PITTSFIELD — Route 7 rolls north gracefully, curving and sloping as it offers glimpses of the Berkshires over treetops shading the narrow highway.
In Pittsfield, a left off of North Street leads to Wahconah Street, with the area’s largest hospital on the right, followed by restaurants and a greenhouse supplier. On the left, tucked between a parking lot and a diner, stands Wahconah Park.
The site of baseball games for 120 years, the stadium offers an experience far from the luxury boxes of Fenway Park. For fans like Kathy Hiser, 71, who was sitting behind home plate on a recent sunny afternoon, that’s the point.
“It brings you back to real baseball,” said Hiser, who was watching a collegiate league doubleheader with her husband, John. “It wasn’t supposed to be fancy and comfortable.”
Now home to the Pittsfield Suns, a new team in the year-old Futures Collegiate Baseball League, Wahconah Park seats about 4,000 in a wooden grandstand. The closest rows have blue plastic seats, but most fans sit on wooden benches painted red.
Back when 500 fans attended the first game here in 1892, there was no stadium lighting. Baseball was a daytime game only, and it mattered little that the field faced west.
As lighting enabled evening games, architects began designing stadiums to face east. But despite two reconstructions of the grandstand, Wahconah never made the switch.
Today, it is one of two still operating in the country that face the setting sun. So when the sun sets behind center field, the glare occasionally prompts umpires to call a brief delay for the safety of hitters and catchers.
It is a feature that seems a natural fit for a city that claims the country’s longest baseball tradition.
In 2004, historian John Thorn unearthed a 1791 Pittsfield bylaw banning baseball, along with other ball sports, within 80 yards of a newly constructed meeting house. The bylaw is the oldest known reference to the national pastime.
But even in a city steeped in baseball, the historic stadium has not been the easiest sell to fans. The Suns are the sixth team since 2001 to call Wahconah Park home.
A month into the Suns’ first season, owner Jeff Goldklang says he sees plenty of room for growth.
“Pittsfield is a phenomenal baseball market that has been underserved,” he said, seated in a trailer outside the park that serves as the team’s front office.
Goldklang, who also operates four minor league teams, lights up when talking about his newest acquisition. His company, the Goldklang Group, owned a partial stake in the AA Pittsfield Cubs, a Chicago Cubs affiliate that played at Wahconah from 1985-1988, and he said he jumped at the opportunity to return.
“There’s no better place to own a baseball team than New England,” he said. “Everywhere else, we have to go around and explain to people why baseball is important. Here, they know why baseball is important.”
To succeed, Goldklang says, the Suns need to offer not only a competitive baseball team but a game-day experience that appeals to all fans, from the diehards to casual observers.
By the end of the first game, which the North Shore Navigators won 6-4, the sun has drenched all 14 rows, and many fans shield their eyes with a well-placed hand.
The park draws lifelong baseball fans like Gene Fischer, who remembers watching Class A baseball in Hartford with his father in the late 1940s.
Fischer, now 78, is a statistics guy. He has watched 134 games, including 72 college games, he said. He traveledfrom Pleasantville, N.Y., to watch from the top row of the first-base grandstand.
As he tracked the game on a scorecard, he checked in with friend Lloyd Ramsland, who was also keeping score.
For Fischer, Wahconah’s appeal lies in its age.
“It really takes you back in time,” he said.
The Suns are trying hard to keep games lively for more casual fans, too.
Out beyond the right-field wall, employees supervised children’s moon-bounces. Between innings, fans in the grandstand watched a variety of on-the-field contests.
In one contest, a child chased someone in a pizza costume around the bases. In another, fans played “Whack-an-Intern,” using a squishy hammer to tap the heads of kneeling interns bobbing up through holes in a wooden plank.
Fewer than 600 fans turned out for the weeknight doubleheader, but as the second game got underway, they rattled the grandstand with several slow claps.
Overall, the team has averaged about 1,000 fans per home game. Goldklang says that is higher than he had projected, and he says concession sales are up from this time last year.
Pittsfield has leased Wahconah to Goldklang for three years, and the owner said he hopes to stay beyond that and help bring affiliated baseball back to the stadium within 15 years.
His success, to a large extent, will hinge on the Suns’ ability to bring fans like the Hisers, the couple behind home plate who met at a Pittsfield dance some six decades ago.
The couple have been regulars at Wahconah for years, and on this night they stayed for the second game.
At one point, John Hiser pulled out his wallet and pointed to a photograph of his 8-year-old great-grandson.
“One of these years,” he said, “you’re going to see this guy playing.”
Adam Sege can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AdamSege.