No Place Like Home

The minor league affiliation shuffle wound to a close in late September, and the big winners all seemed to have one thing in common: They affiliated with the hometown big league team.

Or the home-state team. Or even a team considered a regional draw.

Regardless, the golden rule of player-development contracts still holds true: The best affiliation is a local one.

The Columbus Clippers (International) bid farewell to the Nationals just two years after the Yankees left town and struck it rich when they completed what had become the worst-kept secret in minor league baseball. The Clippers will unveil Huntington Park in 2009 as the home of the Indians, who play their big league games just 140 miles northeast on Interstate 71, after signing a four-year player-development contract.

The combination should certainly be a recipe for success, and a boost to the team that drew 537,889 fans this year, seventh-best in the IL.

“After 32 years with the Pirates, Yankees and Nationals, now to have a chance to affiliate with the Indians, one of our two Ohio teams, going into a new ballpark . . .

it’s like the stars have aligned,” Clippers president Ken Schnacke said.

Columbus is not the only team moondancing about its new affiliate.

Buffalo landed on its feet after seeing a 14-year affiliation with the Indians come to an end by outdueling IL-mate Syracuse for a partnership with the in-state Mets. Though Buffalo is anything but a subway ride to Queens, the Mets’ fan base certainly spreads beyond the borough and should provide a spike in attendance and a wealth of marketing opportunities for the Bisons.

“We ended up putting our press conference streaming live on our Website because, as word got out (of the affiliation), we had so many people calling and wanting to come to the press conference that we realized we couldn’t fit everyone in,” said Buffalo vice president/general manager Mike Buczkowski, for whom the signing was only the second biggest event of the week—his daughter got married the following weekend: “They are both great events, but I think the wedding was higher up on the importance scale.”

The deals were not limited to the big boys, as low Class A Wisconsin tossed aside 16 years with the Mariners to ink a four-year affiliation contract with the Brewers. “This is the time of year the Packers are supposed to be in the news, not the Timber Rattlers,” Wisconsin president Rob Zerjav said. “But we’ve been on the front page.”

Even out-of-state teams can claim victory by signing on with a team that has regional appeal, as was the case when Triple-A Albuquerque rekindled its relationship with the Dodgers. West Virginia and Pittsburgh may be rivals in college football, but the new two-year agreement between the low Class A Power and Pirates could certainly be the start of something wonderful as the big league club looks to reinvest in its farm system. (You think Pirates fans will drive two hours to cheer/boo Pedro Alvarez next year?)

And it will certainly be interesting to see what happens with Double-A Jacksonville after the Suns signed a two-year player-development contract with the Marlins once the Dodgers departed for Chattanooga. Can a major league team that often puts up minor league attendance figures provide a boost at the gate for its affiliate in a baseball-saturated state?

Home Cooking

Finding new and creative ways to entertain fans at the ballpark, and keep them coming back for more, is still the secret to success in the minors. But it’s not the only way to win at the gate.

Two years ago Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre did little new except sign a player-development contract with the Yankees, and suddenly a wealth of Yankees fans began pouring into outdated Lackawanna County Stadium. The team changed its name, from Red Barons to Yankees (why not?), put together some creative ticket packages and saw attendance spike from 376,284 to 580,908. Even after the buzz wore off a bit this year, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre still drew 485,999.

So it’s little surprise so many teams jumped at the opportunity to sign with a local affiliate.

Rumors began to swirl in Appleton with a month remaining in the season that the reason the Timber Rattlers had not renewed their affiliation with the Mariners could have something to do with the Brewers’ contract expiring in West Virginia. Zerjav couldn’t escape the speculation. Fans asked him about it daily at the ballpark. The local paper wrote stories on why the deal should be done.

“It cemented it in my head. The public wants the Brewers, the fans want the Brewers. I need to take a look at that,” said Zerjav, noting that it creates another reason for a broader base of fans to come to the ballpark. “We’re going to draw from a bigger radius. Fans are excited to follow the draft and since we are a Single-A team, they will be able to see who the Brewers draft (play) here right away.

“In the past, (our motto) was come for the fun, stay for the game. In the past people were coming out for the fun, but I think we will now see more baseball fans coming out. We’ll keep it fun, but I think we will see more of a focus on the game.”

New marketing opportunities should also be plentiful in Buffalo, where the 400 miles between the Bisons and the Mets have been shortened by the Mets’ television network, SNY. Mets games had already become household events for cable subscribers in Buffalo, and the Bisons are confident that will translate into interest in the organization’s top affiliate.

“Our goal is to see how we can make this a bigger Mets market than it already is,” Buczkowski said.

One way, of course, is to take on the Yankees. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, that is. “We want to contact Scranton about forming a mini-Subway Series package,” said Buczkowski, who added that the Bisons plan to change their logo and team colors to better identify with the Mets.

Simply bringing the Mets to Buffalo was no simple task. Both Syracuse and Buffalo courted the team after the Mets made it clear they would not re-sign with New Orleans. New York Daily News beat writer (and BA correspondent) Adam Rubin reported that the Mets were interested in purchasing at least a portion of the Syracuse franchise, but were turned down. The team then chose Buffalo, cementing a relationship between the Wilpon and Rich family ownership groups.

“Ownership is very important, and ultimately these agreements are about people,” Bucz­kowski said. “The family ownership structure the Mets have is similar to our ownership. That was a big selling point for the Mets.”

In Columbus, the Clippers will also explore television opportunities with the Indians-owned Sports-Time Ohio regional sports network. Schnacke said while the discussions are in a preliminary stage, the Indians “are interested in having some of our games on there.”

Local ties are not only a benefit for the minor league affiliates. Keeping farm teams near the big league ballparks provides easier opportunities for team officials to get out to see prospects and makes rehab assignments for players a much simpler process.   

The new contract in Appleton, however, goes beyond just traditional cliches for the Timber Rattlers and Brewers.

“It’s a win-win-win,” Zerjav said. “It’s a win for us, a win for the Brewers and a win for our fans.”

So Hard To Say Goodbye

Just as landing a local affiliate can provide a boost for a team, losing one can be devastating. The Dodgers and Triple-A Las Vegas had been together since 2001, and the relationship was the closest Vegas would get to a hometown team.

But Cashman Field became too much for the Dodgers to bear, and they left for their former longtime affiliate in Albuquerque. Once Syracuse aligned with Nationals, the Blue Jays and 51s were the last ones standing and a relationship that makes little geographic sense was born.

Both sides made the best of it, but the 51s made little secret about their displeasure in the arrangement.

“It is what it is. We’re going to make the most of it,” Vegas general manager Don Logan told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Obviously there are a lot more Dodgers fans here than Blue Jays fans . . . but we’re going to try to do some more things promotionally, and we want to grow the business.”

The Blue Jays may find Cashman Field a shock to the system after playing in Syracuse’s newer Alliance Bank Stadium. Cashman Field features few of the amenities found in a modern ballpark, including a cramped clubhouse, outdoor battings cages and a weight room on the opposite side of the ballpark.

“Syracuse put in a new playing field last year and they had some nice indoor (batting) cages they don’t have here,” Blue Jays farm director Dick Scott told the Review-Journal. “That’s something we’ll have to address at some point—the cages.”

Civil Rights Game On The Move

Don’t bother trying to console Dave Chase.

The Memphis Redbirds (Pacific Coast) president finds no silver lining in the fact that the Civil Rights Game, the event he first dreamed of while driving to the ballpark and worked tirelessly to help become a reality in 2007, has become such a hit that Major League Baseball decided it deserves a bigger stage and brighter spotlight in a big league ballpark.

After two years of preseason exhibition games in Memphis, the Civil Rights Game will move to Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park for two years, beginning with a regular season tilt in June between the Reds and White Sox.

“Everyone is trying to convince me to take pride that we created the game in Memphis and hosted it for two years and now it got to the point where major league teams want to host it,” Chase said. “No, that didn’t take the sting out of it.”

In its two years, the Civil Rights Game has been much more than the final exhibition game before Opening Day. The event created to celebrate baseball’s role in the Civil Rights Movement featured off-field activities including a round table discussion, an awards banquet recognizing those who worked to promote equality, and tours of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Though the idea of the Civil Rights Game may have originated with Chase, a collaborative effort was needed to make it a reality, said MLB vice president Jimmie Lee Solomon.

“The Redbirds and Dave Chase, along with (former NAACP president) Benjamin Hooks and (Civil Rights Museum president) Beverly Roberston all came to Major League Baseball with the idea of a civil rights game. That idea was taken in and elaborated on and enhanced by Major League Baseball . . . I get a little taken aback when people try and place some ownership on the Civil Rights Game. It was a joint effort. It’s a little disingenuous to say who owns the Civil Rights Game.”

Those in Memphis think they deserved another shot at hosting the event they helped create, though.

“The College World Series wasn’t what it is now after just two years. These events take some time to build,” Chase said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it develops. I did ask that I get invited to the game next year . . . They said yes.”

Though the concept of the Civil Rights Game has been nothing but a success (a model that will continue in Cincinnati), the on-field event itself has been plagued by problems and bad luck. And much like the creation of the Civil Rights Game, the blame too should be shared.

Chase admits that MLB took a financial hit after reimbursing the Redbirds for gameday and ballpark operations—Memphis made no profit from hosting the event and donated all of the gate—and that attendance figures were lacking. The game, which drew 12,815 in 2007 and 7,717 the following year, was played amid rainy skies and off-field distractions. A famed local bishop passed away shortly before the 2007 event, and the University of Memphis was playing in the NCAA basketball tournament during the ’08 game.

There was also the fact that tickets went for the steep price of $50.

“No, I don’t think Memphis could have done anything more. They were dealt some unfortunate cards,” Solomon said.

Chase disagrees. He argues that Memphis could have done much more, but was prevented to do so since MLB controlled the marketing of the event. The team was limited to selling tickets only to season-ticket holders and could do no online sales since MLB used its own ticket provider,

“That we weren’t selling tickets to the Civil Rights Game during the season is crazy,” Chase said.

Though the Memphis corporate community failed to embrace the game, Chase said the Redbirds were limited to which partners they could use. AutoZone was the title sponsor of the event, but Chase said they could use neither Memphis-based FedEx nor Coca-Cola because they conflicted with MLB sponsorships.

Solomon believes Cincinnati will be a fitting host over the next two years. Great American Ball Park sits a few blocks from the newly constructed Freedom Center, which commemorates the city’s role in slaves’ passage to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

Yet will the message of the game will be lost under the brights lights of a major league ballpark? Solomon insists the answer is no.

“We will have uniforms made for the Civil Rights Game like we did in Memphis, so when a viewer tunes in they will see that it is not a normal game,” Solomon said. “We will have all the drop-ins (during the ESPN broadcast) talking about civil rights. Even though this is a regular season game, it will be set apart because of its look and its feel and the information from its broadcast.”