Pioneers weather the storm

Dunn Field on Opening Night 2012
From Perfect Game USA

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — At first glance, you might think nothing good came from the Elmira Pioneers’ 17-29 season. But you would be wrong.

The Elmira community supported their team like no other in the PGCBL, filling more than 3,000 seats per game. Oneonta finished second in league home attendance, drawing just over 1,500 fans a night.

“We were beyond pleased with the attendance,” GM Robbie Nichols said.

Nichols has worked in pro hockey for the last 27 years, the last six as the GM of the Elmira Jackals of the ECHL. His familiarity with the community helped build a list of 50 sponsors for the Pioneers this summer.

“Our corporate sponsorship did extremely well,” Nichols said. “I’d put it up against half of the non-major league pro teams. We’re trying to find more space on our building (for more sponsors), it’s a good problem.”

The PGCBL’s regular season ended Wednesday, but Nichols and his staff remain hard at work. The team’s mascot is entertaining fans at a local fair this week and season ticket holders were treated to a special event at the ballpark Thursday night. The Pioneers’ presence in the community has played a significant role in their relationships with local sponsors. In fact, more than three-quarters of the Pioneers’ 2012 sponsors have renewed for next year.

“Even though the season is over, we’ll keep marketing year-round,” Nichols said. “It’s not a two-month thing for us, it’s a year-round event and we’ll run it like (one).

The Pioneers are owned by Don Lewis and Nellie Nichols, Robbie’s wife. The team and the city have contributed close to $60,000 in recent renovations to Dunn Field. The home clubhouse has a big screen TV satellite system installed and a Jacuzzi tub. The visitor’s clubhouse, Nichols assured, is of professional quality as well.

“We treat them like professionals,” he said. “Some teams give you hot dogs on your way out, but we make sure they get pasta, chicken sandwiches and salad, a professional athlete meal. We try to run this like a first-class organization.”

Coached by Manager Dan Shwam on the field, Zac Bellinger (Virginia Commonwealth) led the Pioneers’ offense this summer hitting .317 in 142 at-bats. His .444 on-base percentage ranked fifth in the entire league and his 16 doubles were fourth most.

This summer was Bellinger’s second with Elmira. He also played for his hometown team last year — as a high school senior. Zac’s cousin, right-handed pitcher Brad Bellinger, also played for the Pioneers this summer, appearing in 10 games. He plays college ball at St. John’s, this year’s Big East champions.

“Our families sit together at our home games (in Elmira),” Zac said. “There are anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 fans, so it’s a great atmosphere to play in.”

Bellinger hopes the experience he gained in his second summer with the Pioneers will help him prepare for his sophomore season at Virginia Commonwealth. His coach there, Paul Keyes, has kept up with Bellinger’s progress in the PGCBL, watching his at-bats on a live online stream.

“I was a pull hitter out of high school, but this year I started to go to opposite field and I found success in it right away,” Bellinger said. “Hopefully my bat stays hot.”

When asked about the next step in his baseball career, Bellinger didn’t hesitate with his answer.

“Any kid’s dream is to get to the pros,” he said. “As soon as the offer is there, I’ll be willing to take it.”

The Bellinger cousins aren’t the only stars on the Elmira team. Kendall Konopka (Arizona Christian) and Steven Patterson (San Joaquin Delta) made significant contributions to the team as well. Konopka hit .308 in 133 at-bats and led the Pioneers with 15 steals. Patterson posted a .307/.419/.517 line while starting all but one of the team’s games. His five triples and 91 total bases were both second best in the league. The left-handed hitting Patterson also hit six homers, fifth best.

Peter Jay (New Haven) and James Yacabonis (Saint Joseph’s) pitched very well out of the bullpen for Elmira. Jay posted a miniscule 1.88 ERA in 16 appearances. Yacabonis struck out 33 batters in 22 innings with a 3.27 ERA. His 20 appearances were second most in the league.

Baseball took a backseat last Thursday when a possible tornado tore through Elmira as the Pioneers were preparing for a game with the Outlaws. As the storm intensified, the women’s washroom roof was lifted off, the left field fence collapsed and eight cars were crushed by falling trees.

“The street coming up to the ballpark, it looked like somebody knocked every tree over,” Nichols said. “There were 100 trees uprooted along that street.”

“We’ve never seen anything like that here,” Bellinger said.

This gave the players an opportunity to give back, as several of them assisted in the relief efforts around the stadium. Those who lived with host families helped clean their yards.

Thursday night’s game was cancelled but the Pioneers offered free attendance to Monday night’s home finale. Four thousand, eight hundred and twenty seven fans showed up, the largest turnout for a PGCBL game all summer.

“I think the league is going in the right direction,” Nichols said. “We have some new ownership groups who are very qualified and have applied. I think the league has really grown and it will continue to grow.”

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