Baseball made its way to upstate New York quickly. As early as 1858, the Syracuse Baseball Club was having intramural matches played by National Association rules. The rules themselves had been published years earlier, in May 1855, in the Syracuse Standard. In 1879, the Syracuse Stars joined the three-year-old National League, making the city a major league town for the first time. The Stars were 22-48 that season, seventh place out of eight teams, only outperforming lowly Troy, and they left the league after one campaign.
Another attempt was made to achieve Major League status, this time in 1890. That team also named the Stars, were members of the American Association, who was itself doomed to economic collapse the following year. Another seventh-place finish guaranteed another one-year tenure. Syracuse has never fielded a major league team, since.
They have, however, hosted triple-A baseball, almost uninterruptedly, since 1946. That team has been known as the Chiefs the entire time, with the exception of a brief period of whimsy, when they were named the Skychiefs between 1997-2006. Since the first professional baseball team played in Syracuse, in 1877, 126 pro squads have taken the field in the Salt City, and each of them has been named either the Stars or the (Sky)Chiefs.
That impressive reign of minor league consistency is coming to an end.
This year the New York Mets replace departing Washington as the parent club in Syracuse, and they bring with them a familiar moniker. When they take the field of NBT Bank Stadium on April 4, 2019, to face Pawtucket, it will no longer be the Chiefs but the Mets who will be cheered by the hometown crowds.
The recent free agent purge has left the roster of the 2019 Syracuse Mets in limbo, as is often the case this time of the year. Andres Giminez and Justin Dunn, two of the Mets most promising prospects, are likely to log innings. New major-league General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen has even discussed the possibility of the Syracuse squad experiencing “Tebow Time,” an idea that was almost unthinkable just two years ago. It promises to be an exciting season filled with promise.
There will be challenges, as well, challenges that the owners of the 1879 National League Stars knew well. Last year 332,224 fans came out to watch the Las Vegas Area 51s, the franchise the Mets are leaving behind. Over 55,000 fewer fans watched the Chiefs in 2018. Certainly, the economics of minor league baseball are far different than those of the major leagues. The convenience of having their triple-A players just an hour and a half plane ride away, instead of two-thirds of the way across the continent, certainly makes financial sense. Still, the Chiefs had the second worst attendance numbers in the International League last year, a fact that Mets brass would certainly like to see change.
It won’t be the end of just a name for the people of Syracuse. The Chiefs have been community-owned since 1961. Unfortunately, the model has struggled, and only five years ago the team teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The purchase of the team by the Mets has brought economic hope as well as governmental approval, with both Senator Charles Schumer and Governor Andrew Cuomo using baseball metaphors to describe their enthusiasm. For Schumer, it was a “grand slam.” Cuomo rated it a more pedestrian “home run.”
It’s not the first time a major league New York franchise has placed their highest level minor league team in ‘Cuse. As recently as 1977, the Yankees called the city home. From 1973-1976 those Baby Bombers were steered by Hall of Fame-bound Bobby Cox, a tenure that set him up to be tapped as the Braves skipper in 1978. The Mets will be guided by Tony DeFrancesco, returning after his first season with the Area 51s.
DeFrancesco has a .555 winning percentage in fifteen seasons managing triple-A, an impressive statistic. A fixture in minor league management for a quarter century, he had a cup of coffee in the bigs, steering the Houston Astros for the final months of the 2012 season. His first victory as major league manager happened on August 19th. He beat the Mets.
The great awakening in baseball that comes with each spring will have an even fresher feel in Syracuse this year. A new name. A new team. A new philosophy. A new crop of tomorrow’s promise entertaining the smaller crowds of a minor league stadium before they take that final step to their dreams, and their new place in history.