Ken Young faced a series of difficult decisions when he and his partners moved the Calgary Cannons to Albuquerque to begin play in 2003.
Albuquerque had a rich minor league baseball history but had been without a baseball team since 2000, when the Albuquerque Dukes moved to Portland. The Dukes had been an affiliate of the Dodgers since 1972, when Tommy Lasorda managed the team to a Pacific Coast League championship.
This new franchise, however, was a Marlins’ affiliate. Young and general manager John Traub knew they had to find a way to respect the history of baseball in Albuquerque while building their own unique brand that differentiated themselves from the Dukes.
“The community’s preference back in 2003 was to still be associated with the Dodgers,” Young said. “But that just wasn’t going to be possible. We were bringing baseball back to Albuquerque, which had been a good baseball town when the Dukes left. The fans were thirsty for baseball.”
To create a new identity, the new franchise let fans vote on a team name. Fifty seven percent of voters wanted the team to be named the Isotopes, a reference to an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer Simpson tries to stop the local baseball team—the Springfield Isotopes—from moving to Albuquerque.
While some of the long-time Dukes fans were not thrilled with the Isotopes moniker, the team realized that it would be a boon to merchandising revenue, both at the park and online. To acknowledge the historical importance of the Dukes to Albuquerque, Isotopes jerseys emulated the Dukes’ red and yellow color configuration.
“We realized the merchandising was going to be key to our success,” Traub said. “There was a certain percentage of the traditionalists that wanted to keep the Dukes name, but the Isotopes name caught on so quickly. The amount of merchandise sales we were able to make was very good.”
Both Traub and Young are quick to note that the Isotopes were also the beneficiaries of some serendipity. Florida won the World Series and the Isotopes won their division in their first year as a Marlins’ affiliate.
“The big thing is that Albuquerque has a great history of baseball,” Young said. “We were fortunate to be able to bring a franchise here, and the city did a great job of building a first-rate facility for a reasonable price.”
Isotopes Park, as both Young and Traub point out, was key to jumpstarting the franchise’s success in Albuquerque. Young said his purchase of the Cannons was predicated on being able to move the franchise to Albuquerque. His wish was granted when the city of Albuquerque approved a referendum to spend $25 million to finance the renovation of Albuquerque Sports Stadium. In reality, the so-called renovation was closer to building a new ballpark than a true renovation.
“The first thing is we needed to have a new stadium built,” Traub said. “A brand new facility was built from scratch. It launched a new era for baseball here; new ownership, new identity and a new major league affiliate.”
The core philosophy of Isotopes management is to put customer service at the forefront. It’s something that Young and Traub emphasize, and that mantra of understanding and servicing the fans permeates the entire organization.
“Customer service is No. 1,” Young said. “Treat that fan right. I feel above all else that I’m a baseball fan, and have been for 45 years. We say, ‘What is it that the fans want, and let’s provide it to the people.’”
“Another core value is family-friendly baseball—young people, parents, grandparents having a good time. Our GM is dedicated to that philosophy. We want to create memories for the kids and parents for the rest of their lives. It’s important for the parents to watch their kids have a good time.”
Traub agreed that the foundation of the Isotopes’ success is providing outstanding customer service.
“We market ourselves as a community team,” Traub said. “We’re humble in our approach and genuine in our humility. We listen to what people say and take their feedback very seriously. We don’t cut any corners.
“It’s all about fun and affordability, and about families, of course. But it’s got to be about customer service. We greet them when they come in and when they’re leaving. We let kids run around the bases after every game. We have players and staff speak to schools, libraries and visit hospitals. We’re always out in the community, letting people know we’re out there.”
The cornerstone event of the season in Albuquerque was the Triple-A all-star game, which the Isotopes stretched out into a five-day event dubbed the “Triple-A All-Star Fiesta.” Keeping with the theme of respecting the history of baseball in Albuquerque while establishing their own identity, the Isotopes brought in former Dodgers greats Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Mike Marshall, Terry McDermott, Jack Perconte, Jerry Royster and Bill Russell to sign autographs and mingle with the fans.
The team also made Tommy Lasorda the first person inducted into the Albuquerque Baseball Hall of Fame.
“It was a tremendous event that took three years to plan,” Traub said. “We thought of every detail we could. We wanted to give fans something of a legacy to remember.”
Fun On The Job
Young and Traub both preach the importance of ensuring the fans are having fun, but making sure the employees within the organization are also enjoying themselves is another integral part of their business.
“My philosophy is if you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t be in the game,” Young said. “Our people work a lot of hours, but we try to make it fun around the ballpark. We took our employees to Las Vegas for a three-day trip for them to have fun. And that goes with John Traub, who tries to make it as fun and as light as possible, but to be serious about what’s going on, focus on customer service and always be thinking of ways to make the experience better for the fan.”
Traub said he has learned to delegate more responsibility to his staff this year, and they rewarded him by exceeding his expectations.
“We’re very casual and very upbeat,” Traub said. “We encourage participation from all of our staff, which is only about 20 people. We want the people to go out and have a sense of ownership over these areas. It’s a real close group, and I love our staff. They’re good people, professional and they like to have fun. When they’re having fun, it shows.”
In an organization that has excelled at customer service, creative marketing and assimilating itself within the community, the Isotopes have cultivated strong relationships that help the team remain popular no matter how they perform on the field.
“This has been a true success story in a very short period of time,” Traub said. “But we’ve been humbled by this because it’s surpassed all of our wildest dreams. We didn’t realize how passionate the fan base would be. It blows you away with the popularity this team has achieved in such a short amount of time.”