Living The Dream
New Harrisburg GM makes an instant impact
Baseball dreams do come true. Just ask Randy Whitaker.
After all, Whitaker's first job in professional baseball (as a general
manager, no less) could not have come at a more fortuitous time. The
longtime marketing and sales director for a local Harrisburg, Pa.,
television station took the helm for the Senators roughly 18 months ago
and has been charged with guiding the Double-A Eastern League affiliate
through a $45 million renovation of the ballpark he has been attending
as a fan for 20 years.
What more could he have asked for?
Well, how about this: The team is drawing over 1,000 more fans per game than last year and the Senators—who in recent years had become one of the league's worst draws—topped their 2008 overall attendance with a month left in the season.
"I've been coming here since 1989," Whitaker said of Metro Bank Park, which debuted in 1987 as Riverside Stadium. "I've seen the slow build up of the stadium and the slow decline of attendance and now the resurgence. This is just fun. It's fun to be here. The attitude, the whole mood in the ballpark is just tremendous."
Feels Like New
Metro Bank Park certainly had potential. Most notable is its setting.
The Senators are one of a few teams to play on an island, and the club's city-funded renovations center on taking advantage of being surrounded by the Susquehanna River. However the antiquated facility, which was replete with bleacher seating throughout, had none of the modern ballpark amenities that has helped spur attendance records in the sport for the past five seasons.
The club is under new management since an ownership group led by Michael Reinsdorf, son of White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, purchased the Senators in 2007 for a reported $13.25 million. Chief among the new leadership's goal is to make the ballpark a more fan-friendly environment.
The two-phase face lift has begun to do just that.
On Opening Day, the Senators unveiled an outfield videoboard system that replaced an outdated scoreboard that better resembled a "giant Lite-Brite board," Whitaker said. The new system includes a 56-by-21-foot video board in right field, a 6-by-125-foot LED board along the right-field wall and a 75-foot one on the left-field wall.
"Our previous video system wasn't even a video system," Whitaker said. "It had such a low pixel count, that by the end, I said (to our staff) stop putting pictures up there.Now, essentially, we have the biggest darn TV in central Pennsylvania."
On May 22, the team debuted a new feature that has been key to this year's attendance surge: a boardwalk that runs foul pole-to-foul pole beyond the outfield wall. It features seating (actual flip-down chairs) that replace the bleachers, a variety of concessions and a view that has brought fans out in droves. The boardwalk stands 14-feet above the playing surface (the same height as the 100-year flood plain) and, when combined with the new videoboards, creates a more fan-friendly atmosphere.
"It's not just a design feature, but functional," Whitaker said.
The renovation continues this offseason. The boardwalk will be extended down the third-base line and will wrap around the stadium to first base. The team will add 21 luxury suites, with glass-enclosed views of the playing field in front and of the river in back. A new club level will be built underneath the grandstand behind home plate.
Keep 'Em Coming
Whitaker doesn't believe the recent attendance surge is fleeting, and he says the renovations should continue to provide a boost for years to come. After all, the team that finished last in the Eastern League with 164,182 fans last year has not always been a bottom feeder.
The Senators ranked as high as second in the league in 1991 with 233,423 fans and remained in the middle of the pack as the league added new teams and new ballparks. The club ranked seventh in 2001 with a franchise record 279,691 but has seen a steady decline before bottoming out last year.
But a new emphasis on marketing, giveaways and in-game entertainment—in addition to the renovations—has jumped Harrisburg's average attendance from 2,488 last year to 3,442 this season. The club ranks ninth in the 12-team league with 175,539 in 51 openings and has succeeded despite a string of bad weather that has resulted in six cancellations.
"We've had a lot of go-away days," Whitaker said. "Those are what I call days when it has been raining early, and then even though we have a beautiful evening, people have already changed their plans. We've had an awful lot of games that weather has affected."
And as for Whitaker in his first full season as general manager? He says he's just living the dream and has found an easy transition from TV to baseball.
"(Minor league baseball) is similar to my old business," he said. "The TV business was about getting as many people to watch as possible and to entertain them so that you could market to the people who are watching the station. Now, the entertainment has just changed."
No Word In Richmond
Meanwhile, the Eastern League's self-imposed Aug. 1 deadline to announce which club will move to Richmond next year came and went without an announcement.
League president Joe McEacharn said that a team has been identified and that he expects it open next season in Richmond at the Diamond ballpark, the city's antiquated facility that was home to the Triple-A Braves for 42 years before the club left town following the 2008 season. He declined to comment on several published reports that Connecticut, whose sale to a local Richmond ownership group fell through this summer, is still the team on the move.
"We are continuing to work through the process," McEacharn said. "We have some preliminary decisions made and are just going through the approval process . . . We've identified the team we are going through the process with. We had more than one team interested, so we are working through it now. When it's done it's done, not before."
McEacharn also disagreed with the notion that moving a team now to the Diamond will limit future ballpark options in case the city decides to renovate the existing facility rather than build a new one.
"We actually think that our playing there in 2010 and 2011 will help us find a long-term solution," he said. "It is a leap of faith. We have developed a nice working relationship with Richmond and its regional partners and expect that relationship to grow. We are in agreement and recognize the Diamond is not a long-term solution. The thought is that we are going to take the first step and bring to them a product that they will embrace and the community will embrace. When they see what we have to offer, that will only heighten their enthusiasm and commitment to get something done long term."
What that long-term plan is remains to be seen. Financing for a new downtown facility fell through with the sale of the Defenders and no new plan has been proposed. Meanwhile, McEacharn admits that the plan to limit the new team's stay at the Diamond to just two years may be unrealistic.
"I'm always a skeptic," he said. "I anticipate playing in the Diamond for three years, that's because everybody else says two. Getting a stadium designed and financed is a long preparation. Even if we were to start tomorrow, it would be difficult to get into a stadium for 2012. We're not setting any deadlines. The community and mayor know we don't want to be in the Diamond five years from now. That's not an option and they know that's not an option."