TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE PARK

TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE PARK

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Shortly after the first of the year, while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, I was clued in to an event happening in Keizer, Oregon, eight months hence.  At the time, I had little knowledge of the impending total solar eclipse; had never heard the phrase “path of totality”; and didn’t know the city of Keizer, Oregon even existed.  But the idea of travelling to a baseball game, to meet a bunch of baseball writers, and to be part of a communal event that happens maybe twice in a lifetime, was all simply too much to pass up.

After a few keystrokes, I learned that the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes – a Short-Season Class-A affiliate of the Giants – would be holding a four-day event around the first solar eclipse to run from coast-to-coast in 99 years.  The long weekend was to be hosted by the Volcanoes, baseball writers from FanGraphs, and a team of engineers and scientists from NASA.  This stood to be entertaining and educational.

I quickly contacted the Volcanoes ticket office and bought the Eclipse Package: tickets to Sunday’s and Monday’s games; breakfast at the park Monday morning; a parking pass; and a guaranty of NASA-approved eclipse viewing glasses.  Little did I know, at the time, what a global phenomenon the eclipse would become; what it would cost to travel to Oregon; and what an amazing experience this would be.  Now I know.

Last Saturday our whole family traveled to Portland.  After a night in the Rose City, we headed 45 miles south to the state’s capital.  Repeated warnings had braced us for Carmageddon-level traffic, but the ride was smooth and we got to town in less than an hour.  On Monday morning, my son and I woke at the crack of dawn to meet 5,000 like-minded fans/sky-watchers at Volcanoes Stadium.  We grabbed ballpark breakfast (think: camp) and milled amongst baseball fans and science nerds.  The air was cool, the sky was blue, and the crowd was atwitter.  We were three hours from “totality”.

Monday morning’s game against the rival Hillsboro Hops – scheduled to start at 930am – was delayed because the opponents got stuck in traffic.  (You’ve got to love Single-A baseball!)  The Volcanoes gave up four runs in the top of the first, while we sat in the stands wondering if it was the sight-lines at the stadium, the game time, or the encroaching moon, that caused the viewing experience to be less than optimal.  NASA soon answered the question, delaying the game before we reached the home half of first, due to lack of light.

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And that is when the suspense really took hold.  Players dropped their gloves and copped a squat along the baselines.  There was a buzz in the stadium as we donned our glasses and felt the air drop by as much as 12 degrees.  There was a light breeze, and we watched what appeared to be a sunset along the horizon – at 1015 in the morning.

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And then, within moments, the NASA engineers instructed us to remove our glasses, and we witnessed “totality”.  For nearly two minutes, the sun fought valiantly to overcome the moon’s obstruction, to little avail.

 

People who know of our trip have asked how it was.  Unfortunately, I am not a skilled enough writer to properly explain the experience, other than to state that I have chills just remembering it.  But, lucky for us, Ben Lindbergh was there – as part of the FanGraphs host committee – and he articulated with such prose that it makes me want to hang up my keyboard.  Please read his account.

I have joked with my sisters about Niagara Falls in 2024; and I now think there is a fair chance I will be there (April 8th, if you are planning ahead).

PLAY BALL!!

LITTLE BIG LEAGUES

LITTLE BIG LEAGUES

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On a recent Saturday night I found myself in the small town of Moosic, in northeast Pennsylvania.  Unless you grew up or went to school in the hills of the Keystone state, you probably never have heard of Moosic.  But if you are a baseball fan, you definitely have heard of the surrounding towns: Scranton and Wilkes-Barre (which, to be clear, is pronounced like “bear”).

Scranton Wilkes-Barre (S/WB) has been home to Minor League Baseball (MiLB) since 1919, and the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees since 2007.  Over the past nearly 100 years, S/WB has hosted eight different organizations (nine if you count both the Philadelphia and Kansas City Athletics), and played in eight different parks.  In 1989, the team – then known as the S/WB Red Barons – moved into Lackawanna County Stadium, marking its eighth and (current) final “home” for S/WB baseball.

In 98 years, S/WB has had fourteen different team names, with the Red Barons having the longest tenure (from 1989 through 2006 as the Phillies’ Triple-A club).

In 2007, the Yankees moved to town, leaving Columbus, Ohio for facilities closer to the big club (just a 30-minute private flight away).  With the switch, the Red Barons became the Yankees.  But even the most valuable franchise in baseball (second most valuable in all of sports according to Forbes) cannot maintain naming dominance forever.  More about that in a moment.

At this point it would be helpful to provide a little insight into the business of Minor League baseball.  For our purposes, let’s refer to Major League organizations as “Organizations” and Minor League teams as “Affiliates”.  Or, as I like to think of them, the MLB club is the hot dog and the MiLB team is the bun.

Here is how it works: the MLB Organization “owns” the players (the hot dog), and controls all player-personnel matters.  The MiLB Affiliate owns the ballpark, and controls everything else, including ticket sales, concessions, promotions, travel, and accommodations, essentially everything that surrounds the players (the bun).

In order to be affiliated with each other, an MLB Organization signs a Player Development Contract (PDC) with an MiLB Affiliate.  The PDC has a two-year term, and renews automatically unless the Organization or the Affiliate notifies MLB that changes are afoot.

When an MLB Organization decides to find a new bun for its hot dog, it informs MLB, and the game of musical chairs begins.  That is because there are only 160 MiLB Affiliates, and unless/until an Affiliate-owner sells his/her affiliation to another location, when one Organization moves to a new location, the displaced Organization will need a new home; as such, the MiLB Affiliate owner is always entitled to some team.

For instance, when the Astros decided to leave Lancaster, California after last season, the owners of the Jethawks were not worried…they just needed to wait for the music to stop to find out which wandering soul would land in the California high desert.  (It was the Rockies).

Which brings us back to the Yankees.  After the 2006 season, the Phillies ended their PDC with S/WB in preparation for their move to Lehigh Valley (they had a two-year stop in Ottawa while their new stadium in Allentown was built).  The Yankees seized on this opening, moving their club (the hot dog) from Columbus (the bun) to the mountains of Pennsylvania (a new bun).  Now Columbus had to find a new Organization, which they did with the Cleveland Indians.  You get the idea.

When the Yankees’ Organization came to town in 2007, they compelled the S/WB owners to plaster their moniker on everything, most importantly, on the front of the S/WB jerseys.  But this is where the Affiliate and the Organization often have differing goals and incentives.  On the one hand, why wouldn’t the S/WB owners want to be associated with the Bronx Bombers, one of the most storied franchises in the history of the sport?  On the other, there is no guaranty that the team will stay beyond the two-year PDC, so the Affiliate needs to establish its own identity in the community, regardless of the Organization with whom they are currently affiliated.

And to further complicate matters, insofar as the Organization controls all player personnel issues, determining who plays and when, promoting and demoting players on a weekly (if not daily) basis, the Affiliate cannot market and advertise any individual player, as they never know for how long or how often they can trot that player onto their field.

The S/WB Affiliate was sold after the 2012 season, and the new owners decided they needed their own branding.  Keeping with their Pennsylvania roots, the Yankees were scrapped and the RailRiders were born.  For the first time since 2006, the S/WB team had its own identity.

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Ironically, the decision to rebrand the Affiliate was made even though the new ownership group was a joint venture between Mandalay Baseball Properties and the actual New York Yankees.  But Mandalay was put in charge of managing the Affiliate, and having had great success with the Oklahoma City RedHawks, the Frisco RoughRiders, the Erie SeaWolves, and the Dayton Dragons, the Yankees wisely chose to allow the experts guide the team’s marketing.

As an aside, if the name “Mandalay” sounds familiar, it is because its Chairman, Peter Guber, is a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers (as well as the Golden State Warriors).  So, after this sale in 2012, you had, in effect, the S/WB Affiliate co-owned by the Dodgers and the Yankees.  Somewhere George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin were spinning in their graves.

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Mandalay ended up selling their share of the Affiliate in 2014 to a group of local investors, who now manage the club.

And managing an MiLB Affiliate is not for the faint of heart.  It requires ingenuity, gumption, chutzpah, and a whole lot of luck.  By way of example, on a soggy Saturday night a few weeks back, the Affiliate in Moosic was faced with a four-pronged problem:

(1) Call a rainout and lose a night’s gate, as well as the concessions.  The impending rain had huge financial ramifications as it has been a wet summer, so the RailRiders have already lost a handful of games; and Saturday is one of their best attendance nights.  A rainout also raised the prospect of wasting the “bucket hat” promotion.  The team would hate to give out thousands of S/WB hats to fans who didn’t see a game and who didn’t buy at least a couple of beers.

(2) If they called the rainout, the RailRiders would be forced to play a twin-bill on Sunday (assuming the weather held), putting them in a bind with respect to pitching.  This issue was further complicated by the fact that the big club has had a rash of injuries this season, forcing players to go back and forth between the Bronx and S/WB (and Trenton, the Double-A club), which put a limit on the available arms.

(3) Their opponent, the Charlotte Knights, did not want to start the game as they feared the weather wouldn’t hold, the game would be called, and they would burn some of their valuable pitching.  So the RailRiders management had to be cognizant of their potentially unhappy counterparts, who have short fuses and long memories.

(4) The RailRiders had promised their fans a post-game fireworks show.  This one was easy; in the hour before the first pitch was scheduled to be thrown, team president Josh Olerud decided the fireworks would go off regardless – Mother Nature might scuttle the baseball, but she couldn’t stop the light show.  Again, the Affiliate knows that, oftentimes, the product on the field is ancillary to the experience at the ballpark.  S/WB has fans/customers, and the management wants/needs them to keep coming back each week and each season.

Fortunately for Olerud, the team, and the fans, the clouds dispersed and the game was played.  It turned out to be a great – if damp – night at the yard.

The ballpark itself is another area of collaboration and conflict.  Per MLB rules, a facility has to have a certain number of seats, a certain level of lighting, and a certain level of amenities to be deemed acceptable to house a Triple-A team.  But being acceptable to Major League baseball is often different than being acceptable to an MLB Organization.  So, to woo a team to its town, MiLB clubs often agree to make substantial improvements/alterations to their parks.  And the inverse if also true: if an MLB Organization wants to be in a certain location, they might entice the MiLB to sign a PDC by offering incentives to improve their facilities.

When the Yankees moved to Moosic, they were content to play at Lackawanna County Stadium – one of the largest in the entire MiLB.  And S/WB was more than happy to have the Yanks – they sold 47,000 tickets on the day the move was announced.  But changes were coming.

The first order of business was to remove the cumbersome name: Lackawanna County Stadium.  (For people of my generation, LCS hearkens back to “Milwaukee County Stadium” and Harvey’s Wall Bangers, or Dale Murphy and Bob Horner hitting dingers at Fulton County Stadium.  But I digress).  The naming rights were sold to PNC Bank, who dubbed the stadium “PNC Field” (not to be confused with PNC Park in Pittsburgh).

Within a few years, the owners decided that the stadium needed more than just a new name.  And so a $43 million renovation project began in 2012, completely modifying the look and feel of the park.  In a nod to history, the owners decided not to tear down the entire stadium and start anew.  Rather, they kept the location (as pretty as you can imagine, nestled right against the mountains), and ripped out everything but the lower bowl and the playing field.  The “monstrosity” (not my word) that was the upper deck was removed, as were many of the 11,000 seats.  In their place were installed a considerably smaller second-level with three rows of seats, luxury suites, and a stadium club.  They modified the seating in the lower level, and added group spaces in the outfield.  Part of the park reconfiguration was a 360-degree concourse, which gives fans full access to the park (and makes getting to the beer garden and BBQ pit in right field considerably easier).  The club also added grassy berms in the outfield that are utilized every day, but especially on “Dollar Dog” nights, where a ticket to sit on the lawn costs just $1, admission for your canine costs just $1, and the hot dogs around the park are just, you guessed it, $1.

“Dollar Dog” night should not be confused with “Two Dollar Tuesdays”, where lawn seats and Tallboys cost just two bucks.  Or “Wine and Dine Wednesdays”, a ladies night with a pregame wine tasting and wine specials during the game.  The RailRiders cater to the local college kids with “Thirsty Thursdays”, that have pre-game music and $1 Bud Lights.  And to make sure families are covered, there are “Kids Eat Free Sundays”, sponsored by Jersey Mike’s; and if your child is a member of the Champ’s Kid’s Club, they don’t even have to buy a ticket to get in.

As would be expected, the team has a slew of bobblehead nights, their “Legend Series” where former players come and sign autographs, as well as a handful of the aforementioned fireworks extravaganzas.

None of these promotions or marketing plays makes S/WB unique – you can get them at MiLB parks all over the country.  What makes S/WB special is that in 2013, after the remodel, PNC Field was honored as the Best New Ballpark by Ballpark Digest.  In the four seasons since, after shepherding Luis Severino, Greg Bird, Gary Sanchez, Clint Frazier, Jordan Montgomery, and Aaron Judge through the clubhouse to the Bronx, the RailRiders have barely missed a beat, with attendance figures within 2.5% of that much ballyhooed first season in the new park.

I have spent a lot of time, and driven a lot of miles, visiting MLB and MiLB and Independent League parks over the past few summers.  Not many have had the beauty combined with the amenities combined with the friendliness combined with the value for the dollar combined with the high quality fan experience, that I had at PNC Field.  But that does not mean I won’t keep looking.

There are more than five times as many Affiliates as there are Organizations, so wherever you live, there is bound to be one close by.  Take a drive, park a hundred yards (or less) from the gate, buy an unconscionably low-priced ticket, gulp down an ice-cold beer at a fraction of the typical $12, and enjoy a treasure-trove of local eats and standard ballpark fare.  The play on the field may not be ready for primetime (it might be as good as the A’s or the White Sox), but the fan experience most certainly will be.  The lines are short and the traffic is light.  I defy anyone to leave an MiLB game – whether in the heat of the California desert, or in the bustle of downtown Louisville, or in the verdant mountains of Pennsylvania – without a smile on their face.  Head on out to the Little Big Leagues and watch them…

PLAY BALL!!