Double-A Freitas: New Hampshire

Minor league baseball is a unique business that takes a national pastime and blends it with family entertainment and community values. Rosters turn over every year and not all of the players will make it to the big leagues. So the staffs of the teams must find ways to continuously cycle fans through the turnstiles, whether the economy is soaring or spiraling.

The New Hampshire Fisher Cats are no exception to the rule and they take great pride in providing something that gets the community involved. Their attendance figures, charitable donations, promotions and relationship with the surrounding community are all parts of a resume that helped net the 2009 Double-A Freitas Award.

Although a minor league game is played in Stadium 71 times a year, the front-office staff doesn’t really consider the venue a ballpark. It’s a community center to them.

“Our belief is that if you serve your community, your community will serve you,” general manager Rick Brenner said. “We look for every opportunity we can find to help use this facility, this franchise and this team to better our community.”

The Fisher Cats operate like any other minor league team when it comes to game time, with on-field promotions and postgame fireworks twice a week. But they also go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to fan interaction and involvement when it isn’t game day.

“The way we look at it, the more fans that buy tickets, they’re creating the opportunity for us to have this job,” Brenner said. “We do everything we can to put our fans first,” Brenner siad. “All the way down to taking off your sunglasses and looking them in the eye.

“A big part of the show is the way we treat them and the interaction. We try to be as customer friendly as possible. In our industry we’re a choice. It’s our job to make it as easy as possible for someone to choose us, whether it’s someone buying one ticket or a sponsor buying a package.”

Outside of the typical operations, the Fisher Cats often play host to other baseball activities. USA Baseball makes a trip to the New England Collegiate Baseball League every summer and play at Stadium. The ballpark, or community center, also plays host to a slew of high school and AAU teams. In an effort to raise money for their programs, the high schools or leagues purchase tickets to Fisher Cat games at a reduced price. They sell them at the regular price and keep the difference for themselves. As part of the fundraiser, the teams then get to play a regular season game on the same field as the professionals.

When it’s not all about baseball, the New Hampshire organization also makes a grand effort in raising money for charitable foundations. Since 2006, the Fisher Cats have helped raise over $1.5 million for different foundations. One of those provides scholarships for 10 college-bound students in the state as well as two in Northern Massachusetts. The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation collects applications and chooses the winners that best combine academic and athletic excellence. Each winning student is awarded $2,500 that the Fisher Cats were able to collect from raffles and baseball dinner proceeds.

On top of all that, the Fisher Cats managed to set new attendance records in 2009 despite much of the public looking for ways to save money.

The Fisher Cats entertained a total of 386,991 fans this season, up 3.7 percent from 2008. They also set a single-game attendance record at 8,903, averaged a franchise-best 5,608 fans per game (up 5.2 percent from 2008) and had 18 standing room only crowds.

“You build a stadium like this in a town like this, the baseball fan will find you,” Brenner added. “So now it’s our job to let that person enjoy the game and find other ways to get the community involved with us. That’s minor league baseball.”

They also were recognized by several other organizations. PETA gave the ballpark its most vegetarian friendly award for a second straight year while the grounds crew won Pioneer Athletics field of excellence award.

Vice president of business operations Tim Restall is a New Hampshire native and joined the franchise when it arrived in the fall of 2003 after working with the West Michigan White Caps.

“It was great to come back and see minor league baseball get brought to the state,” he said. “Working for West Michigan I saw firsthand what baseball did for a community. To be able to come back and build that over time, it’s great to see what we can give back.”.