SCHENECTADY — As players dust off their cleats and hit the fields for spring training, a schism between youth baseball leagues has slid into City Hall.
Lawmakers voted last month to waive fees at city-owned baseball diamonds at Central Park for several teams.
But the decision generated pushback from the Schenectady Babe Ruth league, which contends the waiver comes at a time when it's struggling to remain viable and recruit talent amid the emergence of flashier upstarts such as the Schenectady Rebels, an independent traveling team.
“It’s teams like these that have contributed to the decline of community-based baseball over the years,” said Schenectady Babe Ruth League President Wil Bernacet. “If the city allows independent-based travel baseball teams to use the field under the same premise as your local community baseball, it waters down our products.”
Babe Ruth teams and the Rebels were each awarded free access to city-owned diamonds for 10 games, as will Schenectady High, where Bernacet also serves as a JV coach.
(Schenectady High doesn't own a baseball field, he said, and teams practice and play at the city's Central Park diamonds.)
The City Council also granted the Rebels’ request to rent the fields for an additional 10 games.
Officials said waiving the $75 is a measure of goodwill for city residents.
“These are all city of Schenectady residents, strictly,” said City Council President Ed Kosiur.
However, Bernacet contends the Rebels are outsiders, while Babe Ruth players are all city residents.
Beyond the clash over residency, Bernacet said teams like the Rebels pose an existential threat to community leagues by hollowing out the traditional feeder system by cherry-picking the best players.
And the emergence of independent teams, he said, has eroded the tradition of community leagues that accept players regardless of their ability or financial situation.
Spring fees are $125, or $500 for year-round participation. Babe Ruth regularly provides scholarships and discounts to about a dozen players annually.
“We work with youth that are disadvantaged in a variety of ways,” Bernacet wrote in a letter to City Council, “and we need all the help we can get to compete with the fully-funded suburban schools in our conference and the many expensive, independent, youth travel baseball teams saturating the area.”
To protest the perceived slight, Schenectady Babe Ruth ultimately turned down the free usage offered by City Council.
"Their action is threatening to destroy a long-standing community baseball organization in this city at the adolescent level," he said.
Schenectady Rebels President Mike Andi said he didn’t want to publicly get into a spat with Bernacet.
But he said he broke with the Babe Ruth league years ago over several disagreements, which ultimately led to the birth of the Rebels in 2014.
“When you get pushed out, you have to make your own organization,” Andi said.
Bernacet contended his teams don’t use the city-owned fields aside from a handful of one-off charitable events and tournaments, opting instead to use the team’s Golf Road fields, on which they hold a 100-year lease from the city and perform and pay for all maintenance, an amount he pegged at between $5,000 and $10,000 annually.
The Rebels' Andi said access to city infrastructure is critical.
“We appreciate everything the city can do for us,” Andi said. “The bottom line is I just want a place for my boys to play.”
The Rebels actually belong to two different leagues, he said: Empire State Baseball League and Eastern New York Travel Baseball.
The latter doesn’t have a residency requirement, he said, but his team is Schenectady-based, with most of his players residing within city limits.
“Out of the 12 kids we have on the team, nine are residents of Schenectady,” Andi said.
The entry fee, which includes umpire fees and uniform costs, runs between $250 to $325 for spring and summer, and an additional $125 for fall, he said.
Andi disputes the assertion that traveling baseball leagues are siphoning away support from community teams.
“Baseball has been on the decline for a while,” he said.
Players are ultimately free to join whichever team they’d like, he added.
Schenectady Babe Ruth involves youths from age 13 to 18. Some kids in the traditional 13-to-15-year-old Babe Ruth age group may play on older teams they manage at the 16-year-old and 18-year-old levels, Bernacet said.
The Rebels are 14-year-olds, Andi said.
Bernacet asked the City Council to endorse Babe Ruth as the city’s official youth baseball program.
“We’re one of the last strongholds left in community baseball in this area,” he said. “If you cut us off at the knees, we won’t be solvent.”
Lawmakers stopped short of picking sides.
City Councilman Vince Riggi said he was unfamiliar with traveling teams like the Rebels, but called it “disturbing” that the city’s once-thriving baseball culture has shrunk.
“There’s valid points that have been brought up and maybe we should look more into this in the future and see what we can do about it,” Riggi said. “These Schenectady-based leagues are helping our children."
City Councilman John Polimeni called the shrinkage of traditional baseball culture a “disaster” and a “disgrace.”
“We have a long history of great youth baseball in Schenectady and to see where it is now is a shame,” said Polimeni, who asked the teams to work out their schedules to avoid overlap.
“We need to make sure that it really is for the youth of Schenectady and make sure that it really is Schenectady kids that are benefiting,” he said. “What’s going on now is not benefiting any of our kids.”
Schenectady Babe Ruth said while they turned down the city's waived fees in protest, they have offered an olive branch: The Rebels, they said, are "openly welcome" to rejoin their program.