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Some Minor League Teams In Limbo

by Will Lingo
May 3, 2004

When more than 7,300 fans showed up at Riverwalk Stadium to see the home debut of the Montgomery Biscuits, the players who had spent time at the Southern League franchise's previous home in Orlando were understandably impressed.

"This was crazy," Biscuits outfielder Dan DeMent told The Montgomery Advertiser. "We knew this place would be sold out. We knew everybody was excited about baseball coming here. But man, this was nuts. Absolutely fabulous. It couldn't have been better."

The Orlando Rays were never a big draw, and the atmosphere at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex was never the greatest. The task of drawing fans and getting them excited about their local team became even more difficult last season, after the announcement the team was moving to Alabama.

The Rays had an announced average attendance of 2,382 fans a game last year in Orlando, second-worst in Double-A. The only franchise that was worse, the Eastern League's New Haven Ravens, faced a similar situation because the team was moving to New Hampshire this season.

Another Southern League team, the Greenville Braves, is in that spot this year. Right before Opening Day, the team announced it will move to Pearl, Miss., next season, after 20 years in South Carolina.

Fans were still turning out early in the season, however, in spite of the G-Braves' 2-9 start. After four home dates, the team was averaging 3,061 fans a game, in line with what it has done in recent years.

Tunnel Is Actually A Cave

A major mitigating factor to consider when checking out the situations those teams are in, however, is that they have a happy conclusion almost assured at the end of their struggles. Greenville general manager Steve DeSalvo, for instance, is already splitting time between South Carolina and Mississippi this season.

And on the other hand you have the Battle Creek Yankees. The Midwest League franchise all but had the moving trucks backed up to the ballpark over the winter, with plans to move to Dubuque, Iowa. Then voters in Dubuque threw a small wrench into those plans, rejecting the proposal that would have paid for a new ballpark.

So Riverside Baseball, the ownership group that essentially bought the franchise to move it, has a team in a market that is has spurned but hasn't left. It has no immediate prospects for leaving, either. It's almost like a married couple that wants to split up but stays together for the children.

"We've had a very successful franchise on the field, with seven straight winning seasons and seven straight playoff appearances," said Scott Sailor, the team's director of special projects. "Unfortunately, that hasn't translated into attendance or financial success."

And it's not likely to get any better. Sailor is the team's de facto general manager, with Sam Bernabe focusing on his job as GM of the Iowa Cubs (Pacific Coast). The Iowa ownership group bought the Battle Creek franchise three years ago.

Sailor is trying all kinds of promotions to get fans in Battle Creek to come to the ballpark. In the boldest move early in the season, the Yankees paid people a dollar to come to the game. General admission tickets were free (box seats were regular price), and everyone who came through the gate was handed a dollar bill.

It was a bold promotion and has generated a lot of attention for the club. Unfortunately, it brought out a crowd of just 660.

"It got people in Battle Creek at least talking about the Battle Creek Yankees in a positive way in April," Sailor said. "Hopefully we made some new fans out of that."

Born Under A Bad Logo

The Battle Creek franchise has struggled from the time it joined the Midwest League in 1995. The team announced its first nickname, the Golden Kazoos, after leaving Madison, Wis., following the 1994 season, but neglected to register the trademark. A local man registered it instead and sued the team. Rather than fight a legal battle, the team became the Michigan Battle Cats instead. While the snafu did save the world from the Golden Kazoos, the Battle Cats logo turned out to be one of the worst in the minors.

Just before the first game in Battle Creek, the local newspaper reported that the team might be leaving town. In part that's because the first owners of the team signed a three-year lease, and it's been renewed annually since then. The Yankees affiliation that started in 2003 was an unexpected benefit for the club that prompted the new name, but it didn't turn around the long-term fortunes of the club.

"It's not a model of stability for the minor leagues," Sailor said. "Baseball here in Battle Creek has almost always been a year-to-year proposition, unfortunately.

"We're dealing with it the best we can."

The team has more interesting promotions planned--including a Golden Kazoos Night, when anyone with a BCGK souvenir gets in free--but realistically, there's a big "Franchise For Sale" sign in front of the ballpark and everyone knows it.

"Attendance increased in the first two years of our ownership, and our goal is to increase it this year, though people say we're crazy," Sailor said. "But it's always been tough in Battle Creek, and it's going to continue to be tough unless a local buyer makes a huge commitment to this franchise.

"It would be tough for someone to make a go of it here. Not impossible, but tough."

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