Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Legacy of the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield lives on with showcase event

By Zachary Baru

While the Tip-Off Classic may no longer be played at the Civic Center in Springfield, this past weekend still saw Division I college basketball action return to downtown.  Although there are many differences to what once was, the legacy of the Tip-Off Classic still lives on, and in the hearts of many basketball fans in Western Massachusetts

It was once an economic driver - brining in a guaranteed sellout crowd of 7,443 to the Civic Center, the building's former fixed-seating capacity.  Hotels were full, restaurants, especially those downtown, filled with patrons staying for the Classic.  Even downtown shops too saw an uptick in customers.  This was not just a show-up and go-home event.  The Tip-Off Classic was Springfield's time of the year, along with enshrinement, to remind the world that this city is the true "birthplace of basketball".  Even a downtown parade preceded the game, a matchup that was typically on national television.  The Tip-Off Classic was traditionally the beginning of the college basketball season, bringing two top-ranked teams to the Springfield Civic Center each Thanksgiving between 1979 and 2005.

Times have changed.  The building is no longer called the Civic Center, of course, and is now called the MassMutual Center.  The venue is not even the top-drawing attraction downtown, it is the location of arena shows for MGM Springfield, downtown's new economic engine.  

But on Saturday, something felt right again.  As viewers nationwide watched on ESPNU or the ESPN App, the Basketball Hall of Fame successfully held the "Basketball Hall of Fame Classic", an ode to the Tip-Off Classic, and a showcase featuring four Division I schools.  Nationally ranked and coming off a Final Four appearance, Florida Atlantic faced St. Bonaventure at 4 p.m., and UMass faced West Virginia during the nightcap at 6:30.  Both games were on ESPNU, and attracted a combined crowd of 7,009, just shy of the MassMutual Center's 7,300 seat capacity for basketball.  Those numbers, however, are a combined crowd.  The official attendances were separated by game, and were 4,264 for UMass-West Virginia, and 2,745 for FAU-St. Bonaventure.

Those attendances may sound smaller than expected, but they aren't so bad when looked at as a whole event in a 7,000-seat arena, nearly combining for the venue's capacity.  Also, this event served it's purpose, it recognized the Tip-Off Classic's history, and brought this to a national television audience.  And to do so on an ESPN network, this is a success in itself.  The Hall of Fame Classic also helped UMass with a crowd of over 4,000 during the winter break, which can be difficult some years on campus with many students at home visiting their families.  

With such a rich local history, having this event in Springfield is still very important to basketball fans, and the local economy itself.  Although the allure of the Tip-Off Classic is not the same, and the tournament has moved down to Uncasville at the Mohegan Sun Arena, having college basketball in Downtown Springfield is still important, and this past weekend's "Classic" was a reminder of all that rich history of college basketball in the birthplace of the game.

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and

Saturday, August 12, 2023

NECBL fills an important role within Western Mass. and all of New England

 By Zachary Baru

As the Valley Blue Sox were eliminated last week by the Bristol Blues, for baseball fans it is important to keep in mind the significant role Holyoke's team and the summer collegiate league play in our region.  Locally, baseball has roots in Holyoke.  Going back to 1903, the Holyoke Paperweights played in the Connecticut League until 1911.  But most prominently, the Holyoke Millers brought minor league professional baseball to Mackenzie Stadium in 1977.  The Millers played in the Eastern League, which today you will find just down I-91 in Hartford, as the Hartford Yard Goats are the closest team to Western Mass. to represent the Eastern League in AA Minor League Baseball.

Joe Wolfe Field in North Adams.
The Millers put Holyoke on the map as a baseball city, in a way, but left in 1982.  You'd have to go all the way to 2004 to see baseball return to Holyoke, but this time not necessarily minor league by definition.  In 2004 the Holyoke Giants of the New England Colligate Baseball League returned baseball to Mackenzie Stadium.  Since the NECBL is a league for college players to develop skills in the summer, it is not minor league baseball in the traditional sense.  Their teams are not affiliated with specific Major League Baseball teams.  The Giants left Holyoke in 2007 and the Holyoke Blue Sox came to replace them in the NECBL, where they play to this day.  The Blue Sox were renamed the Valley Blue Sox in 2014, representing the Pioneer Valley in the NECBL.  And this is where the important role of the league comes into play here in Western Mass.

Without the NECBL, two cities with rich baseball histories would not have any games played in their stadiums.  These two cities are Holyoke and also North Adams, which for anyone who has not made the trip up to Berkshire County to catch a game, is simply an incredible setting for baseball.  Set with the backdrop of the mountains, Joe Wolfe Field is packed every year for the annual Fourth of July game, with postgame fireworks launched right in front of the mountains of North Adams in Berkshire County.  It's moments like this, when you look around and see nearly an entire small New England town together, that you realize the special place NECBL baseball has in our region.

In Holyoke, where Mackenzie Field was built in 1933, the team has hosted the NECBL Championship, and the NECBL All-Star Game, of which the 2009 game drew a then league record crowd of 4,906 fans to Mackenzie Stadium.  Nearly 5,000 people in Holyoke, many of which contributed to the city's economy in some way at local restaurants, bars, stores and hotels.  This is what the NECBL can do for cities across New England who otherwise might be forgotten about by today's larger Minor League Baseball organization.  And make no mistake about it, the Minor League Baseball of today is not just a level of play, it is a true organization owned and operated by the MLB, with a newly consolidated structure that has left smaller New England cities even further from ever obtaining a true minor league franchise.

What is left?  Nothing at all to be ashamed of, the NECBL is more or less flourishing in New England.  Not only are Holyoke and North Adams great stops in the league for fans, but the Newport Gulls play in a beautiful/historical Cardines Field.  As if Newport is not a great enough New England city for a road trip, the NECBL also has interesting places to watch baseball in Mystic and yes, even Martha's Vineyard.  Perhaps the only baseball league requiring teams to ferry to games, but don't quote me on that one.  

Western Mass. might not have the glitzy stadiums like Hartford's Dunkin' Park, or Worcester's Polar Park, but we still have something special that other places around the country cannot all say they have.  A great regional baseball league that allows fans to get extremely close to the action, at a very affordable price, and one that brings the town together in a way only a league in New England can accomplish.

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at  Zach also writes and