Fisher Cats finally feel at home in New Hampshire
by Will Lingo
From New Haven to New Hampshire, a long, strange trip
Shawn Smith wasn't able to chat. He was heading into a luncheon sponsored by a local civic organization and had to get through security.
Every minor league general manager in America spends a good number of his afternoons at similar luncheons. Not many have to go through security first, but then again, not many get to see the President as their featured speaker.
It's par for the course in New Hampshire, however, where politics are always at the forefront and Presidents continue to stump even after they're no longer candidates.
As president and GM of the Eastern League's New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Smith has found out it's just one of the quirks of working in one of New England's bastions of independent thought.
The Fisher Cats moved to Manchester, N.H., for the 2004 season, bringing affiliated baseball back to the state for the first time since Nashua left the Eastern League in 1986. But in many ways, Opening Day 2006 will be the team's real starting point.
The franchise has faced more than its share of obstacles since plans to move from New Haven were first announced in 2003. It began with the first nickname idea--the New Hampshire Primaries--which was so poorly received locally that the team had to change it, eventually picking Fisher Cats in a name the team contest.
The Fisher Cats then had to renovate an old park, Gill Stadium, so it would have a place to play in 2004 while its new stadium was being built. The new stadium, Fisher Cats Ballpark, opened just in time for the 2005 season. The franchise already has a new owner, with Art Solomon officially taking over this winter.
In the midst of all that, the team got caught up in the politics of a mayoral campaign in which one of the candidates did not support the team, and local uncertainty about whether the team was actually coming right up until the first Opening Day.
"Bringing this team to town definitely has not been a big bang theory," Smith said. "It's been more of a building process."
Challenges At Every Turn
As with many teams that move from one city to another--the New York-Penn League's New Jersey to State College this offseason being a perfect example--the voluminous paperwork that accompanies such a move often isn't officially approved until after the team actually starts playing in its new city.
When this happened in New Hampshire, however, fans worried that the team might not actually make it to town. When Smith finally saw righthander Dustin McGowan throw the first pitch in Fisher Cats history in 2004, he couldn't help but think, "Yes! We are here," before running off to check on the rest of the ballpark operation.
Through all the challenges the team has had to endure over the last two-plus years, Smith has learned that working at the grassroots gets to the essence of almost everything you need to know about New Hampshire.
The entire state has a population of about 1.3 million and one television station, so communicating with people through mass media isn't a great option, especially when people are accustomed to even presidential candidates meeting and greeting them face to face.
So that's what the Fisher Cats are doing. Employees are encouraged to work with community organizations, and the team is trying to make its ballpark a community center. The park is used for offseason charitable events, like a haunted house last October, and former Trenton Thunder (Eastern) GM Rick Brenner now works for Solomon trying to book concerts and other events in the park.
"We're doing it step by step, just like the presidential campaigns," Smith said. "That's the New Hampshire way of life."
Home In New Hampshire
So while some new teams start with new ballparks and huge crowds from day one, in many ways the Fisher Cats are starting what could be considered their first real season in year three.
"For the first time this offseason, fans who were buying season tickets could sit in the seat they were buying, and business people could see the signs they were buying or see the scoreboard," Smith said. "We didn't have to rely on pictures or PowerPoint slides.
"This has been our first normal offseason, and even at that we got new ownership."
Smith is encouraged because the operation and attendance have steadily improved, and the club averaged about 4,800 fans a game in the second half of last season.
In many ways, he sees parallels with New Hampshire itself, which has been a small, rural state but is dealing with growth spurred by Boston to the south. The new population has led to changes in everything from the culture of the state to infrastructure issues like roads.
"We've had many more obstacles to overcome than a lot of clubs, but we judge ourselves not by other clubs but by comparing ourselves to ourselves," Smith said. "There have been a lot of challenges for the cities and towns up here, and a lot of new things for people to deal with.
"But we really feel good about being in this community. The outlook is better for year three, and it's going to be even better for year four, year five and beyond."