Trenton Thunder general manager Will Smith needed but a few minutes to realize that the press box at Arm & Hammer Park just wouldn't do for Alex Rodriguez's swing through the minors last weekend.
Within an hour of the announcement last Thursday that Rodriguez would temporarily serve as the Thunder's third baseman before he joined the Yankees (or Major League Baseball's restricted list), Trenton director of public relations Bill Cook had received over 100 media credential requests for the following night's game. By the time first pitch rolled around a little more than 12 hours later, Smith and Cook had managed to find spots for 160 media members in the Thunder's press box (which normally seats about eight), an empty luxury suite, four folding tables along the concourse and most anywhere else they could stash a reporter in the 20-year-old ballpark. An auxiliary clubhouse was transformed into a media workroom, and used for Rodriguez's press conferences.
"Every nook and cranny that we had at Arm & Hammer Park," said Smith, a North Jersey native and lifelong Yankees fan who has served as GM of the Eastern League franchise since 2008.
Trenton has become a regular landing spot for injured Yankees since becoming New York's Double-A affiliate in 2003. Curtis Granderson donned a Thunder jersey for two games in late July while rehabbing a fractured forearm, and Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis played in the same Trenton infield this spring before ultimately settling into spots on the Yankees' disabled list.
None of that, however, compared to the crush of a visit from A-Rod as his performance-enhancing drug scandal reached a climax in media coverage. Smith likened the frenzy to when Roger Clemens passed through Trenton before his return to the Yankees in 2007 for his final farewell.
"We never want to see anyone get hurt, but if it happens, we want to be thought of as a place for them to go to get better," Smith said.
They're also happy to be a place where fans can watch players like Rodriguez get better. Over 16,000 spectators turned out for Rodriguez's two rehab starts, about 4,000 more than the team normally expects on busy Friday and Saturday nights. Over 11,000 fans attended Granderson's two rehab starts—not bad for a Tuesday and Wednesday. And the Teixeira/Youkilis combo attracted just over 15,000 fans in two nights—well-above-average crowds for early May.
In many ways, Trenton's partnership with the Yankees is the envy of most of their peers around the minors. Just check out this Tweet on Saturday night from Jeff Goldklang, president of the Goldklang Group (which owns five minor league teams, including the Yankees low Class A Charleston affiliate).
@TrentonThunder lucky dogs! You guys benefit most from Yankee roster aging!
— Jeff Goldklang (@JeffGoldklang) August 3, 2013
The bump in attendance has certainly been appreciated. Like so many teams around the minors, the Thunder has battled the weather most of the season—even both of Rodriguez's games were played under the threat of rain. Trenton has lost four openings to weather and played several more in lousy conditions. (As a matter of perspective, the Eastern League's 36 rainouts are two fewer than last season's total.)
"We've been challenged (by the weather) and a lot of teams have been challenged . . . But we all work in outdoor sports and this is what we get sometimes," Smith said.
The boost Trenton received from Rodriguez's visit goes beyond just ticket sales. It also helps the team's relationship with its corporate partners.
Smith was dining with his wife at a restaurant yesterday when he looked up at the television to see a clip of Rodriguez speaking to the media with the Arm & Hammer logo in the background.
"This is the first season Arm & Hammer has been our partner," Smith said. "To provide that kind of attention for a client and business partner is fabulous."
And while rehab starts are not part of the team's schedule when the season begins, they do happen frequently enough to be included in sales pitches to potential corporate partners.
"We know we are not a major league team, but we think we are right next to it," Smith said. "We really have a high opinion of our business and we believe that we are in a minor league market like no other in the country. Being sandwiched between New York and Philadelphia, there is no other quite like it."