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Triple-A Scranton Yankees will wander without home

Associated Press
In this Wednesday, March 7, 2012, photo, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees infielder Kevin Russo practices base-running drills at the Yankees' minor league training complex in Tampa, Fla. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees will play all 144 games of their Triple-A season on the road this year, forced out of PNC Field because of a $40 million stadium renovation. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
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In this Wednesday, March 7, 2012, photo, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees infielder Kevin Russo practices …

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — For the New York Yankees' top minor league players, there's no root, root, root for the home team this year.

The Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees will play all 144 games of their International League season on the road, forced out of PNC Field because of a stadium renovation. Instead, they'll have 37 "home" games in Rochester, N.Y., with the rest scattered about in Batavia, Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y., along with Allentown, Pa., and Pawtucket, R.I.

They're even adopting a temporary name, the Empire State Yankees. Might as well call them the Boys of Somewhere.

"Every baseball team has a home base. It's going to be a little weird just not having one," said 27-year-old infielder Kevin Russo, embarking on his fourth season with the team. "Friends, family, girlfriend, they all don't really understand. Even I don't understand it."

These players could mail it in, but don't try to send something to them. No one is quite sure where their mail is supposed to go.

There is talk some of them might write a journal, figuring you can't make this stuff up — though novelist Philip Roth already has.

These Yankees are following the path blazed by the Port Ruppert Mundys of Roth's 1973 "The Great American Novel," about a fictional team that spent the entire 1943 season on the road after leasing its stadium to the U.S. War Department. Roth's imaginary lineup included one-legged catcher Hothead Ptah and first baseman John Baal (nicknamed "The Babe Ruth of the Big House" and the son of "Spit" Baal).

Only these are real players. Russo hit a two-run double that gave the big league Yankees a 2-1 win over the Mets in May 2010. Scranton's opening-day roster is likely to include highly regarded pitchers Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, David Phelps and Adam Warren.

"It's another obstacle you've got to climb," Phelps said. "Whatever attitude you take into it, is how you'll deal with it. If you go into it thinking it's going to be worse than it really is, it's going to be worse than it is."

The reply to the obvious question — has it happened before? — seems to be "rarely."

"The answer is somewhat gray and cloudy," said James L. Gates Jr., the baseball Hall of Fame's library director. "There have multiple instances where teams at different levels did not play at home for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, there is no formal list of such activity, only anecdotal stories that we pick up from time to time."

Gates said the Homestead Grays of Pittsburgh in the Negro Leagues used Griffith Park in Washington, D.C., as their home field at times during the 1940s. The independent Atlantic League has had a traveling team known as the Black Diamonds or Road Warriors in some years since 1999, and the Colorado Silver Bullets women's club toured on the road against semipro and amateur teams in the 1990s.

And not quite comparable are some instances in the majors: A fire at the Polo Grounds caused the 1911 New York Giants to relocate to the Yankees' Hilltop Park from mid-April to late June; the Yankees moved to the Mets' Shea Stadium for 1974-75 while Yankee Stadium was reconstructed; and, the 1991 Montreal Expos played their final 26 games on the road after a cement beam collapsed at Olympic Stadium.

Scranton, the Yankees' top farm team since 2007, announced a planned $40 million renovation of its stadium in Moosic, Pa., back in November 2010 after reaching an agreement with Lackawanna County Commissioners and Stadium Authority board members.

A joint venture of the Yankees and Mandalay Baseball Properties, which owns four other minor league teams, Scranton had hoped to play home games this year in Newark, N.J. But the New York Mets blocked the Yankees from using Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium, using their right to prevent any minor league team from entering the Mets' territory without permission.

Hence the scramble for sites. Mark Newman, the Yankees senior vice president for baseball operations, said options were being examined last summer. "We weren't naive enough to think they were going go, 'Oh yeah, whatever you guys want. That will be good,'" he said.

Given the way things worked out, these Yankees won't have to look hard for theme songs. Maybe the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" or Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Travelin' Band."

In addition to the "home" games at Rochester's Frontier Field, Scranton will have eight road games at the Rochester Red Wings spread over three trips. During a regular season that starts April 5 and ends Sept. 3, the Yankees will head out from their temporary base on "home trips" for 10 games in Syracuse (87 miles from Rochester), eight in Allentown (292 miles), seven in Batavia (33 miles), six in Buffalo (73 miles) and four in Pawtucket (386 miles).

Hence the temporary name.

"It's better than the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Rochester/Syracuse/Batavia/Lehigh Valley Yankees," Phelps joked to a clubhouse attendant during a spring training game. And given all the bus travel, Phelps added, maybe spicy food should be kept off the postgame spreads on getaway nights.

At Frontier Field, the Yankees will be taking over the visitor's clubhouse — with a third clubhouse created for teams that come in to play Red Wings and the Yankees. It remains to be seen whether they'll attract fans at their various venues — not that they have that many to begin with. Last year Scranton averaged 4,586 for 65 home games, next-to-last among the 14 teams in a league with an overall average of 6,956.

Players who figure they'll start the season at Triple-A have been talking with each other about the logistics and asking questions of Vinny Colangelo, their clubhouse attendant. There haven't been a lot of answers yet. Since clubbies don't usually travel in the minors, Colangelo figures he'll have to pack the club with both home and road uniforms on some trips. He's already determined it all will fit under the two buses the team uses.

As for housing, players will have to make their own decisions, paying for their own accommodations.

"They can do hotels, they can do apartments," said Curt Camoni, Scranton's vice president of stadium operations. "They'll set that up in the Rochester area however they want to handle it."

Pitching coach Scott Aldred plans on getting his own place in Rochester.

"You just deal with it. It's not a great situation, but hopefully the stadium is much nicer when we return to it. This year will be a little tougher on everybody, but you grind through it and we'll be OK," he said.

Veterans at spring training on minor league contracts say there's no point in dwelling on a possible assignment to the Wanderers.

"I'm planning not to go to Triple-A. My focus is on making the big league team," said Russell Branyan, a veteran of 14 major league seasons.

And that's understandable.

"That's what they're all thinking. Stark reality comes into play in early April," Newman said. "Then they'll be (angry) anyway, so why not throw that in there?"

Looking ahead, there could be another scramble in 2013. Construction at PNC Field still hasn't started.

Russo figures all the chaos will push him even harder to make it back to the major leagues for the first time since September 2010.

"There's always enough incentive," Russo said. "A little more is always good."

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