Harrisburg Senators Hit Jackpot With New Park

HARRISBURG, Pa.—There was a time when the Harrisburg Senators had one of the newest, nicest ballparks in the minor leagues.

There was another time, too, when Harrisburg hosted an all-star game, and still other times when the Senators were perennial winners with some of baseball's best prospects.

Time, though, had passed by Harrisburg years ago.

Its ballpark was outdated by the early 1990s, as were the franchise's hopes of ever again entertaining an all-star game. And prospects? Prior to Ryan Zimmerman's two fleeting months there in 2005, the Senators' picturesque island home had been devoid of a mega-prospect since Vladimir Guerrero dominated the Double-A Eastern League in 1996.

Now, everything has changed.

As Opening Day approaches, the Senators already have a season to remember. After years of planning, replanning and planning some more, Harrisburg finally is unveiling a $45 million overhaul to a ballpark that opened in 1987, when pro baseball returned to City Island after a 35-year absence.

A year later, in 1988, the EL all-star game came to Harrisburg.

It did not return until this season.

As for the return of the prospects, the list this season begins and ends with one name: Stephen Strasburg, the righthander with the 100-mph fastball and that record $15.1 million contract he received after the Nationals made him the first pick in last summer's draft.

Gone . . . And Forgotten  

Hitting the trifecta of getting a new 6,300-seat stadium, an all-star game and what surely will be an every-fifth-day spectacle has created the most buzz for baseball in Harrisburg since the winter of 1986-87, when then-owner Jerome Mileur relocated his franchise from Nashua, N.H., to the Pennsylvania capital.

That says a lot, too, considering the buzz generated when the Senators' inaugural team in 1987 won the EL title with a then-relatively new manager in Dave Trembley. Five more championships followed from 1993, with a team managed by Jim Tracy and headlined by Cliff Floyd, through 1999, with a team that won its last title on Milton Bradley's two-out, two-strike grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Since then, the Senators mostly have faltered while playing in a stadium encased in heat-retaining aluminum, cheerlessly cold concrete and the carcasses of millions of mayflies, those annoying insects that populate City Island.

"I won't miss it one iota,'' said Nationals farm director Doug Harris, who spent years on City Island first as a pitcher and then as a scout. "It was a place a lot of scouts avoided. The seating was very uncomfortable. With those steel (floor boards), it was always smoking hot in there.''

No complaints now as the Senators finish a 15-month project of building a new Metro Bank Park on top of its antiquated predecessor.

"We left everything underneath," team president Kevin Kulp said. "It saved us millions by using the existing foundation, the beams and whatever else was in place. It allowed us to spend more on the other bells and whistles around the ballpark.''

Those bells and whistles—corporate suites, wider seats, larger bathrooms, wrap-around boardwalks, play areas for kids and a souvenir store—that have been commonplace in stadiums since the opening of Baltimore's Camden Yards in 1992 are all new to this franchise.

Senators' Drawing Card

The biggest bell and loudest whistle, as long as he is there, will be the 21-year-old Strasburg, arguably the game's most ballyhooed prospect since Mark Prior in 2001.

For now, the Senators will take however many starts the Nationals give Strasburg in Harrisburg, where no one expects the uber-prospect to still be residing when the team hosts the EL all-star game in mid-July.

"Whatever happens, I'm happy with,'' Kulp said. "If he gets more home starts, great. If he doesn't, we're no worse off. We didn't do our budgets on having Stephen Strasburg here. This is all gravy for us.''

And profit.

A year ago, the Senators drew 228,741 fans to City Island, up from a franchise-worst 164,182 in 2008. Strasburg's presence already has spiked attendance expectations for 2010. A week after the Nationals assigned their top prospect to Harrisburg, the Senators sold more than 1,000 tickets in the first hour of their first day of single-game ticket sales. That splurge represented more than double the traffic they did on the same day in 2009.

"We didn't build anything around him. This just kind of happened,'' Senators general manager Randy Whitaker said. "Now, will we do anything to adjust the merchandise in our store? Darn right we will.''

They already have, preordering jerseys carrying Strasburg's No. 37—priced at more than $200 for the authentic versions—in the event Strasburg would be assigned to Harrisburg. And that was no sure bet, seeing as he hadn't yet made his pro debut.

Kulp said the Senators could not wait for the start of the season to order, because those jerseys could take up to six weeks to be delivered and Strasburg doesn't figure to be around that long.

"You have to capitalize on the moment," Kulp said.

Just part of a series of moments, really, as Strasburg's arrival coincides with a new ballpark and an all-star game last played in Harrisburg 23 days before Strasburg was born in 1988.

"Every year, you're figuring out ways of how to generate excitement, how to do something new and different," Kulp said, "but this year we have three built-in things like this. It's a huge opportunity. How many teams have this kind of opportunity? None."

Andrew Linker is a freelance writer
 based in Harrisburg, Pa.