When the New York Yankees folded their local minor league affiliate in 2020, Staten Island became the only borough without a professional sports team. Fortunately, that quickly changed. Thanks to a committed ownership group—including a one-time mayoral candidate, a Yankees exec, a longtime political consultant and a few folks from the cast of Saturday Night Live—the Staten Island FerryHawks will ensure that baseball is alive and well on the island in 2022.
How did things turn around so fast and what can we expect in the coming season? We spoke to the team president, spent a day at training camp and talked to players from a variety of baseball backgrounds, and found a story about community and comebacks.
The team name was key. Yes, there was the task of getting the existing stadium, known until recently as Richmond County Bank Ballpark, into working shape. It was, as political advisor turned team president Eric Shuffler says, as if the previous tenants “went out to dinner and never came back.” And sure, the roster needed to be filled with the kind of players who would help build a winner and attract fans. But the name would establish an identity, one inextricably linked with Staten Island and its community.
They received more than 2,000 suggestions in an ongoing contest; those were whittled to seven and then three. The final-vote winner was by far the most popular: the FerryHawks, which pays homage to the boat that takes people to and from the island as well as the bird of prey and speedy flier that calls the island home. That was November 2021. The rest of building a team—and a brand—could begin.
Every step has been a chance to engage the people of Staten Island, a crucial part of rebuilding the fan base. “It’s a passionate community. There is a sense that people write us off,” Shuffler says. Besides having fans vote for the team’s name and mascot, there have been ceremonial signings of local little leaguers, open local auditions for national anthem singers and, more crucially, a tryout for Staten Islanders (and other ballplayers in the area) to land a spot on the team’s roster. There have been meet and greets with fans. An active social media presence. Local celebs Colin Jost, Pete Davidson and Michael Che as minority investors, with Yankees team president Randy Levine and John Catsimatidis, who ran in the Republican primary for mayor in 2013 and owns Gristedes, among the principals. A general manager, Gary Perone, who is a native Staten Islander and who helped oversee the Brooklyn Cyclones for the first two decades of their existence. And the hiring of a manager who has lots of local ties and as much New York City good will as any former player this side of Derek Jeter.
Edgardo Alfonzo, hired to manage the club in early 2022, was a star second and third basemen for the New York Mets during their resurgent late 1990s era: a contact machine and part of one of the best defensive infields of all time. He played every inning of the 2000 Subway Series. He coached or managed the Brooklyn Cyclones for six years. His son starred for Bayside High School in Queens.
Shuffler calls it an intentional desire to have a high-profile manager who resonates with the community and who fans will connect to. Alfonzo says his experience with the area baseball scene will serve him well managing the new players. “I had a great time playing here in New York. I know what it takes to be in [their] position.”
The same intent carries over somewhat to the roster. Though having top players and a winning team is crucial to generating excitement, some team members seem natural candidates to be fan favorites. Take Kevin Krause, who played his high school ball in the Tottenville neighborhood of the island before playing at Stonybrook University, on Long Island, and then in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He recalls high school games at the Staten Island Yankee stadium and says he’s “excited about playing in front of family and friends again.” He stays involved with younger ballplayers on the island by sometimes instructing at Momentum Sports Training Facility. He also has a role as local advisor. “Kacy Clemens asked me for a couple of bagel stores. Bagels R Us on Armstrong and Grandma on Richmond [now called Bagel Depot] are really good places.”
Clemens is another high-profile FerryHawk: he’s the son of former Yankee pitching great (and Red Sox too—just keep that association quieter in these parts) Roger Clemens and he was drafted by the Blue Jays after converting from pitching to first base during college. Kacy was the first player officially signed to the team and, fittingly, hit the first home run in team history; pitcher Jose Velez, a Bronx native and Queens resident, followed soon after, and a number of other team members were born here or have ties to the area.
The team also has former major leaguers Julio Teherán, Rymer Liriano and Dilson Herrera, the latter two of whom were once in the Mets organization—and Teherán, the opening day starter, was with the Detroit Tigers just last year. Then there’s perhaps the most exciting signing the team made: pitcher and utility player Kelsie Whitmore.
Whitmore starred for the US women’s national team, broke the gender barrier in the Pacific Association independent league and is now doing the same in the independent Atlantic League—on May 1, she became the first woman to start a game in the league, playing left field. But she’s not there to be a gate draw or news item. “At the end of the day, it’s baseball. There’s a lot of low and high A guys, former major leaguers. I’m here to learn, develop and grow.”
She has a model in mind. “[Chicago Cubs pitcher] Marcus Stroman is someone I look up to. He’s a smaller guy so he’s able to apply as much force with his body and the correct mechanics. I love watching his offseason training. He does a lot of mobility training. He and Mookie Betts like to do other sports to stay athletic and be athletes on the field.”
One other thing Whitmore will try to find time for: sightseeing on the Mondays the team has off. “I’m looking forward to roaming around. The Statue of Liberty. Empire State Building. Times Square. Carlo’s Bakery—I watch Cake Boss all the time.”
FerryHawks management found their talent in several places. They picked up players in an Atlantic League showcase draft and held that local tryout, to which upward of 50 people came. A number of those players were invited to training camp and will give the team options during the season if players get signed by major league organizations. But putting together the baseball side was, according to Shuffler, the easy part. They also have had to address an issue that posed more of a problem: the stadium.
Richmond County Bank Ballpark served as home base for the short-season single A Staten Island Yankees for 20 years. Renamed SIUH Community Park, it offers what may well be the best views of any baseball stadium—minor, major or independent league—right on the waterfront near the St. George Terminal for the Staten Island Ferry, with the New York Harbor and Lower Manhattan skyline always a gaze away.
However, after the elimination of the Staten Island Yankees, the place was left to the whims of nature. The field became overgrown, the structure started deteriorating, the plumbing and electricity and most mechanical systems stopped working. There were leaks and mold. So the business of overhauling began—extensive enough that the team held its April training at the College of Staten Island’s ballfield. But it’s more than a repair job of fixing holes. It’s adding turf, expanding parking access, rethinking what it means to be a modern stadium. It’s a $10 million renovation.
The team has created new sections for people to hang out in groups during the game. Products from local breweries, such as Kills Boro and Flagship, will be available, and there’s a push to offer food on a rotating basis from prominent Staten Island restaurants—along with items regularly available from Ho’Brah and Kettle Black—to make the experience a local one. The seating is meant to be replaced in 2023. And of course there will be all kinds of promotional nights.
Best of all, it will be an affordable day at the ballpark. “There’s something about looking at a beautiful field in a nice park on a Sunday afternoon,” Shuffler says. Can you do that in Yankee Stadium or Citi Field? Sure. But not up close, for $15 a ticket.
The FerryHawks will play in the Atlantic League, which is an independent organization. It’s not part of Major League Baseball’s minor league system, though many players are former minor and major leaguers and the level of play is thought to be around the equivalent of double or triple A ball. However, the majors do have a vested interest.
The Atlantic is an official partner league, and MLB uses the independent league as a testing ground for rule changes. For example, the league used high-tech camera devices in place of home-plate umpires to determine balls and strikes and moved the mound back a foot in 2021 (neither is in place for 2022).
MLB organizations also sign players from the independent leagues, which is what many of the athletes are here for—a chance to get back. Liriano, who was there in 2017 with the Chicago White Sox, says he’s excited to teach the young guys and “come back [to] play in the major leagues.” Perhaps some individual comeback stories will be as successful as the story of baseball’s return to Staten Island.