The Freitas Awards are Baseball America’s annual awards honoring the best operators in Minor League Baseball. They are named after Bob Freitas, a longtime ambassador of minor league baseball who helped teams and minor league owners around the country. The following are the 2011 Freitas Award winners, one for each level of affiliated minor league baseball.
Colorado Springs Sky Sox
The players on the field aren’t the only ones who need to give every ounce of effort to be successful. The Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Pacific Coast) have instilled this philosophy throughout the entire organization.
“Our fans are what make baseball the greatest game in the world and they deserve and get our best efforts to create the very best fan experience we can give them,” Colorado Springs president and GM Tony Ensor said. “Everyone on our staff is dedicated to this cause and realizes that every time a family enters the gate, they may be first-time visitors to the Sky Sox and we want them to be so happy with their experience that they will want to return and tell their friends.”
That word of mouth has been the best form of advertisement for the Sky Sox, and what they’ve been doing has been working. Colorado Springs set record attendance marks in four of the last five seasons and has seen its average increase from 4,158 in 2007 to 4,843 in 2011.
This success has not been easy. The team plays in the fourth-smallest market in Triple-A and faces challenging weather and scheduling while playing in the Rockies. The 2011 season was one of the Sky Sox’s most difficult, as the team played 40 percent of its home games in the still cold April and May months and spent the bulk of June and July on the road.
“I like this award this year especially,” Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey III said, “because it is an endorsement of the David vs. Goliath kind of success, a recognition that because the success is accomplished on a smaller stage, it’s no less memorable, no less worthy, no less artistic.”
Ensor says the team’s success can be traced back to owner Dave Elmore, who returned baseball to one of the PCL’s charter members when he moved the Hawaii Islanders to Colorado Springs in 1988. Elmore assured the team’s long-term future in Colorado Springs with the construction of a $3.2 million ballpark. A naming rights deal led to a $4 million renovation of Security Service Field in 2005, which included amenities for players (new clubhouses and underground batting cages) and fans (new concourse, five-tiered picnic area and upgraded luxury suite level).
“I feel very blessed that I have been able to pursue something that I get so much enjoyment from,” Elmore said. “I love the sport of baseball and you know you are doing something right when season after season, fans come up to and share with you how meaningful it is to be at that particular game.”
Providing to the community is important to the Sky Sox. The organization tries to be an active member of the community not only during the baseball season, but also every day of the year.
“Through our active community relations efforts we utilize our staff, financial resources and popular mascot Sox the Fox to make an impact wherever we can,” Ensor said. “Our reading program reaches out to over 7,000 area students to promote positive educational experiences and rewards students for dedicating themselves to their academics.”
The region should also carry a sense of pride for the accomplishments of its baseball team. Ensor also realizes the role the award’s namesake has played in his career.
“I was very fortunate to have met Bob Freitas as a young man coming up in the game,” Ensor said of the veteran baseball operator who passed away in 1989. “He had a passion and love for this game and I like to think that we have learned many of the values and principles that he shared with so many in our industry and that those principles serve as the foundation for our organization.”
Randy Whitaker landed his dream job when new Harrisburg Senators (Eastern) owner Michael Reinsdorf hired the longtime local television executive as his general manager before the 2008 season. After a challenging debut season, when attendance fell to a franchise low, the Senators have seen those numbers rise in each of the past three seasons at the newly renovated, and now state of the art Metro Bank Park.
The key to the revival was—after more than a decade of talk—landing the necessary financing to rebuild the ballpark on City Island. Team president Kevin Kulp came on board during the 2008 season and helped oversee construction on Metro Bank Park, which began before the 2009 campaign. The two-phase, $45 million project brought a wraparound concourse boardwalk and new scoreboard that first year and was completed before the 2010 season.
Now with comfortable seating, spectacular sightlines, luxury suites and significantly more restrooms and concession areas, the island ballpark transformed from your closet’s trusted sweatshirt to favorite formal wear.
Average attendance spiked nearly 18 percent to 4,205 in 2010, the team’s first season in the completely renovated park. And despite challenging weather—the Susquehanna River flooded the ballpark at the start and end of the 2011 season—the Senators held steady at the gate with a 4,221 average. And speaking of flooding, Harrisburg’s newly elevated boardwalk and team offices—which sit above the 100-year flood plain—helped prevent significant damage when more than eight feet of water flooded the playing field in September.
The team’s high-definition video board in left field ranks among the largest in minor league baseball, and assistant GM Aaron Margolis is in charge of utilizing the park’s gem to keep fans (and sponsors) glued to the action.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to make sure everybody who comes to the ballpark—whether they’re lifetime baseball fans or here for the first time—has a fantastic time,” said Margolis, who uses dozens of cameras around the ballpark to showcase fans for between-inning features like Kiss Cam, Air Guitar Cam, the Chicken Dance and many others. “Whether you’re 7 or 70, it’s still cool when you’re on the video board or on television.”
Improved on-field games like an enhanced version of tug-of-war, mascot monkey races, toilet races and launch-a-ball also have become a hit with fans, which is markedly different than the mostly forgettable acts of three seasons ago.
The team has also focused its attention on fan experience outside the ballpark. There is only one way on and off the island, the Market Street Bridge, and the experience of getting over it had proved to be a headache in past years. Whitaker—and a number of season-ticket holders—estimate that time spent sitting in traffic after a game has been reduced by at least half simply because more bodies are in place to direct cars and people at the most hectic moments.
“It’s not a sexy point to what we do, but the last impression is often the one that makes the biggest impression,” said Whitaker, who can be spotted before and after games directing traffic and pedestrians. “If we can get people home comfortably, that doesn’t muddy their opinion of the rest of the night. You could have a great night at the ballpark, but if you sit in the parking lot for 30-45 minutes and don’t move, you’ll say, ‘Damn those Senators, they don’t know what they’re doing over there.'”
The Senators have proven that to be anything but true.
Fort Wayne TinCaps
The Fort Wayne TinCaps have combined an out-of-the-box approach with one of the finest new ballparks in the minor leagues to convert the franchise into one of the Midwest League’s best.
Parkview Field debuted in 2009, and with it a new identity for the baseball team. The club dropped its Wizards moniker for the TinCaps, a tribute to the folk hero Johnny Appleseed (who is believed to be buried in Fort Wayne) and the tin pot he was said to have worn on his hat. Despite early rumblings of discontent from passionate local diehards, the name—and how general manager Mike Nutter and his staff have marketed it—has proven to be a hit in Fort Wayne.
“We got ripped pretty good at first. I got a couple thousand e-mails complaining,” said Nutter, who has been with the team since 1999. “But to do this right, we needed to change everything in terms of perception—the free tickets and kind of do anything at all costs to get people to the games. We had to have the buffer of ‘That was when we were with the Wizards.’ And people have really bought in.”
That’s for sure. The TinCaps ranked third in attendance in the Midwest League, drawing 376,022 in 2011. Rough weather was likely the culprit in the team’s average of 5,612 dipping slightly from 2010, but it was still ahead of the 2009 average.
At the heart of the team’s success is the ballpark experience at Parkview Field. Jason Freier did not take the task of building a new ballpark in Fort Wayne lightly, so the CEO of Hardball Capital (Fort Wayne’s ownership group) visited roughly 70 facilities in the years leading up to the construction of Parkview. In many ways, what the team ended up with is a collection of the best features ballparks around the minors—and even the majors—have to offer.
“We incorporated a lot of features that we saw at a lot of ballparks. Rather than build from scratch, we took a bit from the best,” Freier said.
The rooftop seating in right field is modeled after the Cubs’ seating at Wrigley Field. The TinCaps have converted the area into a group-seating, all-you-can-eat venue where the menu changes every three innings.
The ballpark features a pair of concourse suites, which host small groups in an open-air area off the concourse level and was modeled after similar seating done by the Springfield Cardinals (Texas). The team’s large outfield bar and concert area is similar to the one in Greensboro (South Atlantic). Ownership also sought to improve upon concepts it had seen around the minors. After discovering that many indoor premium seating areas were not used enough because they lacked a good view of the field, the TinCaps made sure their club level lounge has the best view in the ballpark.
And Parkview Field is put to use year-round. Locals walk the concourse daily and the park averages roughly 400 events a year and draws 100,000 non-baseball patrons.
“Our goal is to keep the experience fresh,” Freier said.
But success is not due solely to the ballpark. The team has been on the cutting edge of promotional creativity, demonstrated best when Fort Wayne converted its video board to 3-D on Opening Day, and passed out 10,000 branded 3-D glasses to fans. The promotion earned the TinCaps top honors at Minor League Baseball’s Promotional Seminar in September.
“To have people walking away (from the seminar) saying that this (promotion) is something they did in Fort Wayne and we want to try that here . . . well, that’s not something that is always said,” Nutter said.
Vancouver is a sports town.
At the end of the last hockey season, it was the Canucks who were facing the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals. Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, keeping more gold medals on home soil than ever before.
But Vancouver’s most famous sporting successes have two things in common. One, they all take place in the winter months. And two, they are not baseball.
That is starting to change. The Vancouver Canadians found great success in the Northwest League in 2011, in their first season as an affiliate of their home-country Toronto Blue Jays. Team president Andy Dunn said he thinks this strong relationship will continue to thrive in the future.
“Being a Jays affiliate has helped with the fact that we can promote our brands across Canada,” Dunn said. “One major league team, one minor league team, all working to bring a World Series championship to Toronto and Canada. It will really pay off for us in the future when some of the kids who now start in Vancouver will be visible at the major league level in Toronto.”
While the organization plays in one of the biggest short-season markets, it is not necessarily one geared toward baseball. The team playfully highlighted that fact in an advertisement in the form of a fun spoof of the movie “Major League,” found on its Website.
Though the team’s affiliation with the Blue Jays is new, Nat Bailey Stadium is not. Local team owners Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney have invested in the 60-year-old facility since purchasing the Canadians in 2007. The Nat continued to go through significant changes prior to the 2011 season in order to help the club and the atmosphere at the ballpark, and the changes have helped to spur the team’s success.
As part of the renovation, the stadium got a complete electrical upgrade, with a large new video board added to the outfield wall. New stadium lights and a remodeled exterior have also helped modernize the facility.
“The building was basically completely restored and brought back to a level that people fondly remember over the past 50 years,” Dunn said. “Our facility has so much affinity in the local market. Everyone has a story and a great memory of coming to the Nat over the years. It has a feel of a minor league version of Wrigley.”
All of the improvements have made the Nat the place to be in Vancouver. The organization even implemented “Movie Nights at the Nat,” where fans of baseball and cinema alike can enjoy a film at the stadium.
Marketing the team to a diverse population helped sell out 30 of its 38 home games this season. Also contributing to the success has been a great presence in the local community.
“Our staff really commits and works extremely hard to be involved,” Dunn said. “Our involvement extends to hundreds of appearances and donations, and this past year we kicked off a new Vancouver Canadians Baseball Foundation.”
Dunn’s role in the team’s success cannot be overstated, Northwest League president Bob Richmond said.
“You have to look at the major reason these improvements occurred, and that reason is Andy and the staff he has put together,” Richmond said. “He has done a fantastic job in turning the franchise around. He is as astute an operator as we have ever had in this league, and that, coupled with owners willing to commit major dollars to accomplish their goal, has led to Vancouver being awarded the Bob Freitas Award.”