The Future’s So Bright

The best is still ahead for one of minor league baseball’s most accomplished franchises.

The venerable Columbus Clippers will be moving to new Huntington Park in 2009 and will begin a new affiliation with the Indians.

“Everyone’s so excited, all the way up to Cleveland,” Columbus general manager Ken Schnacke said. “This has just been great. For the stars to align like this, to be able to do this with the new ballpark, it’s just been a great experience. It’s really reinvigorated our franchise.”

It is the team’s longevity, which has consistently made the Clippers one of the International League’s best draws, that earned them the Triple-A Freitas Award.

Although the Clippers are excited about moving to their new facility, they first had to pay homage to their old park, Cooper Stadium, a facility that was truly ahead of its time.

Cooper Stadium, originally known as Red Bird Stadium, opened in 1932 and was hailed as one of the best parks in baseball. However, by 1970 the park was badly in need of repairs. Columbus’ first IL franchise, the Jets, left for Charleston, W.Va., and the city was without minor league baseball for six years.

When the renovations were finally made prior to the Clippers’ arrival in 1977, Cooper Stadium was again turned into one of the minors’ best ballparks. The renovated facility was one of the first in the minors to feature skyboxes and Astroturf, making it a park truly ahead of its time.

“The renovation of the old stadium in 1976 was really the first step in the rejuvenation of minor league baseball,” Schnacke said. “No one had ever attempted to put that kind of money, and it was almost six million dollars, into minor league baseball, and we debuted with a completely remodeled facility with real suites and Astroturf and amenities that were really unheard of at this level.”

The Clippers remained competitive attendance-wise throughout most of their tenure in Cooper Stadium, even as the ballpark became outdated again in the 1990s and the city began offering more sporting options with the arrival of the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer.

“The competition is a lot more intense,” Schnacke said. “We hang our hat on being family affordable and wholesome entertainment, and of course the structure of how major league and minor league baseball interact really makes that possible at our level. We don’t have player salaries that are our responsibility, you have a lot of help from your major league affiliate, so that makes the whole process easier.”

That process also involves the Clippers’ interacting with the Columbus community, where the team supports several charities and youth organizations. The Clippers sponsor a Little League for boys and girls and work with a children’s hospital. The team also works with the Arthritis Foundation, where Schnacke is a member of the board, and the Miracle League, an organization that builds fields for use by children with disabilities.

The Clippers have also stayed attuned to their fans’ needs and desires. The team will continue its “Dime a Dog Night” promotion in the new park. Columbus is also home to the headquarters of White Castle restaurants, and the team puts on at least of a couple of “10 cent Sliders” nights each year. Furthermore, all of the group party areas at the new ballpark will be positioned so their occupants can still see the game, something they couldn’t always do at Cooper Stadium.

“Our operation’s going to be more efficient,” Schnacke said. “We can offer better amenities and better situations to the fans.”

And of course, the team is also thrilled about the opportunities from being affiliated with the Indians.

“We can get back and forth in under two hours,” Schnacke said. “It allows the fans to follow players back and forth. It allows the media to follow players back and forth. I know our Columbus media would get frustrated in our tenure with the Yankees. New York is such a huge media market, for the Columbus media to try to follow and hook up with players when they’ve left Columbus was very difficult to do.”

Above it all, the Clippers are proud of their past and their place in minor league history. They’ve been ahead of the curve before when Cooper Stadium re-opened, and now they hope to be so again.

“That started this whole landscape and this whole re-branding of minor league baseball and what it means in the country,” Schnacke said. “So I’m kind of proud we were at the forefront of that. And now looking 32 years later, we’re making the next generation step, which is pretty neat too because others will also follow us along those lines.”