Cycle of support in Elmira
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - To understand the rabid baseball fandom of the people of Elmira, New York, you have to take a bit of a history lesson.
A dirt track horse racing stadium on the banks of the Chemung River stood as the main attraction for the residents of Elmira as far back as the 1800s. It wasn't until the 1880s when four bags were placed in the shape of a diamond in the center of the track that the town's focus started to shift away from horses and more towards cowhides.
Elmira knows baseball. It's in its blood, and has been since the Elmira Colonels played their first game in 1885 as part of the New York State League.
The Elmira Pioneers - as the team is called now as part of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League - first came about in the year 1900 as a founding member of a newly formed New York State League. The club bounced around from league to league for much of the 19th and 20th century, taking on names such as the Gladiators, Red Jackets, Red Wings, Red Sox, and Marlins.
As the name on the front of the jersey and the logo on the cap changed, the Elmira team built a permanent home in 1939 and named it Dunn Field, after a donor in the community. With a beautiful art deco entrance in the front of the stadium and seating for over 4,000 people, Dunn Field is the home of the Elmira Pioneers to this day, serving as a constant reminder of where the game once was, and how it remains today.
According to residents that have frequented the stadium, not much has changed with Dunn Field over the years. That's the way they like it, as not to disturb the history hanging on the walls in the form of Earl Weaver and Wade Boggs posters (both spent time on the ball club in Elmira).
Attending Pioneer games at the stadium for the people of Elmira has become less of a hobby over the years and more of a way of life. Last summer, Elmira set a PGCBL record for attendance with 81,037 total fans during the course of 24 home games.
"[Elmira] games are awesome," Justin Mattingly, assistant to the president of the PGCBL, said. "There's so much to do, there's so much entertainment at the games...it's always more fun when there are a lot of people in the park. Some people go for the baseball, some people go for the fireworks, but it doesn't matter why you go. It's just fun."
The high attendance mark not only blew away the existing record, it ranked 10th in all of summer league baseball. The nine teams in front of Elmira all reside in the Northwoods League, a league that typically has about 35 home games on each team's schedule.
Elmira's average home game attendance of 3,377 was third best in all of summer league play.
"It's a credit to our ownership," Elmira manager Matt Burch said. "They work hard in the community to secure sponsorships. They go into the public to get people to the ballgames. There's also lots of cooperation with the businesses and city management to get people to the games. In a struggling market like Elmira, it's been great. It gives the people the night off and something to do. We're successful because of the support we get."
It is impossible to separate the success the Pioneers experience on the field and the huge crowds that continue to show up game after game and year after year. They are as intertwined as the river that runs through the town of roughly 29,000.
Burch said the large crowds that come to each game are one of his biggest recruiting tools when he is pitching players on why they should spend their summer away from their family and in the town of Elmira playing for him. After all, it's an experience that not many college players get to have playing in front of that many fans. There were only 15 universities that averaged more fans per home game than Elmira in 2015.
With the crowds in his back pocket, Burch has put together a team this year that's off to a 12-4 start, the best record in the PGCBL.
Elmira folks like to watch winning baseball, and the winning ways of past Elmira teams have led to big crowds, which leads to good ball players wanting to play in Elmira. It's all a big cycle that keeps on spinning and benefitting everybody involved.
Elmira has been the most balanced team in the PGCBL this summer, getting it done at the plate, on the mound, and in the field.
Troy Dixon of Samford University has been leading the charge at the plate, leading the team in average (.348), at bats (66), runs (11), hits (23), home runs (2), RBI (11), HBP (4) and is second on the team in steals (4).
"Troy has been very consistent," Burch said. "We had his brother a couple years ago, and I have a good relationship with [head coach] Casey Dunn down at Samford, so we feel comfortable together. On top of that, he's just a really good ballplayer."
Burch also pointed out how good his pitching staff has been this year, and for good reason.
The team has combined for a 2.36 ERA 16 games into the season, the best in the league. The Pioneers have 13 pitchers with ERAs under 4.00, led by Taylor Ahearn. Ahearn, the only D-II player on the Elmira roster, is 1-0 in his four starts this season and holds a 0.50 ERA. Through 18 innings of work, he has struck out 14 while allowing only 11 hits and seven walks.
The list of names dominating on the mound for Elmira is too long to mention everybody, but Andrew Sipowicz has been too good to not have his season brought up. Sipowicz has been every bit as good as Ahearn, throwing 17 1/3 innings over three starts, earning a 0.51 ERA with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 21-to-5. The only difference between the two pitchers is that Sipowicz has been saddled with one of Elmira's four losses, in a game that he went 5 1/3 innings and allowed only one earned run.
With the team continuing to play at a high level, it doesn't seem likely that crowds will dwindle at all during the course of the long summer. Of course, that will just keep the cycle in motion, with the players feeding off the crowd and the crowd feeding off the success.
"When guys get into their 30th game, it certainly becomes a grind because they aren't used to playing 30 games in 35 days," Burch said. "But our home crowd always gives them a little jolt of energy."
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