On June 21, the Hudson Valley Renegades will kick off the 2013 season when they host the Staten Island Yankees at Dutchess Stadium in Fishkill. But this game also marks a major milestone: It’s the beginning of the Renegades’ 20th anniversary celebration. Yes, believe it or not, it’s been almost 20 fun-filled years since the minor league team (a Class A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays) first came to town after a tumultuous legislative debate.
So here we take a trip down memory lane — from the first game on the night of the famous O.J. Simpson car chase to the marriage of mascots Rookie and Rene in 1996. Here’s to another 20 years!
1. A STAR IS BORN In late 1993, word got out that the Erie Sailors baseball team was relocating to Dutchess County. Owner Marvin Goldklang, a limited partner in the New York Yankees and the head of the Goldklang Group, set up an office on Jan. 3, 1994, on Route 9D about 100 yards from what eventually became Dutchess Stadium.
2. BALLPARK? WHAT BALLPARK? Almost immediately after moving into their new offices, the team — renamed the Renegades — began the task of selling sponsorships and season-ticket packages in preparation for opening day. One small problem: They didn’t have a ballpark. In order to build a facility, the Goldklang Group asked Dutchess County to finance the project with taxpayer dollars. It became a months-long debate played out both in the county legislature and the media. When it came time for the April 7 vote, legislators had to move the proceedings from the roughly 200-seat legislative chambers to the 2,500-seat Mid-Hudson Civic Center to accommodate the public. Almost 2,000 citizens showed up; as April 7 stretched into April 8, the legislature finally approved the project. By 8 a.m. that morning, construction crews began work on what became something of a miracle: The stadium was built in a record 71 days.
3. GAME ONE — WHAT’S GOING ON WITH O.J.? The Renegades’ very first game took place at a classic old baseball stadium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts called Wahconah Park. But by the time the first pitch was thrown, it became less a matter of who won or lost (the Renegades lost) and more a side note to infamy. That date was June 17, 1994 — the night of the O.J. Simpson white Bronco car chase. Players and manager Doug Sisson were asking for, and received, updates on the tense situation throughout the game.
4. SANTA ALWAYS DELIVERS (BUT ONLY AFTER TESTING THE TOILETS) June 18, 1994 was opening night at Dutchess Stadium. But the Certificate of Occupancy couldn’t be issued until a rather unique test was performed. The team sent all workers to the bathrooms for a simultaneous flushing of the toilets. The pipes held up, the fans streamed in, and the Renegades beat the Pittsfield Mets 3-2 in extra innings.
5. FIRST THINGS FIRST Catcher Kevin Brown became the first Renegade to make it to the majors when he was called up by the Texas Rangers, then the parent team of the Renegades, in 1996. Other big names who played for the Renegades over the last 20 years, however briefly, include Josh Hamilton, who won the 2010 American League Most Valuable Player Award; All-Star outfielder Scott Podsednik; All-Star pitcher Ryan Dempster; and All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria, among others.
6. LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT When “Renegades” was chosen as the team’s name, a giant raccoon named Rookie was introduced as the mascot. Rookie became a fan favorite, signing autographs and leading conga lines through the concourse. In 1996, Rookie married Rene in an on-field ceremony; baby Rascal arrived in 2000.
7. NO-NO The first (and still only) no-hitter in Renegades history was thrown on August 10, 2000 by right-hander Doug Waechter against the Pittsfield Mets. Ironically, his no-hitter almost never happened. At this level of minor league baseball, pitchers are on a hard pitch count and are yanked out of the game, no matter what the score or situation, whenever they reach the set limit. Waechter was perilously close to that when he was able to nail down that final out.
8. HEY, ISN’T THAT…? Yes, yes it is. In 1994, an incognito Nolan Ryan, the future Hall of Fame pitcher, watched from beyond the outfield fence as his son Reid Ryan pitched for the Renegades. Legendary Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller came to Dutchess Stadium in 1996 for a first-pitch ceremony and what was supposed to be a short autograph session. Feller happily stayed for four hours — through the conclusion of the game — and signed every last item for every last autograph-seeker. Negro League star Buck O’Neil, who was featured in Ken Burns’s PBS documentary Baseball, also made an appearance at the stadium; comedian/actor/Oscar nominee Bill Murray, a partner in the Goldklang Group and thus a part owner of the team, has been several times.
9. GAME POSTPONED ON ACCOUNT OF… WHAT? In the first season, the parking lot wasn’t paved. One day, a roaring thunderstorm came through and turned the lot into a muddy quagmire. It was so bad that the opposing team’s bus couldn’t get into the stadium grounds, and the game had to be postponed.
10. WENT TO THE GAME AND A FIGHT BROKE OUT Brawls at any level of baseball are not uncommon. In fact, cooler heads usually do not prevail when it comes to younger players, and brawls are probably more prevalent in the minor leagues. In 2001, both benches cleared in the eighth inning of a game at Brooklyn against the Cyclones. In total, seven players were ejected; it remains the biggest brawl in Renegades history.
11. P.A. BOOTH TROUBLES, PART I Dutchess Stadium’s public address announcer is local radio personality Rick Zolzer. In a 1994 game against the Vermont Expos, Zolzer mistakenly left his microphone on and said of Vermont pitcher Brady Frost, “This guy’s pitches aren’t even breaking the speed limit!” This angered Vermont manager Terry Kennedy, a former Major League player, prompting him to hop over the stadium railing, race up the steps, and climb through a press box window to reach the P.A. booth and confront Zolzer in a wild argument.
12. P.A. BOOTH TROUBLES, PART II On August 1, 1995, Zolzer made dubious minor league history. After the umpire called six balks, Zolzer incited the crowd to say “baaaawk!” The ump warned Zolzer, who complied. Later, Zolzer played a song with the phrase “yee-haaaaw,” which the umpire mistook for “baaaawk!” So he ejected Zolzer from the game.
13. WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS Twice the Renegades have won the New York-Penn League championship. The first time was in 1999; the second was last season.
14. HIP-HOP HOORAY! This is a moment you can enjoy nightly — assuming the Renegades aren’t shut out. Every time the team scores a run, Zolzer plays the eponymous refrain from Naughty by Nature’s hit single. The entire crowd joins in by waving their arms over their heads as the song plays.
15. HELLO AND GOODBYE Anybody who saw Tampa Bay first-round draft pick and future Major League All-Star Evan Longoria play for the Renegades in 2006 knew he wasn’t going to last long here in the Valley. Longoria was with the team for all of one week. In eight games, he batted .424 and hit two home runs in one game before being promoted by the Rays.
16. CRANKIN’ THE TURNSTILES Dutchess Stadium has 4,494 seats; attendance for Renegades games has never dipped below an average of 4,000 fans per game in any season. In 2012, the Renegades were fourth in the 14-team New York-Penn League with an average of 4,373 fans per game.
17. CAVALCADE OF STARS On August 14, 2007, Dutchess Stadium hosted the third annual New York-Penn League All-Star Game. The contest pitted players from the league’s American League affiliates (such as the Renegades) against players from teams from National League affiliates (such as the Brooklyn Cyclones, an affiliate of the New York Mets). The American League won, 6-4.
18. CARLOS IN THE HOUSE When Major League baseball players get hurt and go on the disabled list, teams like to send those players to the minor leagues for a game or two before coming back to the bigs. In September 2009, the New York Mets sent star outfielder Carlos Beltran to the Brooklyn Cyclones to finish up his rehab, and the Cyclones just happened to be playing the Renegades at Dutchess Stadium on September 3. Beltran had a single in three at-bats, and graciously signed autographs for many in the sellout crowd.
19. KEEPING IT LOCAL There is plenty of homegrown baseball talent in the Valley, and while the Renegades have no control over who the Tampa Bay Rays draft every year and assign to the team, the franchise has done its best to tap into the locals. For the last 10 years, Kingston native Joe Ausanio has been the Renegades’ director of baseball communications and sales managers. Ausanio played in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees. Earlier this year, the team hired former Marlboro High School star and first-round draft pick Rob Bell as a sales account executive. Bell played with the Cincinnati Reds.
20. AT SOME POINT IN 2013… The Renegades will welcome the three-millionth fan through the turnstiles at Dutchess Stadium. Could it be you?