clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Phillies in the Place of the Swift Water

Somewhere between college ball and the minor leagues, there’s a form of baseball that still resembles a game.

Her name was Lady Suffolk.

She came from Long Island, and by 14 years old, the crowds were following her by the tens of thousands. Stephen Foster wrote a song about her. And on August 13, 1847, five thousand of her fans gathered to watch her beat an old man.

When she emerged victorious—he had tried to withdraw after suffering an injury—they likely sang Foster’s song in celebration: “The Old Grey Mare.”

Lady Suffolk was the first champion of the Saratoga Race Course, the oldest sports facility in the United States, so steadily operated that nothing but federal gambling reform (1911-12) and the second World War (1943-45) could shut it down. The lady’s victory over a bay gelding named Moscow helped make Saratoga Springs, NY a renown location for horse-racing. And, 157 years after her victory, the local industry that formed around her achievement inspired a pair of aspiring team owners to name their New York Collegiate Baseball League franchise the “Saratoga Phillies.”

When you call yourself “the Phillies,” you start carrying some weight: The weight of 10,000 losses, the heaviness of 1964, all 215 lbs. of Joe Carter; the fairly light weight of only three distinct eras of success in almost 200 years, and the burden of knowing that with every triumph in your city, people will try to use your reputation to tear you down.

But the Saratoga Phillies got a fresh start. For them, there was no Cody Ross. No 100-loss seasons. No year in which they were inexplicably called the Blue Jays. There was just pure, summer league, wooden bat baseball, for 44 games in 50 days a year. In the NYCBL, at the time one of about a dozen regional college summer leagues around the country, there were few practices and off days.

“Guys are always trying to work on something,” says former Saratoga Phillies radio broadcaster Andy Santillo. “They may be on pitch counts, they may be rehabbing back from an injury; you’ve got this collection of Division I or II or even III guys who are maybe trying to prove that, ‘I’m a Division III guy, but when I’m competing with a Division I guy, I can hang in there.’”

Players from all over the country who are thrown together for a few months in the summer may not be focusing on team chemistry, or even winning their games. But in 2006, two years after their founding, the Saratoga Phillies thundered through the NYCBL with all the fury and determination of an old grey mare.

“I think sometimes you see summer league teams; sometimes [they] don’t gel so cohesively,” Santillo recalls. “That’s what made this team unique: These guys wanted to kill the opponents, every day. It didn’t matter if they were playing pepper or playing some sort of game on the bus--they wanted to beat you, no matter what it was. You just had a feeling that this wasn’t a team that was going to lose.”

Place of the Swift Water

Like a lot of American towns, Saratoga Springs was carved into history with a bayonet. The blood spilled in the region in 1777 during the American Revolution played a pivotal role in separating the rest of the United States from the British Empire.

The defeat of British General John Burgoyne on October 7, following an initial victory by Burgoyne’s forces over the Americans several weeks before, convinced the French that the colonists were worthy of their support. Burgoyne was forced to retreat to Schuylerville, 11 miles from Saratoga Springs, and surrender. Not only did the war seem to hinge on the unlikely outcome, but the key role played in the battle by the American general Benedict Arnold was, in Arnold’s view, never adequately recognized, leading the infamous turncoat to betray his countrymen.

Encircled by dense woods, Saratoga Springs sits in the foothills of a mountain range and ten miles from a river valley that for centuries remained untouched. The Mohawk tribe called it the “Place of the Swift Water,” believing its rushing subterranean waterways had been consecrated with the healing powers of their god, Manitou. The Great Spirit had at one point stopped the flow of the springs, according to the Mohawk, because. Well.

“...because women had been using it as a douche, a natural contraceptive that would go unnoticed in medical literature.”

—They’re Off!: Horse Racing at Saratoga, Edward Hotaling

Indeed, Saratoga Springs sat upon the only naturally occurring carbonated mineral springs east of the Rocky Mountains, giving it a celestial distinction, deemed worthy of the blueprints of hand-wringing capitalists. High Rock Spring, a property George Washington would at one point hope to purchase, lay deep in the region’s swamps, and was the first natural spring revealed in 1771 to the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson, by reverent Mohawk guides. The English were quick to lay a road leading to the gurgling anomaly and begin Saratoga’s legacy as a haven of relaxation and recovery.

In 1831, the railroads crawled north and the stressed, strained, and syphilitic boarded steam engines intending to “take the cure” up north amid America’s cholera and influenza epidemics from 1831-33. The casinos opened in the 1870s, bringing a new level of indulgence to the crowds clutching fistfuls of money; one offered dinner guests the opportunity to pick the fish for their meal out of a courtyard pond. Eventually, the waters of the springs were bottled and sent throughout the country, allowing the “Queen’s” reign to expand beyond upstate New York.

Baseball was born 15 minutes southwest of Saratoga Springs in a town called Ballston Spa and in the form of Abner Doubleday. The close proximity of his birth makes Saratoga Springs the cradle of America’s Pastime, and the oft-credited inventor of the game was celebrated, along with more of upstate New York’s entanglements in baseball’s long history, in a 2011 exhibition at the Brookside Museum called “Batter Up! 100 Years of Baseball in Saratoga County.”

Centuries passed after Doubleday’s initial vision and the game changed. Instead of large racists guzzling twenty five-cent beer cans, baseball became a sport played by the youthful and athletic. As developing players searched for outlets to continue their training during the collegiate off-season, the Northeastern Collegiate Baseball League was sanctioned in 1978 by a trio of governing bodies, and in 1985 it held its first season.

Teams came and went as the league became a hub through which hundreds of players passed, and in the summer of 1988, two of those players were Keith Rogers and Dan Scaring. They had grown up playing against each other in little league and could hardly wait to reconnect as the best of friends.

“I always hated him, to be frank with you,” Rogers says with an inviting New York bravado. “He was always that kid that you can’t stand. Always seemed to get that hit at the right time against you.”

Rogers and Scaring put together respectable baseball careers, but as the dust settled on their playing days, they settled into civilian life. Briefly.

“Dan and I, we got done playing... I wound up just being bored,” Rogers says. “I called Dan up and said, ‘Dan, man, I gotta get back involved with baseball. We gotta do something.’ He started laughing, because we’ve always been on the same page about stuff. He goes, ‘I’m with you, here’s what we’re doing: We’re gonna get a team in the collegiate league and we’re going to move them to Saratoga.’ This was all his brain child from the beginning. He said, ‘Saratoga is the perfect community for it.’”

Living and Dying

With their combined connections and incurable baseball infection, Rogers and Scaring were in the Saratoga mayor’s office within a week of their decision to start an NYCBL team, figuring out what needed to be done. The first step was the name, which Scaring came up with: the “Phillies,” would be their team, tapping into Saratoga’s storied horse racing legacy as inspiration. Now, all they needed were some players.

“Danny and I did all the recruiting ourselves,” Rogers says. “We did it based on building relationships with college coaches. We built tremendous relationships from year one. Dan was really good at those initial contacts. Then he always blamed me [for] stealing his friends.”

Keith Rogers

The more hands they shook the more coaches wanted to send them their best players from top baseball factories like Vanderbilt, Louisville, and Virginia. Coaches were happy to send their best players north, having heard what the experience was like playing for their players up in Saratoga Springs: Welcoming. Comfortable. And occasionally loud.

“We’d be up in our little broadcast perch and Keith and Dan would come up there to watch an inning, and if somebody didn’t make the right play or something, it was almost like they were out on the field,” Santillo recalls. “When somebody would score, they would pound the press box. They were living and dying on every pitch.”

Every nine innings matter to someone, no matter how many people are watching. The Albany area doesn’t have any pro teams, so if a local college or minor league team caught a hot streak, the newspapers would latch on and the local fan base would wander over from their nearest summertime activity.

“[East Side Recreation Field] was probably ¾ mile from the race track, so especially that time of year, you have more people come out after the races were over,” Santillo says. “The way the park was also set up was that you had this field, but also had little league fields adjacent to them, so when the little league games would wrap up, those families would make their way over and the crowd would grow throughout the game.”

Run that extra stride, steal that extra base, elevate that pitch one more inch over the fence, and maybe you could get one step closer to New York. To Boston. To Cooperstown. But mostly, the players were thinking about meal money and getting back to school on time at the end of the season. A few have passed through Saratoga Springs on their way to the big leagues: Casper Wells, Mike Fiers, and J.D. Martinez are all former Phillies—one Saratoga Phillie even graduated to being a Philadelphia Phillie (Michael Schwimer). Hunter Pence is a NYCBL alum as well (Amsterdam Mohawks, ‘02). But the 2006 team had one name that everybody remembers.

“If I had to say one player was embodied the characteristics of the team,” Santillo says, “it was Mastroianni.”

Darin Mastroianni was born in upstate New York, in a place called Mount Kisco—a name possibly derived from a Native American word for “mud.” As one of the 2006 Phillies not playing far from home, he quickly established himself as a leader on the team in how we played, how he behaved, and how he knew how to survive.

The Phillies manager, Garett Baron, wasn’t much older than his players when he got his first coaching gig in the NYCBL in 2003. By the time Rogers and Scaring hired him to manage their Phillies in 2006, he’d learned a few of the region’s harsher lessons: It was tough finding the coach/disciplinarian balance, but as everyone learns diving, running, or sliding on the stiff, hardened infields of upstate New York, everything’s harder to do in the sleet.

“If we’re able to get outside in late March, it’s cold,” Baron says. “Most years... even through April, there are some days that were just brutal. Windy. Cloudy. Cold days. It’s not really until May we get some decent baseball weather around here.”

Winters in Saratoga, Baron theorizes, give the region’s youth a survivalist edge.

“I think the kids in our area learn to be tough,” says Baron, now a physical education teacher in Albany. “They have a grinding mentality. It’s cold up here, the elements can play a factor especially early on in baseball season. It forces you to focus and to play hard. If I’ve learned anything about the kids in this area, it’s that you’re not going to have to worry about their toughness.”

With that toughness installed, Mastroianni stepped onto the playing field and played in a way that could only be described by a series of baseball cliches: “Just a tough, tough kid,” Baron recalls of his star. “One of those kids who played the game hard. Played it the right way. Led by example when he was out there. He led by example, but he would also lead verbally. He would be the voice: yelling all the time, picking guys up if they made an error or had a bad at-bat. He had a huge summer that year, I think he got on a lot of scout’s radar because of that season. He just passed that eye test right away before you see him bat or field a ball.”

Fortunately for the Phillies, Mastroianni passed the batting and fielding tests, too. He joined a team of players Rogers and Scaring had recruited from Oklahoma State, Virginia, Duke, and other schools ranging from Divisions I to III. Bitten by the cold at a young age, to the upstate New Yorkers on the squad, spring was a folk legend told by friends from the south; a mythic blessing between winter and summer that allowed outdoor baseball as early as March, when every decent person in the Catskills was indoors stoking the fire.

First baseman Jon Nicolla was an Albany native, majoring in business management and minoring in religion at Duke, having escaped the frigid springs of his homeland for the rustling dogwoods and glistening teal of North Carolina. But his teammates had come from all over.

Standout pitcher Louie Bernardini had descended from Gray, Maine—the home of the state’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife HQ, as well as a famed six-turnpike intersection—to attend Wheaton College in Massachusetts. He came to Saratoga having served as a lights out pitcher for Wheaton in 2006 and contributing to the school’s bewilderingly good 42-10 season.

Donnie Webb was born in Enid, Oklahoma, the “Wheat Capital” of the United States, and headed straight for Oklahoma State after graduating, executing his plan to be a Cowboy that he’d had since he was a child, all while battling the internal conflict faced by Red Sox fans whose favorite players are inexplicably Derek Jeter.

Pitcher Ezequiel Ruvalcaba was a Mexican civil engineering major attending Loyola Marymount. Chris Dove, up from Elon University in North Carolina, was the speedy accounting major who’d used his legs to letter in three varsity sports in high school. Cory Kuzmik logged 41 strikeouts in 31.1 innings pitching for the New Jersey Institute of Technology, while across the street at Rutgers, pitcher Jason Downey, a former all-state defensive back, had been the team captain of the Scarlet Knights. And third baseman John Scaglione, a product of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, adapted to the brutality of the upstate New York climate, having been drafted by the Braves in 2003 but choosing to attend community college before enrolling at the University of Virginia.

“Typically, on most teams you develop cliques,” Nicolla explains. “But that 2006 team was unique. There weren’t any discernible factions. I think that helped people buy into the idea that we were a team.”

At a pre-season cookout, the Phillies’ coach could see something different forming: In a league serving as a workshop where players came to tinker with raw talent, he seemed to have stumbled on the least likely of assets: chemistry. With a short summer season upon them, the team had a decision to make, and to them, it was a simple one.

“When you have that group of guys, [we asked] why are we playing this summer? Are we just coming to lose games and mess around? Or do you guys want to win? And I could see early on; they wanted to have fun,” Baron, recalls. “But they didn’t want to lose.”

“Go ahead, if you want to go ahead.”

Things can get a little cozy in the summer leagues.

“You’re around each other so much,” Nicolla says. “You’re spending so many hours on buses, so much time on the field, your meals are somehow coordinated. It just seems like you’re always around each other.”

The 2006 NYCBL circuit stretched from Geneva to Watertown, New York, with each quaint little burgh fostering its own insidious traditions. In 2006, the Watertown Wizards had a particular targeting mechanism to get into the heads of opposing hitters.

“What they did there was pick somebody from the opposing team and they would be ‘The Strikeout Man,’” relates Santillo. “If that person struck out, everyone in the stadium would get a free hotdog or something. That night Jon Nicolla had gone 0-for-4 with 4 strikeouts. He goes, ‘Well, I guess everybody in Watertown can thank me for dinner.’”

“Tried to repress that one,” Nicolla says.

The bus may have been crowded, but the Phillies got plenty of alone time in first place all season long. Some wins diverged so far from reality, the opposing teams were left in a state of stunned silence. When Chris Dove stole home to win a game in which the Phillies had been no-hit by the Amsterdam Mohawks, most of those in attendance could only stare in slack-jawed silence.

It was Baron who had flashed the fateful signal. “They had a guy on the mound from Kentucky with a real long windup. He threw hard, he just took a while to get rid of it. Dove, who just had great instincts, kind of looked at me... and I kind of gave him the look: ‘Go ahead if you want to go ahead.’”

NPR caught wind of the game and called the Mohawks’ coach while he was on the team bus and forced the man to relate the whimsy of what he had witnessed while his team likely stared, dead-eyed, out the windows.

NPR REPORTER: So they managed to score two runs just by getting bases without getting a hit and then stealing home to win the game?

MOHAWKS COACH MATT MUELLER: That’s correct. It’s odd enough that a team throws a no-hitter against another team and loses. And it’s even more odd during that course of a game that a guy steals home to win that - that game. So...

A week later, the tension of the season’s homestretch started to burn a hole in the schedule. The Phillies weren’t hitting and putting a lot more pressure on the pitching staff to stay perfect, turning every base runner into a precious commodity. One night in Glen Falls, things boiled over.

There were more ejections between the Saratoga Phillies and the Glens Falls Golden Eagles than base hits by the Phillies, but behind a solid pitching performance and a lot of small ball, Saratoga continued to win when it needed to the most...

A Glen Falls batter was called out for using an illegal bat after the two hitters who preceded him reached base. One of his coaches hit the roof and was subsequently ejected; two of his teammates followed him. Louie Bernardini got tossed after twice believing he’d completed a strike out late in the game and shouting “C’mon!” at the umpire with the already hot thumb. Nevertheless, Saratoga kept the W, hanging onto a 1.5 game lead in the Eastern Division.

Rogers thought he would calm things down by coordinating a little international incident.

“It was just a weird opportunity,” he claims. “I’m not quite sure how I fell into it, to be honest.”

As his memory serves him, Rogers caught word that the Russian Olympic baseball team was in the vicinity, looking for opponents. Thanks to a constant dedication to put butts in the seats of East Side Rec, Rogers reached out to the Russians’ general manager, and he agreed to bring his team by.

Bernardini got the start and pitched beautifully, shutting the Russian team down in front of a gathered crowd of three or four thousand fans, and sought a trophy after the game from his Russian counterparts.

“I think Louie wound up trading a jock strap for a Russian jacket or something,” Rogers recalls.

The playoffs were a largely uninteresting affair for anyone rooting against the Phillies. Saratoga didn’t stop to lose a game or take a breath; Mastroianni, Nicolla, Bernardini and the Phillies steamrolled through the NYCBL’s best, winning six straight post season games, including a 12-inning victory over Little Falls in the semifinals and a 5-0 clincher over Allegany County to bring home the trophy. But that wasn’t their only hardware: Bernardini was named Defensive MVP of the playoffs and NYCBL Pitcher of the Year. Mastroianni hit .417 in the post season with a pair of triples and took home the Bob Bellizzi Big Stick award. Downey was named MVP of the championship.

“I remember the championship game, being able to celebrate with the kids, Garett, Andy,” Rogers thinks back. “But winning the championship and being able to win with those guys and Danny... to own a team with your best friend, to hang out and do it together, was a blast.”

The Long Drive Home

You don’t get a multi-year extension in the NYCBL for hitting .338, like Mastroianni did in 2006. You don’t get to explore the free agent market because you logged a 1.61 season ERA like Cory Kuzmik. You don’t have your Christmas dinner interrupted by Brian Cashman because you had 30 RBI in 44 games like Jon Nicolla, and you don’t have to answer a phone call from Matt Klentak for your 36 walks in 44 games like Donnie Webb.

You just get to pack your bags.

With summer league teams, the games wrap up and the players head back to their respective schools--a lot of them, especially in the south, begin in late August. Phillies third baseman John Scaglione finished celebrating the team’s championship victory and announced that he was driving back to Virginia for the start of school year.

“And we’re like, ‘When are you driving back?’” Santillo recalls. “He says, ‘right now.’ And he jumped in the car for a ten-hour drive home.”

By the time autumn came to Saratoga Springs, the Phillies had cleared out.

Like Rogers says, the CBL is a signal boost for guys buried by divisional tiers or collegiate obscurity; a summer-long tryout to break a scout’s neck with a fastball or have him scrambling for his binoculars with a swing. To prove something to those Division I punks. To use Saratoga Springs, Elmira, or Glen Falls to get a little closer to New York. To Boston. To Cooperstown. Guys like Mike Fiers and J.D. Martinez who came through Saratoga Springs did it. Five years after the Phillies hoisted the NYCBL trophy, Darin Mastroianni did it, too.

As the seasons passed, players gave everything to baseball, and either got their chances or didn’t. Rogers and Scaring stayed focused on bringing baseball to everyone in Saratoga Springs who could stand it: It never cost anyone a dime to watch the Phillies at East Side Recreation Park, and their emphasis remained on providing positive experiences for their players and fans, to the point that they essentially ignored the business components of owning a baseball team.

“We cared about the baseball and community end of it,” Rogers says. “And I think we excelled at those two.”

In 2010, Rogers and Scaring got a big chance of their own: to inherit Damaschke Field in Oneonta, New York; a facility benefitting from $1.3 million in improvements. They had a 72-hour window on whether or not to pack up and take the Phillies out of Saratoga.

You don’t say no to a revamped facility like Damaschke Field. For three years, Rogers and Scaring became owners of the Oneonta Outlaws, and won another league championship in 2011. But there was an appeal to playing in Saratoga that they couldn’t shake. In 2013, Rogers and Scaring sold the Outlaws and brought a team back to the Queen of the Spas.

“To be honest with you, our players missed Saratoga and missed playing in the Saratoga community. When we had the opportunity to sell our Oneonta franchise it was the only place we wanted to go,” Rogers explained to the press, calling East Side Rec the “more fan-friendly” park of the two.

Their new Saratoga franchise became a part of the New England Collegiate Baseball League; the league’s first New York entry. One of the mandates, however, was that no team could share their name with a professional organization. So Rogers and Scaring rebranded as the Saratoga Brigade, a reference to the historic battle that had burned Saratoga onto the map, and played their single season in the NECBL. The NYCBL is now known as Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League and is among the vast plethora of developmental options for college players looking to get hacks in over the summer.

Wedged in the largely invisible levels of development, between college ball and their big break, draft workouts and morning runs, learning curves and learning to hit a curve, there’s a form of baseball that still resembles the romanticized version in the heads of just about anyone who plays it, watches it, or writes about it. Summer ball doesn’t guarantee anything except a couple dozen bus rides and a packed lunch, but it gives its players that chance capture the whimsy and excitement of playing games that don’t matter to anyone but the teams playing them and give a pitcher buried in some DIII program the chance to put on a show for anybody watching. If the big leagues aren’t in the cards, then, well; at least you can win the whole damn thing.

“I really miss it,” Rogers says. “It was some really good times. We were just really passionate about the baseball end of it. We didn’t care, and we weren’t very good, at the business end.”

He laughs. “We were actually pretty terrible at it.”

References:

They’re Off!: Horse Racing at Saratoga, Edward Hotaling

Saratoga Springs: A Historical Portrait, Timothy A. Holmes, Martha Stonequist

Rise and Phight: 1/28/2022

The Good Phight Podcasts

The Dirty Inning #93: Sticks and Milestones

From the horse’s mouth: Jimmy stays on the ballot