After undergoing a substantial reorganization, Minor League Baseball is embarking upon a new era in 2021. There are now 120 teams competing in 11 newly-named leagues, comprising four levels of play (Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Low-A). This is the fourth in a series of league-by-league articles, highlighting one unique fact about each team.
11 of the 12 teams in the Double-A Northeast were previously members of the Eastern League, which had operated at the Double-A level since 1963. The anomaly among this slew of Eastern League vets are the Somerset Patriots, previously members of the independent Atlantic League. The Patriots have replaced the Trenton Thunder in the New York Yankees’ farm system, with the Thunder moving to the MLB Draft League (which begins its inaugural season on May 24th). What follows is one unique, and often strange and surprising, fact about each Double-A Northeast club.
Binghamton Rumble Ponies
New York Mets affiliate since 1992
Rod Serling, creator and original host of “The Twilight Zone,” grew up in Binghamton. In 2017, the Rumble Ponies took the field in “The Twilight Zone” theme jerseys, paying homage to a hometown hero who explored a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. 2017 also happened to be the first season in which Binghamton’s team played as the Rumble Ponies, a moniker that references Binghamton’s rich carousel history. In fact, a carousel from Serling’s Binghamton youth inspired a memorable scene in the classic “The Twilight Zone” episode “Walking Distance.”
Hartford Yard Goats
Colorado Rockies affiliate since 2016
The 2016 arrival of the Yard Goats marked the return of Minor League Baseball to Hartford after a 54-year absence. The city was a charter member of the Eastern League, fielding a team from 1938 through 1952 in the form of the Bees, Laurels and Chiefs. 1938 wasn’t the first time that Hartford was a charter member of a professional baseball circuit, however, as the 1876 Hartford Dark Blues were one of the original eight teams in the National League. The Dark Blues compiled a 47-21 record that season, finishing second in the league to the Chicago White Stockings. In 1877 the Dark Blues relocated to New York City and adopted a counterintuitive moniker: The Brooklyn Hartfords.
New Hampshire Fisher Cats
Toronto Blue Jays affiliate since 2004
These days Minor League teams often attempt to elicit strong reactions when they rebrand, as entities like the Amarillo Sod Poodles and Rocket City Trash Pandas can attest. The early years of the 21st century were a different, far more skittish time, however. On Nov. 6, 2003, in advance of their first season after relocating from New Haven, Manchester’s new Eastern League team announced its name: the New Hampshire Primaries (a reference to the state’s first-in-the-nation primary election voting status). After receiving a veritable avalanche of negative feedback from fans and the local media, the team reneged on the Primaries moniker and held a “Name the Team” contest in which Fisher Cats ultimately prevailed. The Primaries name lives on, however, as the Fisher Cats occasionally suit up as such (particularly in election years).
Portland Sea Dogs
Boston Red Sox affiliate since 2003
The Portland Sea Dogs, established in 1994, have utilized the same name and logo for the entirety of their existence. The logo was designed by cartoonist Gary Gilchrist, perhaps best known for his 22-year-run as author-illustrator of the comic strip “Nancy.” Prior to the 1994 season, Gilchrist was approached by Portland team president Charlie Eshbach and a collaboration began. “Gilchrist did a real nice drawing of a puffin,” Eshbach recalled, more than two decades later. “The Portland Puffins. The more we thought about it. …It didn’t have that pizzazz.” That puffin eventually morphed into the Sea Dog logo still in use today. Gilchrist went on to create logos for two now-defunct Connecticut-based Eastern League teams, the Norwich Navigators and the New Britain Rock Cats.
Reading Fightin Phils
Philadelphia Phillies affiliate since 1967
Ryan Howard hit 37 home runs for the Reading Phillies in 2004, establishing what was then a Reading franchise record. Two years later, Howard blasted 58 long balls as a member of the parent Philadelphia Phillies. Howard’s total in 2006 wasn’t the most Major League homers hit in a season by a Reading alumnus, however. That honor belongs to Roger Maris, who played for the 1955 Reading Indians. Six years later, Maris achieved baseball immortality by belting 61 home runs as a member of the New York Yankees.
New York Yankees affiliate since 2021
The Patriots, formerly an independent league club, are set for their debut season as an affiliate of the New York Yankees. One of the team’s claims to fame is that they employ Marc Schwartz, the top-fielding broadcaster now working in Minor League Baseball. During a game in 2019 Schwartz gleefully called his own catch of a foul ball, punctuating it with a memorable declaration of self-worth: “Boy am I impressive.” This moment soon went viral, and the Patriots capitalized by selling T-shirts featuring Schwartz and his instantly iconic catch phrase.
Cleveland Indians affiliate since 1997
Active players usually don’t have their numbers retired, and teams generally don’t retire the numbers of athletes who never played for them. This is especially true when the athlete in question plays an entirely different sport. On July 23, 2018, the RubberDucks made an exception on all fronts and retired the number 23 in honor of Akron native LeBron James. In conjunction with this endeavor, the RubberDucks sold The G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) burgers at the concession stands. This meal, clearly fit for a king, featured two steak burger patties, whipped goat cheese, apple cider bacon jam, frizzled onions and blackberry barbecue sauce.
Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate since 1999
Peoples Natural Gas Field, the memorably named home of the Curve, features a memorable backdrop in the form of the Skyliner roller coaster. This vintage thrill ride, located at adjacent Lakemont Park, looms just beyond right field. The Skyliner debuted at New York’s Roseland Park in 1960 and was relocated to Lakemont Park in 1985. It’s a veritable spring chicken when compared to Lakemont Park’s Leap-the-Dips coaster, which opened in 1902 and is considered to be the oldest roller coaster in the country.
Baltimore Orioles affiliate since 1993
Due to myriad construction delays, the Baysox’s home of Prince George’s Stadium was not ready in time for the team’s inaugural 1993 campaign. The Baysox instead played the entire season at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, which the Orioles had recently vacated in order to move into Camden Yards. Cut to the start of the 1994 season, and Prince George’s Stadium was still not ready. The Baysox went on to play home games at the U.S. Naval Academy, the University of Maryland and the Frederick Keys’ home of Harry Grove Stadium before Prince George’s Stadium finally opened on June 16, 1994 as their fifth and final home ballpark. Prince George’s Stadium has the same dimensions as Memorial Stadium, so even today’s players can get a taste of where it all began.
Detroit Tigers affiliate since 2001
In 2016, the Erie SeaWolves went 62-79 and finished in fourth place in the Eastern League’s Western Division. Or did they? The following season, on Alternative Facts Night, the SeaWolves gave away 2016 championship replica rings in celebration of their undefeated campaign. They reported that over 1.2 million fans were in attendance on this special evening, during which the SeaWolves unapologetically celebrated “facts that the team knows to be true.”
Washington Nationals affiliate since 2005
Many Minor League teams maintain a franchise-specific Hall of Fame. But only one team maintains a Life-Size Bobblehead Hall of Fame. That team is the Senators, so named because Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania. In 2016, Vlad Guerrero was the first player inducted in the Life-Size Bobblehead Hall of Fame. (Two years later, Vlad Guerrero, Jr. posed next to his bobblehead father while visiting Harrisburg as a member of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats). Cliff Floyd, Bryce Harper, Matt Stairs, Brandon Phillips, Stephen Strasburg and Jamey Carroll have since joined Guerrero among the pantheon of Senators greats who can be found nodding contentedly on the ballpark concourse.
Richmond Flying Squirrels
San Francisco Giants affiliate since 2010
Ed “Chappy” Loyd, one of Richmond baseball’s most dedicated fans, passed away in November 2019. He will be missed by many at the Flying Squirrels’ home of The Diamond, where he earned his nickname due to his penchant for giving ChapStick to the traveling scouts with whom he enjoyed watching ballgames. “I worked for ChapStick for 40 years,” explained Loyd, talking to this writer during a 2019 Flying Squirrels game. “Well, I worked for A.H. Robins [pharmaceutical company] and ChapStick was one of their products … One day I was sitting with one of my scout contacts. He’s sitting there and all of a sudden he just went off like he’d lost his best friend. ‘Damn it, I left my ChapStick! I never go anywhere without my ChapStick.’ He didn’t know I worked there. I brought him a good supply, said ‘I don’t want you to ever be without your ChapStick.’ That’s how it got started, at least 30 years ago. It was an innocent thing, but it grew, like a snowball rolling down a hill.”