Lancaster Owners Aim For Turnaround

LANCASTER, Calif.--Imagine if one of the most prospect-rich teams in recent California League history took the field and nobody watched.

That scenario has played itself out in Lancaster, where the JetHawks--the high Class A affiliate of the Diamondbacks--have seen a precipitous attendance decline despite fielding some of baseball's most exciting prospects in recent years.

The JetHawks averaged 4,520 fans a game, third best in the California League, when they debuted in 1996. Last year, the club averaged 1,765 fans, a drop of 61 percent.

Even in 2004, when Lancaster was Baseball America's Team of the Year, fielding high-impact prospects including the vaunted Three Amigos (Conor Jackson, Carlos Quentin and Jamie D'Antona), attendance declined 20 percent from the previous year.

The sagging attendance figures fly in the face of an explosive growth pattern in Northern Los Angeles County's Antelope Valley, a rugged high desert region that has seen one of the nation's biggest population booms in the last 20 years.

The franchise is hopeful a new ownership group, among other factors, will spearhead a turnaround.

Relaunching Jethawks

Last November, the Ohio-based Carfagna family bought the franchise from Clutch Play Inc., an ownership group headed by then president and minority partner Mike Ellis for an unspecified sum believed to be between $3 million and $6 million.

The Carfagnas also own low Class A Lake County and short-season Everett. The exceedingly successful Captains, the South Atlantic League affiliate of the Indians, which have consistently ranked among the top draws in Class A.

Everett, the Northwest League affiliate of the Mariners, saw a five percent increase attendance in the Carfagnas' first year since purchasing the franchise.

The JetHawks have launched an aggressive new marketing campaign targeting disenfranchised fans that may have lost interest. They are calling it "Relaunch Your Inner JetHawk."

An aggressive direct-mail campaign and a reading program for elementary school students, which rewards kids with free tickets for reading books, are designed to integrate the franchise into the fast-changing community's consciousness in a more meaningful way.

"We envision sort of a return to the days when the JetHawks first came to town and attendance was great, when the community was excited to have the team there and the JetHawks were excited to be there," JetHawks vice president Peter Carfagna said. "That's our vision, to get back to that point.

"We know it's not going to happen overnight, but we feel a lot of the initiatives we are taking on are going to help."

The JetHawks are also counting on first-year manager Brett Butler, the popular former Dodgers outfielder, to help market the team. Butler will appear on local television ads during Dodgers broadcasts promoting the franchise.

"We can't underestimate what (Butler) brings," JetHawks general manager Brad Seymour said. "He's going to be an approachable person; he's very engaging and very personable, and in an environment like this--a minor league environment--you're going to be able do things with a person of his stature."

Seymour, who is in his third year with the team since coming to the Antelope Valley from the independent Sioux Falls Canaries, was the point man in negotiating a 10-year, $770,000 stadium naming rights deal with Clear Channel Communications in January 2005 and renegotiating a more friendly lease with the city of Lancaster in May 2004.

Seymour is bullish on the franchise's outlook. He cites the new ownership group, a newly installed high-definition video board and the presence of Butler, which he has heralded as "The Three Stars," as factors that will make an immediate impact.

Prospect Central

The Diamondbacks, who boast baseball's No. 1 ranked farm system in Baseball America's talent rankings (see page 20) thanks to their stable of star-quality position players, expect to field another prospect-rich team in Lancaster.

Carlos Gonzales, a 20-year-old five-tool outfielder who ranks as Arizona's No. 4 prospect, is the most exciting player projected to start in Lancaster.

Phenom Justin Upton, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft who signed a record-setting $6.1 million contract with Arizona in January, was projected to start the season in low Class A South Bend, but Diamondbacks farm director A.J. Hinch said a promotion to Lancaster or beyond is a possibility if it becomes apparent Upton is not challenged by the Midwest League.

Gonzales was the league MVP in 2005 on South Bend's league championship team that featured six players who had double-digit homer numbers and figures to send much of its nucleus to start the season in Lancaster.

Those power numbers figure to look even better at hitter-friendly Lancaster's high winds and thin air.

"If you look at the bats in South Bend last year and the kinds of seasons those guys had down there in the pitchers' league, they can just come up here and explode," JetHawks broadcaster Jeff Lasky said. "We've got a great chance of getting a really good ballclub. If nothing else, they're going to be fun to watch."

But for his part, Seymour is not counting on a winning team. He is hoping the Three Stars will do for the franchise what the Three Amigos did not, from a fan interest standpoint.

"You can't necessarily rely on the product on the field because if your team falls in the dumps and that's all you're relying on then you have nothing to stand on," Seymour said. "We figure 80 percent of our fans are coming out here for reasons other than baseball, and that's why we as a staff need to focus on what goes on off the field in foul territory, so to speak--the promotions, the fan experience--and really try to attract the family and the so-called non-baseball fan.

"You see it at the major league level too. It's different than going to a ballgame 10 or 15 years ago. You have the entertainment experience beyond the play on the field, and at the minor league level that's what our focus is. That's what our jobs are."

Gideon Rubin covers the California League for the Los Angeles Daily News.