Since being struck by lightning two summers ago, a bank of lights on the west wall of Sal Maglie Stadium has been disabled, casting a shadow on the baseball diamond below.
Out past the outfield, on the other side of Hyde Park, another shadow looms over the future of the stadium that has been home to Niagara Falls ballclubs since 1939.
The Niagara Falls City School District, which has operated Sal Maglie Stadium since 1999, is rapidly constructing a new 13,000-square-foot athletic complex at nearby Niagara Falls High School.
The school district’s lease on the city-owned stadium runs through June 30, 2014. But the district can terminate the lease earlier with 30 days notice, Deputy Superintendent Mark Laurrie said.
The Wolverines will continue to play football games at Sal Maglie this fall, but athletic director John Forcucci is hopeful the artificial turf baseball field will be ready to open in the spring. “That’s our goal,” he said.
“We’re anticipating probably staying with (the lease) through June 30,” Laurrie said. “But it’s all dependent on the progress of our capital project, and a lot of it is dependent on how the winter is. Once we observe the progress they make through December, we will be able to make a better judgment.”
Niagara Catholic High School moved its baseball games to Washuta Park in Lewiston three years ago, and no longer fields a football team.
That leaves Niagara University and the Niagara Power collegiate league team as Sal Maglie Stadium’s lone tenants moving forward. Niagara rents the stadium for about a dozen dates in April and May but does not practice or play fall games there. The Power play the home portion of their 40-game New York Collegiate Baseball League schedule and a few exhibition games at Maglie.
The stadium also hosts high school baseball playoff games.
Both the Purple Eagles and the Power have been frustrated with field conditions at Maglie in recent years, and a plumbing issue forced Niagara to play six games on campus this spring. The scoreboard and lights also need repair.
Yet, neither Niagara athletic director Tom Crowley nor Power president Cal Kern is eager to move out of Maglie.
“Sal Maglie has been good to us,” Crowley said. “Any university would prefer to be playing on campus, but in lieu of that, Sal Maglie is very important to us.”
Baseball coach Rob McCoy estimates that the university would have to invest more than $1 million to make its on-campus Bobo Field a suitable home. “Our field on campus doesn’t provide us a Division I venue,” he said. “Sal Maglie Stadium gives us that.”
The Power have played at Sal Maglie for seven seasons, becoming just the second baseball club to last more than five years in Niagara Falls. “Our heart’s desire,” Kern said, “is that we come back and play at Sal Maglie for 2014.”
The club’s long-term future in Niagara Falls, however, is tenuous.
Attendance has risen to an average of roughly 300 fans at Power games the past two seasons, Kern said, far less than the stadium’s capacity of 4,000 or the crowds in excess of 1,000 that the Pirates (1970-79) or the Rapids (1989-93) of the New York-Penn League were able to attract before folding.
Kern remains committed to Niagara Falls. He fondly recalls going to what was then known as Hyde Park Stadium when the Buffalo Bisons played there in 1967 and 1968. He played his last baseball game for Kenmore East there and brought his son, Brett, now a punter for the Tennessee Titans, to Sal Maglie to watch the Pirates.
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m living out a dream,” Kern said. “It’s not a moneymaking venture. Will we ever draw crowds like the old days? No, because the whole demographics have changed. Developing a fan base at Sal Maglie over seven years has been hard. But we want to stay, and I think with stronger marketing efforts on our end, we can get more people there.”
Still, Kern, who lives on Grand Island, has scouted other locations for a potential move.
“I’ve had to, because I don’t know what the future of the stadium holds,” Kern said. “Just in case something doesn’t work out. I have to look at Plan B and Plan C. I think anybody in my shoes would do the same thing.”
Kern said he has concerns about who will be operating the stadium in the future, how well the fields will be maintained, and what rental arrangements will be. McCoy said he also has “a little anxiety” about use of the stadium beyond the 2014 season.
“I don’t know what is going to happen,” McCoy said. “I’ve been told we are going to be working with the city to come up with a plan. But there are a lot of contingent situations. But I think, ultimately, it’ll be a great relationship for us.”
“The challenge for us is who is going to run the stadium in 2014,” Kern said. “My question, as president, general manager and bus driver, is are we going to play at Sal Maglie under the City of Niagara Falls or the school district? If we sign a lease with the city, what is that going to look like? And we have certain expectations as far as field conditions and lights that need to be addressed.”
Kern said he would be interested in taking over the stadium operations and subletting the field to Niagara and other tenants. “If somebody said, Cal, get your troops together and take care of that field, we can do that,” Kern said.
Crowley said Niagara University will also investigate the possibility of operating the stadium.
According to Laurrie, the school district two years ago estimated the annual cost to operate and maintain the stadium at close to $150,000, with a net cost of closer to $100,000 when counting revenues from rentals and overtime and utility costs incurred by tenants. Replacing the broken lights will cost more than $20,000, Laurrie said. “We needed to get out of the business of running a stadium,” he said.
Having grown up a relay throw away on Willow Avenue, Laurrie hopes Sal Maglie Stadium will continue to thrive once the school district is no longer involved. “It’s a historic place,” he said. “I remember going there to watch my favorite player, Johnny Bench, and Tony Pena play there.”
Laurrie points to the private operation of Hyde Park Ice Pavilion in recent years as a model for success. “That place has never looked better, and it’s packed constantly,” he said. “If they look to do something similar at Sal Maglie, then I don’t think it’s the beginning of the end.”
But until future plans are outlined, some believe the stadium is falling behind in the count.
“If Niagara University doesn’t continue to play there, then I don’t see the stadium having any future at all,” local baseball historian and Power announcer Doug Smith said. “People will go by and say, ‘That’s just another piece of Niagara Falls that failed.’ ”
“That would be disheartening,” Forcucci said. “I would hate to see it fall into disrepair. It’s a great baseball venue, and a great community asset.”