New Park, Indians Affiliation Excites Columbus Fans

COLUMBUS—Just like a perfect game, a triple play or even an inside-the-park home run, sometimes the stars align just so and a city finds its love for baseball once again.

Since Huntington Park opened last year in Columbus, Ohio's, vibrant Arena District, the venue owes its success to a perfect storm of circumstances that produced a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent what baseball means to a community.

After a decade of talk about building a new stadium, the ground breaking in August 2007 for Huntington Park promised an automatic upgrade from outdated and rickety 76-year old Cooper Stadium.

But the planners of the county-owned park did more than provide an upgrade over "The Coop."

Located across the street from the hockey Blue Jackets' Nationwide Arena, the quirky yet innovative Huntington Park was completed in time for the Clippers' 2009 Opening Day and instantly became a ballpark enthusiast's destination.

In its inaugural season, the Clippers drew a minor league record 666,797 fans (including 27 capacity-plus crowds of 10,100), for an astounding average of 9,526 per game.

New Park Sells Itself

Visitors aren't the only ones who know they've stumbled onto something special in Columbus. Unlike some of today's spoiled players, who have acquired the taste for the very best in life early in their careers, Clippers first-year manager Mike Sarbaugh isn't afraid to reveal his awe when talking about the park that has become his new home.

"Isn't this place something?" the 42-year-old Sarbaugh asked, bending over to move a large leather chair in his spacious office while pointing to a matching couch on the other side of his desk.

What Sarbaugh doesn't say is that the entire clubhouse is easily three times the size of most of the locker rooms he grew up playing in during five seasons as an Indians minor leaguer in the early 1990s.

A handful of Columbus front office members were asked to name the best seat in the house. No one could settle on just one.

"There's too many unique places," director of marketing and sales Mark Galuska said. "It depends on your mood, really. You can sit in the club behind home plate—it's great for entertaining business clients. Out in the left-field building, tables go really quick. And the bleachers on top of the building (a la Wrigley Field), are a fan favorite as well."

Ken Schnacke, the Clippers' long-time president and general manager, couldn't settle on one seat, either. But he's noticed a trend appealing to the park's younger clientele.

"The left field hall of fame bar is a place for the college kids and young professionals," he said. "The (standing-room only) ticket is like a cover charge. But instead of a band for entertainment, you have a baseball game."

With Huntington Park selling itself in so many ways, the Clippers marketing strategy has adjusted.

"We're in a vibrant area now, whereas in the past, that wasn't the case," Galuska said. "We didn't have the bars, the night life we have now . . . 
The crowd that was hard to get at the old place, we're getting those people now with little effort. The park draws them on its own."

For as much as Huntington Park has made a splash, the Clippers' ticket to keeping fans once the novelty wears off is its new affiliation with the Indians. Cleveland lies 142 miles north on Interstate 71.

After a 28-year marriage with the Yankees followed by a two-year engagement with the Nationals, the Indians finally made the long-anticipated leap to Columbus to become the parent club of the Triple-A Clippers.

Geographically speaking, the new affiliation revived the Tribe's central-Ohio fan base.

On a personal level, the Indians filled the hole in the heart of many Central Ohio baseball fans yearning for a local major league connection.

"The stars just aligned perfectly for us with Cleveland," Schnacke said. "We had our run with the Yankees and the likes of (Andy) Pettite, (Derek) Jeter, (Jorge) Posada, and that was pretty exciting. But it doesn't last forever. With Cleveland, it was the right thing at the right time in the right place. And with the way our fans have embraced the Indians, hopefully this is going to be a long-term deal."

A Fresh Outlook

Once the Indians threw in the towel on their 2009 season in July, they commenced plundering the Columbus roster as they worked toward a complete rebuild. The Clippers sent 10 players to the big leagues, including first baseman Matt LaPorta and outfielder Michael Brantley, two of the organization's finest position prospects.

With a roster constantly in flux and devoid of a bulk of its top talent by midseason, the Clippers struggled to a 57-85 record last season, the second-worst mark in the International League—and just a hair better than the 56-87 Buffalo Bisons.

"It was a rough season with everything going on on the field," Schnacke admitted. "But we got through it just fine because of the park."

This season, LaPorta and Brantley opened the season in Cleveland. But the Indians expected to keep catcher Carlos Santana, the organization's No. 1 prospect, in Columbus for at least a couple months.

"He's shown his skills, but looks like a guy that needs to be finished off in the minor leagues," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said in a spring training interview with reporters in Arizona.

Indians officials refuse to give a timetable, but would prefer to keep Santana at Columbus as long as the 24-year-old switch-hitter needs. He may not be there long, especially not if he keeps up his early-season pace.

Through the first six games, Santana went 9-for-23 (.391) with four home runs and two doubles. At that rate, he could add an IL MVP trophy to his case that already includes the California and Eastern league models.

Sarbaugh has seen it all before. He managed Santana and his EL cohorts last season, when the Double-A Akron Aeros won 95 games on their way to the EL title and their place as our Minor League Team of the Year.

Keeping Santana company in Columbus are more Indians prospects who could make their way to Cleveland this season.

Righthander Hector Rondon, 22, led all Indians minor leaguers with a 137 strikeouts last season and was named the organization's pitcher of the year. He made 14 Triple-A starts last season.

A product of last July's Cliff Lee trade with the Phillies, righthander Carlos Carrasco received the nod on Opening Day and delivered 5 2⁄3 solid innings for the hometown fans. He allowed three runs on eight hits but also struck out eight and walked one.

Shortstop Jason Donald, another product of the Lee trade, will shore up his utility resume as he looks to rebound from a tough 2009 season.

A quality product on the field is beneficial to have, but the Clippers' success isn't tied to one or two prospects, as last season showed. Instead, baseball in Columbus is packaged as an overall product.

This season, the Clippers will have 10 games televised by Cleveland-based Sports Time Ohio, five on live TV, the other five by tape delay. The deal is the envy of many of the other minor league teams in Ohio. Columbus pulls it off because the Clippers boast a full-time production crew on staff that's able to provide STO with a quality broadcast feed from each game.