Before news of the Kinston/Carolina/Pensacola shift broke last week, I called down to Huntsville general manager Buck Rogers to see if he could confirm the many rumors that his ballclub was in fact on its way out of town.
"If you were the owner of a team and you were packing a team up, you wouldn't be spending money and putting effort into fixing (the ballpark) up," Rogers replied, essentially shooting down those rumors.
(Team owner Miles Prentice later called back as well, responding to the question of whether he's selling the team by stating that they're trying to make things work in Huntsville, but that you can never rule anything out.)
So, no, Huntsville is staying put and working to improve what has been a challenging couple of seasons. Prentice is partnering with the city on a few much-needed renovations to Joe W. Davis Municipal Stadium. Much of the work is more baseball-related than fan-related, geared toward providing a better product for their big league affiliate Milwaukee Brewers.
One of the offseason projects has been to re-aim the stadium lighting. The Stars' ballpark was built as a multipurpose facility in 1985 but has been used almost exclusively as a baseball ballpark for some time. The lighting, however, has remained aimed for multipurpose use, and the team had heard some complaints about its poor quality. This project should go a ways toward improving that, Rogers said.
Huntsville also laser-graded the playing field, evening out a surface that had built up in some areas as much as four to seven inches. Rogers said accumulation of grass clippings over the years caused the uneven playing field. The team will also re-sod the field in the spring.
The team also added a second batting tunnel and a new dugout drainage system—the team had to postpone games last season when dugouts flooded following a rain storm. "The field would be fine, but we'd have rainouts because the dugouts were flooded," Rogers said.
The Stars are also focusing on providing a better product for fans, though bad luck has contributed to the team seeing attendance dip by over 40 percent the past two seasons combined. In 2009, 43 percent of Huntsville's home games were affected by weather, Rogers said, and attendance dropped 36.6 percent–from a 2,389 per-game average in 2008 to 1,514 in '09. Attendance dropped again last season, by 7.3 percent down to 1,404 average.
The team tries to do a lot of promotions and sponsorships with the nearby NASA facilities, but cuts in spending dried up a lot of those dollars.
Rogers, who enters his fourth season with Huntsville after spending the bulk of his career in the Florida State League, remains confident they can turn things around. An improved economy, fewer cancellations, and even more focus on marketing, promotions and rebuilding a season-ticket base are among the team's objectives. They've got an Octoberfest celebration planned for Opening Day and a flash-mob takeover of the field in the works for sometime during the season.
However, Rogers also realizes that selling baseball in football-mad Alabama will always be a challenge–particularly when August rolls around and the high school season gets underway and the college season is just around the corner.
"They have Alabama and they have Auburn," Rogers said of the two football rivals. "That is the (equivalent to) the Yankees, the Lakers, the Green Bay Packers. Those are the teams. You drive around this state and you are going to see Alabama and Auburn. You're not going to see license-plate holders with the Huntsville Stars."