Play it like you be-long in the Hall of Fame
This old town’s gone wild,
Every man, woman, child,
So bring us vic’try, Saugerties Dutchmen baseball team!”
– The Saugerties Dutchmen Fight Song. Melody: “Buckle Down, Woonsockie”
This time of year, Saugerties’ identity as a baseball kind of town really comes into focus. And while Cantine Field is always bustling with players and fans alike, it also echoes with the memories of a glorious past.
Though they haven’t been a team since 1999, the Dutchmen still loom large in the annals of Saugerties sports history. For two decades, the Dutchmen were the class of Cantine, a consistent threat in the Hudson Valley Rookie League and Mohawk-Hudson Baseball League through 1990, and as an independent after that, with just three losing campaigns between the 1980 and 1999 seasons. Many of the individual names are still an integral part of the fabric of the community today, both among the playing ranks and those who helped organize, work the sidelines and cheer the team to victory against local and distant rivals.
It began when word began to circulate in Saugerties that there was interest in bringing the Dutchmen back after more than two decades of inactivity.
“In 1980, we had heard somebody wanted to revitalize the Dutchmen from the 1950s,” said Town Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel. “The idea was that one business would take one uniform, another would take another. I met with two of the fellows who wanted to see if our business [Helsmoortel Insurance] would be interested. I remembered the Dutchmen when I was a kid. I love sports, we knew the community loved sports, and we were able to financially sponsor it quite well.”
The father and son team of Roy and Greg Helsmoortel became an integral part of the team’s renewal, not just sponsoring them, but also helping set them up for early success on the field with the hiring of manager Dennis Sheehan. Under his direction, the team won the title in its first season.
The success on the field was buoyed by overwhelming community support.
“The community really wrapped its arms around (the team),” Helsmoortel. “It was unbelievable. We’d get 2,000-2,500 people at a game at Cantine Field.”
First baseman Brian Lindhorst, who grew up in Kingston but was recruited by Sheehan to play for the Dutchmen in 1994, missed those early years. But he heard the stories.
“I wish I could have played in the early to mid-’80s,” he said. “You hear stories of how both foul lines were three-deep [with spectators]. Those were the glory days, I hear.”
Some of the standout players from those early years were still around as the ’80s moved into the ’90s. Even those who weren’t directly connected to the Dutchmen anymore were there in the history of the team, something the younger players took very seriously.
Chris Fabiano, who grew up in Saugerties and played for the team from 1990 until the team folded – with the exception of 1995-96, when he was in the Minor Leagues – was a fan of those early Dutchmen teams.
“I remember going to Cantine Field with my basketball, my glove, my ball and my bat,” he said. “I used to watch the older guys, like Rich Koegel and Tom Whitaker. The crowds were outrageous.”
Adding to the atmosphere in those early days was the team’s official mascot, Dutchy the Dutchmen Duck.
“He came in every year in a different way,” Helsmoortel said. “He was in a papier mache egg for his first appearance, on a fire truck one year. He arrived as the Lone Ranger with ‘The William Tell Overture’ playing. It was a lot of fun.”
Koegel, currently the head coach of the Saugerties American Legion Post 72 baseball team, was the Dutchmen’s career home runs leader with 33. He had a .379 batting average, 150 singles, 39 doubles and 151 runs batted in. Whitaker, who played for seven seasons, had 27 home runs, 178 singles, 49 doubles, nine triples, 171 runs batted in and a career batting average of .382.
Former Ulster County legislator Joe Roberti was a member of the Dutchmen from 1985-90, playing with some of those early stars.
“Being part of the team was terrific,” he said. “I was 19 when I joined the team and I got to play with great players like Rich Koegel, Tom Whittaker, Iggy Maines and others. I developed close relationships with many of my teammates that continue to this day.”
Roberti, who played catcher and outfield, recalled the support from Saugerties, as well as one person in particular who did many of the little things that made being both a member and fan of the Dutchmen such a special experience.
“We had great crowds and the community supported us financially as well,” Roberti said. “We had a great booster in the late Jack Keeley.”
Keeley, who was inducted into the Saugerties Sports Hall of Fame in 1986, was responsible for compiling many of the statistics which today allow us to experience more fully what the Dutchmen were like back when they were active. His efforts weren’t just integral to the team in its earliest years, but also for the young players who weren’t necessarily ready to stop playing after the 1999 season.
“Jack Keeley did it right,” said Lindhorst. “He was the glue that kept that ship together. And it was more than dedication: to come to the ballpark every day with updated stats, and ‘This Day in Dutchmen History.’ I played for six years or seven years, and sometimes you’d get to see your name in there. That meant a lot.”
Though the team continued to play well into the ‘90s, it no longer maintained the same overwhelming support it had during its early years. But even with regular attendance dropping, memorial tournament games like those honoring the late Ray Helsmoortel and John Dodig, as well as the Sawyer Motors Classic and Fourth of July contests were always well attended.
The second Dutchmen decade also saw some stellar players come through the ranks, including pitcher Ray Mikesh, a Kingston native who felt immediately like he was part of the family.
“They treated me like gold up there,” he said. “There was no politics. I was just a good pitcher. I didn’t have to play behind the coach’s son or anything.”
Despite his Kingston connection, Mikesh said he was never tempted to play for the Colonials or Mariners.
“I was asked a couple of times by some of the players in Kingston to come play, and after they saw us play, they wanted to come to Saugerties and play, too,” he said. “I bled Dutchmen blue.”
Lindhorst said he felt the same way, and joining the team gave him friendships that remain to this day.
“From the first game, you knew you were part of a family,” he said. “There really was no adjustment period. The guys that were three, four years older than me, I’d played against them when I played Legion ball (for Kingston). It was great to know them as friends, and to this day, there are five guys I play softball with up in Saugerties where we’ve played ball every summer together since ’94.”
Larry Santee, who played in the corner outfield spots for the final three seasons of the Dutchmen, also felt that sense of history and acceptance.
“The first year I played it felt like being a star of the town, people coming from all over to watch a competitive game,” he said. “It felt like being a part of something big with our own bat boys, pine tar, and announcer. Being part of a team that represented the town felt great and was an honor. Playing on Saturdays and Sundays at Cantine was something special. They made sure the fields were in excellent condition for us and never let anyone play on them before us. The fields were always watered, lined, and dugouts cleaned out. Many loved to play on our fields and we always welcomed them.”
Fabiano, who said that even though he felt immediately accepted, still felt the need to prove himself because of the Dutchmen tradition, remembered a supporter of the team named Bobby Dixon, who would cheer the team on from the third base line. Santee said one of his lasting Dutchmen memories was of Dixon, who chimed in during the second game of a particularly heated double-header that was punctuated with hit batsmen and near-bench-clearing brawls.
“The umpire came over to both dugouts and said, ‘I don’t want to hear a peep out of anyone or I am forfeiting the game,’” said Santee. “Well we were winning so we didn’t say anything when the pitcher hit one of our players for a walk, except good old Bobby Dixon who never said a word other than ‘Hit, hit,’ with a mumble. This day we all heard it as clear as day and so did the umpire when he said very loud, ‘ASSHOLE!’ That was the end of the game. We forfeited. We just laughed and had some beers after the game. Funny, that still makes me laugh today.”
Mikesh remembered the Dutchmen traveling to a tournament in Ottawa and placing second in a 12-team field.
“That was just a great time,” he said. “We won money in Canada, and thank God, because if we’d won in the United States we would have been considered a pro team.”
Mikesh remembered the Otsego Macs, a team representing Cooperstown, as being the only team with a winning record against the Dutchmen.
“They were a bunch of grown men, from their 1-through-9 hitters,” he said. “They had fellows named Sarge, Scrap and Tank; I kid you not.”
Lindhorst remembered his favorite road games coming against the Macs, as they were played on Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.
“That was a highlight of the year,” he said. “Every year we looked forward to that Cooperstown trip. It was nice. You’d get people visiting the (Baseball) Hall of Fame. They didn’t even know who was playing, but they’d sit down and watch a couple of innings.”
And even on those road games, Roberti recalled, there was no lack of support for the Dutchmen.
“Whenever we traveled, we had a caravan of supporters follow us,” he said, adding that there was no field more special than Cantine.
“Cantine Field is one of the most beautiful ballfields around,” he said. “Opposing players always commented that they wish they had a field as nice as ours.”
The Saugerties Dutchmen played their final games on July 31, 1999, a double-header that saw them obliterate the Florida Bulls by a combined two-game score of 29-2. The wins closed out that final season with a 13-game unbeaten streak, putting their record at 28-8 on the year, and 368-213-7 for their two-decade run.
The Dutchmen are still around, even if they’re not playing games at Cantine on Saturdays and Sundays anymore. They’re in the memories of all those players, and the thousands of fans from over the years. Even kids who hadn’t been born when the team suited up for the last time are part of their legacy. Fabiano is a fellow Post 72 coach with Koegel, as is another former Dutchmen player, Ray Maglieri.
Though the climate is different, with few leagues they might join, some still long to see a return of the Dutchmen.
“I do believe the Dutchmen can return,” Roberti said. “Saugerties is very passionate about baseball and we have a lot of civic-minded people that could make it happen.”
Santee agreed, adding that he’d love to one day move back up from New York City and help put the pieces together.
“I hope to see the Dutchmen come back,” he said. “It’s what Saugerties needs.”
Lindhorst, on the other hand, wasn’t as convinced.
“I would love to see it, but I don’t know if there’s a person who would do it right,” he said. “I don’t think anyone could do it the way Jack (Keeley) did it. That’s what made it special for me. That was his baby, and he treated all of us like we were his sons.”