He had been there for the beginning and the end of soccer at Frontier Field and, like the flashy team he played for, he took the town by storm. Doug Miller had a knack for scoring goals, plenty of them. So, it was only fitting that the speedy striker would tally the first and last goals at the baseball park that served as the Rochester Rhinos home from 1996 through 2005.
What wasn’t fitting was that Miller didn’t get a chance to play at the new soccer-specific stadium that opened a few blocks away at Oak and Broad streets the following year. After all, the new joint wouldn’t have been erected were it not for his scoring exploits, which helped the Rhinos attract crowds of 10,000-plus to Frontier and briefly become the top professional soccer team in America. Miller helped create the demand for a new stadium. It really was The House That Doug Built.
Saturday, thanks to the ingenious and generous suggestion of Rochester Lancers founder Salvatore “Soccer Sam” Fantauzzo, Miller will finally get a chance to play on the pitch now known as Marina Auto Stadium in a National Premier Soccer League match against the Greater Binghamton FC Thunder.
Yes, this is somewhat of a publicity stunt—Miller is 49 years old. But don’t be fooled by his age. The man is in great shape and he still knows how to score. Just ask the Lancer players he coaches, many of whom weren’t even born when Miller helped Rochester earn the designation “Soccer Town, U.S.A.” During practices and scrimmages, he’s out there dribbling, deking, passing, shooting and scoring. The little he’s lost in speed and quickness, he more than makes up for in experience and anticipation.
“It’s like when hockey great Wayne Gretzky said others play the puck where it is; he plays the puck for where it’s going,’’ the Rochester soccer legend said recently from his office at the Doug Miller Family Sports Park on Ridge Road in Spencerport. “Anticipation—knowing where the ball is going before the play unfolds—is crucial. Over time, I have developed a pretty good knack for anticipating things before my opponent does.”
Though he may not be as fast as he was in his prime, he’s still quick enough to zoom by players young enough to be his sons. In other words, don’t be surprised if his one-game “un-retirement” results in a goal or two in his playing debut at the stadium he inspired. And if it does, will we see him rip off his jersey, slide on his knees, grab the corner flag and sing into it like a young Elvis?
“I don’t know about that,’’ he said, smiling. “I’ll definitely celebrate, because goals don’t come easy. I’ll probably just go to the side and kiss my wife (Kari) because she’s been through all my ups and downs, and hug my daughters (Kayla and Kalista).”
Miller did plenty of celebrating during his glory days with the Rhinos, scoring 75 times in 146 matches and helping them win a United Soccer League title and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. To capture the Cup, the Rhinos had to knock off not only other minor league clubs, but also the best Major League Soccer teams. This was akin to the Rochester Red Wings not only having to beat the Syracuse Chiefs and Buffalo Bisons, but also the New York Yankees and Houston Astros.
Professional soccer was rocking in Rochester in those days, thanks in large part to the offensive force that was Miller. Unfortunately, the beautiful game has gone through some ugly times in the past decade in Rochester. Despite the best intentions of Soccer Sam and Rhinos owners David and Wendy Dworkin, who dug deep into their own pockets, they suspended operations of the Rhinos for at least this season.
Miller is saddened to see the Rhinos dormant, but believes pro soccer can flourish here again. He said it will take bold measures, reminiscent of the Morrie Silver-led shareholder drive that saved professional baseball here in the late 1950s when Rochester Community Baseball purchased the Red Wings from the St. Louis Cardinals.
“If I were owner of the Rhinos, I would sell 49 percent of the team to the community,’’ Miller said. “As part of the purchase, you’d be required to buy two season tickets and make a commitment to renew for several years. This way, you’d be more than a fan. You’d literally be invested in the team and feel ownership in it, and be more likely to go to games.”
With financial stability, the team would be able to retain players who could become part of the community the way Miller has.
“When we had it going, fans knew the players because the roster wasn’t turning over every year,’’ he said. “And a number of us players began living here and working here year-round.”
Miller is cognizant of the public’s perception that the soccer stadium is located in an unsafe place. That perception has become a reality that contributed to the Rhinos drawing just a pittance of what they did at Frontier Field back in the day.
Miller, though, is undaunted by this hurdle. He cites obstacles Disney World had to overcome when it was built on a marshland during a time when Orlando, Fla. was considered the boondocks.
“Once people got there and had a great time, the focus shifted,” he said. “They no longer worried about being in the middle of nowhere.’’
Miller also isn’t buying the bad neighborhood theory.
“Heck, I grew up in New Jersey and went to games at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, which isn’t exactly paradise. But it was safe near the stadium, and people had a great time there. The same can happen here. You just have to create a welcoming atmosphere in and around the stadium the minute people arrive. You have to pull out all stops to convince them to change their perspectives.”
Fielding a dynamic striker like Doug Miller in his prime also would help them achieve their goals.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.