By James Teese
“Fans come first.”
Buddy Harrelson’s oft-stated line was true when he and Frank Boulton founded the Long Island Ducks and “fans come first” remains a baseball and business mantra for a thriving organization that still draws legions of fans to the ballpark — over eight million since the team played its inaugural season in 2000.
With deep community ties — Boulton from Brightwaters, Harrelson in Hauppauge — the high school baseball player turned successful bond trader and New York Mets World Series champion — created and grew what has become one of Long Island’s great attractions. And the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB), also founded by Boulton, became a reality as an independent league as the owner negotiated to bring a ballpark and a team to Suffolk.
“So, I started working on the Atlantic league in the early to mid 90s,” Boulton said. “It took me about five years to get everything put together in the ballparks and the ballparks being built for the Atlantic League.”
Already an owner of minor league teams, Boulton always wanted to bring a ball club to his Long Island home, seeing the potential as he had elsewhere.
“We saw that [in other locales] we had the same kind of families in Wilmington, Delaware as in Long Island … very similar,” he said.
He saw similar “socioeconomic groupings” and “thought that with our density of population [on Long Island] and the fact that we really didn’t have anything like [a minor league team].”
“At the time, you know, there was no aquarium,” he said “People would go to the beaches … we were an island … with beaches, sailing, even water skiing. But being a baseball guy, I just saw the demographics were just too ripe here.”
“And I wanted to take what I learned on the road,” he added. “Just like a Broadway show when they first take a show on the road.”
In fact, part of the move to create the ALPB and the Ducks was spurred by the New York Mets organization vetoing an unaffiliated minor league team within 75 miles of their own ball club. Boulton had originally hoped to move his New York Yankees farm team to Suffolk; the Yankees were OK, the Mets were not.
Public private partnership
Now known as Fairfield Properties Ballpark, in 2000 the Ducks played under the banner of EAB Ballpark. It was, and remains owned by Suffolk County, which also collects the monies from the naming rights.
Boulton has nothing but praise for the state and county officials who helped make the stadium a reality.
“As a young man, I had been involved with the YMCA,” Boulton said. “I’ve been involved in many different community endeavors …So I got to meet a lot of elected officials. I had worked with [State Senator] Owen Johnson and … without Owen Johnson, this ballpark probably wouldn’t have been built.”
Johnson went to the New York State Empire Development Corp.
“We gained $14.3 million dollars, economic state, a grant for which Suffolk County [gained the benefit],” he added. Bob Gaffney was the County Executive at the time, and he and his guy [Deputy CE] Eric Kopp … were very instrumental. They were both big baseball fans, Bob and Eric. The county level [of government] was great!”
Then-Commissioner of Public Works for the County, Charles Bartha, remembered a fast-paced project.
“[The ballpark] was designed and built in just 14 months from when the grant was signed,” the engineer said.
The lead architectural firm was BD Harvey, he said, a national firm that was one of only a handful that did work on big ballparks.
The county’s officials had “a strong feeling and confidence in Frank [Boulton’s] ability to promote and run [the team and ballpark.]”
The county, said Boulton, “has seen a return on its money from day one.”
Lined up for tickets
After a decade, the fans still lined up. In 2012, this reporter recalls, some light snow and low temperatures did not deter faithful fans on a Saturday morning for the opening of the then-named Bethpage Ballpark ticket office.
The Czark Family from Setauket comprised the first fans in line for a second consecutive year, having arrived Thursday morning.
“I was not ready [for the snow] but we got through it. We were online about 48 hours,” Christopher Czark said. “The kids just enjoy coming out to the ballpark. The Ducks always have something new every year. The girls like Sundays when they get to run the bases and meet the players. It’s a great experience for them.”
Getting fans and community involved
During games, fans are a part of the show. In-between every inning, the Ducks hold what they call “fan-interactive promotions” on the field. The activities, which fans sign-up for, are sometimes sweepstakes, other times funny contests such as ’dizzy bats” or ”musical chairs,” and sometimes a celebration of a young fan’s birthday — joined by QuackerJack and serenaded by the on-field host.
Even for family members less enthusiastic about baseball, there is constant action and entertainment. Sunday is Family Funday, including the post-game opportunity for kids to line-up by first base and run the bases to home plate.
And special games are followed by numerous Postgame Fireworks Spectaculars, a favorite for thousands of fans who regularly fill the ballpark for the pyrotechnic display.
More seriously, at every home game the team recognizes local veterans as well as active-duty service men and women, this year with the Suffolk County Office of Veteran Affairs and New York Community Bank, in a program called “Heroes of the Game.”
“The feedback we received from fans, veterans, sponsors and the community has been tremendously positive,” said Ducks President and General Manager Michael Pfaff.
In fact, when the public address system marks the moment, the fans — in a county which is home to nearly 100,000 veterans — consistently rise to deliver a standing ovation.
Outside the ballpark, QuackerJack and team members are often seen in the community, participating in local parades and charity drives, visiting hospitals, schools and more.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ducks hosted numerous donation events at the ballpark, and acted as a vaccination site. Programs to aid the community are ongoing and effective fundraisers, whether its “Home Runs for Hunger” or “Breast Cancer Awareness Night,” the Ducks are a vibrant and contributing force in the surrounding communities.
Ducks fans all
After being refused the chance to relocate his Yankees farm team, Boulton had a realization: “If I had had a Yankee team, I would have been splitting the baby. So, now we have Yankee fans that are Ducks fans, and we have Mets fans that are Ducks fans.”
And just plain Ducks fans, of course.
Whether it’s through promotions, the reasonably priced tickets and concessions, or the free parking, the Ducks endeavor to provide a cost-effective choice for a family’s scarce disposable dollars.
Twenty-one seasons and counting, and fans still come first.
James Teese has written for numerous Long Island news outlets and has covered the Long Island Ducks since their first Opening Day.