By Peter Schwartz
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It was opening night, so I hopped in my car and drove to the ballpark. The atmosphere was electric as the fans packed into the chilly stadium for all of the festivities.
But, it wasn’t a Yankees or Mets game.
That night, professional baseball came to Long Island as the Long Island Ducks played their home opener against the Nashua Pride. A sellout crowd of 6,096 packed what was then known as Citibank Park in Central Islip and saw the Ducks lose to Nashua 7-3.
The score was irrelevant.
What was important was that Frank Boulton’s dream of bringing professional baseball to his hometown had finally come true.
“I had other minor league teams and we had built ballparks, but it wasn’t in the community where I grew up,” said Boulton, the Ducks’ Founder and CEO. “It was a special moment as is every opening day.”
The Ducks have been an overwhelming success since their inception as the fans continue to flock to the ballpark in huge numbers. This season, in either late May or early June, the Ducks’ 6 millionth fan will walk through one of the ballpark’s turnstiles.
Fifteen years is a long time, but even in the suburbs out on Long Island, things can happen in a New York minute.
“Oh my god that went very fast,” Boulton said as he reflected on his team’s 15-year run. “I’m a very fortunate guy to be a part of bringing baseball to Long Island and to still be here and having a place where people can come as a family and entertain their entire family and watch a good baseball game.”
Boulton’s quest to bring minor league baseball to Long Island actually started a few years before the Ducks’ inception. Boulton was the owner of the Yankees Double-A team in Albany, but wanted to move them to Suffolk County in 1993.
That never happened because the Mets blocked the move, exercising their territorial rights against an affiliated major or minor league team moving within 75 miles of Shea Stadium. The Mets thought that a minor league team would create an “adverse financial impact” on their franchise.
But Boulton didn’t stop trying.
While the Mets were able to block an affiliated team from calling Long Island home, they couldn’t do anything about an independent team. So, in 1998, Boulton formed the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. He then went to work on building a stadium on Long Island.
A couple of years later, the Ducks were born. Problem solved.
“At the end of the day, it couldn’t have worked out any better,” said Boulton, who saw the Ducks enter the league two years later. “It’s so wonderful to be a part of something that’s connected with the community that you grew up in.”
Along for this decade-and-a-half-long ride has been Ducks co-owner and former Mets shortstop, coach, and manager Bud Harrelson. The relationship between Boulton and Harrelson dates to 1992 when they were the co-owners of a minor league team in Hampton, Va., that they moved to Wilmington, Del.
The commute from Long Island to Delaware was obviously not around the corner so it made sense to try and make the home office a little closer to where they lived.
“We used to take that car ride from Long Island and we would say, ‘you know what? We have to do this at home,’” Boulton recalled.
Harrelson served as the Ducks manager during that first season back in 2000. Today, in addition to being co-owner, Harrelson also serves as the Ducks’ senior VP of baseball operations and bench coach.
Harrelson has been an integral part of the franchise since the Ducks inception.
“If there’s anyone on Long Island that doesn’t have Bud Harrelson’s signature, and I almost doubt that, he’s still out here signing autographs,” Boulton said. “He’s a fan favorite, so it’s awesome to be a part of this with him.”
The Ducks have been a big hit because they provide a family affordable day or night at the ballpark. They typically draw more than 400,000 fans each year and drew an independent league single-season record of 443,142 in 2001. By 2006, the Ducks had welcomed 3 million-plus fans to their home games.
On the field, the Ducks have won three Atlantic League championships, including the last two.
The baseball is fun to watch and the in-stadium experience is second to none. Whether it’s the team’s mascot, “QuackerJack,” entertaining the kids, the on-field contests, the concessions and merchandise, or the winning brand of baseball, the Ducks know what they’re doing.
“One of the things that we try to do is work hard,” said Boulton, who has assembled a strong support staff that includes president/general manager Michael Pfaff.
The Ducks have some big plans for their 15th anniversary season. They will have 15 fireworks nights as part of an impressive promotional schedule. Pfaff, who has been with the organization since 2002, said “2014 will surely be a history season for the Ducks organization. Fans will be treated to a wide assortment of special nights and giveaways.”
In 2006, Pfaff he was named general manager and then added president to his title in 2011. This season will be his 20th in professional sports.
Under his leadership, the Ducks have made improvements to the ballpark over the years. There’s a new restaurant and a new high definition video board as the team leaves no stone unturned in making sure that a new customer becomes a repeat customer.
“We want to try and keep freshening up the experience so the people can come out and enjoy themselves, because at the end of the day, it’s all really about the fan,” Boulton said. “The fan is the most important person that walks into the ballpark.”
When fans have entered the home digs in Central Islip over the years, they have seen some familiar faces in Ducks uniforms. The list of former big leaguers includes Dontrelle Willis, Carl Everett, John Rocker, Juan Gonzalez, Donovan Osborne, Mark Whiten, and former Mets Edgardo Alfonzo and Bill Pulsipher.
“We’ve always tried to have some marquee names with the Ducks,” Boulton said. “We typically have 12 to 15 former big-leaguers on our team. They’re not just out here putting the uniform on. They’re working their way back to the major leagues. We’ve sent over 60 players back to major league organizations over the years.”
The Ducks have created many terrific memories over the last 15 years. They’ve drawn big crowds, won championships, and provided family affordable entertainment for sports fans of all ages on Long Island.
Does Boulton have a favorite moment?
“I think our first championship (in 2004) will always kind of standout as a favorite moment,” he said. “There’s a bunch of them. Maybe I’m still looking for that favorite moment.”
Perhaps that favorite moment will come during this anniversary season. After all, the Ducks have never been at a loss for making history.
It took a little longer than he would have liked, but Boulton realized his dream when he brought minor league baseball to Long Island.
Since then, the Ducks have been all that they were quacked up to be.
Don’t forget to follow me @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow the Long Island Ducks @LIDucks
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