I sat among 5,000 screaming elementary schoolers, their prepubescent screeches testing the upper limits of my hearing. It was the first pitch of the Binghamton Mets’ Baseball for Education Day, which meant all of the kids from the neighboring school districts had to join together in a quest to create the world’s loudest shrieking sound. But by the third or fourth pitch, everyone lost interest and scampered off to the snack bar to buy ice cream helmets, or got their pictures taken with Buddy the Bee. We didn’t even get to stay for the whole game; we ended up leaving after the sixth inning so that kids could catch their buses home.
But I got to watch baseball during a school day, so I loved it all the same.
For a lot of local kids, this was their only chance to watch a baseball game in person, but I’d been sitting in the Binghamton Mets’ hard blue seats for about a dozen games a year since I was six years old. I went from a kid who knew nothing about baseball (but was, of course, interested in the aforementioned snack bar) to a kid who memorized the batting averages, ERAs, and even favorite movies of players who, with a few exceptions, never ended up making the major leagues. During my pregame autograph-hunting sessions, I was worried that the Spanish-speaking players wouldn’t understand what I wanted, so I learned to say "autógrafo, por favor."
Over the years, I was at the stadium for innumerable games of musical toilets. It was where I learned to do the YMCA, and where I happily, but perhaps regrettably, first heard "Cotton-Eyed Joe" during the seventh-inning stretch. I went to on-field concerts, charity banquets, and post-game fireworks displays (the fireworks really brought out the crowds). I don’t have a single B-Mets memory that doesn’t involve someone having fun. Even the losing nights were easy for everyone to brush off, because winning isn’t the ultimate goal in the minors. For the players, it’s improvement and advancement, and for the fans, it’s about entertaining the family while keeping ticket prices (until recently, anyway) in the single digits.
I didn’t realize until much later that, beneath all the music and high-fives and dancing ushers, there was the story of a struggling team in a faltering little city.
To fully understand the decline of Binghamton, you have to go back to the post-World War II period, when the city was at the height of its manufacturing boom. Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company employed over 20,000 workers at its peak, and its founders practiced welfare capitalism, building the community by providing amenities and instituting social programs. IBM was founded in the neighboring city of Endicott, and employed as many as 15,000 workers locally.
But the Binghamton Mets didn’t arrive until 1992, when the city’s prosperity had been trending downward for decades. The Endicott-Johnson factories, whose impact on the local economy had been dwindling since the 1960s, officially closed in 1998, though their ghosts still loom over the city, broken windows and all. From 1990 to 2000, Binghamton’s woes intensified, and the city saw an additional ten percent drop in population, as IBM’s jobs continued to move overseas. Today, the tech giant has about 350 employees in the Binghamton area. Neighboring cities like Johnson City, Vestal, and Owego have also experienced decline. In 2011, CNN listed Binghamton at number five of its seven fastest-shrinking cities.
This is all part of why the Binghamton Mets have had the lowest attendance in the Eastern League for five years running. In 2014, the team welcomed just 171,279 fans to its 71 home games. That’s just over 2,400 fans per contest, a figure that falls well below the capacity of the 6,000-seat NYSEG Stadium. Even the Erie SeaWolves, the Eastern League’s second-worst team in terms of attendance, had over 500 more fans per game than did Binghamton. Having attended several Binghamton Mets games last season, I can offer the anecdotal evidence that a good number of these alleged 2,400 fans must’ve mastered their powers of invisibility. Even the B-Mets’ Eastern League playoff series—from which they emerged as champions, by the way—were sparsely attended.
Looking back to 2005, the first year for which Baseball-Reference has minor-league attendance figures, the picture wasn’t much better for Binghamton. That year, the team averaged about 3,100 fans, still well below the league average of 4,600. Binghamton’s workforce woes certainly don’t help its baseball team, but they don’t tell the whole story, either. Even in 1950, when the city boasted over 80,000 residents and was the home of the Class-A Binghamton Triplets, it lagged far behind current Eastern League cities such as Akron, Richmond, and Manchester, whose populations range from 110,000 to over 200,000.
Downturn or no, Binghamton was destined to be a small-market team, the Kansas City Royals to Akron's and Richmond’s Yankees and Red Sox. But threats of relocation have been a very real problem for the B-Mets for the majority of the team’s 23-year history. In the early 2000s, there were rumors that the team would skip town were it unable to secure corporate sponsorship for its stadium; thankfully, NYSEG became Binghamton Municipal Stadium’s first naming-rights partner in 2001.
Relocation rumors made an even stronger return in 2011, when it was widely reported that a prospective ownership group was looking to purchase the team and move it to Ottawa. ESPN's Mets beat reporter Adam Rubin trumpeted this as all but a done deal in early 2012. But Ottawa filled its empty stadium with a CAAPB (Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball) team instead and the B-Mets remained in Binghamton, where the team's current lease at NYSEG Stadium runs through the 2016 season.
So, Binghamton still has Double-A baseball… for now. Two similarly small-market Connecticut cities have recently lost their Eastern League teams. Norwich’s Connecticut Defenders became the Richmond Flying Squirrels in 2010, and the Rock Cats of New Britain will be moving to the much larger city of Hartford after the upcoming season.
I don’t live in Binghamton anymore, and apart from the occasional visit, I’m not affected by anything that goes on there. But that 2016 stadium lease expiration sits in the back of my mind, because I can’t take the thought of the Double-A Mets playing anywhere but the place where I grew up with them. It’s the city where I saw Jose Reyes and David Wright for the first time, where I finally witnessed that elusive walk-off homer in person, and, perhaps most importantly, where I tried my first Cinnabon pretzel. (Just kidding. I’ve been eating those things since before I could walk.) I’ll always be loyal to Binghamton, no matter how far I travel from it.
And maybe that’s the thing that really gets me about the Binghamton Mets: loyalty. New York has stuck with the B-Mets as its Double-A affiliate for over two decades, even as big league clubs tinker with their PDCs like mad scientists trying to find the perfect formula for baseball success. The Mets have worked with three different Triple-A clubs in the past decade, but they haven’t wavered on Binghamton, and that’s no accident.
There’s a special relationship between upstate and the City; I know plenty of Binghamtonians who vacation in the Big Apple just about every weekend, and a good number of Binghamton University students hail from Queens or other boroughs. And it seems that the New York Mets have no problem making sacrifices, including financial ones, to play a part in that relationship. Even if Binghamton fans aren’t exactly filling the stands, the team is still one of the longest-standing and most important institutions in a city that’s trying to lift itself up, but still often feels beaten down.