Mohawks bring fans, fun to the PGCBL

NOTE: In early November, 2010, Perfect Game USA announced it would become more involved with summer collegiate baseball by partnering in the formation of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League.

The PGCBL will open its inaugural season with eight clubs located in upstate New York that were former members of the New York Collegiate Baseball League. The PGCBL will have teams in Albany, Amsterdam, Cooperstown, Elmira, Glen Falls, Mohawk Valley, Newark and Watertown, and Perfect Game will also use venues in those communities to stage regional showcase events and tournaments.

The league will be open to players already at a four-year college or a junior college as well as recent high school graduates. Its schedule will run from early June through early August.

A series of articles featuring the eight communities that will host PGCBL franchises will be posted at in the coming weeks.

The second article in the series features the Amsterdam Mohawks

The city of Amsterdam, N.Y., is the home of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, a must-see for all those Hulk Hogan and “Handsome” Harley Race fans out there. If you travel to the southern part of the city, you can look out over the Mohawk River and a section of the famous Erie Canal.

Local resident Brian Spagnola is fine with those Amsterdam attractions, but wrestlers and rivers aren’t what endear him to the upstate New York town of just more than 18,000 inhabitants. To Spagnola, Amsterdam’s emergence as home to a top-notch, collegiate-level summer baseball club should be its identity.

Spagnola is the president of the Amsterdam Mohawks – one of eight franchises in the newly organized Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League – and is also the acting president of the PGCBL. To hear him tell it, if visitors want to get a feel for the pulse of Amsterdam, they only need to attend a Mohawks game.

The Mohawks play their home games at cozy Shuttleworth Park, which has undergone about $500,000 worth of renovations over the last decade or so. While it won’t be confused with a minor league ballpark, Spagnola said box seats purchased from Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia were recently installed, and bleachers, “party decks” and a children’s area have been built.

“I think it’s one of the cooler summer parks there is because it’s a very social setting,” Spagnola said. “When we play, we’re very wacky and out-of-the-box, kind of minor league-esque. We get basically everybody in town to come. People come here and just socialize and watch the game and have a beer and hang out and bring their kids, and it’s just become kind of a way of life here.”

Spagnola coached the Mohawks in the early 1990s when the franchise was located in Schenectady, N.Y., but then got away from it for a few years. He rejoined the club when it moved to Amsterdam in 2003.

“Schenectady is kind of a large city and we were playing on a minor league field, but we weren’t getting any kind of a crowd,” Spagnola said. “Amsterdam is a small town, a very sports-oriented town, a tight-knit community, and those are the communities that make (collegiate summer leagues) work.”

The Mohawks won the New York Collegiate Baseball League championship in their first season in Amsterdam, the first of four titles in eight years (’03, ’04, ’09 and ’10). The Mohawks drew a couple of hundred fans per game in their early years in Amsterdam and that grew to an average of 1,482 per game in 2010.

“I remember at the championship game in 2003 there were about four- or five-hundred people, and I was amazed. The place was kind of hopping,” Spagnola said. “Now if we get (only) 500 people I will be very disappointed after the game.”

Admission to a Mohawks game is in the $4 range. The club has about 150 corporate sponsors that regularly distribute free tickets.

“There are probably more people who don’t pay to get in the game than do (pay), with all the freebies we give out,” Spagnola said. “It’s almost like a high school football game … where there are just tons of kids there hanging out. It’s safe and it’s very family-friendly.”

As the four NYCBL championships in eight years can attest, the Mohawks put an outstanding product on the field. According to the club’s website, 19 former Mohawks played professionally in 2010.

The top five Pro Prospects (PGCrosschecker) playing in the NYCBL last year were with the Mohawks, including top prospect Mel Rojas Jr., a 3rd round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The players attend colleges and universities from all across the country and the Mohawks’ roster is usually a nice cross section of talent.

“We get a lot of very, very good freshmen from the big schools … but they’re young and sometimes young players can struggle a little bit for a summer,” Spagnola said. “What we do is try to mix them with the older kids. We’ll take the best players (from smaller schools) who are juniors and mix them with those really talented freshmen from the big schools, and it’s really created a good blend.”

The players who come to town for the summer live with host families, which Spagnola called the “life-line” of the program.

Amsterdam has a decent baseball history – it was the home of a Can-Am League (minor league) team in the 1930s and 1940s – but organized baseball was absent for many years until the Mohawks arrived in 2003.

“I get a lot of old-timers that come (to the games) and they thank us for bringing baseball back,” Spagnola said.  “And we provide great baseball; our teams have been phenomenal. We’ve set the bar kind of here as far as the quality of players we have in the event that we put on.

“The show that we put on at a game is, I think, equal to if not better than most minor league games I go to,” he continued. “The players all love it. The fans treat these kids like they’re the Yankees.”

Spagnola expects the experience to get only better with Perfect Game’s commitment to the new league.

“We’re excited and I don’t think we’ll feel the real effects out of this partnership with Perfect Game until next year,” Spagnola said. “I think going forward with a year under our belt, I think 2012 and beyond we’ll see this thing really blossom.

“It’s a great match and with their assistance in getting some better players, and with their name recognition and credibility and the marketing, we want to be as good as any league in the country. That’s the goal.”

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