partner Lewis, fellow Nokona executive Jerry O'Connor and military baseball organizer Terry Allvord that has the goal of bringing professional baseball back to the city.
At least three or four professional exhibition games will played by the Defenders' sister team, the American Defenders of New Hampshsire, based in Nashua. The Defenders are in the Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball.
"That is, I guess, dipping our toe back into professional baseball," said Lewis.
The city has spent some $750,000 refurbishing Wahconah Park. Lewis, whom Duquette described as ".400 hitter when it comes to community service," praised the support of the city and Mayor James M. Ruberto, assuring that the team would be giving back to the community.
The first gift is an impressive bronze bust of "Chief Wahconah" that Lewis said would be "permanently affixed" inside the ballpark's concourse.
"The heart of the program of all five teams is getting involved in the community," he said, referring to the other three teams in the Nokona family: two touring American Military All-Star teams (one national, the international) made up of servicemen on leave and the Latin All-Stars.
(The Military All-Stars are now headquartered in Pittsfield in the Berkshire Common facing South Street; an outlet store for Nokona goods will also open there within the next week or so.)
The Pittsfield Defenders, to eventually be made up exclusively of players from the U.S. service academies, college military schools and students enrolled in ROTC, will visit schools, nursing homes, youth centers and other venues in uniform.
The team will also partner with other business and cultural organizations for activities on and off the field. Along with the exhibition and 22 home games, there are plans for movie nights on the field, hands-on kids activities, meeting with the players and other events. Season-opener is this Sunday's 150th anniversary matchup between Williams and Amherst colleges.
And the sushi? Well, Lewis says he wants to upgrade the food service. There'll still be great hot dogs, along with county favorite's like the Old Forge Restaurant's chicken wings, sushi from Jae's Inn, Mexican fare and other offerings.
Lewis has been a part-time resident of Richmond for the past nine years and the Texas-based Nokona, the only sporting goods company still making baseball mitts in the United States, is setting down roots in Massachusetts, producing gloves in Worcester and wooden bats in Fall River.
Filling the 4,000 seats at Wahconah Park hasn't been easy. Once the home of minor league teams, the city was abandoned when the proposal for a new stadium was overwhelming defeated some years ago. Several groups have worked to keep baseball at the park, including Duquette, who's Pittsfield Dukes played there for two years.
Lewis had first eyed the independent-league Berkshire Black Bears, "until my wife found out and said no way." Now, the self-confessed baseball junkie has team at historic Wahconah Park — and a good luck symbol to go with it.
"I hope, a la Notre Dame, the fans and players will come in and give the chief a little rub for good luck," he said, rubbing Chief Wahconah on the shoulder.
The chamber also saluted five local companies and organizations for their "good news": Berkshire Area Health Education, Berkshire Museum, Dakota Restaurant, Hill Engineers, Architects & Planners, and Junior Achievement of Western Mass.