Baseball America is counting down to Opening Day by looking at the many different ways minor league franchises are getting ready for the season. For some teams, getting ready means adding a new scoreboard so the kiss cam and shell game can be viewed in high def. Or it’s a section of seats that needs to be replaced with tabletops, a wait staff and an offbeat theme that will entice fans to take in a game from a new vantage point. Or perhaps it’s a series of alumni bobbleheads or more fireworks or a new mascot or dollar beer nights (or all of the above). Regardless of what it is, chances are change is coming to a team near you this season.
Today's focus is on the Fort Wayne TinCaps, who have been one of the biggest hits in the Midwest League since moving into Parkview Field in 2009.
Adding another group-seating area certainly didn’t seem like an offseason priority for the Fort Wayne TinCaps. After all, fans already had six spots to choose from at Parkview Field—including a tiered picnic area, a party porch modeled after the Wrigley Field rooftop experience where the menu changes every few innings, a home run porch in left field with all-you-can-eat fare, a suite-level loft down the first-base line, a plethora of luxury suites ringing home plate and concourse suites at the top of the seating bowl.
But the team’s popularity has created an opportunity, and in mid-May the TinCaps will unveil a group area called the 400 Club in the batter’s eye of center field.
Exactly 400 feet from home plate, the retractable-roof club will feature a 75-foot-long wall of windows on top of the center-field fence and will accommodate groups of up to 150 people. Privately financed for more than $800,000, the 400 Club will feature tiered tabletop seating, a large bar area, flat-screen televisions, food service and an outdoor patio. It will be the ballpark’s only group-seating option where beer and wine is included with all-you-can-eat, higher-end food.
The 400 Club’s location is as unique as what it will offer. General manager Mike Nutter said the team had to work with Minor League Baseball officials to make sure the location would not affect batters, and that the team has looked at glass samples from several big league ballparks, including Wrigley Field, Citi Field and Yankee Stadium.
“We wanted to give people something a little different,” Nutter said. “For a lot of people, coming to baseball games is all about just burgers and hot dogs. And obviously we do well with burgers and dogs and peanuts and beer, but we also obviously do a lot more than that now.”
Nutter said the team had been seeking to add a “wow factor” to the four-year-old ballpark, which last season welcomed an average of 5,747 fans a game, second among Midwest League teams. With so much of the team's success coming in group seating, this seemed like a natural fit.
“The first four years have been amazing and probably exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Nutter said, adding that team officials are regularly asking each other “how do you stay relevant and hot and all that stuff . . . We felt like we just needed to invest back into this thing.”
It has been a hit so far, with 29 of 51 available dates sold after just a few days of being available. Nutter noted that the team is paying for the entire project, and he said for team owner Jason Freier “to return that to the community is a pretty cool thing.”
Fort Wayne has even booked a wedding reception for the 400 Club this season.
“(The bride) told me that her first date was at Parkview Field, her fiancé proposed to her at Parkview Field and now her wedding reception will be at Parkview Field,” Nutter said.
Two years ago Fort Wayne celebrated Opening Day by converting its scoreboard to 3-D. Last year the TinCaps kicked off the season by picking one fan to have a bobblehead made in her likeness. So what's in store for the start of the 2013 season?
On Opening Night (April 11), each fan will receive a scratch-off card when entering the ballpark. Certain cards will be instant winners, with those fans receiving a game-worn jersey from that night. One of those fans will also be selected as a $5,000 grand-prize winner.
The cash grab kicks off a busy promotional calendar for the team that won the Class A Bob Freitas Award from Baseball America in 2011. The team has 30 postgame fireworks dates scheduled, a variety of theme nights (including Wizard of Oz Night, Social Media Night and a Tribute to Professional Wrestling), and giveaways that include a Mat Latos bobblehead.
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