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Long Island Ducks

Frank Boulton, third from right in front row, cuts the ribbon with County Executive Robert Gaffney, second from left in front row, state Senator Owen Johnson, third from left, and other officials in April 2000. Photo from the Long Island Ducks

By James Teese

[email protected]

“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.

Patrick Czark, 10, of Setauket, shows off the bat he received for being the first child in line for tickets in 2012. Photo by James Teese

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

The Czark Family. Photo by James Teese

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.

Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip. Photo from LI Ducks website

The Long Island Ducks will not take the field this season, as New York State wouldn’t allow the baseball team to allow fans to attend an abbreviated season.

While Major League Baseball teams, at least for now, can make a shortened season work without fans because of television and advertising revenue, the Ducks couldn’t make a fan-free season work.

“I’m disappointed the Ducks won’t be on the field,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on his daily conference call with reporters. Bellone had hoped that the state would support capacity limits, especially in an outdoor environment which would lower the risk from the transmission of COVID-19.

Bellone said the state’s decision with the Ducks shouldn’t have any impact on youth sports, in which parents are hoping to watch their children return to fields after their sons and daughters spent months away from the competition, the teammates, and the opportunity to enjoy summer games and competition.

Viral Numbers

The number of residents who tested positive for the coronavirus was 46, bringing the total to 41,386. A total of 3,312 people were tested, which means 1.4% of the tests had a positive result, which is among the higher levels of positive tests in recent weeks.

While the percentage is higher than it’s been recently, Bellone said he doesn’t put too much stock in any one day’s results.

Hospitalizations declined by six, with 66 residents now hospitalized with COVID-19. That is the first time since March that the number of people battling against the virus in the hospital was below 70.

The number of people in the Intensive Care Unit with symptoms from the virus increased by one to 24.

Hospital capacity remained below pre-set caution levels. Overall hospital occupancy was at 67%, while ICU bed occupancy was at 59%.

Nine people were discharged from hospitals in the last 24 hours.

After a day without any fatalities from complications related to COVID-19, two people died in the last day. The death toll from the coronavirus stands at 1,981.

The county distributed 5,000 pieces of personal protective equipment in the last 24 hours.

People brought images of George Floyd to a Port Jefferson protest June 18. That protest was originally meant for June 19, otherwise known as Juneteenth. Photo by Drew Biondo

As the country grapples with various levels of implicit bias in the weeks after Minneapolis resident George Floyd was killed by a white police officer, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed two executive orders June 19, otherwise known as Juneteenth.

More than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation while the country was in the throes of the Civil War, slaves in Texas were among the last to learn June 19, 1865, that they, too, were free.

Bellone signed one executive order that mandates the same kind of implicit bias training members of the Suffolk County Police Department have received since 2018 for every county employee before June 19 of 2021.

Additionally, Bellone signed an order that directs the county’s Office of Minority Affairs to prepare an annual observance of this important day in American history next year. The celebration could include festivals, parades, symposiums and musical events. The day will focus on the achievements of African Americans. The office will solicit input from the community and stakeholders to help plan these events.

As part of the outreach, the county executive’s office will also reach out to schools.

“The education piece is incredibly important,” Bellone said on his daily conference call with reporters. The effort is designed to ensure that students have a broader understanding of American history and about the progress the country is making and needs to make.

Viral Numbers

The number of residents who tested positive for COVID-19 in the last day was 54. That brings the total to 40,864. The positive tests continue to represent less than one percent of the total tests given by the county.

The number of hospitalizations, meanwhile, broke below a holding pattern for the last week. The number of residents hospitalized with the coronavirus fell by 15 to 110. The number of people in the Intensive Care Unit with the virus fell by six to 29.

An additional 21 people were discharged from hospitals in the county.

The number of people who have died from complications related to COVID19 increased by one to 1,962 over the last day.

Long Island Ducks

The Long Island Ducks recently announced a 2020 schedule that included 70 games between mid July and September.

Bellone endorsed the idea and suggested that he thought it would be safe, with the proper precautions, given that the activity is outdoors and the Ducks are planning to have games played in front of a stadium cut to one quarter capacity.

“We are very hopeful that in phase 4, we will see the Long Island Ducks back and out on the field,” Bellone said. “We want to see the Ducks defend their title.”