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Minor league parks get year-round use
by Will Lingo
This is a quiet time of year for minor league baseball. The season has ended, so it's time to assess what happened this season and plan for next year. The Winter Meetings are around the corner, so teams are figuring out what they need to get done in Dallas--aside from hanging out at the hotel bar. And ballparks sit empty until next spring rolls around.
At least that's the way things used to be.
More and more in recent years, minor league teams have looked for ways to bring more events into their ballparks, beyond the 70 or so baseball games that take place from April through August.
That includes non-baseball events during the season--most notably the successful Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan tour that stopped at minor league parks across the country this year--as well as gatherings of every variety to keep people coming to the stadium even when the warm summer weather is just a memory.
Halloween parties or haunted houses are frequent offseason ballpark events. World Series parties are always popular as well, and the Round Rock Express had a particularly successful one this year. That makes sense, given that Round Rock has been an Astros affiliate as both a Double-A and Triple-A team, and many of Houston's young contributors played in Round Rock.
The Jacksonville Suns (Southern) played host to a charity softball game between Georgia and Florida alumni before the schools' annual football game in the city in October. At the utilitarian end of the spectrum, the Hickory Crawdads (South Atlantic) invited people out to their ballpark as part of the city's household hazardous waste and electronics collection day.
Always Something At The Hank
Perhaps no team does more to make its ballpark a year-round venue than the Mobile BayBears, though. The team's "Haunting at the Hank" haunted house runs for four days around Halloween, and it's followed by the BayBears Snow Park later in the offseason when the weather gets colder.
The snow park takes shape in the team's Gaslight Park picnic area outside the main entrance to Hank Aaron Stadium, as the team creates tons of artificial snow every day and charges admission for 90-minute sessions to play in the snow.
The stadium complex also features a wiffle-ball park just behind the berm beyond the left-field fence that can be used during BayBears games and other events, a banquet facility, and the BayBear Beach and Boardwalk that includes a water slide for children and outdoor bar for adults.
The team continues its efforts to establish a one-stop entertainment destination for Mobile with plans to build a lighted driving range, called "Field of Greens," next to the stadium that would be open year-round.
"The key to our facility is offering year-round venues for those in our community to be able to use," team president Bill Shanahan told the Mobile Register. "The next logical step--after the 70 baseball games a year and other games we host, plus the banquet facilities here--was to create other year-round entertainment opportunities."
The team hopes to open the driving range next summer, expanding it if there's enough support and eventually adding batting cages as well. The team also wants to build another, larger banquet hall and eventually a Mobile baseball hall of fame.
Music Festival In Memphis
The reason for the extra events and facilities at minor league ballparks isn't hard to figure out: more money. The Memphis Redbirds (Pacific Coast), for example, brought Minor League Baseball's promotional seminar to their ballpark this fall, then got an unexpected payday when a music festival that was displaced from New Orleans ended up at AutoZone Park.
The Voodoo Music Experience featured such musical groups as Nine Inch Nails and drew about 7,500 people to the ballpark with little advance publicity and minimal preparation. It went so well that there's now talk about bringing a bigger event to Memphis on a permanent basis.
Redbirds president and general manager Dave Chase said he would like to bring another event to the ballpark. The Redbirds made money from concession sales during the Voodoo concert, and Chase said sales were strong.
"About $85,000 is the gross," he said. "Obviously, it nets out to a whole lot less than that. But a five-figure payday for us in late October is good."
AutoZone is better suited than most minor league parks to bring in different events because of its infrastructure. The stadium has plenty of room for fans, on the field and in the stands, premium seating and hospitality areas, a video board, covered areas and room for multiple stages. But most minor league parks have facilities that are comparable.
So no longer is the local ballpark just for baseball. More and more, it's a year-round entertainment venue, benefiting both minor league clubs and their communities.