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Touring the Minors: Syracuse

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The last stop on our trip is Syracuse, home of the Syracuse Mets!

Syracuse Mets
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Syracuse is a city of roughly 145,000 located on the southeastern shore of Onandaga Lake in upstate New York. Known by many as “Salt City” because of the salty, briny waters of Onondaga Lake, the city is also known as “The Heart of New York” because of its centralized location in the state, and its historical and contemporary status as a railway and highway crossroad. Like many other Rust Belt cities, Syracuse experience a major loss of jobs beginning in the 1960s, though the city has weathered that story better than many other cities and town across the region.

The history of baseball in Syracuse goes back over a century. Until the turn of the 20th century, the city hosted the Stars, a minor league club that played in various fledgling leagues. From 1902 until 1917, the Syracuse Stars played in the New York State League, winning the championship in 1904 and 1916. The team moved to Hamilton, Ontario and became the Hamilton Tigers in 1917, leaving the city without a team for the next few years. In 1920, another team was formed under the Stars moniker, this time in the International League. This incarnation of the Stars operated until 1927, when the team became an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. After the season, the Red Birds moved the team to Rochester, leaving the city without a team until a last-minute bid to buy and moved the Shamokin Indians to the city was successful. Now a New York-Pennsylvania League franchise, these Syracuse Stars operated until 1929, when the debts that the team accumulated proved to be untenable.

The owners who purchased the team were forced to sell due to the team’s financial situation just prior to the start of the 1929 season. The team went on auction three times, with a $250, $300, and $500 bid being the final offers in each respective sale, with the New York-Pennsylvania League itself eventually purchasing the team as not to disrupt schedule for the league’s seven other teams. The league was able to sell the team to private buyers just prior to the start of the season, but not even a month passed before their own financial situations led them to be unable to pay their players, prompting the league to take the team back. In early June, still in dire financial situations, the Stars players went on strike. They were quickly paid, but the funds to pay the players did not come from the league, but rather, the new owner of the team, who had purchased the team from the New York-Pennsylvania League. Shortly thereafter, in the middle of the season, new owner moved the Stars moved to Hazleton, where they became the Hazleton Mountaineers.

For the next few years, no professional baseball was played in Syracuse. With the country slipping deeper into the Great Depression, many teams and leagues were impacted by the economic upheaval. Among those teams were the Jersey City Skeeters, whose average attendance had plummeted from thousands in the roading ‘20s to less than 1,000, leading the team’s owners to sell. The mayor of Syracuse, looking to strengthen the local economy, built a new stadium in the city to replace the Stars’, which had burned down, and the Skeeters moved to Syracuse. Renamed the Chiefs, a name selected through a contest in a local newspaper, the team competed at the newly built Municipal Stadium, which featured a 434 feet center field fence. The Chiefs competed until 1955, when their parent affiliate, the Philadelphia Phillies, moved the team to Miami. In 1956 and 1957, the Detroit Tigers fielded an Eastern League team in the city, but they moved them to Allentown for the 1958 season, leaving the city without a team once again. In 1961, the Los Angeles Dodgers abandoned their International League affiliate, the Montreal Royals. The team was picked up by the newly created Minnesota Twins and relocated to Syracuse, renamed the Chiefs. This incarnation of the team would operate uninterrupted until 2019, when the Mets purchased the team, turning them into their Triple-A affiliate, the Syracuse Mets.

With just a single year in existence, the Syracuse Mets barely missed the 2019 International League playoffs. A strong second half forced a one-game tiebreaker the day after the season ended with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders to determine a division winner. The winner would be the International League North Division champion. The other would go home, as the Durham Bulls had the International League Wild Card locked up. When Syracuse scored five runs in the top of the first inning, it looked like they were well on their way to taking the division. When the fans stood for the seventh inning stretch, the Mets had a commanding 7-1 lead. As we all know, there is no such thing as a sure thing. The RailRiders scored five runs in the bottom of the seventh to make it a 7-6 game. Syracuse came out swinging in the eighth and added to their lead, scoring six runs to make it a 13-6 contest. Undeterred, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre scored eight runs in the bottom of the eighth to take a 14-13 lead. The Syracuse bats went down in order in the ninth, and just like that, Syracuse went from a potential playoff run in their inaugural season to packing their bags for the long winter ahead- made even longer by COVID-19 and the cancellation of the 2020 season.

Built in 1997, the Syracuse Mets play in NBT Bank Stadium, a 11,000-seat stadium named after NBT Bank. In July 2019, the Mets and Onondaga County agreed to 25-year lease extension and $25 million in renovations to the stadium, with roughly half of the total cost to be paid by New York state, half to be paid by local bonds, and at least $3.6 million to be recovered from stadium naming rights in 2026. Prior to these renovations, which began in November 2019, the largest major change to the stadium came in 2007, when the artificial turf that the field had previously been played on was removed and natural grass planted for the 2008 season and beyond.

While the stadium itself is generally considered unspectacular, it offers food and drink offerings that are among the best in the International League. Specialty concessions include “Pops Special hot dog”, which is a hot dog slathered in mac and cheese, and one of the ubiquitous specialties of central New York, the salt potato. In addition to offerings from large, corporate breweries, NBT Stadium offers a wide selection of beers from local breweries.

Introduced by the Syracuse Chiefs in 1992, Scooch has remained with the team through affiliation and name changes. An anthropomorphic orange bear, Scooch enjoys baseball, trains, hockey, and ice cream and disliked rainouts. Unlike Scooch, Pops, the Chiefs’ former mascot, retired when the Mets purchased the team and changed their name. According to Jason Smorol, general manager of the Syracuse Mets, the former mascot, an engineer, is retired and is living in St. Lucie. “He’s in St. Lucie right now. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do. But he’s really liking the sunny lifestyle and seeing Mets games in St. Lucie and being close to the beach. So, we’ll see what happens with Pops. You never can tell with Pops. Mascots are an X-factor.”