I’ve spent the past 36 hours shaking a lot of hands and getting the opportunity to meet many of the people who I speak to on the phone throughout the year. It’s been a very enjoyable experience and I’ve generally gotten positive feedback on my work. "You get most of it right," one team owner told me yesterday. I’ll take that as a compliment.
Weather permitting, I’m off to Durham in the morning. So here are a few final tidbits to report:
Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg has been named manager for the Iowa Cubs. Sure, this is another step in Sandberg’s fast track to the big leagues. But don’t discount what this means to Chicago’s Triple-A affiliate, a 2009 Freitas Award winner that is still bouncing back from a disastrous 2008 season marred by historic flooding.
Sandberg spent last season with Double-A Tennessee, the only team in the Southern League to see its average attendance increase from its 2008 total. The team did finish with the best record in the league’s North Division, but their success at the gate was due to the presence of their Hall of Fame manager, Southern League president Don Mincher said before the Winter Meetings.
"Sandberg tried everyday before games to sign autographs," Mincher said. "He is a very popular person in Knoxville and suburban Tennessee . . . They had a very good baseball team and (general manager) Brian Cox and his team do a great job of keeping people in the ballpark. To have Sandberg and a good club at the same time really refreshed them."
Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey said the Sandberg promotion was the big story to come out of their league meetings this year. The Iowa Cubs are already one of the top draws on the road, Rickey said, and Sandberg’s presence should only increase that and provide an overall boost to a league that saw average attendance dip 2.1 percent in 2009.
"We are very happy and excited to welcome Ryne Sandberg to the Iowa Cubs as he continues his managerial career. We know our fans are excited too and will be supportive in what we hope will be a successful season," Iowa general manager Sam Bernabe said.
Meanwhile, the Pacific Coast League addressed Memphis’ financial difficulties and Portland’s need to find a new ballpark before the arrival of Major League Soccer team. No resolutions were reached on the situations, but it provided a setting for the league’s board of directors to hear and discuss the issues, Rickey said.
Reno Aces general manager Rick Parr said the club’s debut season surpassed his expectations. The Aces play in the smallest market in the Pacific Coast League and finished with the seventh-highest per-game average in the 16-team circuit. They drew 6,481 spectators to a ballpark with a capacity of just over 9,000.
Parr was among many team officials who spoke of higher-than-expected walkup sales. Those countered a drop in luxury suite sales. One league president described suites sales as almost completely halted, and wondered how teams will handle those in the future–perhaps converting them into larger conference/event rooms.
In the Texas League, Midland Rock Hounds owner Miles Prentice raved about the performance of the club during a difficult financial climate. Midland, an area of roughly 200,000 when including its suburbs, drew 282,283 fans in 2009. The club’s 4,091 average was down 3.5 percent from 2009.
A Hall of Fame Promotion
The I-Cubs may not be the only team to get a boost from Cooperstown. Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner spoke in his opening session remarks of a partnership with the Hall of Fame that will create a variety of promotional opportunities for clubs. The HOF had a booth set up at the trade show and welcomed a good bit of traffic from teams making inquiries.
Among the opportunities for teams will be the chance to buy memberships to the Hall of Fame at a significant discount. Teams can then turn around and give away those memberships to season-ticket holders, corporate sponsors, as giveaways or any other way to drive traffic to the ballpark. "It’s a win-win situation for all of us," Hall of Fame senior director of development Ken Meifert said. "This gives teams a chance to connect their sponsors and fans to Cooperstown. It’s important to our success as well as theirs."
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