How hard is it to run an organized baseball team in Fairfield County?
If you’re the Bridgeport Bluefish, it eventually became impossible: after 20 years of declining attendance, the squad was booted from its Harbor Yard home after its lease expired. The city decided to transform the ballpark into a music amphitheater and the team relocated to High Point, North Carolina, where it will resume play in 2019.
That leaves the Danbury Westerners. Although officially sanctioned by Major League Baseball, the resemblance to the Bluefish essentially ends there.
“It’s a completely different business model,” said Paul Schaffer, the Westerners’ senior adviser and, until last year, its president. “We don’t have the same resources that Bridgeport had, and we’re a not-for-profit, as is every team in our league.”
Along with 12 other teams, the Westerners — founded in 1995 — belong to the New England Collegiate Baseball League, which features players who have attended at least one year of college and have at least one year of athletic eligibility remaining. Sanctioned by the NCAA as well as MLB, each team plays an eight-week, 42-game schedule during June and July, with a playoff in August.
Players are recruited from colleges both here and abroad and are actively scouted by minor league and major league teams. Former Westerners now in the majors include Oakland Athletics outfielder and former All-Star Mike Joyce and Houston Astros pitcher Mike Hauschild; another alum, ex-Met star Bobby Bonilla’s son Brandon, is in the Baltimore Orioles’ minor league system.
With an annual budget of $200,000, “We strive to break even — and would love to do more than that,” Schaffer said. “To be successful in this field, we have to market ourselves. We want to give fans a family event rather than ‘just’ a baseball game.”
Pre-game and between-inning events (raffles, a kids vs. mascot Westy race around the bases) are part of that, as is the team encouraging bringing blankets and lawn chairs to watch home games at Rogers Park Field. Schaffer said the team averages 300 to 400 spectators per game, depending on weather and how the team is doing; last year it drew 6,436 fans on its way to a fifth-place finish in its division, according to the league.
“The field is not the most ideal for summer collegiate baseball,” Schaffer remarked, “which in my view also has an impact on attendance.” He added that the team has been working with Western Connecticut State University (WCSU), the city of Danbury and its Rotary Club to renovate WCSU’s Westfield Baseball Field as a possible future Westerners home.
To further promote itself as an active part of the Danbury community, the team sponsors a 5K race, chili cookoff, charity golf tournament, celebrity breakfast — this season’s features former Yankees slugger Chris Chambliss on June 8 — and the like each year.
Noting that all Westerners staff are volunteers — Schaffer is CFO at Wilton-based private investment firm Alterna Capital Partners — he said that he stepped down as president at the end of 2017 after seven years “as the details of my job have increased to the point where I couldn’t devote the time I felt was appropriate to running the Westerners.” Longtime team Vice President and General Manager Jon Pitser succeeded him.
Schaffer said that during his time at the helm he had signs erected on I-84 East and West; added more fundraising events; and brought on “more energetic board members, who understand that it’s not just a title but a firm commitment.”
He also helped hire Josh Parrow, a former pitcher and coach for the University of Bridgeport Purple Knights, as the Westerners’ manager. “He’s made a world of difference on how things are done both on and off the field,” Schaffer said.
The Westerners also search each season for host families to provide living arrangements for many on its 32-man roster. “About a quarter of our team are from the local area, but others are from as far away as Miami,” Schaffer noted. “We’ve expanded our host family program in recent years, which also helps build relationships within the Danbury region.”