It’s a tried and true recipe for success: Take a town hungry for baseball, give it a consistent winner in a beautiful, new ballpark and then sit back and watch the turnstiles spin.
The Greeneville Astros have followed the plan to a tee in their five seasons in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, consistently providing a high-quality product while annually leading the league in attendance, two key reasons why they are the 2008 short-season winners of the Freitas Award.
Joining the 1996 Bluefield Orioles and the 2004 Burlington Indians, Greeneville becomes only the third Appy League club to win the award in its 20-year history.
“I knew Bob Freitas, so it means a lot to me to have one of our cubs win that award and have the feeling you have when you win something like that,” league president Lee Landers said. “It says a lot about the passion of the Astros ballclub, that they do a great job. And some of their philosophies have rubbed off on other clubs.
“In this business, it can get stagnant sometimes, but with the way they do things they help keep you on your toes. It’s helped all our clubs.”
To illustrate how popular the baseball team is in Greeneville, Tenn. (pop. 15,198), consider that even in a year in which Astros finished last in the Western Division at 30-36, they still established a new attendance record at 51,806.
It’s hardly an isolated incident.
Greeneville won the league title in 2004, its first season, and has drawn at least 50,000 fans in each of its five seasons, save for 2005 when it fell 37 spectators short. In that span, no other Appy League team has drawn more than the 42,016 that Danville did in 2007.
Pioneer Park, which the Astros rent from Division II Tusculum College for three months each summer, gives the Astros a built-in advantage. The park offers the finest atmosphere and playing surface among the Appalachian League’s 10 home fields. In fact, Astros head groundskeeper Israel Hinojosa won the league’s Sports Turf manager of the year award in 2008.
But Greeneville general manager David Lane attributes the franchise’s drawing power to more than just Pioneer Park.
“Out staff puts together the best promotional schedule in the league,” Lane said. “We won the league’s promotional award for the past two seasons. We try to have Opening Day each night, try to reach out to everyone by offering a baseball game and a fun environment.”
Lane and his assistants, Hunter Reed and Stephen Pugh, have worked together for three years with Greeneville and they share similar backgrounds in minor league baseball. Among the best ideas hit upon by the trio—aside from fireworks, the minor league standby:
• An annual faith night featuring a pre-game concert by a local Christian rock band
• A military appreciation night, during which veterans are admitted free and a camouflaged cap autographed by the team is auctioned for charity
• A Parrothead night featuring a Jimmy Buffet cover band
“Our goal is to create a fun atmosphere from time you get out of the car to time you leave the park after the game,” Lane said.
Landers adds: “For a family of four or five, sometimes there’s only one baseball fan in the bunch. Someone in the group wants to go to the game because they don’t want to cook; somebody else wants to go for the other attractions. You have to whet the appetite for the entire family, not just one person.”
Scott Niswonger, the local industrialist, philanthropist and trustee at Tusculum envisioned that baseball could thrive in Greene County, Tenn., when he helped pave the way for the franchise’s move from Martinsville, Va., for the 2004 season. The success of the Astros, though, has exceeded everyone’s expectations.