Monday September 5, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- The Pittsfield Colonials have played their final game at Wahconah Park in 2011 -- and perhaps for good.

The Colonials and New Jersey Jackals begin their Can-Am League first-round playoff series Wednesday night at Yogi Berra Stadium in Upper Montclair, N.J., and that's where they'll stay until the best-of-five series ends. Should the Colonials advance to the league championship series, that will also be played entirely on the road, according to Can-Am League Commissioner Miles Wolff -- who expressed further concern about the Colonials' future in Pittsfield.

The decision came down to concerns over Wahconah Park attendance and the financial viability of postseason games in Pittsfield. The Colonials' average attendance is the lowest in the Can-Am League.

"We didn't want to do it; it certainly doesn't look good for anybody," Wolff said. "It's purely a financial decision for the clubs to move the games.

"Basically, the league members have sort of been financing a lot of the operations in Pittsfield. The members [feel] if the ownership can't do it, why do we have to keep financing it? It was decided that, basically, the ownership couldn't promise they could take care of all the expenses if the games were played at home."

According to Colonials CEO/President Buddy Lewis, the decision gives the players on each of the league's four playoff teams a fair share of the bonus money.

"For every person that comes into the ballparks in the playoffs, $2 per ticket goes to the players," Lewis said Sunday from the Detroit area, where he was attending a wedding. "The feeling was that, since our attendance was what it was on average, it wasn't really fair to the players."

According to the Can-Am League's website, 1,187 people attended Saturday night's regular-season finale at Wahconah Park. That brings the total to 37,154 fans for 44 home dates this season, an average of 844 fans -- lowest in the league. By comparison, New Jersey's average attendance per game is 1,768.

Lewis added that, with not even 900 fans per game, other costs such as opposing team lodging and umpires' pay "makes a tough financial situation tougher than it is."

With an average of 1,200 to 1,400 people at Wahconah Park, Lewis said, it wouldn't be an issue and the Colonials would play there in the first round.

"I really think the overwhelming feeling was, it's important to give the players the maximum amount of revenue," he said. "I've been thinking about this very, very carefully. We have fulfilled our promise to the community. The promise was great baseball, great fun and great food. I think the community has fulfilled their promise. The core of fans we have, you couldn't ask for anything better. I'm not sure the area is dense enough to support a professional baseball team.

"The competition for the entertainment dollar is incredibly fierce. Maybe you get some people from that community to come once or twice a summer, and it's great. Maybe you need an area that's 150,000 [population] or more. Baseball is so omnipresent and [Pittsfield is] so baseball-centric that it's a shame not to have the people there."

Wolff noted the league saw no indication that the Colonials' current ownership has the financial viability to return to the city in 2012. However, he stressed that any talk about moving the franchise is "too preliminary.

"Certainly, we would love if Buddy could find new ownership or the funds to make it himself. It just doesn't seem possible."

While nothing was confirmed until the team's press release after Saturday night's game, the rumor that the Colonials' home games were at an end slowly spread through Wahconah Park during the regular-season finale, according to Colonials fan Chris Valine.

A Pittsfield resident, Valine attended most of the home games in the second half of the Can-Am League season. Like many fans, he's disappointed that the team won't be back at the park in 2011.

"People have been there night after night after night," he said. "There's a little old lady that sits right behind the catcher. I feel bad for people like her, who have sweated it out all season. I'd love to see a playoff game."

It's the only time Rick Robbins can recall a professional sports team not being allowed to play home playoff games. The Pittsfield Rye Bakery owner attended approximately 40 games this season and supported the team in more ways than most people. His family hosts infielder/outfielder Jermel Lomack, and his 9-year-old son, Ryan, is a team bat boy.

"When you root for a team and you love a team ... it's discouraging that none of those playoff games will be at home," Robbins said. "The fans that are there are very loyal to the Colonials and always come. As soon as you meet one of the players and watch them, you can't help but root for them. They treat the bat boys and all the kids so well."

The Colonials are currently in the first year of a three-year license agreement to use Wahconah Park. The city's Parks Commission approved the agreement -- which runs until Sept. 15, 2013 -- in February.

The license contains provisions that allow the city of Pittsfield to opt out of the deal. Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto said Sunday that, should the Colonials not play at Wahconah Park next season, the city will make "every effort we can" to collect the money it's owed.

Ruberto added that, while he didn't have any information on hand at his home Sunday, he believes the franchise has not made either payment the city required for this season. The license annually costs the Colonials $26,310 to play at Wahconah Park.

"I don't think that the difficulties the Colonials have had financially come as a surprise to us," Ruberto said. "I think it is disappointing, however, that the league has decided not to have home games during the postseason."

According to a Saturday night press release issued by the Colonials, New Jersey will be the home team for the first two games of the series -- which starts Wednesday night -- as well as the fifth if necessary. Pittsfield will be the home team for Games 3 and 4.

The Colonials advanced to last year's championship series, falling to Les Capitales de Quebec.

"The league is trying to do what's best for the organization," Colonials General Manager/Manager Jamie Keefe said. "Right now, with the financial situation, we're going to have to do what's right."

Ruberto said he attended approximately six games this season, and felt it was unfortunate that the team didn't receive more fan support.

"A high-quality product was put on the field," he added. "They performed well. Certainly, each and every time I went to see a game, I would [highly rate] the fan experience."

To Robbins, it almost doesn't seem fair to the Colonials' fans.

"That being said, in an economic situation, if ... the attendance is so low, I think they're looking in terms of money," he said.

"I guess, if we had supported the team a little better, this situation wouldn't have [arisen]."

To reach Matthew Sprague:
msprague@berkshireeagle.com,
(413) 496-6254.